A Brief History of Time—in the AFC North

photo via Steelers.com

I hope you all realize I’m not claiming to be the Stephen Hawkings of football. Au contraire. Not even about the AFC North. But after four games it’s worth taking a look at where we are and seeing if we can find some trends.

As I’m quite sure everyone reading this is aware, the Steelers are currently in sole possession of the divisional crown—for the nonce. But it’s still a long way to January. So let’s look at the other teams and what potential threats might lurk. Because as we all know, when it’s AFC North Football anything can happen.

I’m going to try not to be too stats-nerdy with this. For one thing, stats only tell you what has happened, in a completely un-nuanced way. The interpretation of them can result in very diverse potential scenarios. So I’ll give some numbers just to keep myself honest, and commit myself to what I think they are telling us. I will update them at various points throughout the rest of the season.

In this post I will address the defense, because at this point it is more fun. Next week will be the offense, and special teams will come later.

If you’re wondering what sort of numbers I’m using, there are three main players in this—the raw NFL.com stats (actually, I generally use ESPN’s version, which includes their own metric of QBR,) the Pro Football Focus Player Grades, and the Football Outsiders rankings. But first, the most important stat of all—the win/loss record. Because, as Mike Tomlin says, you are who your record says you are:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers: 3-1
  • Baltimore Ravens: 2-2
  • Cincinnati Bengals: 1-3
  • Cleveland Browns: 0-4

You all probably knew that, but it was fun to write, and is a nice linear progression which the Steelers being 4-0 would have spoilt, although I could have lived with that. And what would be really fun would be if it were easily possible to determine what percentage of each win (or loss) could be attributed to each unit (i.e. the defense, or special teams, or what have you.) For instance, it’s pretty clear that both Ravens wins can be attributed to their defense and both of their losses should be laid at least partially on their offense. (Although the offense wasn’t the unit who gave up 44 smackers to the Jaguars in London.) With the Steelers it isn’t so clear. But on to the numbers.

Overall Defensive Numbers/Rankings

Any way you wanted to look at it, the Ravens defense was the top in the league for the first two games. They had the same number of takeaways as points allowed, just for one example. Things aren’t quite so cut and dried now. But here’s how each team fares in some of the usual indicators—sacks, takeaways, average yards allowed, and the most important one, average points allowed.

There were some surprises there, I thought, and there are more to come. For instance, despite Cleveland being the far and away leader in the betting for who will get the No. 1 draft pick next year, their defense has the most interceptions in the league at the moment. Unfortunately for their fans, the only stat they actually suck in is that all-important Points Per Game. All of this says that even if the AFC North is a relatively weak division this season, divisional games aren’t going to be a walk in the park. And note that the 1-3 Bengals are right behind the Steelers with only 16.8 points allowed per game.

UPDATE: A glitch in the matrix?

I left the chart above so you can see for yourself. As noted, I got the stats off of ESPN’s website. So imagine my surprise when Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette commented in a “preview of Jacksonville” video that the Jaguars are No. 1 in the league with 17 sacks, followed by the Steelers at No. 2 with 16. So I went back to make sure I hadn’t misread the charts, and no indeed, the numbers above are still what was on the ESPN website as of about 1:30 Eastern today. In the meantime, here are the numbers from NFL.com:

As you will note, the average yards per game and points per game are exactly the same. Sacks, interceptions, and fumble recoveries are vastly different. Anybody have an explanation for this? Google did not. At any rate, I would assume the NFL stats are the correct ones, and it paints a rather different picture. Also, please don’t ask me why the chart above is a nicer size than the others, entered yesterday. These things are a mystery.

Now let’s see how Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus view these defenses. Football Outsiders uses a metric called DVOA, which is Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, which is explained here should you care to know. It is based on scoring, and therefore the lower the number for a defense, the better.

Pro Football Focus, on the other hand, does not rate units but grades individuals, so I’ve totted up the cumulative scores for two units—the base defense and the nickel package.

