The numbers we’re working with come from Bill Connelly of SB Nation, who has done his best to quantify the values legendary San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh relied on to win three Super Bowls. Connelly gets deeper into explaining them here, but the chart below tells us where the Saints and Bengals stand relative to their peers:
We’ll start with standard down success rate. This is how well teams perform in the open field between 20-yard lines, and we can see that the Saints offense is tremendous at it – second-best in the game. The Bengals defense, on the other hand, is very average at defending its turf when not backed up against their own red zone. On the other side of the ball, New Orleans’ defense is bad, but not historically-bad. Cincinnati is the definition of middle-of-the-road.With top receiver A.J. Green to miss this game, there’s a real chance of the Saints making some improvement.
Big-play rate is exactly what it sounds like: how effectively offenses gain chunks of yardage, and how often defenses limit those gains. The Saints offense and Bengals defense seem evenly matched in this, with each unit ranking in the top half of their grouping. When Cincinnati has the ball, they’ll have opportunities to hit New Orleans downfield: they’re a middling offense, but the Saints have still struggled to defend deep passes.
Third down success rate is the biggest mismatch in this game. New Orleans performs well in these situations, a little above-average, but Cincinnati is fielding the worst third down defense in the league. It’s not likely Dez Bryant plays with just two days of practice behind him, but if he does suit up he could hurt the Bengals in these situations. The Saints’ defense still hasn’t figured out how to get stops on third down, but the Bengals are, again, just average in this area of the game. Without Green, anything could happen.
Marginal efficiency is less complicated than it sounds: you take standard down success rate and adjust it for down, distance, and field position. When you do that, you’ll find the Saints offense is killing it in situational football. They’re running well when they need to and clipping along on passing downs. That’s bad news for a Bengals defense ranking worse in this metric than the Saints’ own defense. Cincinnati’s offense is a little better at this than your average team, but they’re a bad game away from slipping into the middle of the pack.
Marginal explosiveness, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. It weighs and measures every single play for where it happened, and how much it ultimately helped the team score points. In this, the Saints offense excels but doesn’t sit among the NFL’s best. The Bengals defense is a prime meridian among its peers, doing nothing to hurt or help their odds. But when you flip the script? The Saints defense is right next to the Bengals defense, but Cincinnati’s offense is decidedly below-average for NFL standards.
All told, New Orleans should win this game and it will be a huge disappointment if they fail to come through. The Bengals are a decent squad, but missing their best player and in conditions no more difficult than what the Saints saw in victories over the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens. We’ll know a lot more by the end of this one – it isn’t the kind of game botched by Super Bowl champions.