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Aug 23

TABM 2014 NFL Preview: Five Factors, NFC 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 NFC North.

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Chicago Bears (8-8, 2nd place in 2013)
Chicago BearsWhat a difference one year can make. In 2012 and 2013, the Bears were one win away from making the playoffs. Because they were very strong on one side of the ball in each season, all the Bears needed was some balance on the other side to make a deep playoff run. However, there was a striking difference as to which unit performed well. In 2012, under Lovie Smith, the defense played like one of the best in the league, yet the offense flopped down the stretch. In 2013, under Marc Trestman, the offense suddenly became one of the most dangerous and efficient units in the league. The defense fell apart in the process, especially against the run. With each unit going in the opposite direction at a similarly abnormal pace, the 2014 season outlook will be about assessing the severity of elasticity and regression the offense and defense will face. Can Jay Cutler and his towering wide receivers keep the offense rolling while the defense gives the team much-needed balance?

Down1. Offensive efficiency: See “The 2013 Bears: Intro to Elasticity” for a full detail on the regression facing this offense. In 2012, Chicago averaged 4.97 yards per play. In 2013, the team averaged 6.03 yards per play. Thus, the Bears were one of the 46 teams since the merger to average at least six yards per play on offense (per Pro Football Reference). Only the 1993 49ers achieved improvement. This gives ample evidence to nearly guarantee the offense will take a step down. Remember that Josh McCown (109.02 rating) took off statistically while Jay Cutler (89.18 rating) had more modest numbers. However, it’s undetermined how much the offense will regress. Last year, the offense saw 360 of its 373 completed passes (96.51 percent) go to its top receiving options (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and Earl Bennett). Gone is Earl Bennett, but Santonio Holmes will probably take over the No. 3 WR option. We’ll see if head coach Marc Trestman gets the most out of his simple personnel schemes again, but it won’t come with the same efficiency as in 2013. Regression results: fewer yards per play

Up2. Scoring defense: See “The 2013 Bears: Intro to Elasticity” for a full detail on the regression facing this offense. The Chicago defense went from one of the best to one of the worst in the league. The Bears allowed just 277 points in 2012, but then allowed a whopping 478 points in 2013. With 201 extra points allowed last year, Chicago becomes a prime candidate for defensive regression in this area. It could start with the team allowing fewer than 20 points in any game. The Bears became just the fourth team to allow 20+ points in all 16 games (per Pro Football Reference). Note that the team also dropped from a -26.7% DVOA (first in the NFL) to a 8.7% DVOA (25th in the NFL), so there’s likely to be elasticity in play-by-play efficiency that will happen along with the scoring defense regression. This should be extremely helpful for Chicago. Regression results: fewer points allowed

Up3. Run defense: The biggest genesis for the team’s massive defensive decline was the run defense. To start the season, the team had its fair share of struggles against the run. However, when Lance Briggs went down for the season in a Week 7 loss, it started the downfall. In total, the team allowed 2583 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns on 483 attempts, which led to a 5.35 yards allowed per attempt average. This made the 2013 Bears the eighth team since 1940 to allow 2500+ rush yards and 20+ touchdowns on at least five yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference). Excluding the 1950 Colts team that disbanded the following season, the regression among this small group of teams looks apparent. All six teams improved in yards per attempt and touchdowns, while five improved in rushing yards allowed. Some other factors of regression include the team allowing 147 first down via the run. The next-worst team allowed 122 rushing first downs. Also, Chicago allowed 84 runs of 10+ yards, with the next-worst team allowing 65 such runs. This unit can’t be nearly as bad in 2014. Regression results: fewer rushing yards, YPA and TD allowed

Up4. Penalties: If there’s been any team to have less luck with penalties over the past two years, it has to be the Bears. Between 2012 and 2013, Chicago was the beneficiary of only 147 penalties that were not offsetting or declined (per NFL Penalty Stats Tracker). That ranks dead last in the league each of the last two years. Last year, the defense forced an NFL-low 30 penalties for 264 yards. Part of this can be attributed to poor play, but more of this can be attributed to Chicago’s opponents. The Bears don’t have a lot of control over this aspect, which makes this year-to-year dynamic more volatile. Expect the “luck” to break even for Chicago, with a weak year-to-year correlation making its impact. Regression results: more penalties forced

