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16 Oct 2003

Checking Out Early Trends

by Aaron Schatz

As promised, here is a look at one interesting trend from each team in the NFL as we stand at the season's one-third marker.  Some of these trends show that tendencies from 2002 have continued in 2003.  Others are new.  Some are probably early flukes.  Others are clear indications of team quality.  Of course, we're not quite sure yet which is which, but I think these are interesting nonetheless.

First, let's get the explanations of our innovative statistics out of the way for those who might be new to the website.  VOA, which stands for Value Over Average, is the result of our detailed play-by-play database which compares every single play of the NFL season to the league average based on situation.  It takes into account a number of variables, including things like down, distance to go, current score gap, location on field, and quarter.  You'll find it explained further hereDVOA is VOA with an additional variable, the quality of defenses faced (which itself is sorted by variables like down and run vs. pass).  OVOA is VOA for defenses, with an adjustment for quality of offenses faced instead.  Since VOA measures ability to score, a negative VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive VOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Adjusted Line Yards are an attempt to separate abilities of different parts of the offensive line from the running backs.  These numbers give an average of all RB runs, but all runs over 10 yards (when, by our estimation, the line blocking no longer matters) count as only 10 yards.  You'll find line yards explained further here.  Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats below are for 2003, through six weeks.

Instead of listing the teams alphabetically with a trend for each one, I've split up the trends according to this week's games.  I hope that these new insights give you something interesting to think about as you watch this Sunday's action.  Please, though, please tell me you are not going to watch New Orleans play Atlanta.  The only people stuck watching this game should be people in New Orleans, people in Atlanta, and Kurt Kittner's mom.  I'm so proud of that boy! 

DENVER AT MINNESOTA: Jake Plummer is out a month with a broken foot, but the Broncos have one of the league's most capable backups in Steve Beuerlein.  Right?  Um, maybe not.  So far this year, in limited action, Beuerlein ranks near the bottom of our QB ratings with a -28% DVOA.  Plummer is up near the top with a +24% DVOA.  Of course, last year is a better indicator of Beuerlein's ability, since he started a few games.  But last year he wasn't much better.  Beuerlein ranked 33rd out of 49 quarterbacks last year, with a -14% DVOA.  That was far below Denver's other quarterback, Brian Griese, who was 15th with a +7% DVOA.  Hey Clinton, feel like running a bit more often?

Remember when we used to say anyone could run behind the Denver offensive line?  Now we might have to say that about Minnesota.  This, folks, is consistency: Moe Williams has 4.24 adjusted line yards per carry, and Onterrio Smith has 4.23 adjusted line yards per carry.  We've seen improvement from the middle of the Viking line this year, however.  Last year the Vikings were average on runs up the middle and great on runs to the side.  This year, the Vikings are average on runs to the side and great on runs up the middle:


LEFT
MIDDLE
RIGHT
Line Yards
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Carries
Line Yards
Rank
Vikings offense 2002
21%
4.13 6
51%
3.59 16
27%
4.34 3
Vikings offense 2003
21%
3.84
16
53%
4.21 2
26%
3.76 14

GREEN BAY AT ST. LOUIS: In 2002, the Packers defense was far better against the pass than against the run.  In fact, they were the worst in the league against the run, and second-best against the pass.  This year, the opposite is true, as the Packers have been average against the run and vulnerable against the pass.  If Brandon from Green Bay Packers Blog is reading this, perhaps he can comment in our discussion thread as to why things have switched for the Packer defense this year. 


Defense OVOA vs. Pass Rank vs. Run Rank
2002 Packers Defense -36.3% 2 +22.8% 32
2003 Packers Defense +22.5% 26 -5.2% 16

As for the Rams, what can you say other than "Oh, how the mighty have fallen."  So far this year, Lamar Gordon (+32% DVOA) has been far superior to Marshall Faulk (-31% DVOA) while Marc Bulger (+18% DVOA) has been far superior to Kurt Warner (-50% DVOA).

NEW ENGLAND AT MIAMI: The Patriots and Dolphins are the two best run defenses in the league in 2003 when it comes to keeping opponents away from runs of double digits.  Only 5% of the running back yards against each team have come more than ten yards past the line of scrimmage.  Just like last year, the Patriots are one of the best teams in the league at running up the middle and far worse at running left or right.

