The All-New, Official, On-Going AFC North Stats Watch
Steeler Fever said the following in a comment on my recent stats commentary:
I am hoping you will consider publishing a weekly article of the Steelers’ players/team from a statistical perspective.
Here it is for Weeks 1 and 2. And since this is how I roll, I’m going to include information on the rest of the AFC North. After all, we have to beat them if we wish to win the division. Which we do.
There are any number of things we could look at, but I’m going to keep it as simple as possible (which isn’t very…) If anyone has anything they really want to know about that wasn’t covered, leave a comment and I’ll consider incorporating it into future posts.
Let’s get started, because this is going to take a while.
The Bottom Line:
I don’t know that you’re supposed to start with the bottom line, but let’s get it right out there. As Mike Tomlin says, “you are who your record says you are,” and in the end fancy stats don’t matter if you aren’t winning more games than the other guys in your division.
I’m not going to do a million charts, but I will put in a few because I like them. I’m going to track the Pro Football Focus overall rating for the offense and the defense and the turnover to takeaway ratio. And since a quarterback is such a central character in the drama of a football season I’m going to track the performance of the signal-callers as well. In this case I’m going to use ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (or QBR.)
I know there has been a lot of criticism of QBR, and the results are occasionally counterintuitive, but it takes a lot more into consideration than the NFL’s Passer Rating, and since I’m evaluating the offense as a whole according to PFF it seemed like it would be interesting to also use something from another source by way of comparison.
There are a number of other things I’ll mention, but I’ll try not to have the article bristle with charts. Hopefully I can stop. They say you can’t make just one chart, once you’ve got the data…
The charts will look remarkably simplistic at the moment, as you might expect when we only have a few data points, but they will start looking much more exciting as we go along.
As you can see, there was improvement between Weeks 1 and 2—considerable improvement in some cases—for every quarterback except Andy Dalton. In the case of Joe Flacco, there was scarcely any way to go but up. For Ben Roethlisberger there is hardly any way to go but down, as he is about as close to a perfect rating for Game 2 as possible. I would be quite happy if he would not bother to go down, but everybody has bad days.
The third data point, in case it’s too small to read, is ESPN’s season rating. It isn’t an average of the first two games; apparently they recalculate it each week, according to total snaps and so on.
How does this compare to the NFL Passer Ratings? Flacco, interestingly, doesn’t look as good as Manziel for either week in the NFL’s system, with a season rating of 75.7 as compared to 99.7 for Manziel. Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton are neck and neck, with season ratings of 122.6 and 120.3.
Pro Football Focus views it differently still, to an extent. Ben Roethlisberger not only has their highest cumulative rating for the first two games, (12.5) but the highest rating in the NFL. (He was actually No. 2 in Week 1, just ahead of Tom Brady and behind Aaron Rodgers.) Andy Dalton is behind him with a rating of 2.5, good for ninth in the league. Unlike both QBR and the NFL rating, which showed Manziel improving considerably in the second game, PFF actually felt he regressed somewhat, moving from a -4.1 to a -6.0, which puts him at No. 31 (out of 35 ranked quarterbacks.) They are more kindly disposed toward Joe Flacco, and he moved up from a -2.2 to a -1.6 this week, putting him at No. 18.
As a reference point, currently PFF lists Peyton Manning as the worst quarterback in the league. Eli must take a conflicted satisfaction in being No. 20. (On Wednesday PFF put Matthew Stafford after Peyton, which must be a relief to him.)
It will be interesting to follow the trend lines this season. And it would be really interesting to be able to compare the proprietary formula ESPN uses to the various things PFF takes into consideration, but this is highly unlikely to ever happen.
Whichever metric you want to use to look at Ben, he’s pretty fabulous so far. This isn’t much of a surprise to any of us who watched him in training camp or the preseason. He seems to have put everything together in a way few anticipated seeing as recently as the 2013 season. I remember Neal Coolong, now of DK on Pittsburgh Sports, commenting that as he rewatched old games (like 2005 old) he was astonished, in a bad way, at the difference in Ben’s throwing arm, and wondered whether the motorcycle accident and the many beatings he had taken meant that his best years were already behind him.
