Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stronger and Weaker, Part Two: NFL teams that are better they currently look

In Part One of this two part series I reviewed three NFL teams that I believe are weaker than their records, rankings and reputations indicate.
Here in Part Two I'll point out three teams currently rated lower than I think they are capable. Don't be surprised to see a surge from these three teams. As I mentioned in Part One, I'll leave the Seahawks off this list as you loyal readers are well aware of our collective take that the Seahawks are probably better and stronger a team than expected.
These teams are more than meets the eye:
Jeff Fisher would like to challenge the conventional wisdom that his St Louis Rams are not a force to be reckoned with.
St Louis Rams:
Why look, it's the Seahawks friendly division rivals... the ones that play their home games in a giant warehouse and haven't been relevant since The Greatest Show on Turf. Under newly arrived coach Jeff Fisher, this rebuilding also-ran sits at a somewhat surprising 3-4 after back to back losses to the Dolphins and Packers. Still, fans and pundits aren't taking the Rams too seriously, with rankings seating the Rams around 21st or 22nd.
Part of that is prior reputation, sure: The Rams haven't posted a winning season since 2003 and with win #3 in Week 5 they blew past their win total from last year's 2-14 disaster season. It's going to take sustained success for NFL fans to buy into the Rams, especially in a tough NFC West where they need to outlast the mighty 49ers, a tough Seahawks squad and a similarly resurgent Cardinals team.
Yes, the offense still has work to do. Sam Bradford has yet to show consistency at QB. The offense itself is 24th in DVOA per Football Outsiders (F.O.). Star back Steven Jackson is struggling and the rushing game is 16th in yardage. The Rams also showed uncanny ineffeciency in a recent loss to the Dolphins: Despite 462 yards and 22 first downs they only managed 14 points.
But look at their opposition, the 4th toughest NFL schedule to date per Sagarin ratings. None of these teams would be considered easy outs: Detroit on the road, Washington (w/RGIII), the now-mighty Bears (in Chicago!), the brutal Seahawks, the green but similarly brutal Cardinals, upstart Miami (in Miami) and Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay. It's no surprise the offense has struggled to keep up. Few offenses could excel against that slate.
Against this opposition, their 20.1 ppg allowed is 9th fewest in the NFL. F.O. rates their DVOA on defense 7th in the NFL, their pass defense 9th and run defense a respectable 15th, along with some of the least variance in the league (3rd least), illustrating consistency. I didn't even mention their superb rookie kicker Greg Zeuerlein, which extends their field goal range and maximizes scoring opportunities with his big leg.
Going into this season, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Rams finished that stretch 0-7. Instead the only convincing losses they've taken were to the two best teams (23-6 to Chicago and a closer than it looked 30-20 to Green Bay), they nearly beat Detroit and Miami, and they outlasted Washington and Seattle while disposing easily of Arizona. New England, their next opponent, might be the softest defense they've faced all year. Not that I'm sure of an upset, but it's distinctly possible.
It's not going to get much easier for the Rams: They still have to play the 49ers twice, the resurgent Vikings and Bucs await, and they've got to face the Seahawks and Cards again. Five of their remaining games after their Week 9 bye week are on the road.
But a couple of upsets aren't out of the question. In fact, I might even argue that they could be favorites against the Vikes, Cards and Bucs. Favorites! The Rams! I think this team that finished 2-14 last year could conceivably finish .500 this season.
Coach Jeff Fisher is for real, and so are the St Louis Rams.
Creamsicles for everyone! Josh Freeman and the rest of Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Bucs are looking to crash a few victory formations down the stretch of this 2012 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
An identity-lacking young team known for combative rookie coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs are the best of a group of NFC South also-rans at 3-4, far behind the currently undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Still, like the Rams no one is expecting much of the rebuilding Bucs... probably even less in fact: While we at West Coast Bias are a tad higher on the Bucs (20th), the bulk of other power rankings had the Bucs around 26th, perceiving the Bucs as a doormat... or at least they did before the Bucs throttled the more highly regarded Minnesota Vikings 36-17 this past Thursday.
A look at the numbers shows that, big victory aside, this team is no doormat. This is one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL (26.3 ppg, 9th best), one of the better defenses (21.9 ppg, 12th), a team that nearly took out the Giants (34-41), Cowboys (10-16), Redskins (22-24) and Saints (28-35) in their four losses. Per F.O. defensive DVOA they have the #1 run defense in the NFL. Recent wins over the Vikings (36-17) and Chiefs (38-10) were convincing, and they've exceeded 100 team yards rushing in their last three games. They've generated multiple turnovers in five of their seven games while only committing seven total themselves.
