Battle of the AFC North: A Midseason Retrospective I

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

How does the data from the first eight games of 2012 measure up to my pre-season predictions? Let's take a look at the passing game first.

A long time ago (July 1, 2012, to be precise) in a far-away galaxy (well, it was summer then,) I published the first article of a series comparing the AFC North by position. I made a number of predictions as to how various positions and units would perform in the upcoming season, and it's time to find out how far I was off. Although the series was about a dozen posts in all, I think we can probably whittle this review down to four, one for the passing offense, one for the running offense/O-line, one for the defensive front, and one for the DBs. This post will deal with the passing offense.

Quarterback:

After admitting the difficulties of comparing a rookie (even if said rookie happens to be older than some players when they retire after a short but productive career,) to a sophomore and two veterans, I gave it a go anyhow. I worked my way down from most veteran to newest in the league, so Ben Roethlisberger was the first one considered. After posting a bunch of figures and a couple of charts illustrating his career numbers, I wrote:

Looking at these figures, it is reasonable to ask whether Roethlisberger's best days are behind him. I don't believe they are, but only time will tell.

I gave the same stats for Joe Flacco, and I wrote:

...[I]t is really striking how consistent he is compared to Ben. Of course, his numbers are for the most part not as good as Ben's...After a 2010 season in which he improved in every category, 2011 was presumably a bit of a disappointment for Ravens fans hoping to see Flacco finally take his place as an elite quarterback.

Since I couldn't track multi-year trends for Andy Dalton, I compared his rookie season to those of Roethlisberger and Flacco. My conclusion:

Both Flacco and Dalton had considerably more attempts than Roethlisberger [in their rookie years]—428 and 516 respectively. (However, both played 16 games to Ben's 14...) Dalton threw three more TDs than Ben—20—and Flaccco threw three less—14. Of the three players, Joe Flacco was the most careful with the ball and the least productive with it...

For Brandon Weeden, since I didn't have any NFL numbers I compared his college numbers to those of the other three QBs. I came to the following conclusion:

Weeden didn’t get any appreciable amount of playing time until his third year, but once he did, his numbers look good. In fact, they probably look more like Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers than either of the others.

So let's revisit those charts for Roethlisberger and Flacco and see how they look, with this season's data added:

Jf_medium

All the stats are averages, so they aren't affected by only being eight games. The charts go from zero to 80. Since they are a bit small, here are what the bars represent:

Blue: Average yards/game (divided by ten to be in the same general area as the rest of the data, so 20=200 yds/game.)

Green: Touchdowns/Interceptions (divided by 10, for the same reason. So 20 would be 2 TDs to 1 INT.)

Yellow: Average Attempts/Sack

Red: Average Attempts/Interception

Purple: Attempts/Touchdown

Higher is better for every stat except the last one—obviously the smaller number of attempts per touchdown, the better.

We can see Ben Roethlisberger has improved since last season in every category, including a career high in TD/INT. Joe Flacco is pretty much business as usual. There's half the season to go, however, so the jury is still definitely out. Since Roethlisberger's last four games in 2011 were seriously compromised by his injuries, it wouldn't surprise me if his mid-term numbers last season looked similar to these.

Here's a head-to-head comparison of the four quarterbacks, with the same stats, but adding completion percentage and QB rating. They are, respectively, the light and dark blue bars. The chart goes from zero to 105. Again, higher is better for everything but purple (Attempts/Touchdown) :

Qb_com_afc_n_mid_medium

It may not seem to be fair to compare Brandon Weeden to the more experienced quarterbacks, but he's got to play in the same division. Which may not seem fair, either, but after all, he could be in the NFC...

So what about that pre-season prediction?

I think Ben Roethlisberger will stay reasonably healthy behind his new improved offensive line and put up excellent numbers, possibly even as good as his 2007 or 2009 seasons. I think Joe Flacco will play well, especially with the new confidence he gained by helping get his team to the playoffs and almost to the Super Bowl. But I also don’t see his upside to be as high as the other QBs in the AFC North. I believe Andy Dalton will continue to show the Bengals got a steal in Round Two of the 2011 draft, and he will improve significantly, just as he did between his first and second year of college. This is partly because of his history and partly because he has more than just A. J. Green to throw to this season. Brandon Weeden is a big question mark, and will probably struggle. Not necessarily because he isn’t up to the job, but because the Browns haven’t addressed the WR issue.

