Confidence: Week 2 Thursday Night Preview

It is always good to get things started on a positive note. While San Diego failed to win on Monday (blowing an 11-point lead in true Chargers mid-season form), they still covered. Detroit, on the other hand, ripped the New York Giants apart in every facet of the game and comfortably covered. Congratulations to anyone who happened to bestow some “Confidence” on the Bolts and Lions.

Week 1 Reactions

SEA -6 vs. GB: 36-16 SEA. The most complete team won. While GB has a top-heavy roster and a mediocre defense, SEA boasts amazing quality over the breadth of their roster and top-end talent on both sides of the ball. Expect SEA to regress a bit and GB to beat less complete teams; this was a challenging matchup for GB.

CHI -7 vs. BUF: 23-20 BUF OT. I didn’t think the Bills offense was that good, but Football Outsiders.com (subscription required) has them in the top 10 based on their Week 1 win. Granted that’s not something to put a huge amount of stock in, but Buffalo’s running game could be something to watch. My chief concern is that their line didn’t grade out well at ProFootballFocus.com. (subscription required) While the skill of a running back can in some cases overcome a bad offensive line, I don’t know if that is sustainable. Chicago out-gained Buffalo in yardage 427 to 360 and had nearly twice as many first downs, 29-15. The Bears also had the edge in time of possession (TOP), 34+ to 30+. Chicago was doomed by their 3 turnovers, but don’t write off this Bears team just yet.

KC -3 vs. TEN: 26-10 TEN. I have Tennessee as my AFC South winner this year and expect Kansas City to finish around 7-9. The Titans’ roster has a lot of breadth on both sides of the ball. The Titans offensive line struggled but quarterback Jake Locker and the receiving corps played well, and the Titans were very good on defense. Even after regressing their performance based on how bad I expect the Chiefs offense to end up, this was a very solid showing by Tennessee.

MIA +4 vs. NE: 33-20 MIA. New England has some serious problems on both of their lines which was a major factor in the outcome. PFF’s proprietary stats say Miami’s offensive line graded out +3.0, while New England’s OL was at -12.8. On the defensive side of the ball the Dolphins starting front seven earned a +12.6 and their reserves added another +5.5 for a total of +18.1. The Patriots starting front seven graded out as -15.8 and their non-starters “added” another -2.0 for a total of -17.8. Does it matter what else happened? That’s the game right there.

ATL +3 vs. NO: 37-34 ATL OT. Coming into the year I had New Orleans as a top 5 offense and top 12 defense. I had Atlanta as a middle-of-the-pack offense and a horrible defense. FO’s proprietary stats graded the Falcons offense as being the best in Week 1 and the Saints as 8th. Defensively Atlanta finished 24th, but the Saints were dead last. What happened to the New Orleans defense? PFF and FO agree that the Saints had a poor performance on defense. New Orleans finished as a defensive unit at -11.3, 7th worst. Only 3 of the 19 Saints defenders graded out positively on PFF. The main culprit? Second-year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. New Orleans’ biggest weakness coming into this year was their pass defense. If they don’t generate a strong enough pass rush their secondary won’t be able absorb the added pressure. Their pass rush in 50 dropbacks generated 1 sack, 2 hits, and 14 hurries. So Matt Ryan faced pressure on 34% of his dropbacks. The Falcons O-line registered just the 23rd highest pass blocking efficiency, and if some of the quarterback hurries turn into hits and sacks the Saints will do better. But even with additional and/or stronger pressure, the Saints secondary will have to play better to be a top 20, let alone top 12, defense.

STL -3 vs. MIN: 34-6 MIN. My advice here is not to overreact to a horrible St. Louis team. Minnesota could finish 7-9 or better, but going all-in on them based on their performance against an injured Rams team would be a mistake.


Methodology Update

Through the first three weeks of the season Football Outsiders makes no opponent adjustments for DVOA. As a reminder, Pro Football Focus never adjusts for opponents.

In addition to DVOA, we’ll also use a variant of that stat (DVOA Adjusted for Variation Early, or DAVE for short) as we examine teams. Football Outsiders explains:

[DAVE] combines the preseason projection with the results of early games to give us a better prediction of how each team will rank at the end of the year … In this week’s DAVE ratings, the preseason projection counts for 90 percent, and the current DVOA counts for 10 percent.

Giving a 90% weight to a preseason projection seems high to me, so I typically take the DAVE metric with a giant grain of salt.


Week 2 Thursday Night Preview

Baltimore -2.5 VS. Pittsburgh

Baltimore: The Ravens features a revamped offensive line, which was their biggest weakness last year. The Ravens now have a young up-and-coming star left tackle in Eugene Monroe, a third-year starter with an intriguing ceiling at left guard in Kelechi Osemele, a solid veteran starting center in Jeremy Zuttah, a perennial star at guard in Marshal Yanda, and the biggest wild card in RT Ricky Wagner. Zuttah looks to be the biggest upgrade on their line, replacing Gino Gradkowski. I agree with PFF on the overall quality of this line, and against a strong Bengals front seven they put up a +9.4 as a unit.

