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Aug 23

TABM 2013 NFL Preview: Five Factors, AFC North

From year to year, the NFL experiences rapid and dynamic changes. As we explained upon the creation of this website, many of these changes have to do with regression to the mean. Because of this regression, a majority of these changes can actually be predicted. With proper research of the NFL stat books and a keen understanding of the game’s context, you can successfully predict the changes.

This is exactly what we did when creating last year’s NFL preview, as six spectacular articles foretold some major change in the NFL from 2011 to 2012. We look to do that again this year. While we already discussed some of the major changes, we want to expand the prognostications to the whole league. Therefore, I’ll spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression in the 2013 season for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for our season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month.

Today, we look at the AFC North.

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Baltimore Ravens (10-6, 1st place in 2012)
Baltimore RavensIn 2010 and 2011, Baltimore’s narrative told a story of a team that was oh-so-close to recognizing the ultimate glory. Those teams had a strong defense with a capable and balanced offense, but a few key moments alluded them. First came the 2010 loss in the Divisional Round. The Ravens had a 21-7 halftime lead, but came up short in the clutch a few too many times, allowing the Steelers to escape with a 31-24 outcome. Next came the 23-20 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The final few sequences of the game included Lee Evans having the go-ahead touchdown reception poked out of his hands and Billy Cundiff missing a routine field goal. The narrative in 2012 was no better come December, as the Ravens lost four of their five final regular season games. Then Ray Lewis announced that the postseason would be his last hurrah as an NFL player, inspiring the Ravens to a memorable postseason run. One month later, the franchise won its second Super Bowl.

Down1. Big-turnover games: With head coach Jon Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco, the Ravens have enjoyed some wonderful consistency on offense. That continued in 2012, when the Ravens never committed more than two turnovers in any of their 20 games. Joe Flacco stayed steady throughout much of the year, but a brief slip up in production led to an offensive coordinator switch from Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell. Flacco proceeded to put up one of the best postseasons ever by a quarterback (73-of-126 for 1140 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, leading to a 117.16 passer rating). With the eventual Super Bowl hangover to come, there will be an eventual blip in the radar in 2013. After all, only 14 teams in NFL history turned the ball over twice or fewer in 16 games. Don’t expect a repeat appearance on that list for the Ravens. Regression results: more turnovers

Down2. Fumbles: One factor that certainly could cause the big-turnover games involves the offense hanging on to the football. The 2012 Ravens were particularly adept at protecting the football. The team only fumbled 14 times, losing only five of them. Only the Falcons and Texans lost fewer fumbles than the Ravens. It should be noted that the Saints lost five fumbles in each of the last two years, but the team went from six total fumbles to 13 total fumbles. The 2010-11 Patriots had similar happen with them, but they went from nine total fumbles to 13 total fumbles. I don’t think Baltimore will have similar repeat success, simply because Joe Flacco isn’t nearly as adept as Drew Brees or Tom Brady at avoiding sacks. Regression results: more fumbles lost

Down3. Jacoby Jones: In his final game of the 2011 season, a big play involving Jones helped the Ravens to a playoff victory. That time, he was with the Texans, and his lost fumble on a punt return set up Baltimore’s go-ahead score in the first quarter. In his final game of the 2012, a big play involving Jones once again helped the Ravens to a playoff victory. This time, he was with the Ravens, and a kickoff return touchdown gave Baltimore its final touchdown en route to the Super Bowl XLVII victory. It capped off an amazing first season in Baltimore for Jones. He took 38 kick returns for 1167 yards, averaging 30.71 yards per return. That makes Jones just the seventh player with at least 32 kick returns to average at least 30 yards per return (per Pro Football Reference). It seems like the return specialist will take a regressive step back in 2013. Regression results: fewer yards per kick return

Down4. Special teams efficiency: Jones certainly made a huge impact on special teams, but it wasn’t all that changed for the Ravens in this department. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Ravens improved from 29th to third in kick return DVOA, showing the true impact of Jones. However, the team also got a huge boost by signing rookie kicker Justin Tucker. The team’s placekicking DVOA improved from 25th to third. Finally, the kick coverage unit vastly improved, going from 28th to third in DVOA. In total, the 2011 Ravens finished with a -5.6% DVOA and ranked 30th in the NFL. The 2012 Ravens led the league with a 9.0% DVOA. We will follow the theory of elasticity and say that Ravens will take a step back after their massive step forward. Elasticity is more to less applying regression to a relative level. Regression results: worse special teams DVOA