If you look at the numbers, there isn't a great deal to choose between Dalton and Flacco. Either of them are better across the board than Brandon Weeden. And Roethlisberger is better than everyone else. So far, so good!

How about the receivers? After all, the quarterback isn't working in a vacuum. First, the wide receivers:

I decided to confine myself to the two principal receivers, since there were so many players to be considered. Of course, which two guys were the principal receivers was somewhat of a judgment call on my part. Here is the corps I chose for each team:

Cleveland Browns: Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi

Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith

Cincinnati Bengels: A.J. Green, ?

Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown

Why is there a question mark instead of a second receiver for the Bengals? Because there was no obvious No. 2 receiver. By number of targets, it would appear Andrew Hawkins has drawn the No. 2 spot. And in Cleveland Mohamad Massaquoi has lost out to Josh Gordon, mainly because injuries have kept him off the field.

I began by comparing the 2011 Pro Football Focus drop rate for the receivers who played in 2011. I'm putting that chart side by side with the current data and the most-targeted receivers:

Pff_drop_rate_ms_medium

Antonio Brown is better than last year, Mike Wallace worse. Anquan Boldin is holding onto a lot more balls than last year, but his 2011 numbers seemed to be unusually high—in 2008 - 2010 his average drop rate was around 4.7. Torrey Smith is right around last year's numbers.

A.J. Green is even better than last year, and Andrew Hawkins, the rookie who emerged as Dalton's No. 2 guy, is doing a great job as well. Mohamed Massaquoi is better than last year, so it would seem, but he has not played very much because of injuries and as a consequence has only been targeted 21 times this season. For whatever reason the Browns receivers can't seem to hold onto the ball. Brandon Weeden is actually a pretty accurate quarterback, judging by this chart:

Qb_accuracy_9_medium

Weeden threw a bunch of picks at the beginning of the season. He has been much better at ball security as the season continues. The big question to me is whether having to throw to such butterfingered receivers is going to ruin him. It certainly must be discouraging. When Mike Wallace drops a pass, Ben Roethlisberger figures it's a fluke and throws it right back to him. If he's worried, he has several other sure-handed choices. Weeden has more of a heave-and-pray situation in Cleveland, and that can't be good for his development.

Last season the Brown led the league with 43 drops. However, apparently the rest of the league is catching up. This year the drops (all receivers) for the AFC North are as follows:

Baltimore: 5

Cincinnati: 4

Cleveland: 17

Pittsburgh: 8

This is a bit deceptive, though, because of these four teams only the Browns have played nine games. It looks a bit better when you average the drops (although not a lot)—in eight games Cleveland would have been closer to 15. This puts them on pace for 30 drops for the season, a considerable improvement from last season. Among the nine-game teams they are in good company: Green Bay and Washington also have 17; Arizona has 18, and the Titans have 16. The real outlier is Minnesota—in nine games they only have 3 drops, or 1 drop per three games. Amazing.

The winner in the league for drops is—wait for it—the Jaguars, with a stunning 19 drops in eight games, or an average of about 2.4 drops per game.

But drops are scarcely the only criterion by which to judge a receiver. So let's look at a few other numbers for this season, using the eight receivers with the most catches.

Wr_stats_medium

Judging by these criteria, A.J. Green is blowing everyone else away. I wondered how much of the difference in yards etc. has to do with how many different receivers the four quarterbacks are throwing to, as a larger number of receivers would reduce to at least some extent how many times the two principal receivers get the ball. I also wondered how many rushing touchdowns each team has, on the theory that if a team is running the ball into the end zone a lot, obviously this reduces the number of opportunities for the receivers to score. Here's the results:

Tds_and_yards_medium

The teams are remarkably close for the most part, although if you correct for Cleveland having played nine games to eight for the other three teams the difference becomes more pronounced. It's very interesting to see Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have exactly the same number of total receiving yards. If you look at the graph above you note A.J. Green has substantially more yards than any of the other three receivers (especially once you remove the return yardage for Antonio Brown from the above graph—without the return yardage he has a few less yards than Mike Wallace. None of the other seven receivers have fielded kicks or punts.)