It’s certainly possible he no longer has quite the arm strength he did at age 22, but if so it doesn’t matter. Check out the following words from Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com, who put Ben (finally!) into his top three:
Roethlisberger is the best deep ball thrower in the league. Through two weeks, he’s completed 10 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. That’s double the total of any other quarterback. It’s insane that the six plays below happened in the same game, one in which he only threw 27 passes.
And check out the video (in the linked article) of said six plays. It’s pretty fun to watch.
The thing about Ben, aside from the deep throws, is that he is a much more polished quarterback, in a way some feared we would never see. He’s discovered the need for (or even, hopefully, the joy of) film study, and also discovered you can’t be a one-man show. He has been very tight with his offensive line for some years now, even back when they didn’t do a great job of protecting him, but he has begun working with his receivers in the past few years in a much more comprehensive way.
One of the stories from the 2015 training camp which impressed me the most concerned Marcus Wheaton. He missed a pass defended by William Gay, as Gay had managed to throw him off his route. Unlike what we see on the sidelines from Tom Brady, say, Ben didn’t yell at him. Instead, he asked Gay to take Wheaton aside and explain to him why he was able to beat him. This is leadership at its finest, and I am so proud of Ben (if I may be allowed to have a Momma moment) for how he has matured and grown in the past five years as a teammate, leader, and human being.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the former Jaguar Josh Scobee told Jim Wexell of Scout.com:
“I was talking about this with someone the other day,” said kicker Josh Scobee, another newcomer. “It certainly is fun to watch him because he operates on a different level. I’ve been with a lot of young quarterbacks the last few years and he just operates on a completely different level than them, on and off the field.”
Off the field?
“He runs the show,” Scobee said. “He is the one that people respect, they go to. You expect that, or you think that would be the stereotypical player people would go to, but it’s not always like that. But you can tell that’s him here.”
In Ben’s meeting with the media yesterday he talked about Martavis Bryant, noting that has either called or texted him every day that he’s been in a Houston rehab facility. His purpose is to encourage him, and as he told Bryant:
Getting yourself ready as a man is more important than football.
Moving on to Andy Dalton, it remains to be seen whether his performance this season is part of what one commenter call the Daltoncoaster or whether he is also steadying and maturing as a passer. His stellar performances in the first two games are particularly interesting because of what we will see when we look at the receivers in a moment.
I’m not even going to comment on Manziel at the moment, other than to say good for him for going to rehab and for apparently having decided to take his job seriously. If he lives up to his promise (which very much remains to be seen) I’m happy for Cleveland, even if it makes life more difficult in the AFC North.
And finally, Joe Flacco. What should one say? One of the hallmarks of Flacco has always seemed to be his coolness under pressure, and although he’s had some stinkers of games from time to time he always seems to bounce back. But at the moment the Ravens are trying to find their way through with a mostly inexperienced receiving corps and a decent but not fabulous run game. But knowing old Joe, he’ll be torturing us in a few weeks with his patented “heave and pray” PI-drawing throws, so I’m not going to waste any sympathy on the Ravens. (I didn’t say, after all, I was going to do a completely objective overview.)
I collected lots of numbers for the rest of the offense, but decided to just go with PFF’s Overall offensive rating. The third data point is the cumulative number for the season. Pro Football Focus calculates this as a simple sum.
So for instance the Steelers’ offense was assigned a number of 6.0 for Game 1. This number is itself an accumulation of the scores of all the offensive players on the field with the exception of the quarterback, positive and negative. They received a rating of 18.1 for Game 2, and the season number is consequently 24.1.
The ranking for the Overall offensive ratings are: Steelers, No. 1; Bengals, No. 2 (these are for the entire NFL, in case you’re wondering); Browns, No. 21; and Ravens No. 26.
The difference in total points scored to total points lines up almost the same—the Bengals are +25, the Steelers +18, the Browns -7, and the Ravens -10. And of course the Bengals are the only team in the division with two wins, and the Ravens the only team with two losses.
I know we love to compare individual players, so the best receiver on each team with a reasonable percentage of the snaps in the AFC North are, in order of PFF ranking, Antonio Brown (No. 2), Steve Smith, (tied for No. 4), Marvin Jones of Cincinnati (No. 30), and Andrew Hawkins of Cleveland (No. 49). Curiously, no Cincinnati wide receiver other than Jones has a positive score through the first two weeks, despite the wins. And no, A.J. Green is not hurt. Travis Benjamin would show as the best receiver for Cleveland if he had enough snaps—Hawkins is the only receiver to even qualify.
Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert, on the other hand, is currently listed as the No. 3 in the league. Presumably teams are shutting Green down and so Dalton is throwing to Eifert. It looks as if his status as a possible first-round bust from 2013 is out the window. Too bad for the Steelers defense, which struggled mightily with Rob Gronkowski. (Gronkowski stands at No. 1.)
Curiously, the next ranked TE in the AFC North is Matt Spaeth, at No. 9, followed by Heath Miller at No. 10. Crockett Gillmore is No. 13, and Gary Barnidge of Cleveland brings up the rear at No. 36.
As far as backs go, the AFC North order is DeAngelo Williams (No. 2, right behind Carlos Hyde,) Gio Bernard (tied three ways for No. 4), Lorenzo Taliaferro (No. 18), and Duke Johnson of Cleveland (tied for No. 34). Isaiah Crowell is dead last.
Or, more accurately, that was the order on Tuesday. PFF modified their ratings, so it now looks like this: Gio Bernard, (No. 2), DeAngelo Williams, (No. 7), Lorenzo Taliaferro (No. 15), and Duke Johnson of Cleveland (No. 34). A long line of guys have been added after Isaiah Crowell, who is No. 36. They now have 56 backs ranked.
For the moment I’m just going to throw out some data about two of my favorite defensive stats—sacks and passes defensed. As the numbers accumulate I’ll probably chart them as well. The numbers are season totals:
Baltimore: 5 sacks, 14 passes defensed
Cincinnati: 5 sacks, 9 passes defensed
Cleveland: 7 sacks, 8 passes defensed
Pittsburgh: 7 sacks, 6 passes defensed
And in fairness I should compare some defensive players of note. It’s a lot trickier with the defensive linemen and linebackers, because you aren’t comparing apples to apples with 3-4 and 4-3 guys, but I’ll give it a go:
I picked the top player from each team in each category.
Cornerbacks: Adam Jones (No. 3), Tramon Williams (No. 6), Jimmie Smith (No. 27), William Gay (No. 37).
Safeties: Will Hill (No. 1), Mike Mitchell (No. 5), Shawn Williams (No. 40), Taushon Gipson (No. 68).
ILBs: Craig Robertson (No. 1), C.J. Mosely (No. 9), Ryan Shazier (No. 13, one spot ahead of Clay Matthews), and Rey Maualuga (No. 22).
OLBs: 3-4:Armonty Bryant (No. 13), Jarvis Jones (No. 14), Elvis Dumervil (tied for No. 21). 4-3: Vincent Rey (tied for No. 13)
DE: 3-4:Randy Starks (No. 9), Stephon Tuitt (No. 12), Carl Davis (No. 15). 4-3: Carlos Dunlap (No 9)
DT: Geno Atkins: (No. 2), Brandon Williams (No. 16), Daniel McCullers (No. 21,) Danny Shelton (tied for No. 62).
The surprises here, I guess, are that PFF was less impressed with Ryan Shazier than most of us were, and Mike Mitchell is playing better than most of us have noticed, if we believe them. Here are some other curiosities of the data:
OLBs: Jarvis Jones is tied with an Arizona OLB named LaMarr Woodley. James Harrison is one slot ahead of Elvis Dumervil.
The only Ravens OLB with a positive score is Terrell Suggs. (Obviously I didn’t put him in because he isn’t germane to the ongoing season.) Pernell McPhee is playing extremely well—for Chicago. This season is a really interesting test of whether the Baltimore FO theory of letting players walk after their rookie contracts and throwing out young guys to sink or swim always works. Courtney Upshaw is currently the next-to-worst OLB in the league who is getting any reasonable number of snaps.
ILBs: Lawrence Timmons isn’t much admired by PFF so far. He is No. 49 out of 50 ranked ILBs.
DEs: Cleveland has two great players—Jamie Meder is only one spot behind Randy Starks. I’ll be honest—I’m a bit nervous about their defense. As usual.
Cam Heyward comes in several slots behind at No. 19. Cam Thomas is NOT the worst DE in the league, which represents real progress. He is No. 35 of 46 ranked, mostly for his run defense.
