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Aug 22

TABM 2014 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 during last year’s Five Factors feature, when we published the 2013 NFL Preview. The feature had greater than 90 percent success rate, making this feature one of the best in the world at correctly predicting key factors for any given season. Therefore, we will once again spend eight August days discussing five factors of regression for each team in the NFL. This will help to paint the picture for the 2014 NFL season predictions, which will be made at the end of the month after this feature is complete.

Today, we look at the AFC North.

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Baltimore Ravens (8-8, 3rd place in 2013)
Baltimore RavensIn recent years, the “Super Bowl hangover” took its toll on the victors. The 2005 Patriots were the last defending champions to win a playoff game. The following eight defending champs own a combined 85-43 regular season record, but they also own an 0-4 postseason record. From the get-go, Baltimore had the makings of a hangover. Joe Flacco joined Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman and Ken Stabler as the lone quarterbacks with five consecutive playoff-winning seasons. The Cowboys also won a playoff game in 1991 to make them the lone franchise with six consecutive playoff-winning seasons (1991-96). Regardless, the days were numbered for the Ravens. It seemed like a one-and-done situation was the best shot for Baltimore. However, the fall of Ravens was much greater than expected. The offense completely fell apart with an inept running game and a suddenly turnover-prone Joe Flacco. Can the offense bounce back to playoff form in 2014?

Up1. Run offense: Luckily for the Ravens, the first primary factor that accounted for the team’s offensive collapse is subject to regression. The rushing attack did so little last year, totaling only 1328 yards and seven touchdowns on 423 attempts. The team held a league-low 3.14 yards per attempt and got a first down on a league-low 16.1 percent of its rush attempts. Help should come in three ways. First, the Ravens were one of only five Live Ball Era teams to average fewer 3.15 yards per carry and total no more than eight touchdowns (per Pro Football Reference), so they will experience some general regression to the mean. The 1999-2000 Chargers last had back-to-back seasons with fewer than 3.15 yards per carry. Second, the team will enjoy some elasticity in play-by-play efficiency. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the 2013 Ravens suffered the second-largest decline in Rush DVOA (and the fourth-worst Rush DVOA overall) since 1989. Third, the team now has Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator after Jim Caldwell left to become head coach in Detroit. Kubiak brings the zone blocking scheme, the Ravens tinkered with in 2013, to Baltimore as his highly-successful calling card. Regression results: more rush yards per attempt and better Rush DVOA

Up2. Joe Flacco: In an even luckier twist for Baltimore, the second primary factor that accounted for the team’s offensive collapse is also subject to regression. That “suddenly turnover-prone Joe Flacco” label had more to do with an atypical season than a trend. From 2010-12, Flacco completed 935 of his 1562 pass attempts for 11049 yards, 67 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. In 2013, he completed 362 of 614 pass attempts for 3912 yards, 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. As a result, the 2013 season saw significant drops in relative production, including negative-0.70 yards per attempt, a negative-1.20 touchdown percentage, a negative-1.53 interception percentage, and a negative-14.05 passer rating. What else can be said? He’s consistently posted average to above-average numbers for a quarterback, but he spent the 2012 postseason putting up elite numbers and the 2013 regular season putting up poor numbers. We say the production will rest back toward Flacco’s general mean in 2014, which will likely lead to a 2:1 TD:INT ratio and a passer rating in the mid-to-upper 80’s. Regression results: better YPA, TD%, INT% and passer rating for Flacco

Up3. Overall offensive efficiency: When the quarterback stinks and the running game stinks, it’s no surprise the entire offense lacks production. The Ravens ranked last in the league in 2013 with only 4.51 yards per play. Also, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, Baltimore posted only one positive game in Offense DVOA last year. That involved only a 2% rating against the Dolphins in Week 5. Basically, the best the team could do on offense from an efficiency standpoint was be a micro-step above average. That lack of efficiency is not like the Ravens since head coach John Harbaugh came to town. Baltimore should eventually bounce back, though it may take time in the 2014 season. The Ravens start the season with a round against the AFC North (two home, one road) and a Week 4 battle against Carolina. After that tough stretch passes, expect noticeably better efficiency from the Baltimore offense. Regression results: more yards per play and more games with a positive Offense DVOA