The Dolphins overall offense is below average with a -11% VOA.  But Miami's offense has actually been pretty efficient on most parts of the field, and their +54% VOA in the red zone makes them the second-most efficient team in that area (Kansas City is first).  No, Miami's problem is a ridiculously abysmal -81% VOA between the 40-yard lines.  Because more plays happen in that area than any other, Miami's whole offense ends up below average.  This is probably at least partly a fluke of the early season; we'll have to see how it continues as 2003 moves along.

PHILADELPHIA AT NY GIANTS: Just like last year, Philadelphia's pass defense gives up plenty of yards on first and second down but excels on third down.  Last year, the Eagles pass defense allowed offenses success on first and second down, +7% VOA, but tightened up with -55% VOA on third down.  Only Tampa's pass defense was better on third downs.  This year, the Eagles pass defense is far worse on first and second down, allowing offenses +47% VOA.  But once again the Eagles tighten up on third down, allowing -50% VOA to opposing passing games.

Kerry Collins gets much better in the second half of games.  This year he is -21% DVOA in the first half, +27% DVOA in the second half and overtime.  Last year he was +8% DVOA in the first half, +29% DVOA in the second half and overtime.

TENNESSEE AT CAROLINA: How's this for imbalance: Tennessee ranks #1 in passing offense (+56% DVOA) and ranks #32 in rushing offense (-36% DVOA).  Just in case you haven't seen the memo yet, Steve McNair is the most underrated player in football, and Eddie George is the most overrated player in football, and they play for the same team.

Think that we should adjust the VOA formula so that red zone success has more weight than success on the rest of the field?  Well, if you think we have Carolina ranked too low now, imagine what it would be like if our efficiency ratings penalized them extra for their league-worst -72% VOA offense in the red zone (as opposed to -3% VOA on the rest of the field).

NEW ORLEANS AT ATLANTA: Last year, teams playing Atlanta and Tampa Bay ran two out of every three running plays up the middle.  No other teams had more running plays against them run up the middle.  This year, teams playing Atlanta and Tampa Bay once again run two out of every three running plays up the middle, and once again that leads the league.  The difference is that last year, Atlanta was no worse on runs up the middle than they were on runs to the sides, but this year they are worse on runs up the middle.

In 2002, teams had more success running right against the Saints than they did running left.  This year the opposite is true; teams are having far more success running left than running right.  The Saints changed up their whole defensive line this offseason and the side that's giving up all the yards this year is the home of two rookies, first-rounder Jonathan Sullivan at DT and fifth-rounder Melvin Williams at DE.

BALTIMORE AT CINCINNATI: Cincinnati's offense is far better on second down (+16% VOA) and third down (+20% VOA) than it is on first down (-40% VOA).  That means that the Bengals are getting out of more second-and-longs and third-and-longs than most teams, but they are also in far more of those situations than most teams.

On the other hand, Baltimore's defense is one of the league's best on third down (-63% VOA) but is only average on first and second down.  So if Cincinnati wants to win this game, I suggest converting a lot of second downs.

SAN DIEGO AT CLEVELAND: This is likely an early fluke, but it's a fun stat anyway, and oddly enough it applies to both San Diego and Cleveland.  Both teams have terrible defenses on second down, but Cleveland is very good on first and third down, and San Diego is at least much better on first and third down.  Expect to see very few third-and-long situations in this game:


VOA by opposing offenses 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
Cleveland defense 2003 -41% +52% -33%
San Diego defense 2003 +9% +58% +18%

DALLAS AT DETROIT: The Cowboy defense has been fabulous in the first half of games (-66% VOA) but below average in the second half of games (+7% VOA).

Detroit's defense goes from average to bad to horrid as you move from first down (-2% VOA) to second down (+21% VOA) to third down (+61% VOA).

NY JETS AT HOUSTON: The Jets are the worst team in the league when it comes to large gains on the ground.  So far this year, the Jets have only two running back runs over 10 yards and only four running back runs over 8 yards.  (Plenty more on the Jets here.)