CBs: What are you going to say? The one bright spot, from a Steelers perspective, is that Dre Kirkpatrick is still struggling, but Jones and Leon Hall are playing very well. Strangely, the corner who is struggling most in Cleveland is Joe Haden—the Williams brothers (Tramon and K’Waun, although I assume they aren’t related) are very much above the line. Baltimore’s Kyle Arrington isn’t great, but he’s better than any Pittsburgh corner not named William Gay. (Ross Cockrell actually had an above-the-line game, but his 39 snaps aren’t enough to get him ranked with the starters.)
Safeties: Baltimore’s safeties do not impress, with the exception of the No. 1 guy in the league, Will Hill. If you’re wondering who he is (I was), he was signed out of the Arena League by the Giants, got cut after a year, played some more Arena ball, and was picked up on the cheap by the Ravens. Well done them. Shaun Williams is the only safety for either the Bengals or Browns with a positive score so far.
Actually, with the exception of Mike Mitchell you can add the Steelers to that, although Shamarko Thomas has an 0.0 in his 4 snaps this season, interestingly. I’m still mystified why they aren’t playing him more, but I think the Steelers are still inclined to go with a bit more of a known quantity, even if the upside isn’t as great. Because Will Allen is not respected by PFF, although they don’t think he’s horrible (No. 44 out of 76.) Were you as shocked by Mike Mitchell’s No. 5 as I was?
I’m keeping track of some special teams data, but at the moment it isn’t particularly interesting. When there is more of it I’ll track it. For now I’ll just tell you that the the Ravens and Browns have more return yards gained than allowed (71/25 and 222/67 respectively) and the Steelers and Bengals have less (66/87 and 53/165 respectively.)
Here is the Takeaway to Turnover ratio, in order of awesomeness:
Cincinnati Bengals: +3
Pittsburgh Steelers: 0
Cleveland Browns: -1
Baltimore Ravens: -2
And I’ll finish with an overview of the week’s power rankings. Yes, they are probably silly, but they have their own sort of interest, and I’ll throw in most of the commentary. There are a lot of possibilities, but these seem as good a selection as any. As to the chart, lower is better, naturally.
From Elliot Harrison of NFL.com:
Ravens: Through two weeks, we’ve learned this…
a) Losing Terrell Suggs really hurts.
b) Crockett Gillmore is the best weapon on offense.
c) Sunday’s home opener versus the 2-0 Bengals is an absolute must-win.
Bengals: Perhaps the most underrated offseason development this year was the return to health of receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert.
Browns: Can you really give the keys back to Josh McCown at this point? Answer: Yes, you could. John Football did indeed have two very nice throws that got plenty of burn on all the highlight shows. What said shows didn’t show: The fact that he completed just six other passes (for 62 yards) the rest of the game. Still, the upside is with No. 2…
Steelers: Whoa … gooooooooodnight. The Steelers put on a show versus the 49ers on Sunday. If Antonio Brown hasn’t convinced you he’s the best wideout in the game yet, he never will. Longtime Steelers fans will tell you this matchup was what the Super Bowl should’ve been in ’94. Too bad you couldn’t pair that Greg Lloyd-Carnell Lake defense with this year’s Pittsburgh offense.
ESPN: Comments from ESPN Stats and Information:
Ravens: The Ravens are off to their first 0-2 start since 2005. But both losses were to AFC West teams, against whom the Ravens have now lost five straight.
Bengals: In two games, Andy Dalton hasn’t thrown an interception, hasn’t fumbled and hasn’t been sacked. Not a bad way to start the season.
Browns: Forget Johnny Manziel, it’s all about Travis Benjamin! Benjamin has scored four of the Browns’ five touchdowns this season and has accounted for 51 percent of the Browns’ receiving yards.
Steelers: Can anyone slow the Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown combo? Roethlisberger when he targets Brown this season: 18-of-22 (81.8 percent), 328 yards, 2 touchdowns.
Uncredited commentary from USA Today Sports:
Ravens: Hard to believe they’ll remain in this early funk. That said, they have serious concerns, namely the pass rush.
Bengals: Summer is always a good time to invest in Cincinnati optimism. Uh oh, the calendar just turned …
Browns: Nice to see Johnny Manziel notch his first NFL win, but he owes Travis Benjamin a five-star dinner.
Steelers: Can’t complain about salvaging a split while all-pro RB Le’Veon Bell served his suspension.