Down4. Placekicking: Given all the offensive ineptitude, it’s a wonder that this team still finished 8-8 on the season. The team must thank placekicker Justin Tucker in large part for that. His biggest moment sealed the team its last win, capped by a 61-yard field goal in Detroit to make the team 8-6. But his excellence in 2013 comes from his overall production. Tucker converted 38 of his 41 field goal attempts, giving him the fifth-most field goals made in a single season. His 92.68 field goal percentage isn’t abnormally high over the league’s 86.47 field goal percentage. However, his distance was most impressive, as he converted from an average of 37.58 yards. Tucker converted 16-of-18 attempts from 40+ yards. Of the other 22 field goals, several opportunities will turn into touchdowns with a more efficient Ravens offense. Meanwhile, the success rate beyond 40 yards should dip a bit. The Ravens have one of the league’s best kickers, but they won’t need him as much in 2014. Regression results: fewer field goals made

Down5. Penalty help: The Ravens also found a way to .500 despite the offensive issues because they got some luck from their opponents. No team was the beneficiary of more penalties (per NFL Penalty Stats Tracker). Baltimore’s opponents tallied a league-high 126 penalties for 1196 yards. This included 21 offensive holding, 18 false start, 14 defensive pass interference, 13 neutral zone, eight defensive holding and eight personal foul penalties. The Ravens led the league in three of those areas (DPI, NZone and PF) of benefit. Generally speaking, context needs to be given to explain how opposing offenses or defenses commit so many penalties. In this case, there aren’t many concrete answers. After all, one of the league’s worst offenses benefited from 67 accepted penalties, third-best in the league. Talent and efficiency didn’t force opponents’ hands, and that won’t happen in the future, even with Baltimore’s offensive improvements. Regression results: fewer penalties as a beneficiary

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Cincinnati Bengals (11-5, 1st place in 2013)
Cincinnati BengalsIt was supposed to be their year. The 2013 season was filled with about every good thing the Bengals could wish. The team dominated at home, winning all eight regular season games and doubling up their opponents in point differential. The offense showed balance with a superb year in the red zone from Andy Dalton and the passing game. The defense survived season-ending injuries to Geno Atkins and Leon Hall and continued its stellar play. Better yet, the team had a home playoff game on an early Sunday afternoon against the Chargers and their struggling defense. Then came disaster with a 27-10 loss. It came after the team averaged 41.6 points in its previous five home games. The loss was both shocking and earth-shaking loss. They Bengals then lost coordinators Mike Zimmer (defense) and Jay Gruden (offense) to head coaching positions. Does this mean Cincinnati’s window of opportunity close before the 2014 season?

Down1. Home play: If we wanted to give an anecdotal analysis to answer this question, we’d look at franchises that went one-and-done in the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. Those teams were the 1990-92 Saints (8-8 in 1993), 1992-94 Vikings (8-8 in 1995), 1993-95 Lions (5-11 in 1996) and the 2011-13 Bengals. That seems like convincing evidence, but only three examples of precedent are involved. There needs to be a larger sample to provide a better argument. Consider that Cincinnati outscored its opponents 275-134 in eight regular season home games. Only 15 teams since 1940 scored at least 275 points at home, and only 18 teams in the Live Ball Era held at least 140-point scoring advantage at home (per Pro Football Reference). Only the 1999-2000 Rams achieved either one of these feats in back-to-back years. The 2000 Rams improved their scoring, but also went only 5-3 (after going 8-0 at home in 1999) and saw an increase in scoring defense by nearly three-fold. The home success from last season is just too rare to achieve again. Regression results: worse home record and fewer points scored

Down2. Red zone offense: With everything talking up Andy Dalton’s 0-3 playoff record, it’s reminds me of how Matt Ryan started out his career. Both had the playoff losses early in their respective careers. When I think of Ryan, I honestly think of the assets of white bread. It’s solid, but not spectacular or flashy. I start to think about Dalton like that as well, until I see what the Bengals did with Dalton. The team broke long-passing regression (from 14 passes of 40+ yards to such 15 passes) that was discussed in the 2013 Five Factors feature. (We’ll talk more about this in the next feature.) Dalton also went crazy in the red zone, leading his team to a 71.43 touchdown percentage in that area. That percentage only trailed Denver (per Team Rankings). Overall, Cincinnati’s TD:FG ratio was excessively good, with 47 offensive touchdowns and 22 field goal attempts. Expect less of Dalton scoring and more of kicker Mike Nugent scoring, which doesn’t make for a productive exchange. Regression results: fewer touchdowns scored

