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.

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