The offense is still okay to bleh, they have had somewhat easy defensive competition, and as young teams do the team's been inconsistent on both sides of the ball. But Greg Schiano has built this team to compete, and the Bucs' upcoming schedule has enough soft spots (Oakland, San Diego, Carolina are next) that the Bucs could get to, maybe above .500. Games against Atlanta, New Orleans and Denver make the later end of the schedule tougher, but a couple of upsets down the stretch could put the Bucs at .500 by the end of Schiano's first NFL season.
Unlike most teams you would rank 26th of 32 teams, the Tampa Bay Bucs are not a team opponents want to see on the other side of the field.
Barry Sanders would be like, "Bitch, please"
Matthew Stafford and the Lions may be in prime position to cut back and reverse field on their 2-4 start. Wayne Fontes would be proud.
Detroit Lions:
As Brett Miller alluded to, the Lions being better than thought is not really a secret around here at West Coast Bias. But I don't mind going into a bit of detail as to what makes them better than their 23rd ranking and 2-4 record indicate.
Detroit's offense is 7th best in the NFL by offensive DVOA, despite having faced the 4th toughest defensive opposition. Matthew Stafford, Megatron et al can move the ball no matter how good your defense is. This offsets a suspect defense that has conversely done a so-so job (22nd in DVOA against the 24th toughest offensive opposition).
Detroit does a good job in the field position battle. F.O. drive stats peg their net starting field position on both sides at 8th best overall. The defense allows a TD roughly once every seven drives, 7th best. Lions drives on offense average a 9th-best 34.08 yards per drive.
Yeah, they have trouble consistently executing and finishing drives on offense... though again that's been against tough defenses. It doesn't look like it'll get too much easier the rest of the way: Seahawks, Texans, the Packers twice, Falcons, Bears, oh my. But those defenses are mostly good rather than great... and Detroit's shown for the finishing issues that they can move the ball on tough defenses.
Also, they're an indoor team that's only got four road games left after a road heavy early schedule... and two of those road games are indoors anyway (Minnesota and Arizona). This is more the Lions element. The inconsistency problems, possibly a product of playing outdoors (often a dome team's kryptonite), could magically disappear for the Lions down the stretch.
The economy may be dead meat in Detroit, but look for a revival from the football team in Ford Field. I wouldn't expect a championship run like the fellow hometown Tigers: Again, the Lions tend to shrivel up outdoors and should they somehow make the playoffs they'll have to go outside and win outside to make the Super Bowl. That probably isn't happening. If they make the playoffs, I'd expect Ndamukong Suh and the Lions to extract themselves from that situation quickly.
But watch out for a late season run from the Lions that could bring back memories of Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders.
That concludes this two part series. As always, all of these teams are welcome to prove my guesstimated predictions wrong on the field.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stronger and Weaker, Part One: NFL teams that aren't as good as they currently look

Every year teams get off to a hot start, a cold start, an unassuming start... and fans + pundits alike mold impressions of those teams based on those starts. As the season wears on, teams show their true colors. Teams that looked good at 1st glance but didn't have the goods fade fast, and teams that looked shaky but were better than their stat lines rebound. In this two part series, I'm going to take a deeper look at the numbers and try to gauge which teams will defy the perception of their current records and rankings.
I won't dwell on two obvious teams: If you check the weekly power rankings you're aware of my belief that the Falcons aren't as strong as their undefeated record indicates. And as a reader of this Seahawks-centric blog you know full well we think the Seahawks are a stronger team than their 3-4 record indicates.
Here in Part One, I'm going to focus on three teams that I think are weaker than people think.
Hold on to the football, Michael Vick! The Eagles have enough problems on offense without your turnovers.
Philadelphia Eagles:
Rankings paint a picture of a decent but flawed team (average power ranking is around 13th) led by a turnover prone Michael Vick. But a closer look reveals a mediocre squad, turnovers or not. The Eagles have eked their way to a 3-3 record with the 3rd fewest points in the league (17.2 ppg) despite an average schedule (full-strength Ravens, Giants and Steelers on one hand, Cleveland Arizona and Detroit on the other). All three of their wins were close, the schedule includes an inexcusable blowout loss in Arizona and an OT home loss to upstart Detroit.
Obviously turnovers were a huge culprit in preventing any resounding victories, and while one could argue that was variance and the team will reduce turnovers down the stretch, the much bigger and more fundamental problem lies with the running game. They have put up a respectable 732 yards in 6 games, but by offensive efficiency the Eagles offense is one of the least effective running teams in the NFL. Sure, Andy Reid's teams run a West Coast Offense and historically rely heavily on the pass. But run efficiency is a key to the run being an effective change of pace, and it hasn't been despite weak run defenses routinely stuffing the run.