DownUp5. Return game: Speaking of a two-year span of “luck,” the Bears enjoyed some of that in its return game. Between 2012 and 2013, the Bears totaled 17 return touchdowns. In particular, last year’s squad returned five interceptions for touchdowns to give the franchise 13 such scores over the last two years. It looks like regression will continue for 2014. Meanwhile, opponents tallied nine return touchdowns, including four fumbles. That looks like a definite case for regression, especially with the fluky consequences from Chicago’s fumbles. Return touchdowns are not normal plays, and fumble return touchdowns are even less likely than the rest. Regression results: fewer return touchdowns for Chicago and its opponents

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Detroit Lions (7-9, 3rd place in 2013)
Detroit LionsIf not for a few critical stretches of immaturity and failure, the 2013 season could’ve been a lot different for the Lions. At one point, Detroit owned a 6-3 record after completing a season sweep of the Bears. So how did it end up a 7-9 season for Detroit? Quite simply, the team couldn’t close out games, as it blew an NFL-record seven fourth-quarter leads. The previous record was five blown leads. It continued the collapse that began in the second half of the 2012 season. Detroit owns a 7-17 record over those 24 games, blowing 10 fourth-quarter leads in that span. The Lions held a fourth-quarter lead in each of their final nine games in 2013, holding a measly 3-6 record in that span. The massive disappointment led to firing of Jim Schwartz and hiring of Jim Caldwell as head coach. Can Caldwell corral an undisciplined defense and the mistake-prone quarterback Matt Stafford? What the regression numbers say could determine if we should say this team is a playoff contender.

Up1. Fourth-quarter play: Perhaps all you need to go comes from the team’s introduction. Seven fourth-quarter comebacks say a lot. But for the sake of it, let’s look deeper into what caused these problems. First, the pass defense performed terribly, allowing a 101.21 passer rating in the quarter. On average, the league allowed just below an 80 rating for the season. The worst part came from the pass defense allowing 7.86 yards per attempt, all while collecting only seven sacks in 179 dropbacks. Offensively speaking, Matt Stafford had some untimely turnovers, with six interceptions in the quarter. However, the run offense struggled the most, going for just three yards per carry in the quarter. When leading late in the game, running efficiency on offense and passing efficiency on defense are the keys. Both should regress to help Detroit. Regression results: fewer blown fourth-quarter leads

Down2. Red zone defense: Part of the reason the Lions built so many late leads was that the red zone defense held up so well at the point of attack. The rush defense allowed just 55 yards on 36 carries, totaling just 1.53 yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference). Better yet, the pass defense allowed a rating of just 72.43 in the red zone (also per Pro Football Reference). On average, the league allowed nearly a 90 passer rating in the red zone. As a result, Detroit allowed a touchdown on just 38.10 percent of red zone drives, which was best in the league (per Team Rankings). This required an abnormally efficient effort, something that will definitely take a step back in any normal scenario in 2014. Opponents scored 38 touchdowns while attempting 40 field goals, creating a TD:INT ratio that isn’t likely to be retained. Regression results: worse red zone defense in touchdown percentage

Up3. Placekicking: With Detroit forcing opponents to settle for so many field goals, it’s no surprise that the opponents were so successful in their field goal attempts. All those red zone opportunities turned to shorter, easier field goals. Therefore, the 37-of-40 opponent placekicking (92.5 percent) comes as no surprise. Still, the 20-of-22 kicking from 40+ yards is abnormal. On the flip side, Detroit converted just 19 of 24 field goal attempts, settling for a 79.17 percentage. Placekicker David Akers struggled for the second consecutive year, with the problems in 2012 coming in San Francisco. The Lions are moving on from him, and the change in roster alone should help. Combine the fewer short-distance field goals, the declining long-distance field goals and the improved placekicking. That’ll lead to Detroit having a better field goal differential. Regression results: better net field goal percentage

