AFC North Roundup, Week 6: The Cost of Doing Business

Larry French - Getty Images

Stats, opinionated commentary, and a disquisition on the spate of injuries

It was not a quiet week in the AFC North, nor, indeed, in the NFL. Other than observing the NFC seems to be a lot better (or at least more consistent) than the AFC, there isn't a great deal one can say with certainty about the NFL at this point in the 2012 season. But there is a great deal to be said about the AFC North, so let's get to it.

Record:

Baltimore: 5-1

Cincinnatti: 3-3

Cleveland: 1-5

Pittsburgh: 2-3

Comments:

One of the standard Tomlinisms is "You are who your record says you are." But I'm not certain I agree with this statement. A more accurate version would be "You were what your record says you were." Particularly this season, with a wide-open AFC, even below-.500 teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers have the opportunity to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and make a run for the playoffs. The Steelers lost their three games by a combined total of 18 points. However, 12 of those points were in one game, when a pick-6 on Roethlisberger turned the tables from down by less than a touchdown and with the ball to an L in the win-loss column.

Note I said they have the "opportunity." I didn't say they have the ability, and only time will tell whether they can take advantage of this opportunity.

Conversely, teams with a tenuous hold on an excellent record, such as the Baltimore Ravens, may find playing without a couple of their premiere players on defense tips the balance. The Ravens' margin of victory in those five wins is +31, one, seven, three, and two. Other than the first game, which was a rout of Cincinnati, who assisted the Ravens by handing them the ball twice within two minutes of game time, the Ravens are not exactly blowing teams out.

As has often been noted by writers on this site, including me, nobody looks back at the end of the season to award demerits for close wins or points for close losses. (Steeler Nation, on the other hand, is mighty quick to issue demerits for close wins AND close losses..) So in one sense, you are who your record says you are. But if you are going to get off to a slow start before coming together, this appears to be the year to do it.

The only undefeated team in the NFL is the Falcons. That almost changed on Sunday, when the lowly Oakland Raiders, headed by that chump of a quarterback, Carson Palmer, the one it was such an embarrassment for the Steelers to lose to in Week 5 on the road, came perilously close to beating the AFC powerhouse in the Falcons' own stadium. The Houston Texans, who were supposed to be the class of the AFC, got steam-rolled by a Packers team many thought was suspect.

But enough about the rest of the league. Let's look at the AFC North games from Week 6 in a bit more detail.

The Ravens won their 14th consecutive game at home, the best home record in the NFL. They won it by the skin of their teeth and thanks, probably, to some poor coaching decisions and confusion on the part of the Cowboys. Their kicker would most likely have nailed a kick nearer than 50 yards. This is Bailey's second season in the league, and last year his FG percentage was a steller 86.5%. This year, even with the bad kick, it is 88.9%. It was 100% prior to his 51-yard miss.

But the Ravens also lost some important players in the course of the game, and two of them are now gone for the season. The 24-hour news cycle can't stop going on and on about Ray Lewis, but the loss which I suspect will be more harmful in the long run was Lardarius Webb. Lewis was a great player, but he has tended to become less and less effective through the course of the season in the past few years. He is, after all, 37 years old. And he may be the "heart and soul" of the Ravens' defense, but you can bet your booties he'll be on the sidelines for every single game, screaming at guys, and the television cameras will lovingly play over the scene each and every time.

Am I bitter? No. He is obviously a great motivator, and I don't see this stopping just because he can't actually run on the field. He's been one of the main faces of the NFL for years, and I don't expect a mere injury to change this. But in terms of his effectiveness on the field, I think the Ravens would have felt the loss of Haloti Ngata much more keenly. And Ngata was hurt last night, but he sustained a much more minor injury, and may not even miss a game. In the meantime, the Ravens are getting Terrell Suggs back this season, something many people thought was extremely unlikely. I think John Harbaugh, or any coach, if he was off the record and being honest, would take a healthy Suggs over Lewis in a heartbeat.

The Bengals and Browns duked it out in a game many thought would be a laugher. Instead, the Browns had the last laugh as they defeated the Bengals in Cincinnati. Their first victory has to be an enormous relief to head coach Pat Shurmer, and the fact they beat a division rival makes it all the sweeter. Brandon Weeden played well. Be sure and have a look at the "Trending" chart in the QB comparison section. He is the only QB in the AFC North who is consistently improving every week. Note the Browns also won without much help from their first-round pick running back, Trent Richardson, who was injured early in the game.

Finally, the Steelers. Do we have to go there? The game in Tennessee has been endlessly discussed and dissected over the past few days, so I won't add much. I will just say this: when you lose your Pro Bowl center and your right tackle, your right guard and your left tackle are hurt but have no one to replace them, and have to continue to play, even an opponent without much of a pass rush may find the path to the quarterback a bit easier. When you're missing your All-Pro safety, you replace him with a career special teamer because the usual backup safety has played so badly, and he gets hurt, you know you're in for a long night. When you lose your Pro Bowl pass rusher, and your other Pro Bowl pass rusher has just played his first game in ten months, and has three days to recover before playing again, it's not too surprising if you have trouble getting pressure on the quarterback. And when your newly returned "franchise" running back leaves the game after just a few snaps with an injury, and then a defender plants a helmet on the knee of your second running back, it isn't too surprising you don't get much of a running game going, especially given the state of the offensive line.

"The standard is the standard" is all very well, but in most cases there is a reason the backups aren't the starters, and it usually isn't because they are being carefully preserved in tissue paper for later in the season. Either they aren't as good (as is clearly the case with Allen/Mundy vs. either Clark or Polamalu) or something else is going on. (I presume it is the latter in the case of Hampton/McLendon, because otherwise the coaching staff's refusal to give McLendon the bulk of the snaps when he is now better both in run and pass defense than Hampton is completely mystifying.)