Down5. Defensive subsets: During the Ravens late regular season swoon, the defense took a notable step back. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Ravens finished 19th in defensive DVOA. However, like any consistently great team, it can get through even the toughest struggles. The seemed be exactly what the defense went through — and it still survived. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 states that despite the mediocre overall numbers, the Ravens finished sixth in third down defensive DVOA and eighth in red zone defensive DVOA. We don’t think the defense can get much worse in 2013, given how good it’s been over the years. However, we do think the Ravens won’t be able to rely on the red zone and third down subsets again to tread the defensive waters. Regression results: closer defensive DVOA splits (third zone v. overall and red zone v. overall)

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Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, 2nd place in 2012)
Cincinnati BengalsOne extra regular season win. That’s all the separates the 2011 Bengals and 2012 Bengals. Both teams finished second in the AFC North. Both teams earned the six seed in the conference playoffs. Both teams lost in the Wild Card round against the Houston Texans, with Andy Dalton failing to throw a touchdown pass in either meeting. The second-year quarterback improved some from his rookie campaign, increasing his passer rating by seven points. That helped the offense to move from 18th to 12th in points per game. The question now is: “What’s next for the team’s progression, and how will Dalton’s first two playoff failures affect that progression?” Of all starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, only Eli Manning held an 0-2 playoff record entering the year of a Super Bowl victory. However, Dalton needs to just get one playoff victory in 2013, because an 0-3 start puts him among a limited class of troubled playoff quarterbacks. What role will regression play in this saga?

Down1. A.J. Green: The younger receiver didn’t take long to become a standout player in the NFL. The fourth-overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, Green put up impressive numbers as a rookie. He topped the 1000-yard mark and caught seven touchdown passes. Green took that production to the next level in 2012, as he caught 97 passes for 1350 yards and 11 touchdowns. He became one of only eight receivers to finish with 90+ receptions for 1200+ yards and 10+ touchdowns in one of his first two professional seasons. Lionel Taylor is the only one who didn’t regress in all three yards, yet he still finished with fewer receiving yards and touchdowns. It seems like Green is destined for a step back in year three, even if he remains one of the most dynamic and efficient receivers in the game. Regression results: fewer receptions for fewer yards and fewer touchdowns

Up2. Red zone defense: For a defense that played very well for much of the season, there was apparently an abnormally frequent amount of hiccups in the red zone. According to Football Almanac 2013, the Bengals finished 10th in defensive DVOA (with -3.8%) while ranking only 24th in the red zone (with 8.4%). It didn’t affect the team’s red zone percentage much, as the Bengals allowed touchdowns in less than half of opponent opportunities (per Team Rankings). Thus, the subset regression won’t significantly impact the scoring defense. However, because a subset stat like red zone DVOA does not have as strong of a sample, we can’t rely on its sustainability. Expect the red zone efficiency to better reflect the team’s overall defensive worth in 2013. That worth, we think, won’t be much different from 2012. Regression results: better defensive red zone DVOA

Down3. Pass rush: The Bengals made up for any red zone problems with their vaunted pass rush. With 51 team sacks, Cincinnati finished just one shy of the league lead. As a result, the team became one of 55 teams since 1990 to total at least 50 sacks (per Pro Football Reference). No franchise repeated that feat since the 2001-02 Steelers. In this century, the 2000-01 Saints also achieved this in back-to-back seasons. Therefore, we can’t say regression is a near-guarantee. It is still very likely, though, within the proper text. The team is stacked on the front seven, but it got six sacks off the bench from Carlos Dunlap and 6.5 sacks off the bench from Wallace Gilberry. Also, despite defensive tackle Geno Atkins becoming one of the best players at his position, his 12.5 sacks might be a bit too fruitful for a normal season. While the regression might be limited, there will be enough for a decline to move below the 50-sack threshold. Regression results: fewer sacks

Down4. Big-play passing offense: As Andy Dalton improved his passer rating in year two, his biggest improvement perhaps came from the ability to get the ball down the field. Cincinnati ranked second in the NFL by completing 14 passes of 40+ yards. This seems like one stat that can change, especially when you consider how big-play attempts occur on limited occasions. However, when you compare the Bengals passing game to the others near the top of the list, we see some notable dis-proportionality that will regress. Cincinnati completed only 39 passes of 20+ yards, a total that every team with at least seven 40-yard completions topped. Therefore, we can conclude that it is an abnormally high ratio of 20-yard completions to 40-yard completions that will line up for regression. Regression results: fewer completions of 40+ yards

Up5. Third-down passing offense: While Dalton was adept at stretching the field, he still has much room for improvement, thanks to his awful showing on third down. According to Pro Football Focus, Dalton finished with a paltry third-down success rate of 27.54 percent in 2012. Only Chad Henne did worse among quarterbacks with a qualifying amount of attempts. Of course, Dalton and the offensive line could work together much better, as the Bengals signal caller took a sack on 12.03 percent of his third down dropbacks (19 of 158). Dalton’s 72.62 passer rating on third down starkly contrasts his 87.38 rating overall. He ended up putting above-average numbers in overall relative passer rating, but below-average numbers on third down. We know that third-down situations involve more pressure on the quarterback than the average situation, but these numbers still provide evidence of a subset stat skewing the overall picture for Dalton and the Bengals. Regression results: better offensive third down conversion percentage

