Aug 26

TABM 2014 NFL Preview: Five Factors, AFC South

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 South.


Houston Texans (2-14, 4th place in 2013)
Houston TexansWe expected the Texans to take a step back in 2013. However, we only expected that step to be from a borderline Super Bowl contender to a borderline playoff contender. The Texans started 2-0, scraping out close victories against San Diego and Tennessee despite allowing easy scores. Everything went downhill after that, pick six after pick six and close defeat after close defeat. In terms of the pick sixes, it ended Matt Schaub’s tenure in Houston. Nothing was more symbolic of his downfall than Richard Sherman’s burial celebration after his game-tying pick six in Week 4. In terms of the close losses, not even Case Keenum could eek one out. At one point, Houston lost seven consecutive games by just one possession. The Texans lost their final 14 games, causing a change at head coach and quarterback. Furthermore, the team drafted the mega-talented Jadeveon Clowney. Houston hopes those changes and expected regression will help out in 2014.

Up1. Scoring efficiency: During Matt Schaub’s first six starts in a 2-4 start, the Texans were particularly “adept” at allowing teams to score points without needing to gain many yards. Teams needed only 8.57 yards per points scored against Houston in those six games. That set the tone for the year, as Houston finished with a by-and-far league-worst negative-8.26 Net Yards per Point Scored. Several factors led to this. Defensively, the team ranked last by allowing a touchdown in 66.67 percent of red zone drives (per Team Rankings). Oh, and then there were those eight return touchdowns allowed, and the league-worst 20.13-yard Scoreability (per Cold, Hard Football Facts). Expect all of these factors to regress, and expect it to significantly help this Houston team to improve in 2014. Regression results: improved Net Yards per Point Scored by at least 80 percent

Up2. Turnover battle: The defense also only mustered 11 takeaways, including recovering only four fumbles. The 5.67 drive-based turnover percentage is the worst ever we can recall. Yes, it was even worse than the 2008 Lions, who went 0-16 and finished with the worst Defensive Passer Rating in league history. Overall, the negative-87 points off turnovers differential was worst in the league (per Sporting Charts). Because of getting so few takeaways, which included a league-record nine games without a takeaway (per Pro Football Reference), Houston won the turnover battle only twice all season. The Texans actually lost both of the games. We know this will change. Regression results: better turnover margin and better record with positive TO margin

Down3. Andre Johnson: Johnson caught 109 passes for 1407 yards in the 2013 season. That achievement is one of only 32 times in which a player totaled 100+ receptions and 1400+ yards in NFL history (per Pro Football Reference). As perhaps you can see in that list, Johnson achieved this before. He also achieved this feat in 2008, 2009 and 2012. Only Marvin Harrison achieved this feat in at least three consecutive seasons, when he did it from 1999 to 2002 with Peyton Manning under center. In fact, only those two and Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald achieved the feat multiple times. Perhaps Johnson will achieved the feat for an NFL-record fifth time, but we don’t think it will happen in 2014. Regression results: fewer Johnson receptions for fewer Johnson yards

DownUp4. J.J. Watt: During last year’s “Five Factors,” we focused on the expected regression for Watt. He put together one of the best seasons ever by a defensive lineman in 2012. He couldn’t repeat that in 2013, but he still played like arguably the most outstanding defensive player in the game. Watt finished with 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed and 45 defeats in 2012. Watt finished with 10.5 sacks, seven passes defensed and 35 defeats in 2013. (“Defeats” are tallied by Football Outsiders.) However, Watt was credited with an NFL-high 36 quarterback hits (per Pro Football Focus) and 47 knockdowns (per Football Outsiders). The next-best defenders tallied 21 and 36, respectively. Some of those tallies will become sacks in 2014, especially with the Texans expected to be in more winning situations. Regression results: better sack-to-hit and sack-to-knockdown ratios