Down4. Third downs: Along with the defensive red zone play, the defensive third down play looked good. The same can actually be said about the offense as well. The Lions converted 95-of-221 third down opportunities, good for a 42.97 success percentage. Their opponents converted 64-of-211 third down opportunities, good for a 30.33 success percentage. The standout aspect of this was the pass defense, which allowed a 69.64 passer rating on third down (per Pro Football Reference). The team also totaled 13 sacks on 181 dropbacks, good for a standout 7.18 sack percentage (also per Pro Football Reference). This was considerably better than what the defense did as a whole. The Lions owned a 84.97 Defensive Passer Rating and a 5.45 sack percentage overall. Expect the third down defense to more closely reflect those numbers. Also expect the offensive third down percentage to decline, as the percentage better suits a more efficient offense. Regression results: worse net third down percentage

Up5. Expected Win Differential: See “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for full details on the regression at play for the Lions. Detroit looks like one of the favorites to improve in 2014, as the team holds an NFC-best plus-2.45 Expected Win Differential. However, there needs to be some context to prove this number’s validity. The Lions finished with a losing record while outscoring their opponents, a dynamic that historically has not fared as well in predicting regression. Make the Lions a .500 team, and their EWD becomes 1.45 wins, which falls just shy of 1.454-win threshold. This dynamic may take away the guarantee for regression, which means it comes down to good ol’ fashioned talent evaluation and intuition when we get to the 2014 Lions season predictions at the end of the month. Regression results: lower Expected Win Differential

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Green Bay Packers (8-7-1, 1st place in 2013)
Green Bay PackersFor the past three years, two factors have limited Green Bay’s chances of winning another Super Bowl. First, the Packers lacked the balance to win playoff games. The offense relied too much on the passing game and carried too much weight for the defense. Second, the Packers lacked the health. For whatever reason, the team continues to continue to suffer from the injury bug. This may be an indictment on General Manager Ted Thompson’s keen eye for talent, or it may be a systematic problem with the team strength and conditioning. If neither, it’s a long-lasting string of bad luck. For whatever the Packers do well, these two problems continue to hold them back. In 2013, the problems showed in one of the league’s least-efficient defense and a broken collarbone suffered by Aaron Rodgers. Somehow Rodgers got back in time for the division-clinching victory in Week 17, but they suffered yet another loss to the 49ers in the postseason. Will there be more of the same in 2014?

Up1. Defensive efficiency: In 2012, the Packers quietly fielded one of the better defenses when it came to play-by-play efficiency. They still lacked the top-end ability, and they were undone by a historic performance by Colin Kaepernick in the Divisional Round. They ranked 8th in Defense DVOA, with -7.0%, according to Football Outsiders. Last year, that unit fell apart from an efficiency standpoint, dropping to a 14.4% Defense DVOA and ranking 31st in the league. This reflected in the team’s drop in scoring defense, as the Packers fell from 11th to 24th in the league. There seems to be some elasticity involved with the Packers. Strangely enough, there can’t be injuries tied into this regression, because the team had more games lost on defense in 2012. Instead, the biggest helpful factor will be the return of Rodgers. The defense won’t have to be on the field so much, and when they do, they will more likely be playing from ahead. That should help to establish a better defensive rhythm. Regression results: better Defense DVOA

Up2. Pass defense: The biggest problems on defense for Green Bay came against the pass. The Packers allowed 332 completions on 539 pass attempts for 3956 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That leads to a 94.04 Defensive Passer Rating. What particularly stands out is that the Packers allowed the 30 passing touchdowns and still made the playoffs. The 2013 Packers became the 12th playoff team to do this (per Pro Football Reference). The past teams have a strong history of allowing fewer passing touchdowns, either due to a legitimately improved pass defense or a worse record leading to fewer pass attempts faced. With opponents throwing touchdowns on an alarming 5.57 percent of passes, it seems like the former case is the more likely one for the Packers in 2014. Regression results: fewer touchdown passes allowed and better Defensive Passer Rating