I took a look at quarterback Joe Flacco, because you just can’t write an article on the Ravens without discussing Flacco. From 2011-2013 his average QB rating was 82.1. For comparison, Ryan Fitzpatrick registered that same rating as a part-time starter in 2013. That’s now the league standard for a QB ranked 19th to 23rd in the NFL. What’s interesting about Flacco’s numbers is the high standard deviation in his performances. During the three-year period noted above, the variance in his QB rating was 23.2. The deviation is 28.28% of his overall rating. In 52.1% of his games Flacco had a QB rating less than 82.1, while in 16.7% of his games his rating was no higher than 59. So the majority of the time, Flacco played like a slightly below average QB.

What makes Flacco so tantalizing is that in 20.8% of his games he performed at a QB rating of 105.0+. Let’s compare that to Tom Brady, whose average QB rating from 2011-2013 was 98.8 with a standard deviation of 23.1. His variance was 23.16% of his average rating. But because his rating is so much higher even on his slightly below average days, he is good enough to keep New England in contention. Brady only fell below Flacco’s three-year 82.1 rating in 27.1% of his games with the Patriots, and registered a rating under 59 just 4.2% of the time. So, in only a quarter of his games has Brady played like a slightly below average QB. What makes him a first-ballot Hall of Famer is the 37.5% of his games from 2011-2013 where he put up a QB-rating of 105.0 or higher. So Flacco played like a Hall of Famer about half as often as Brady did over the past few seasons. The highly unscientific conclusion here is that Flacco is an inconsistent quarterback whose performances bounce from awful to spectacular. He, like the Ravens, tends to have a high variance in performance which makes him hard to bet for or against. Of all players, the quarterback is going to have the most significant impact on his team’s variance in performance.

Even without Ray Rice’s suspension, Baltimore’s cadre of running backs is quite mediocre. It’s fortunate that the Ravens have a good offensive line as that will make up for many deficits due to the lack of talent at the skill positions. Baltimore’s receiving options should be familiar to you, but Steve Smith was targeted 15 times and had a mixed debut with 118 yards on 7 receptions. PFF and FO grade him quite negatively, even though his yardage suggests otherwise.

On defense they were missing Lardarius Webb and their secondary should be much improved with him back. Webb is joined by young star cornerback Jimmy Smith and second-year starting strong safety Matt Elam to form what should be an above-average secondary. They have a solid front seven that could be elite if their inside linebackers work out. C.J. Mosley, the Ravens first round pick this year, struggled in week one as did veteran Daryl Smith.

During the preseason I had Baltimore winning the AFC North at 11-5, Pittsburgh 2nd in the division at 10-6 and Cincinnati missing the playoffs at 9-7. However, I would not be surprised by any of these three teams finishing atop the division, as I had them all close together when looking at 2014. I was more bullish on the Ravens’ defense and that is why I chose them to finish first. I am regretting that pick so far and this week doesn’t look any easier.

DVOA rates the Ravens 25th overall at -25.5%, with the defense 18th at 3.8% and the offense 17th at -2.6%. DAVE rates the Ravens 23rd overall at -7.8%, with the defense 11th at -1.4% and the offense 28th at -9.5%. I’m bullish on Baltimore’s defense and I think a top-11 finish is very possible. However, if their offense stays around 17th, or middle-of-the-pack, it would make the Ravens a more balanced team and one that could win the division.

Pittsburgh: Like the Ravens, Pittsburgh upgraded its offensive line from last year. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum is average with the potential to be above average. Left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, and right guard David DeCastro are all solidly above average, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert is average. Their tackles are weaker points in the line but not to a significant degree. Thankfully for the Steelers, mobility is one of Ben Roethlisberger’s strengths, which will help make up for a pass rush coming from the edges. Big Ben is a fine starting QB and this Pittsburgh team is loaded with talent at the skilled positions. Running back Le’Veon Bell, the emergence of highly touted second-year wideout Markus Wheaton, and Antonio Brown’s fast track to dominance as a receiver will make the Steelers’ offense dangerous this year.

Pittsburgh’s defense, on paper, has an above-average front seven featuring mostly average to solidly above-average starters. However, last week their defensive linemen combined for a -4.5 rating on PFF, while their linebackers rated a -8.4; that’s a -12.9 combined rating for the Steelers’ front seven. And while the Browns have an above-average OL it is very apparent that it was a schematic problem and not a personnel issue for the Steelers. Their personnel is talented enough to be effective against the no-huddle and I expect that they will be successful in this area with the proper adjustments. However, that might not be a safe assumption to make considering they have struggled with the no-huddle for at least a year now. Watch this game closely to see if the Steelers’ can address this potentially significant issue.