Interestingly, the Ravens held onto the No. 1 spot until this week. (They also fell quite precipitously from their post-Week 2 DVOA of -70.) The Steelers have moved up quite a bit since then. In case you’re wondering, Buffalo has the No. 1 spot now.

I’ve always found it a bit odd as to how the overall rank often bears little resemblance to an average of the run and pass defense, but it is all to do with how the scoring goes. And it is only this week that Football Outsiders begins to adjust for strength of opponent, on the theory that nobody really knows for a few weeks. A point well taken. And if we look at the pass defense rank, the story of those 29 points per game for the Browns becomes clear, despite some nice-looking stats. Note that the other three AFC North teams are firmly within the top ten in the league for pass defense. Please rest up, Le’Veon. We’re going to need you in the divisional tilts.

As for the Pro Football Focus grades, if you want to know the average grade per defensive player just divide the score by 11. It’s interesting to ponder that the total would be 1100 points if each player were perfect at his position. Of course, no player ever gets a score of 100, even for one week. The very best players at their position are generally in the low 90s or even high 80s, and in my observation the higher scores tend to go to offensive players. Perhaps more can go wrong for defensive players.

Sometimes I find the PFF grades rather unconnected to what I think of given players, but I’m guessing things even out. It gives us a point of comparison, anyhow. And as you can see, if you believe PFF, the Ravens have the best base defense, followed closely by the Steelers. And to be fair to the Ravens’ defense, they were not only missing one of their best defensive players, nose tackle Brandon Williams, last Sunday, but one of their other linemen, also an excellent player. (The name escapes me at the moment.) A curious thing happens when you look at the nickel package—the Ravens fall to third and the Steelers move up to first. In case you’re wondering, in the Steelers’ case this is due to replacing Javon Hargave (who has quite a respectable score) with Mike Hilton (who grades almost as high as Artie Burns…)

I did look individually at the secondaries and the defensive lines, but there wasn’t really anything to see that you couldn’t infer from the above information, so I’ll leave it at that. Now for the look into my crystal ball, which doubles as my cats’ water bowl. (After all, Cato the Lucky Steelers Cat drinks from it.)

Frankly, it’s a bit too early to be certain about where each team is headed. But here’s how it looks from my vantage point:

The Steelers’ defense is trending better and healthier, but that can change in a blink of the eye, as we all know. The most reassuring thing about the Steelers at the moment is that there seems to be more depth available than has ordinarily been the case.

The Ravens have an inordinately large number of players on IR already. If they are to get anywhere this season their offense is going to have to pick up the pace, because the amazing start the defense had to the season was pretty clearly unsustainable, and if the offense is going three-and-out every series, they are going to be on the field a lot. That said, somehow the Ravens always seem to put in a decent defensive performance.

As for the Bengals, I’ve looked at them the least, since the Steelers haven’t actually played them yet, but they moved up one spot in the FO rankings since last week, and their aggregate grades from PFF look right in line with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I have an uneasy feeling they are a team on a rise.

As for poor Cleveland, what can you say? Hopefully Jimmy Haslam won’t freak out and fire everyone, because until the ownership allows for some continuity in the leadership, they are doomed.

Well, it’s time to worry about the Steelers’ opponent for this Sunday, which isn’t in the division. But more on the Jaguars tomorrow.


  • “As for poor Cleveland, what can you say? Hopefully Jimmy Haslam won’t freak out and fire everyone, because until the ownership allows for some continuity in the leadership, they are doomed.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. There are a few other teams in the league with this mentality, yet the owners just don’t understand why their team keeps losing.

    What is also helping the Steelers is the trending up of the offense. Hopefully it keeps going that way.


  • I love it that you follow a reference to Schrodinger’s cat with one to Steven Hawking. It is what makes this site amusing as well as informative and provocative. Thanks.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s