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Cleveland Browns (5-11, 4th place in 2012)
Cleveland BrownsAnother year leads to yet another disappointment. That seems to be the constant theme in Cleveland. Since the Browns went 10-6 in 2007, marking only the second winning season since the franchise’s return to the NFL in 1999, they have lost at least 11 games in every season. The 2012 team extended the streak to five years with a 5-11 record. Quarterback Brandon Weeden’s rookie season started off with a disaster against the Eagles. His overall numbers eventually got better, but only to a passer rating in the lower 70’s. No doubt, he will need to step up his game in 2013, with it being his second season. Another rookie, running back Trent Richardson, did well by leading the team in rushing yards. However, he didn’t have a dominant season. Meanwhile, the defense merely put out an average profile, but couldn’t make the key stops needed to stay in games. How will the Browns perform under first head coach Rob Chudzinski?

Down1. Long-distance place kicking: Phil Dawson arguably saved his best season in Cleveland for last. By making 29 of his 31 field goal attempts, his surpassed his 93.10 field goal percentage from 2005 for a new career high. Back in 2005, Dawson took advantage of favorable field goal situations, averaging a 31.26-yard distance for his 27 field goals made. He made an attempt from inside the 40-yard line in 24 of his 29 attempts. This wasn’t the case last year. In 2012, Dawson converted field goals from an average of 37.45 yards. He also converted all 13 of his attempts from beyond 40 yards. Both Dawson and the Browns are due for regression, but they have split ways. Dawson is now in San Francisco, but the Browns still will feel a regressive affect with whatever new kicker they have come Week 1. Regression results: worse field goal percentage

Up2. Red zone defense: Overall on defense, the Browns didn’t do so bad. By allowing 5.32 yards per play, they ranked 14th in the league. However, Cleveland only ranked 19th in scoring defense, meaning that there was some issue with red zone defense. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Browns ranked 30th in red zone DVOA (21.6%). They had a subpar defense overall (4.5%) according to the play-by-play metric, but that subset definitely worsened the situation. Consider the fact that opponents scored 44 touchdowns while attempting only 24 field goals. So what will be the factor that regresses? The DVOA subset isn’t strikingly different, so we can’t say that will regress. Also, the opponent touchdown percentage in the red zone isn’t going to regress. In the end, there is one obscure ratio that will regress. As long as the defense holds form elsewhere, the regression of this ratio certainly will mean an improvement on the whole. Regression results: better touchdown to field goal ratio

Down3. Kick return coverage: The Browns did a fantastic job covering kick returns, limiting opponents to just 19.84 yards per return. That’s impressive in any given year, but it might be even more impressive considering the impact of the recent change to the kickoff rule. As a whole, the NFL averaged 23.58 yards per return, meaning that Cleveland kick coverage unit held a relative 3.74-yard advantage on average. Only Carolina fared better in 2012. No team allowed fewer than 20 yards per return in 2011, which was the first year after the new kickoff rule was imposed. We don’t have much supporting evidence yet, but we think that 20-yard kick return average is a new threshold for regression. Regression results: more yards per kick return allowed

Up4. Top-receiver production: Greg Little led the team with 53 receptions, which didn’t help much with the team’s struggles to get big plays. As a result, the Browns had none of the 56 receivers last year to make at least 55 receptions (per Pro Football Reference). Three teams failed to make this list at least once: the Browns, the Seahawks and the Redskins. Second-year receiver Josh Gordon is extremely talented. Getting selected in the supplemental draft despite his frequent social issues was one sign of that. As a rookie, Gordon caught 50 passes for 805 yards and five touchdowns. Will he take the next step in year two? He’s going to miss two games due to a drug suspension, but he’s clear to go as Cleveland’s top receiver when he returns. TABMathletics gave him a vote of confidence by selecting him in its fantasy draft. (That’s a first for me when it comes to suspended players.) We’ll just trust the regression here. Regression results: 55+ receptions for Josh Gordon

Up5. Pythagorean win differential: The Browns played better than their record, according to the Pythagorean win differential. Cleveland finished with 6.14 Pythagorean wins, according to our adjustment to Bill James’ formula. Over the years, the rule of thumb is that teams with a ±1.0 Pythagorean win differential are likely to regress the following season. This means that teams with a positive differential greater the threshold point get better the following season, while teams with negative differential lesser than the threshold points get worse. To be honest, I don’t know if the threshold speaks to true regression or not, so this year’s “Five Factors” feature will act as a guinea pig of sorts to test out the feasibility in application. For teams that are close to a +1.0 or -1.0 differential, we’ll use our best instincts to determine if regression will apply. If teams are closer to a total like +2.0 or -2.0 (or even beyond it), then we will swiftly claim regression. In this case, the Browns have struggled for nearly 15 seasons since returning to the game, and they are clearly the fourth-best team in the AFC North at this juncture. Wins won’t be easy to collect. Therefore, we’re going to take the safe route in our claims for regression. Regression results: closer Pythagorean win differential