Down3. Defensive luck: Perhaps one of the most noticeable ways the Packers did better in terms of scoring defense (24th) than defensive efficiency (31st) was the team benefited from a considerable amount of luck. First, according to Sporting Charts, Green Bay’s opponents dropped 37 passes to make up a league-high 6.94 drop percentage. Second, the Packers defense recovered 11 of their opponents’ 18 fumbles. That ended up ranking the team tied for fourth in fumble recoveries above the expected norm (per Football Perspective). These rates change rapidly from one year to another, so regression will means the Packers defense won’t be as lucky in 2014. Regression results: fewer opponent drops and worse defensive fumble recovery rate

Up4. Red zone offense: Given the hyper-efficiency of the Green Bay offense since the 2011 season, it’s not like the Packers to put up pedestrian numbers in the red zone. The Rodgers injury made its toll in this dynamic in 2013. The Packers scored 42 offensive touchdowns, compared to 37 field goal attempts. Of the field goal attempts, 14 of them came within 30 yards. This was made possibly by the team scoring touchdowns on only 50.72 percent of their red zone opportunities (26th in the league). Note that the Packers still ranked fourth in yards per drive despite Rodgers missing seven starts. Green Bay also ranked third by scoring on 40.86 percent of their drives. Imagine what can happen with a more healthy Rodgers for all those offensive red zone opportunities. We should see an elite offense again. Regression results: better red zone offense in touchdown percentage and more points scored

Down5. Run offense: In one of the most obscure factors of note, the Packers rushing attack put up an elite pack of numbers in the third quarter. Green Bay ran for 816 yards on 113 attempts in the quarter, good for 7.22 yards per attempt (per Pro Football Reference). This dynamic didn’t have as much to do with sheer play-by-play dominance either.  Green Bay recorded a first down on 30.97 percent of its third quarter attempts, which isn’t much different than the team’s 25.93 rushing first down percentage overall. Therefore, this abnormally high average came from big plays. It also inflated Green Bay’s yards per rush average, which was 4.65 last year. The Packers rushed for fewer than four yards per attempt in the second and fourth quarters, as well as below 4.5 yards per attempt in the first quarter. Perhaps Green Bay gets better at rushing in the other quarters, but the overall production will probably not look as good because of the third quarter regression. Regression results: fewer yards per rushing attempt

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Minnesota Vikings (5-10-1, 4th place in 2013)
Minnesota VikingsLast year’s preview explained the mathematical expectations for the Vikings to revert back to their losing ways in 2013. Still, it didn’t prevent the Minnesota front office from looking for a change in personnel. From the get-go, the season didn’t look like a success, and it showed with the team’s quarterback carousel. Christian Ponder got nine starts, while Matt Cassel got six. Heck, even Josh Freeman got a start shortly after being traded, infamously leaving him out to dry in a Monday Night Football disaster against the Giants. Midway though the season, Minnesota was 1-7 and needed to look competitive in the second half to try to turn things around for the future. The Vikings actually did that, and then acquired new head coach Mike Zimmer and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The 2014 season will be about Zimmer getting young players motivated and finding the right time to switch from Cassel to Bridgewater under center.

Up1. Pass defense: If there was one really good reason to fire Leslie Frazier, it’s that he never made his hallmark on the team s head coach. As a former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator, he should’ve established the pass defense as one of the better units in the league. Instead, the 2011 Vikings fielded a historically bad pass defense. The 2012 Vikings regressed in Defensive Passer Rating, but still looked very suspect. Then, with regression no longer applying, the 2013 Vikings reverted back to awful pass defense. This was Frazier’s ultimate failure, and this makes Zimmer a good signing as head coach. No matter how you splice it, the pass defense was awful in 2013. One can look at the 98.61 Defensive Passer Rating, which is bad. Another can look at the rating increasing to 115.63 on third or fourth down (per Pro Football Reference). The 7.93 yards allowed per pass attempt on third down looks particularly disturbing. The efficiency numbers look terrible too. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota’s defense finished with a league-worst 36.1% DVOA on third down. This will be the first notable area of improvement for Zimmer as head coach. Getting rid of Chris Cook and moving Josh Robinson to third on the depth chart rids Minnesota of the worst 1-2 starting cornerback combo in the league. Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes will fare much better. Regression results: better DPR