Just like last year, David Carr has much more success passing to the middle of the field than he does passing to the side:


David Carr Left Middle Right
2002 passing DVOA -8% +24% -8%
2003 passing DVOA -20% +53% -4%

WASHINGTON AT BUFFALO: Last year, the Redskins had the best rushing attack in the league going to the right side, based on our adjusted line yards statistic.  They also ran to the right less often than any other team in the NFL.  This year, with an almost entirely different group of backs, the Redskins have the #3 rushing attack in the league going to the right side, and once again they run to the right less often than any other team in the NFL.  (Further confusing the question of "is it the back or the line" is the fact that the #1 rushing attack going right is... Carolina, with ex-Skin Stephen Davis.)

In an astonishing example of consistency, the Buffalo run defense is ranked #18 in adjusted line yards against runs to the left, #18 against runs to the middle, and #18 against runs to the right.

TAMPA BAY AT SAN FRANCISCO: Although the difference is not as large as in 2002, Tampa's defense is once again better stopping runs to the left than it is stopping runs to the middle or right.  Once again, Tampa has the best pass defense in the league (-39.3% OVOA) while their rush defense is good but not as good (-8.5% OVOA).

In 2002, Kevan Barlow was much better running to the left than running to the right, and Garrison Hearst was much better running to the right than running to the left.  Overall, the two backs had virtually the same adjusted line yards per carry.  So far in 2003, this directional split continues, and once again the two backs overall have virtually the same adjusted line yards per carry.  Defenses might want to take note of this, cheating to the offense's left when Barlow is in the game and to the offense's right when Hearst is in the game:


Adjusted line yards Left Middle Right Overall
Kevan Barlow, 2002 4.77 3.44 4.03 3.86
Kevan Barlow, 2003 4.80 3.79 2.80 3.78
Garrison Hearst, 2002 3.61 3.68 4.32 3.82
Garrison Hearst, 2003 3.41 3.55 4.43 3.85

CHICAGO AT SEATTLE: Before the season, we noted that Kordell Stewart was far worse on third down than he was on first or second down.  This year he's even worse on third down than he is on first or second down:


Kordell Stewart passing DVOA 1st Down 2nd Down 3rd Down
2002 in Pittsburgh +10% +21% -55%
2003 in Chicago -29% -20% -95%

Seattle is the opposite of Tennessee.  They are the most balanced team in football.  On offense, they have +21% DVOA passing and +24% DVOA rushing.  On defense, they allow -15% OVOA passing and -19% OVOA rushing.

KANSAS CITY AT OAKLAND: Here's a trend that will shock those who feel that success on third down is far more important than success on the first two downs: Kansas City's offense has a +36% VOA on first downs and +15% VOA on second downs, but is far below average with -30% VOA on third downs.

That means third downs Monday night will present the resistible force against the moveable object, because Oakland's defense can't stop anyone on third down.  Oakland has a better-than-average defense, -5% VOA, on first and second down, but on third downs Oakland gives up +50% VOA.  Only three teams -- Arizona, Chicago, and Detroit -- have worse defenses on third down.

ARIZONA (BYE): Arizona is undefeated in home games when at least half of the seats are filled.

INDIANAPOLIS (BYE): The Colts pass and stop the pass. The Indianapolis offense is far better passing (+48.7% DVOA) than rushing (-13.6% DVOA) while the Indianapolis defense is far better against passing (-21.6% OVOA) than against rushing (+3.4% OVOA).

JACKSONVILLE (BYE): In 2002, teams had more success passing to the right against the Jaguars defense (+37% VOA) than they did passing to the left (-2% VOA).  So far this year it has switched, with passes to the left (+35% VOA) having more success than passes to the right (-16% VOA).  The cornerbacks are listed as playing the same sides they did last year, so I'm not sure if this represents a real change in the way the Jags play defense or a fluke caused by the low number of games so far.

PITTSBURGH (BYE): Uh-oh.  The Steelers offense gets worse as the game goes on, from +10% VOA (Q1) to +8% VOA (Q2) to -12% VOA (Q3) to -39% VOA (Q4).

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 16 Oct 2003

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