The Steelers may have a real problem in the secondary. Is Troy Polamalu still a near-elite starter? He didn’t look that way against the Browns and has been showing signs of slippage for the past few seasons.. The rest of their starting secondary is average (free safety Michael Mitchell, cornerback Cortez Allen and slot corner William Gay) or below-average (cornerback Ike Taylor). Last week they limited Cleveland to 206 net yards passing, but the Browns have one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL and were focused on running, gaining a net of 183 yards on the ground.

When Baltimore Has the Ball:

The Browns use of the no huddle offense in the second half on Sunday shredded the Steelers’ defense. Last year the Ravens used the same strategy against Pittsburgh with some success. When facing no-huddle offenses last season the Steelers did well against the pass but struggled against the run. I’m not going to overreact here and neither should you. Is it a problem? Yes. Will it be a fatal flaw? Only time will tell.

The Ravens’ offensive line looks on paper to match up evenly with the Steelers’ defensive line. Unless one of those units unexpectedly develops a major advantage during the game, expect this to come down to position battles, pitting Baltimore wideouts Steve Smith and Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta against the Pittsburgh secondary. I like the Ravens’ receivers’ chances against a mediocre Pittsburgh secondary. In the run game, the onus will be on the linebackers and defensive backs to minimize the yards-after-contact accrued by Baltimore runners. But because Pittsburgh is going to need extra men to help the secondary, it will limit their ability to stuff the run. Even taking that into consideration, the battle tilts slightly in the Steelers’ favor given the mediocrity of the Ravens’ running backs and the strength of Pittsburgh’s linebackers and safeties. The wild card for the running game is the extent to which Ravens run out of the no-huddle and how successful they are. Without that advantage I’d score this as a draw, but with it I am going to rule in favor of a slight advantage for the Ravens.

DVOA

Rushing:

Ravens’ Offense: 13.3% (10th in NFL)

Steelers’ Defense: 19.2% (30th in NFL)

Passing:

Ravens’ Offense: -8.9% (22nd in NFL)

Steelers’ Defense: 13.6% (19th in NFL)

Advantage in Running Game: Baltimore Offense (slight edge)

Advantage in Passing Game: Baltimore Offense

When Pittsburgh Has the Ball:

This is somewhere between an even matchup and a slight disadvantage for the Steelers’ O-line against the Raven’s D-line. The burden will be on the secondary to crash down on Bell because the lines are relatively even. Bell and his backfield mates have some tough rushes ahead of them. What happens in the passing game could drastically impact the running game. If Brown and Wheaton have receiving success it should leave the Ravens unable to stack the box against the run, which will open things up for the Pittsburgh ground game. Webb and Jimmy Smith will be a challenge in coverage for Brown and Wheaton. Webb is coming back from an injury and didn’t play much in the pre-season so he figures to be rusty. His first 8 games after returning from injury last year were ugly. I think this week Pittsburgh’s receivers have the advantage.

DVOA

Rushing:

Steelers’ Offense: -1.5%, (19th in NFL)

Ravens’ Defense: -30.8%, (8th in NFL)

Passing:

Steelers’ Offense: 79.2%, (4th in NFL)

Ravens’ Defense: 27.9%, (23rd in NFL)

Advantage in Running Game: Pick ’em

Advantage in Passing Game: Pittsburgh Offense


The Spread: BAL -2.5

The Call: Since 2008, when Flacco took over as starting QB, here are the results of the games between these two teams with games at Baltimore highlighted. (Note that the Steelers’ 2011 road loss could be attributed to a hangover from their Super Bowl loss):

2008: @PIT 23 – BAL 20 (OT), PIT 13 – @BAL 9

2009: @BAL 20 – PIT 17 (OT), @PIT 23 – BAL 20

2010: BAL 17 – @PIT 14, PIT 13 – @BAL 10

2011: @BAL 35 – PIT 7, BAL 23 – @PIT 20

2012: BAL 13 – @PIT 10, PIT 23 – @BAL 20

2013: @PIT 19 – BAL 16, @BAL 22 – PIT 20

Aside from one thoroughly uncompetitive game the two teams always play within 4 points of one another. The home team went 6-6 in these games with Baltimore going 3-3.

My line would be PIT -1, and I plan to use PIT + 8.5 as a teaser in conjunction with other games. Without giving away my Sunday preview column, if you want to tease PIT tease them with one of the following in order of “Confidence”: DEN -7.5, SEA +1, NO +0.5, or TEN +2.5 (I might pay a premium to get +3.5 here). I’m also considering DET +9 as well but I want to see how consistent the Lions are for another week before I recommend them again.

John Limberakis is Inside The Pylon‘s gambling analyst, using statistics and trends to break down the betting lines, and finding the winning edge to wager with confidence.

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