Down3. A.J. Green: The dude proved regression wrong last year. So why go at it again? Mostly, because he’s the ONLY receiver ever to top 96+ receptions for 1280+ yards and 10+ touchdowns multiple times during his first three seasons (per Pro Football Reference). In fact, only seven receivers ever had multiple such seasons in their respective careers. If Green does this again, he’ll join the short list of Marvin Harrison (four) and Jerry Rice (three) for back-to-back-to-back achievements. As mentioned before, Dalton broke regression for deep passing. That’s because he targeted Green too much. Of his 178 targets, Green caught 98 passes. However, a league-high 12 interceptions were intended for Green. With new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, will the Bengals reign in this combination? Conventional wisdom says they can and still not lose much production from their leading receiver. We’ll give one more shot at the regression, though. Regression results: fewer Green receiving yards

Up4. Penalties: The Bengals did quite well despite troubles in the penalty game. Much of it wasn’t Cincinnati’s doing, though. The Bengals were the beneficiary of the second-fewest penalties, with 74 (per NFL Penalty Stats Tracker). Meanwhile, the team committed 106 accepted penalties in total. That total is quite normal. However, as a result, the team ranked 31st with a negative-32 penalty differential. The website “NFL Penalty Stats Tracker” tracked penalty data since 2009, and only the Raiders have declined in penalty differential after posting a season of negative-30 net penalties or worse. However, experts who know the microeconomics (re: film study) of the game have long noted Oakland’s constant problem with penalties. For Cincinnati, we see the year-to-year fluctuation of penalty differential leading to regression. Regression results: better penalty differential

Down5. Pass defense: This could be the make-or-break factor for Cincinnati. This was one thing that held up very well despite mid-season losses due to injury, including Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. The Bengals ranked second in 2013 with 5.09 Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). With CHFF’s data dating back to 2004, there are only 17 teams with fewer than 5.25 DRPYPA in that span (including the 2013 Bengals and 2013 Seahawks). After the first 15 times, only two teams improved: the 2008 Steelers and 2008 Titans. With teams getting more efficient in the passing game, as well as the new and more strict enforcement of defensive holding, the chances to maintain those numbers dwindle. Sure, Atkins returning will boost the pass rush and Hall returning will help to limit the damage, but the regression is still there. Regression results: more DRPYPA

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Cleveland Browns (4-12, 4th place in 2013)
Cleveland BrownsFor a brief time, it looked like the Browns could have something unique brewing. After an 0-2 start and the trade of running back Trent Richardson, most figured the team was “ready to tank.” However, the team got back wide receiver Josh Gordon from suspension. He played phenomenally in a win against Minnesota. The team also started Brian Hoyer at quarterback in the win, and it seemed to give the offense hope. Unfortunately, in the Week 5 win against Buffalo, Hoyer was done for the year with a torn ACL. At 3-2, Cleveland’s chances for turning the page was already over. In the end, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell went a combined 1-12 under center, enticing the team to draft quarterback Johnny Manziel in the 2014 NFL Draft. The draft was an overall hit, with Justin Gilbert joining Joe Haden to set up a potentially potent 1-2 cornerback punch in a few years. The future seems bright in Cleveland, but it’s up to Hoyer to make 2014 count as a success.