"But Steven you clown," you say, "They've played some of the toughest defenses in the NFL! Baltimore! Pittsburgh! Arizona! The Giants! Those dirty Lions!" Yeah, about those defenses... The reputations don't match a couple of those teams once you look at the stats. Baltimore for one has actually allowed the 3rd most rushing yards through the first 7 games (1000 total). The Giants are 6th worst at 885. And for their vicious reputation, the Cardinals are actually around the middle of the pack (846, 20th best overall). And of course Cleveland still blows.
This never minds the pass defense, and once you get past the vicious front sevens these defenses get exploitable: The Giants have allowed 7.5 yards per pass, 4th worst in the NFL. The almighty Ravens have been 5th worst in passing first downs allowed (97). And of course Cleveland still blows.
Overall their defensive opposition has been among the 18th strongest in the NFL according to Football Outsiders (F.O.) offensive stats. The Eagles should have an offense in the NFL's upper half. Instead, F.O. has them pegged at 26th overall. The passing game, their bread and butter, is 27th. Yes, turnovers are a factor, but F.O.'s numbers are based on efficiency per play, and by that standard Philly's still not stacking up. The funny thing is that, even though they sacked defensive coordinator Juan Castillo during the season... the Eagles' defense has been pretty good: 9th best per F.O.'s defensive DVOA stats. If not for the D, the Eagles' season could look a lot worse. They are basically like the Seahawks, except with not much of a running game and far bigger mistakes. That's not a good combination.
One factor that undercuts Philly's chances every winter... *is* the winter. Passing games suffer once the cold East Coast conditions of winter hit. Philly leans hard on their passing game, and even if Vick can cure his butterfingers problem the ice cold's going to hamper the passing game. If they're struggling on a per play basis to move the football now, I get the feeling the offense won't ever get going.
Andy Reid may want to start cleaning out his office right now.
A surprisingly frequent sight: A ballcarrier freely running past the Ravens secondary into open field.
Baltimore Ravens:
Even before they lost Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb for the season, the Ravens defense, their alleged strength, was struggling. An unusually strong performance from their typically so-so offense masked those struggles to marvelous effect over a 5-1 start. But after being humbled old country way in a 43-13 loss to the Texans last week it looks like Rice, Flacco and Co may come floating back to Earth, the Ravens' performance and season hopes hurtling behind them to the ground at a much faster rate.
Even if the offense can lean on Ray Rice like old times, the defense is no longer a shut-down powerhouse. Rated 17th overall by F.O., the team has struggled against the run (23rd, and aside from F.O. I mentioned their 1000 yards surrendered on the ground) and not looked good against weak-ish competition on the other side: Allowing 486 yards to those aforementioned Eagles, 396 yards to an admittedly good Patriots team, but then 357 yards, 314 in the air, to... the BROWNS?! 214 yards rushing to lowly Kansas City?! 227 yards rushing to the Cowboys? The Ravens in all have surrendered the 5th most yards in the NFL (2800 to date; league average is 2323). Even by yards per play, at 5.4 ypp they are merely 15th. Opponents are avoiding three and outs 72.9% of the time, the 29th best rate in the NFL... i.e. they are moving the ball easily on the once vaunted Ravens defense.
Special teams is also an issue... not because of the kicking, which has honestly been good, but because of field position from the return game. Per F.O.'s drive stats, the offense's average starting position is their own 25-26 yard line, 25th best in the NFL. The defense has opponents starting from their own 27-28, 22nd best in the NFL.
The Ravens win with great running and great defense. They can't win with merely okay to bleh defense, and giving their opponents an edge in field position. Look out below!
No matter what the team yardage stat sheet says, Troy Polamalu can't be thrilled at the number of points his Steelers have allowed... and who they've allowed them against.
Pittsburgh Steelers:
Though rated as a playoff caliber team (average ranking from most sources is 12th)... a closer look indicates the 3-3 Steelers are more 7-9 than 10-6.
Like the Ravens, the Steelers defense has a vaunted reputation that doesn't fit their current makeup. Like the Eagles, their running game is for show while they lean heavily on the passing game. Like both these teams, the Steelers are overrated.
At first look, the base stats look good. They've allowed the 3rd fewest 1st downs in the league, the fewest yards in the league. What the hell is that clown Steven talking about?
How about giving up 34 points in a loss to lowly Oakland? Surrendering 26 to the hardscrabble Titans? They're 13th in points allowed (22.0 per game), 15th in yards allowed per drive (31.4 per), 25th in touchdowns allowed per drive (one every 4 drives; average is one in about 5), opponent avoid the three and out 71.6% of the time (26th). By DVOA, F.O. has the Steelers 24th overall. The run defense has allowed so few yards because opponents haven't run the ball on Pittsburgh (136 attempts is 3rd fewest). Teams may not be that great at moving the ball consistently on Pittsburgh, but they can score points.