Up5. Expected Win Differential: See “The ‘Minus-7’ Win Differential and Its Elasticity” and “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for more details on the regression involved for Houston. First, you need to know the impact of Houston dropping from 12-4 to 2-14 in 2013. Only the Houston Oilers matched the minus-10 win differential, when they did so near two decades ago. After a 12-4 season in 1993 ended in playoff heartbreak, the franchise’s dysfunction caught up with the Oilers during a 2-14 season in 1994. Note that the 1995 Oilers finished 7-9. Second, you need to know that between the minus-20 turnover margin and the 2-9 record in one-possession games, the Texans should have an EWD favorable for regression. In fact, the plus-3.78 EWD is by-and-far the most favorable in the league. Regression results: better W-L record by multiple games


Indianapolis Colts (11-5, 1st place in 2013)
Indianapolis ColtsLike with Houston, the Colts were expected to regress in 2013. They were a subpar team that somehow finished 11-5, thanks to their “lucky” man under center. Andrew Luck made huge plays in the clutch, leading a whopping seven game-winning drives in 2012. The regression was supposed to make this team worse record-wise, although we fully expect to the team to play better on an efficiency basis. Luck still found a way to break that trend, helping the team to go 11-5 again by finding ways to navigate through close games. He put together another four fourth-quarter comebacks, as well as fifth in the Wild Card Weekend thriller against Kansas City. Now that this star quarterback is in year three, many are treating this team like a chic pick to win the AFC and reach the Super Bowl. Are the Colts really that good heading into 2014, or will the regression at hand mean this team is still another year away from serious contention?

Down1. Ball protection: The 2013 Colts were able to avoid regression at 11-5 in large part because the team took many steps forward to protect the football. The team improved from 27 giveaways to just 14 last season, putting the team atop the NFL in 2013. So why will the Colts regress in this area? The answer comes within the nature of the giveaways. Indianapolis lost a league-low four fumbles on 14 total fumbles, so simple regression of fumble recovery luck will likely lead to more fumbles lost. Also consider that Andrew Luck took a league-high 87 quarterback hits last year, according to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (the second-most had 63)! If the offensive line continues to put such stress on Luck, more fumbles lost are likely. Indianapolis turned the ball over on only 6.9 percent of its drives last year. Expect that to change in 2014. Regression results: more giveaways

Down2. Penalty differential: The 2013 Colts proved to be a very smart and disciplined team. Not only did the team led the league in giveaways, but they were quite adapt at staying ahead in the penalty battle. Indianapolis was the beneficiary of 118 penalties, while the team committed only 74 for the season. That gave the Colts a plus-44 penalty differential, which led the NFL. Only one other team topped a plus-30 differential, meaning that Indianapolis was far ahead nearly the entire league. On average, the Colts had a plus-2.75 penalty advantage per game in 2013. That won’t happen again. Regression results: worse penalty differential

Up3. Team health: One way Indianapolis can mitigate the damages of turnover regression is to simply get healthier. Since the Colts parted ways with Peyton Manning and drafted Andrew Luck, the franchise can enjoyed success despite the clear signs of rebuilding beyond the quarterback. Not only does this rebuilding lead to lesser talent on the roster, but it can also lead to less physically fit players on the roster. The ladder issue seemed to play a role in Indianapolis in 2013. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Colts ranked 30th with 76.4 Adjusted Games Lost on offense and 21st with 33.9 Adjusted Games Lost on defense. This led to the second-worst overall AGL (110.3) in the league. As Indianapolis continues to get home-grown talent through the draft and proven talent through free agency, this total should drop. Regression results: fewer Adjusted Games Lost

Down4. Robert Mathis: This one can be seen admittedly as a lay-up, so we will do some adjusting for prorating purposes. Mathis racked up 19.5 sacks last year in his 16 regular season games, part of a banner year for the 33-year-old. It was the most sacks of any player while working at the 3-4 outside linebacker position, according to Pro Football Focus. However, Mathis only ranked seventh among 3-4 OLB’s in hurries (39) last year, according to PFF’s premium stats. Perhaps it seems like Mathis had a bit of luck converting pressure to sacks, and it might be something he can’t continue once he returns from his four-game suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs. We’re reaching some here, though. Regression results: fewer Mathis sacks per game