I'm actually not going to rant about injuries any more at this point, because I want to do some more research. But I will throw out links to a couple of articles for those of you who still insist injuries shouldn't be a factor, because look what the 2010 Packers did. (In the interests of transparency, I will admit both articles were written by me. They do, however, contain some number of facts, as well as opinions.) Here is one about the offense, and here is one about the defense. (Click the bolded text to go to the articles.) Now let's go to the charts and stats:

Passer Comparison:

Ravens QB Joe Flacco won the quarterback competition this week. However, Ben Roethlisberger is still winning it for the season, whether you look at the Pro Football Focus figures or the NFL passer rating. Not by a lot, though. The field is evening out in the AFC North.

Passer_rating_wk_6_medium

Here is the above-mentioned Trending chart, showing the rating for each week:

Passer_trending_wk_6_medium

It will be interesting to see how this looks as the season continues. But for the moment, Brandon Weeden seems to be coming along really nicely. The top two charts are averages for the season, and Weeden's score is greatly reduced by his disastrous Week 1 game. Since then his receivers are starting to hang on to more than one in two balls, and he is getting more accustomed to the NFL pace. Hopefully this improvement won't continue at the same rate : )

Roethlisberger is still winning the interception watch, despite throwing his second pick of the season last Thursday:

Joe Flacco: 4

Andy Dalton: 9

Brandon Weeden: 10

Ben Roethlisberger: 2

Receivers:

Last week was the first week of the season in which it made more sense to list the receivers (including running backs when they are thrown to) who aren't dropping balls, rather than those who are. Here's the tally of receivers who have yet to drop what Pro Football Focus considers to be a catchable pass. The number of passes thrown to the receiver not considered catchable are also an interesting comment on the accuracy of the QB, or, in some cases, I assume, the quality of the opposition's coverage. I give the number of catches (which is also the number of catchable balls, followed by total targets, the rest of which presumably weren't:

That's it. Last week there were still 14 players who hadn't dropped a catchable pass. Five of them dropped off the list this week. (Cedric Peerman, RB, made his first appearance, since his targets were sufficiently large to show up.) I think it is now time to start comparing the drop rates of the principal receivers and tight ends, so here goes. I chose the three receivers for each team with the most targets, and the tight end with the most targets. They are also ordered by number of targets (within each team) rather than where they appear on the depth chart. I didn't bother with the running backs, as their principal job is not to catch the ball. Those without a drop show up only as a space on the chart:

Drop_rate_wr_wk_6_medium

Drop_rate_te_wk_6_medium

I had a look at PFF's Wide Receiver rating (one of their Signature Stats) for the season thus far. There are 40 receivers in the league with 17 or more receptions. Of those 40, Torrey Smith is ranked No. 1, and, surprisingly to me at least, Mike Wallace is ranked No. 2. The next AFC North receiver on the list is A.J. Green, at No. 9. Andrew Hawkins, Anquan Boldin, and Antonio Brown also make the list, in that order.

But enough about the receivers—they think too much of themselves anyhow. On to the running backs:

First, the Week 6 numbers for Yards per Game and Average Yards per Attempt (both figures are averages for the season so far:)

Rushing_stats_wk_6_medium

Now, the debut of Trending, which tracks Yards per Attempt from the beginning of the season:

Screen_shot_2012-10-15_at_11

I leave you all to interpret this chart. Ironically, the only team with a consistent rushing game at this point appears to be Cincinnati.

Defense:

We've heard a lot of complaints about the defense—complaints, I hasten to add, which are entirely justified. But the Steelers aren't the only team struggling to maintain fourth quarter leads. As I write this, I note the Chargers have almost blown a 24-point lead, giving up 14 unanswered points to Denver in the third quarter and 7 so far in the fourth quarter. Baltimore gave up over 200 yards rushing on Sunday for the first time since they were a franchise, and came perilously close to losing the game on a last-second field goal. (The Steelers still hold the AFC North record in this dubious category, you'll be no doubt relieved to hear.) But before I start hauling out more anecdotal evidence for the Twilight of the (defensive) Gods, let's look at some figures:

NFL Ranking, Average of Total Yards Allowed and Average Points Per Game Allowed:

BAL: No. 19 (438, No. 26; 19.7, No. 11) Last week No.15

CIN: No. 18 (344.8, No. 15; 27.2, No. 22) Last week No. 11

CLE: No. 26 (435.5, No. 30; 27.2, No. 22) Last week No. 19

PIT: No. 12 (295.8, No. 5; 23, No. 18) Last week No. 10

While I looked up the above figures, Denver took the lead, by four points.

But back to the AFC North:

Passes Defensed and Sacks:

Sacks_etc

I believe Cincinnati still leads the league in sacks. They certainly still lead the AFC North, at any rate. Now let's see how the teams are doing in the Takeaway/Turnover Differential:

Ta_medium

Cleveland has finally crawled out of the hole the offense dug for it in the early games and is on the plus side. Baltimore gained one this week. Cincinnati is getting worse, and PIT, of course, lost one.

Next up, Special Teams:

Here are the Trending figures for Yards Gained and Yards Given Up:

Screen_shot_2012-10-15_at_11

Screen_shot_2012-10-15_at_11

Just for kicks, here are the average figures for the season thus far:

St_avg_wk_6_medium

And finally, new this week, the kickers debut with their percentage of field goals made to attempts:

Fg___wk_6_medium

Finally, the Scoring Differential, both trending and average:

Screen_shot_2012-10-16_at_12

Well, that's it for this week. It's midnight, the Broncos just beat the Chargers 35-24, and I have nothing more to say. Which just goes to show that it's an ill wind that blows no one good. Stay tuned for Week 7.

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