DownUp1. Overall defense: There is one of two ways to look at the 2013 Browns defense. One, look at the team’s 4.80 yards allowed per play (third in the league). Two, look at the team’s 406 points allowed (23rd in the league). So what part of this picture should you believe? Or are the Browns somehow between those two polar opposites? Examine the 11 teams to allow fewer than five yards per play but allow more than 400 points (per Pro Football Reference). All 10 teams improved in points allowed, while most allowed more yards per play. Also, look at the team’s pass defense. Of the 363 pass completions allowed, only 41 went for 20+ yards (tied for fifth) and only five went for 40+ yards (tied for third). In total, those completions went for 3723 yards, which meant opponents averaged 10.29 yards per reception (fourth in the league). The 2007 Colts were the last team to make a notable improvement after putting up numbers like the Browns, improving from 10.17 yards allowed per completion to 9.00 yards allowed per completion. That era of Colts team was infamous for its “bend but don’t defense,” so those teams consistently put numbers in that range. Cleveland hasn’t shown such consistency. Finally, note that the team ranked 29th in average line of scrimmage (around the 31-yard line). This seems to lead to a convergence of sorts. Regression results: more yards allowed per play, but fewer points allowed

Up2. Defensive subsets: Looking a bit deeper at this defensive dynamic, it’s easy to see why the Browns ranked 29th in Yards Allowed per Point (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). Just look at several of the defensive subsets for Cleveland. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Browns ranked 24th in Defense DVOA. However, the team was 31st on third down and 32nd in the red zone, as well as 31st in “late and close” situations. Looking at the percentages, Cleveland’s 29th-ranked red zone defense and 31st-ranked third down defense looked terrible as well. Meanwhile, the Browns finished with a respectable 84.06 Defensive Passer Rating overall, which ranked 16th in the league. However, they posted a 96.18 DPR on third down and a 105.39 DPR in the fourth quarter. The league average in both subsets were around 80 points. One could argue the Browns had the least-clutch defense in the NFL. No wonder the team fell apart without Hoyer. Regression results: better subset stats in DVOA and DPR

Up3. Run offense: Brian Hoyer was just named the Week 1 starting quarterback over Johnny Manziel, which means the nature of the Cleveland rushing attack got a lot more predictable. Still, the Browns can’t be much worse than they were last year. The team ran for 1383 yards and only four touchdowns on the ground. Much of that had to do with the Richardson trade, as 30-something Willis McGahee just didn’t work out at all. The leading rusher totaled only 377 yards and 2.73 yards per attempt. Cleveland addressed this issue by signing Ben Tate in the offseason. Also, the pass:run ratio will help, as the team ran a league-high 730 pass plays while running only 348 run plays. Also, the Browns were one of 20 teams in the past three decades to rush for four touchdowns or fewer (per Pro Football Reference). Every team on the list rushed for more touchdowns the following season. Manziel could get only 200 snaps and equal that total alone. Regression results: more rushing yards and more rushing touchdowns

Down4. Team health: Perhaps in an ironic twist, the team actually stayed relatively healthy overall despite the key injury to Hoyer. The Browns ranked fifth in Adjusted Games Lost, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014. Almost a third of those games came from quarterback. As for the other 21 starting positions, the team held up well. A total of 15 starting spots featured a player who started 14+ games. This doesn’t include wide receiver Greg Little (16 games, 13 starts), tight end Gary Barnridge (16 games, 12 starts), or defensive linemen Jabaal Sheard (13 starts) and Desmond Bryant (12 starts). That means only two other starting positions, besides the quarterback, took a notable and considerable injury hit. With the inconsistency of team health for one year to another year, expect this dynamic to change in Cleveland. Regression results: more missed games by starters

Up5. Overall W-L record: See “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for full details on the regression at play for the Browns. Note that Cleveland brings a plus-2.09 Expected Win Differential (EWD) into the 2014 season. The EWD threshold for regression is ±1.454 wins. Looking at the nature of the EWD, this is the Browns team that outplayed its win total by 1.44 Pythagorean wins. Add in an expected 0.65 wins worth of turnover regression, and there is a clear case of regression at hand. Remember that Cleveland broke regression after last year’s Pythagorean Win Differential, but that was only at plus-1.14 wins. Take away 0.25 wins worth of turnover regression, and the 2012 Browns didn’t fit the billing for EWD regression. We won’t let that distract from the situation that the 2013 Browns created. Regression will happen in 2014. Regression results: better W-L record

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Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8, 2nd place in 2013)
Pittsburgh SteelersIf the Steelers hoped to bounce back from an uninspiring 2012 season, the worst that could happen was a terrible showing in September. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that’s exactly what happened. The Steelers couldn’t force a single turnover during their 0-4 start. This included an embarrassing home loss to Tennessee and a loss in London to Minnesota. After the bye week, the team finished with an 8-4 record in their final 12 games and owned a plus-7 turnover margin in that span. However, the team defense still seems to be at a crossroads. With what was an aged defense that can’t create turnovers for years, Pittsburgh is still looking for a boost that can make the team a Super Bowl contender once again. For the first time in a long while, this franchise looks like it’s stuck in mediocrity. Could 2014 change that, meaning that the playoffs are in the works? Or will this team take another step down the food chain?