Down5. Expected Win Differential: See “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for full details on the regression at play for the Colts. On the way to a regression-breaking 11-5 record, Indianapolis won six of seven regular season games decided by just one possession. The only one-possession loss came in Week 2 against Miami. The other four losses were by 10, 30, 29 and 14 points. As a result, Indianapolis finished with only 9.44 Pythagorean Wins. Combine that with the turnover regression at hand from the team’s plus-13 margin, and the Colts finished a negative-2.62 Expected Win Differential. Indianapolis is faced once again with major regression. Regression results: worse W-L record


Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12, 3rd place in 2013)
JaguarsAfter the disastrous 2-14 season for the 2012 Jaguars, the franchise once again went a new rout. The team hired Gus Bradley as the new head coach in hopes of building a tough and defensive-minded squad in the mold of the up-and-coming Seattle Seahawks. During the first half of the season, the results look disastrous. Jacksonville was outscored 264-86 during the team’s 0-8 start, which marks only the seventh time in the NFL since 1940 that a team was outscored by at least 160 points through eight games (per Pro Football Reference). After that nightmare, things got a little bit better for the Jaguars. They finished 4-4 in those games while only being outscored by 24 points. Does this mean that things are looking up for the Jaguars in 2014, or was that .500 finish just a mere product of in-season regression? Much of this will depend on the production of rookie quarterback Blake Bortles, who was drafted third overall. (We have low confidence for Bortles.)

Up1. Pass protection: For the second consecutive year, the Jaguars have done a terrible job in protecting the passer. Jacksonville allowed 50 sacks in each of the last two seasons. Could we see, in this era of the passing offense explosion, the Jaguars do this poorly in three consecutive seasons? In the past decade, only two franchises had three consecutive seasons with 50+ sacks allowed. The 2010-12 Cardinals allowed 50, 54 and 58 sacks in those three respective years. Meanwhile, the 2006-08 Lions allowed 63, 54 and 52 sacks in those three respective years. The odds favor regression. Regression results: fewer sacks allowed

Up2. Rush offense: Like with the team’s poor pass protection, the running game has seriously failed the Jaguars. After tallying only 1369 rushing yards in 2012, they only ran for 1260 yards last year. The later came on 378 carries, giving the 2013 Jaguars only a 3.33 yards per carry average. Much of this has to do with the continuing horrific play of the offensive line. According to Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the Jaguars finished with 3.13 Adjusted Line Yards. This was the fourth-worst total in the 18 years of study of the stat. The run blocking is pretty much guaranteed to get better. Regression results: better yards per rush average

Up3. Punt return game: Jacksonville couldn’t get anything off the ground when it comes to the punt return game either. Rookie Ace Sanders did nothing to prove himself as an asset in the return game, totaling just 140 punt return yards in 25 attempts. It set the tone for the team, which had only two more yards in its five other returns. Overall, the Jaguars averaged 4.73 yards per punt return. Only two other teams had this low of a total in the last four years. With such a low sample size per year for punt returning, we don’t expect Jacksonville to keep such a low total again. Regression results: more punt return yards per attempt

Up4. Drive efficiency: Although the Jaguars improved in the second half of 2013, mostly due to defensive improvements, the first half disaster made a huge impact on the team’s poor drive efficiency. Jacksonville averaged negative-6.7 net yards, negative-0.96 net points and negative-0.40 net first downs per drive. The Jaguars ranked last in both net yards and net points per drive. Jacksonville was last in the latter category by quite a considerable margin. We can’t imagine the team will be as bad in drive efficiency, but we can’t say for certain HOW it will be achieved. Regression results: better net yards, points or first downs per drive

Down5. Close-game play: After losing their first eight games by double figures, the Jaguars were able to win four games in the second half of the season. It happened thanks to solid play in one-possession games. Jacksonville won all four of its games by no more than seven points, leading the team to have a 4-2 record in one-possession games. That’s not what to normally expect for a 4-12 team. For a change, we get to see a straight forward case of regression that will the Jaguars, although Jacksonville should actually have a multi-possession win in 2014. Regression results: worse record in one-possession games


Tennessee Titans (7-9, 2nd place in 2013)
Tennessee TitansAfter a 2012 season in which the Titans played worse than their 6-10 record, they took an unexpected turn for the better in 2013. The season started with a strong 3-1 start, with Titans committing no turnovers in those four games. Tennessee eventually evened out after the hot start, but a 7-9 finish suggested that the franchise had reason for hope in the future. This was especially true for the defense, which made notable improvements. The pass defense turned from a liability into an asset. However, the team surprisingly got rid of Mike Munchak and signed Ken Whisenhunt to become head coach. That change highlights what is otherwise a non-descript transition for the Titans from 2013 to 2014. Very few elements standout in terms of regression, perhaps fewer than any other team in the NFL, which means a big question mark looms for the franchise this upcoming season. Could 2014 mean more of the same, or could it means every falls apart?