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Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, 3rd place in 2012)
Pittsburgh SteelersIn a city like Pittsburgh, seeing the local football team finish 8-8 comes as a bigger shock than in most areas. The Steelers last finished with a losing record in 2003. In that time, only the 2006 and 2012 seasons involved .500 football. This speaks to the franchise’s stability ever since Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception. In the 2012 season, Pittsburgh continued its tradition of playing strong defense, especially against the pass. Pittsburgh seemed to be in line for a playoff spot at 6-3, but losing five of the ensuing six games knocked the team out of contention. Whether it was a turnover-prone loss in Cleveland or back-breaking late-game failures against Dallas and Cincinnati, the Steelers let wins slip out their grasp. Worse yet, the franchise might now be in a transition process, as the “aging” defense is now strictly an “aged” defense. What that means for 2013 remains to be seen.

Down1. Yard differential: Despite being a .500 team, the Steelers still understood what it meant to be the stronger team at the true roots of the game. Pittsburgh ranked second in the NFL with 4.64 yards allowed per play. As a result, the Steelers outgained their opponents by 911 yards for the season (making an average advantage of 56.94 yards per game). This makes the 2012 Steelers the 21st team since 1940 to hold a non-winning record and outgain their opponents by at least 800 yards (per Pro Football Reference). The Steelers also did this in 2006, and the 2007 team improved the yard differential from +920 to +977. Only two other teams on that list improved their yard differential the next season. Furthermore, Pittsburgh became the first non-winning team in three years to limit opponents to less than five yards per play (per Pro Football Reference). With the defensive age now at its current state, we think the team will take a step back. Regression results: lower yard differential and more yards allowed per play

Down2. Pass defense: Over the years, the team’s stellar pass defense regularly affected how well the team performed in yard differential. As a regular among at least the top quarter of the league in passing yards allowed per attempt, the Steelers ride a strong path of success to victory. However, as we’ve already seen, the statistical advantages in 2012 didn’t led to as many victories as expected. Pittsburgh finished second in the league with 5.29 Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt (per Cold, Hard Football Facts), only go to 8-8. We don’t have any experience relating this stat to regression analysis, so we can just note that it’s a very good total that .500 teams only rarely achieve. The Steelers were the only team without 10+ wins to finish in the top eight. For what it’s worth, 12 of 14 teams since 2003 with a 5.25 DRPYPA or better declined the following season. We’re going to continue with the theme of a declining Pittsburgh defense to claim that regression applies here. Regression results: worse DRPYPA

Up3. Fumbles: The Steelers struggled to hang onto the football, which was never made more evident in 2012 than the eight-turnover game in Cleveland. In that game, Pittsburgh fumbled eight times and lost five of them (from five different players). For the season, Pittsburgh fumbled 33 times, losing 16 of them. However, a statistical abnormality affected this total. Pittsburgh receivers committed 12 fumbles, while only one other NFL team had at least eight fumbles from its receivers. With that note in mind, we can see how regression applies here. Regression results: fewer fumbles

Up4. Offensive health: Besides the fumble issue, health also played a role on offense. It’s a major reason why the defense still put up dominant numbers, but the team could only finish 8-8. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, Pittsburgh ranked 31st with 64.3 Adjusted Games Lost on offense. Among the regular starters, only left tackle Max Starks and right guard Ramon Foster played all 16 games. Meanwhile, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played 13 games, and those three missed games played a huge role. The team’s total Offensive Passer Rating dropped almost 40 points lower because of the uninspiring play by aging back-ups Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. It might be the end of the road for these (Boyz) two men. Elsewhere, the wide receivers had occasional health hiccups and the running backs went through turmoil all year in large part due to health problems. This should get better in 2013. Regression results: fewer Adjusted Games Lost on offense

DownUp5. Blowout games: The Steelers only won one game by more than two possessions, and that came during a 27-10 win in Week 2 against the Jets. Meanwhile, the team’s biggest loss came in Week 1, when Pittsburgh lost to Denver by a 31-19 score. That makes the team only the 14th in NFL history to have all games determined by 17 points or fewer in a 16-game season (per Pro Football Reference). This can be a good and/or bad point of regression for Pittsburgh. Either the team will return to more dominant ways, or it will experience more cracks in the ship. We say to expect “either or” for 2013, if not both. Regression results: at least one game determined by 17+ points

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