Down1. Antonio Brown: For a team desperately looking for young breakout talent, the Steelers should be extremely happy with what happened to Brown last season. In his fourth season, Brown quietly put together one of the most consistently dominant seasons ever by a wide receiver. He pulled off two amazing feats on a game-to-game basis in 2013: (1) catching at least five passes in all 16 games, and (2) totaling at least 50 receiving yards in all 16 games. The first feat has otherwise only been achieved by Pierre Garcon (in 2013) and Jimmy Smith (in 2001). The second feat was never achieved in the 16-game era, but Warren Wells achieved the feat in all 14 games in 1969. Just note the missing names (re: Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, etc.) to learn how extremely rare Brown’s game-to-game production was last year. Regression results: fewer Brown receptions and receiving yards

Up2. Turnover battle: While the Steelers aged defense held up well in 2011, en route to a 12-4 season, it has struggled beginning with that season to create turnovers. With only 20 takeaways last season, Pittsburgh failed to surpass that mark for the third consecutive season. This joins the 2001-03 Bills and 2010-12 Dolphins as the only teams since 1940 to create no more than 20 turnovers in back-to-back-to-back seasons. Even in an age where teams protect the ball better, this is a rare feat that goes beyond the team’s lack of playmaking on defense. Jim Armstrong did a thorough job of explaining how defenses experience a very low correlation of takeaways from year to year. Simply, expect this streak to come to an end. Regression results: more takeaways

Up3. Run offense: The offense also struggled to get big plays, specifically in the run game. The Steelers totaled only 30 runs of at least 10 yards and seven runs of at least 20 yards. Teams normally don’t struggle in this way in consecutive seasons, as the 2005-07 Cardinals were the last to go back-to-back accumulating so few big rushing plays. Note that the Steelers ranked only 25th in rushing attempts, with rookie Le’Veon Bell missing three games and totaling only 860 yards. The team averaged only 3.51 yards per attempt, which ranked 29th in the league. Regression isn’t guaranteed, but likely. Both the improvement of Bell’s experience and the addition of LaGarrette Blount should help. Regression results: more yards per carry

Up4. Run defense: The biggest area the Steelers are feeling the struggles on defense probably comes along the defensive line. The team has Brett Keisel in his mid-30’s, while ends Cameron Heyward and Ziggy Hood didn’t become standpoint players yet. Hood is no longer in Pittsburgh, while Cam Newton replaces the undrafted Steve McLendon at nose tackle. As a result, the team hopes to turn around its decline against the run. The team dropped from 13th to 24th in Adjusted Line Yards (per Football Outsiders), including dropping from 14th to 30th in Stuff Rate. Furthermore, Sporting Charts ranked the Steelers 31st in Stuff Percentage. They only finished ahead of a Bengals team that lost Geno Atkins in the middle of the season. The problem with all this is that the Steelers systemically went away from using a nose tackle since Casey Hampton’s career ended. We know the Stuff Rate will improve, but we don’t know much more beyond that. Regression results: better stuff percentage

Up5. Close games: All of this narrative and analysis would have taken a different tone if not for a few close plays last year. Particularly, if Antonio Brown did not (barely) step out of bounds on a near-miracle final play against Miami in Week 14, the Steelers could’ve been a 9-7 playoff team. It was the closest play during the closest loss in a season of close losses for the Steelers. Overall, Pittsburgh went 2-5 in one-possession games. Furthrmore, only the Texans (negative-7) and Redskins (negative-5) owned a worse single-digit win-loss differential than the Steelers. Of the three other teams with a negative-3 differential in single-digit games, each team finished 4-12 on the season. That close-game differential is more fitting for those teams than Pittsburgh. The Steelers could be closer to .500 in that area in 2014. Regression results: better record in one-possession games

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