Up2. Scoring defense: Thanks in large part to the terrible pass defense, the Vikings allowed 480 points on the season. This marks only the ninth time since 1940 a team has allowed at least this many points (per Pro Football Reference). En route to a 2-8 start, Minnesota allowed fewer than 27 points only once. That was during a 23-7 loss to the Giants. Minnesota didn’t allow fewer than 20 points until Week 17 in a 14-13 win over the Lions. Had the Vikings allowed another touchdown in that game, they would’ve joined the Bears on the list of teams to allow 20+ points in every game. Actually, had they allowed just another point against the Giants, they would’ve tied the NFL record for most games (14) with 24+ points allowed. For the season, the team allowed 57 touchdowns, including 37 through the air. That marks the third-most passing touchdowns allowed in a single season, including the most over the past three decades (per Pro Football Reference). With what’s expected to be an improved DPR, it will likely come with fewer passing touchdowns allowed and more games with fewer than 20 points allowed. Regression results: fewer points allowed

Down3. Return game: The Vikings did have one huge bright spot during its disappointing season. That involved the return game, led by the awesome work from rookie Cordarrelle Patterson. As a team, Minnesota totaled 10 kick returns with 40+ yards, which the led the NFL by a good margin. The next-best team totaled seven such returns. All 10 of those returns came from Patterson, who totaled 1393 yards on his 43 kick returns. His 32.40 yards per return average set an NFL record for players with at least 30 returns (per Pro Football Reference). That shows how special his season was in 2013. Sure, he got some help from the new kickoff rule from 2011, but the numbers still suggest Patterson had one of the best seasons ever as a kick returner. And it came with almost no acclaim. Strangely, while the team didn’t set any records in the punt return game, it ranked higher on the league charts. In fact, the team’s 15.23 yards for a punt return average led the NFL. Overall, the special teams quietly had one of the best seasons in the return game in recent history. Regression results: worse punt return average and lower Patterson kick return average

DownUp4. Brian Robison: Speaking of quite production, meet the player who led the league in quarterback hurries. No, it wasn’t one of the sack masters like Robert Mathis (19.5) or Robert Quinn (19.0). It wasn’t the most dominant defensive player in the league either (J.J. Watt). It was Robison who ,never had a double-digit sack season. Different publications have Robison with a different total of hurries, but each have him leading the league. This includes 27 hurries according to Sporting Charts, 46.5 according to Football Outsiders and 63 according to Pro Football Focus. Generally speaking, pass rushers who put up such a high totals of hurries with a limited number of sacks (9.0) will increase his sack total the following season. However, Jared Allen is no longer on the team to take up double teams and free space for Robison. It might now be Robison who gets double teamed. Regardless, we’ll trust the general progression of players in this role. Regressed results: more sacks, but fewer hurries

Up5. Expected Win Differential: See “The Turnover Impact on the Pythagorean Win Differential” for full details on the regression at play for the Vikings. Of the six teams to surpass the positive end of the 1.454-win threshold for regression in Expected Win Differential, Minnesota has the weakest case with a plus-1.55 EWD. Most of this differential comes from the expected regression from the minus-12 turnover margin in 2013. Applying this dynamic to 2014, expect the veteran quarterback Matt Cassel to be a game manager. Meanwhile, if or when the rookie Teddy Bridgewater takes over, we don’t expect him to be a turnover machine, no matter how many silly preseason articles were published questioning his ability to hang on to the football. Take a deep breath, and repeat, “IT’S ONLY PRESEASON.” Ignore that noise. Expect a better turnover margin to legitimize the EWD. Regression results: better W-L record

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