Down1. Pass defense: Tennessee showed its best improvement on defense in 2013. In particular, the pass defense made an outstanding improvement. After allowed 31 touchdown passes in 2012, the 2013 Titans allowed only 15 touchdown passes. This shot the team all the way from 29th to first in the league. Clearly, some sort of elasticity will be at play. Also note that since 2000, only the 2010 Saints improved after allowing 15 touchdown passes or fewer (per Pro Football Focus). This will be compounded by losing cornerback Alterraun Verner through free agency. According to Pro Football Focus, Verner allowed a 55.83 passer rating last year, which ranked fourth in the league. Tennessee will miss Verner’s presence in the secondary as regression stares the team in its eyes. Regression results: more passing touchdowns allowed and worse Defensive Passer Rating

DownUp2. Big-play defense: Of the 40 touchdowns allowed by the 2013 Titans, four of them occurred via the return. This included three fumble return touchdowns and one interception return touchdown. This means the defense allowed 36 touchdowns in total (15 via pass, 21 via run). Of those defensive touchdowns allowed, a whopping 29 were allowed within 10 yards. This includes 11 one-yard touchdowns allowed! Regression can be interpreted in two ways here. Good news is that the Titans should do better to improve on its 64 percent touchdown rate in the red zone. Bad news is that the defense will allow more than seven measly touchdowns of more than 10 yards. It will allow more than the two touchdowns allowed of more than 20 yards (27 and 34). Regression results: better red zone touchdown percentage allowed, but more “big-play” touchdowns allowed

Up3. Kendall Wright: The 2013 season was an interesting one for the Baylor product. The wide receiver led Tennessee with 94 receptions for 1079 yards. However, he also only caught two touchdown passes. He and Harry Douglas became the 20th and 21st receivers in NFL history with at least 80 receptions but no more than two touchdown receptions in a single season (per Pro Football Reference). Only twice did somebody top Wright’s 94 receptions. This included Keyshawn Johnson’s 106 receptions in 2001 and fullback Larry Centers’ 101 receptions in 1995. For fantasy purposes, believe in Wright’s stock improving as long as he stays healthy. He’ll be a much better red zone target in 2014. Regression results: better Wright touchdown-to-reception ratio

Down4. Subset offense: The Titans saw marked improvement on defense, while the offense saw most of its steps made in key subsets. This was most noticeable through Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. Tennessee ranked 16th overall on offense (1.4% DVOA), but the team performed much better on third down (30.0% DVOA, ranking third) and in the red zone (27.3% DVOA, ranking fourth). On the more basic level, the Titans ranked eighth in third down conservation percentage and ninth in red zone touchdown percentage. The subset rankings are high for an offense that was by most measures an average to below-average unit (19th in scoring and 21st in yards per play). The subset play is less reliable than the overall play, but the subset regression should have a negative impact on the unit as a whole. Regression results: worse Offense DVOA and fewer points scored

Down5. Jurrell Casey: Casey led the Titans with 10.5 sacks in 2013, but he did so without putting up other elite pass rushing numbers at his position. While ranking second among 4-3 defensive tackles in sacks (behind Jason Hatcher’s 11), he ranked in the tie for 13th with seven hits (per Pro Football Focus). He also lagged well behind Gerald McCoy (56) and Ndamukong Suh (54) in hurries (Casey had 36) despite putting up higher sack totals than both. Of the 4-3 defensive tackles with at least 20 hurries according to Football Outsiders, only Hatcher had a better sack-to-hurry ratio. Generally speaking, this means Casey had some luck to reach such a high sack total, leading to regression in the upcoming season. Regression results: fewer Casey sacks

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