And this is against unimposing opposition to date: Denver's the toughest out in a bunch that includes the erratic Jets, lowly Oakland, turnover prone Philly, rebuilding Tennessee and struggling Cincinnati. Against that schedule (which Sagarin ratings dubbed the 29th toughest in the NFL) the Steelers have allowed an average number of points in a 3-3 start. Their only resounding win was against the Jets, and the Broncos beat them soundly. The schedule gets tougher (Redskins, Giants, similar but tough Baltimore twice, the Chargers and Cowboys) and a team that could only do average against such a cake schedule is probably going to have a rocky rest of the season.
I didn't even get to their one dimensional offense. Even discarding their lack of focus on the run, F.O. notes their run game is 29th best on efficiency per run play. The pass game under Ben Roethlisberger has been legitimately strong (6th best), but even with that the offense is simply 12th most efficient overall. The Steelers offense is decent at its best, but only decent. Slow down Big Ben somehow, and you can probably shut down the Steelers.
While many would agree it wouldn't be surprising to see the Steelers miss the playoffs... they certainly aren't the 12th best team in the league. Maybe the 12th worst.

Friday, October 19, 2012

That Was Nothing To Be Ashamed Of, Hawks Fans

The Seahawks took a tough 13-6 loss last night against the tough division rival 49ers in San Francisco, which featured five dropped Seahawks passes, dueling dominance from each team's featured tailback (Beast Mode 103 yards rushing, Frank Gore 131 yards rushing) and a chess match between two dominant defenses that did all they could not to give a yard more than necessary.
Mike Salk said his piece on how he thought the loss was in many ways a win, and in many respects I've got to agree, Seahawks Fans. This could have easily been worse, but the Hawks showed in defeat that they definitely are not outclassed in these big games.
- Alex Smith got tightly contained. 14 for 23, only 140 yards and a TD with a pick. Aside from that solid TD drive in the 3rd quarter, he did nothing of note in the air against the Seahawks defense.
- The Seahawks were able to play their game and (mostly) avoid penalties: Okung's late game gaffe aside, the Seahawks committed two other penalties total. With both teams using the run game, defense and clock control to shorten the game, the Hawks showed they could play solid football and avoid stupid mistakes, aside from...
- ... the drops! The Seahawks dropped five passes, an astonishing series of drive-killing gaffes. And yet they were able to stay in the game.
- The Seahawks were able to hang with SF despite still not opening up their offensive playbook. They ran 29 times to 25 pass plays The pass plays were not especially daring, your typical smashmouth playbook of 'short passes or deep lottery-shot bombs (mostly to the right side)'. Carroll did try a few 1st and 2nd down throws, but it was still mostly the same game of 'set the table with Beast Mode.'
- And Beast Mode delivered against an elite 49ers defense. Marshawn Lynch had 15 runs between the tackles for 81 yards, and 103 yards total on the ground. The top-shelf 49ers defense knew what was coming and Lynch still delivered.
- If not for the drops, Russell Wilson would have had a decent game. RW posted an abysmal 9 for 23 for 122 and a pick. Never mind that if five of those incompletions had been caught he'd have had a decent stat line. A catch on any of those drops could have changed the context of their respective drives and made it a different story for the offense, with the 49ers' backs to the wall in their own territory. Maybe he throws more, maybe he throws less, but likely he has a TD or two and a better stat line than one from drops and desperate end game throws into the pass block packages of a top defense. Given his team's play selection continues to bottle him up, Russell didn't doo too bad given his receivers let him down huge.
- Most of all, if not for the drops the Seahawks probably win this game. Again, a catch on any of those drops changes the context of that given drive, and touchdowns on one or more of those drives puts momentum in the Seahawks hands, plus their defense was shutting down Alex Smith and not allowing points despite Frank Gore's success. If less than half of those drops didn't happen, we could be talking about a tough Seahawks win in San Francisco against one of the league's top teams.
- Oh, one more key item for the road. Speaking of the road... the Seahawks did this on the road. The Hawks have a notorious home field advantage and critics feel they shrivel up without the 12th Man on their side, the way dome teams often do. Clearly, that is a bunch of bull and the Hawks are legitimately good whether at home or in enemy territory.
So here's a bandwagon worth starting: Despite their loss last night, the Seahawks made a huge statement. They showed that, even when far from their best, they have what it takes to beat the best teams in the NFL. Be afraid, NFC. This is not a team you want to see on the other side of the field in a do-or-die January playoff game... whether they are playing at their best or not.