The Bengals have run the ball a bit more efficiently overall than the Steelers, although the balance has shifted in the past several weeks, and have passed the ball slightly less effectively. But overall they are remarkably similar, and their very different records have to be attributed mainly to their defense and to the Steelers' markedly better ball security.

The other thing this makes obvious is just how reliant the Bengals are on A.J. Green. It seems as if any of the other teams would suffer less from an injury to their top receiver than the Bengals. I guess we will find out whether this is true during the game(s) without Antonio Brown.

But on to the tight ends. Here's how I began the article back in the summer:

I thought about putting the tight ends into the wide receivers article, but in today’s league the tight end has taken on a whole new importance, so they get their own post.

So first I compared who I thought would be the No. 1 and No. 2 tight ends for each team using their stats from last season. I'm now going to narrow it down to the four No. 1 tight ends, and compare their ratings from Pro Football Focus and from Football Outsiders. The PFF number is their overall rating for each player; the FO number is their DVOA rating (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. For an explanation, see their website.) In each case, higher is better:

Pff_comp_te_medium

Fo_comp

It is always interesting to see how different sites interpret the raw data. If you look vertically at the two charts you can see PFF hates Jermaine Gresham and likes Dennis Pitta; FO hates Pitta and likes Gresham. Everybody hates Benjamin Watson, except possibly Brandon Weeden, since Watson was one of the few receivers reliably catching the passes thrown to him. (Unfortunately that has changed in the past few games.) Both sites also value Heath Miller highly, although they differ on whether he was better last year or this year.

Here is how I summed them up last summer (deleting as much of the info about the No. 2 TE as possible:)

The Ravens have two young TEs who played well last season...I expect them to continue to improve this year, and to continue to provide solid play for BAL.

Despite Jermaine Gresham's Pro Bowl invite he doesn't appear from the numbers to be substantially better than the best of the AFC North TEs. He's just coming into his third year, however, and I suspect he still has a fair amount of upside, particularly as he and Andy Dalton work together for their second year.

Heath Miller is a stud. There's no getting around that.

The Browns' TEs have promise, and provided much more of the offense last year than they ought to have done by rights. It won't help them to have yet another QB to deal with, but if Weeden turns out to be a big upgrade from Colt McCoy they will presumably benefit. Watson really needs to stop dropping the ball, though.

Judge for yourself how accurate any of this was. Here are a couple more numbers to help in making the decision:

Dennis Pitta: 32 receptions, 302 yards, 99 YAC, 2 TDs (32.8% of yards gained after catch, one TD per 16 receptions)

Jermaine Gresham: 34 receptions, 433 yards, 195 YAC, 2 TDs (45% of yards gained after catch, one TD per 17 receptions)

Benjamin Watson: 21 receptions, 182 yards, 76 YAC, 1 TD (41.7% of yards gained after catch, one TD per 21 receptions)

Heath Miller: 39 receptions, 384 yards, 162 YAC, 6 TDs (42.2% of yards gained after catch, one TD per 6.5 receptions)

Here's the conclusion I came to when considering the passing game:

So now for my (usual disclaimer about homerism) ranking of the AFC North, combining the information about the quarterbacks and receiving corps:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

T2. Baltimore Ravens

T2. Cincinnati Bengals

4. Cleveland Browns

At this point I believe slot No. 1 and No. 4 are fairly obvious. I have the Ravens and the Bengals tied because while the Bengals have, I believe, the better quarterback as well as an excellent No. 1 receiver, the question mark at the No. 2 receiving slot makes me unwilling to put them in front.

It looks as is the picture has muddied a bit, as the dynamic duo of Wallace and Brown haven't produced as much as anticipated. On the other hand, Heath Miller leads the team in TDs, now he doesn't have to spend the entire game blocking.

A.J. Green is a huge percentage of the passing game for the Bengals, and he's a force to be reckoned with. But this, naturally, makes the Bengals fairly vulnerable to an injury to Green. There is no question about the No. 4 slot. Overall, I think my rankings were pretty accurate, although I would now have to give the edge to the Ravens. Their considerably better record should give it to them, if nothing else. So rather than a tie for second place, I would put them at No. 2 and the Bengals at No. 3.

Feel free to disagree! Just be sure to show your work...

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