Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Ask the Prospectus-AFC North

Over the next two weeks or so, I’m going to be previewing the upcoming season, using a bit that Joe Posnanski came up with on his blog (and really, if you haven’t gone over to his site and read his stuff, you are missing out. He is, quite simply, the best sports writer in America. I don’t care if you hate Kansas City, baseball and apple pie—his stuff is so good, you’ll still enjoy it. Also, buy his book on Buck O’Neill—it’s an amazing read). The basic idea is this—I’ll ask two or three questions about each team (some of which will be Vikings related) and the Pro Football Prospectus, written by the great folks over at Football Outsiders, will answer them (and yes, you should buy the Prospectus. It’s a great book for NFL fans and Fantasy Football players, and it will help you understand and enjoy the game a lot more). I've already previewed the AFC South. And now that I’m done plugging books for which I receive no compensation, onto today’s preview—the AFC North, the division with the hardest schedules. I’m not going to try and predict their record, but I am going to put them in the order I expect them to finish.

Baltimore Ravens

Can Cam Cameron and John Harbough create the competent offense that Brian Billick never could?

PFP: Not this year. The Ravens lack the skill players to field a competent offense, which combined with their youth at quarterback and the hole created by the retirement of Jonathon Ogden, means they won’t be fielding a competent offense just yet. Troy Smith looks like he might turn into a league average quarterback (which would mean he’d be the second best quarterback to play for Baltimore since Vinny Testaverde in 1995), but he’s not ready to do it yet, and his projection has him putting up an awful -29.5% DVOA. He isn’t the only Raven that the projection system is down on, though. Only two of the Ravens skill players, Derrick Mason and Demetrius Williams are projected to post a positive DVOA next year and neither one is projected to have a DVOA over 1%. To put that in context, the Vikings are projected to have five players with positive DVOAs next year (all of which are projected to have DVOAs over 1%). That being said, Smith and rookies Joe Flacco and Ray Rice offer hope that the offense could become decent at some point in the near future.

Who’s the best linebacker on the team?

PFP: To be honest, the only thing that’s obvious about this answer is that Ray Lewis is no longer the obvious answer. Last year, Terrell Suggs was the best of the group at rushing the passer and the best at stopping the run, finishing with 5 sacks and was 2nd overall in Run Stop Percentage. It’s hard to declare him the best overall, however, when his role was more similar to that of a defensive end than a linebacker, and he didn’t drop back into coverage enough to qualify for the rankings. Jarrett Jones was #1 in Run Stop Percentage, but he only had 2 sacks, and was awful in coverage, with a Success Rate of 38%, 77th overall among linebackers. Bart Scott was equally good against the run, finishing 3rd overall, but he was equally bad in coverage, finishing 71st overall in Success Rate among linebackers. And while he’s getting older, Lewis was still very good, making 19.2% of his team’s plays, the 3rd highest percentage by a linebacker and he was very good in coverage, with a 57% Success Rate, the 18th highest total by a linebacker. He fell off against the run though, coming in 51st. Lewis is also the only one of the four over the age of 30, which means that Ravens’ fans will get to debate this question for a long time.

Can the Ravens’ defense return to form against the pass?

PFP: The Ravens’ defense finished 22nd overall against the pass last year, their worst showing since 1998 and which was the last time they had a positive defensive DVOA in either defensive category. The problem is, they’re likely to have the same problem again this year. The Ravens secondary was plagued by injuries last year, but when your starting corner backs are 31 (Chris McAlister) and 32 (Samari Rolle), that’s what tends to happen. The Ravens did attempt to address the issue by bringing in Fabian Washington in a trade with the Raiders, but there’s nothing in his track record to suggest that he’ll be able to handle being on an island, like the Ravens’ scheme requires of its corners. The Ravens did draft two college safeties, however, which they’ll be thankful for if thirty year old Ed Reed gets hurt, but neither Tom Zbikowski nor Haruki Nakamura will be any help if McAlister or Rolle get injured again.

Pittsburgh Steelers

How hard is the Steelers schedule going to be?

PFP: Really, really hard. The Steelers have the hardest schedule in 2008, based on projected opponents DVOA. And it’s no surprise when you consider they only play three teams projected to win less than 8 games (Cleveland, Cincinnati and Tennessee) and all three of those teams face similarly hard schedules that lowered their projections below .500. There isn’t a single person that’d be surprised to see Cleveland or Tennessee make the playoffs, and the only reason people would be surprised to see the Bengals in the playoffs is due to their off-field issues, not their talent. The Steelers also get to face 7 teams that have a better than 1 in 5 chance of winning 11 or more games (Houston, New England, San Diego, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Jacksonville and the New York Giants). Then again, it’s only fair, considering they went 10-6, won the AFC North and lost in the first round of the playoffs last year.

Will Big Ben survive the season?

PFP: Maybe, but only because he’s shown remarkable durability. The Steelers had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 10.1%, the 2nd worst in the NFL. They addressed this issue by letting their best lineman, left guard Alan Faneca, leave via Free Agency and by replacing their center and right tackle. One of the keys to a good line is consistency, which makes sense when you consider how much of a line’s success is based on working together, something that takes some time to figure out. Replacing three of your linemen does not help with your linemen’s comfort level with each other. That all being said, Big Ben’s ability to stand up to tremendous punishment (his average ASR is 9.2%) means he’ll either continue to be effective against all odds or he’ll come apart at the seams after getting pounded by the five teams on the schedule that had ASRs in the top ten last year (the Eagles, Giants, Patriots, Jaguars and Cowboys). And if they don’t do him in, he’ll also have to survive the Chargers and Ravens, who were 12th and 14th, respectively, in ASR last year.

Cleveland Browns

Are the Browns going to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Cleveland?

PFP: Probably not. Like the Steelers, they have to face a ridiculously hard schedule (it’s the 4th hardest by projected opponent DVOA). They also have to deal with question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and tight end. Odds are Derek Anderson is going to regress after a career year (more on this later), and while Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow both look like they finally had their break out seasons, both are still massive injury concerns, considering 2007 was the first season in either one’s career in which they didn’t get hurt. Combine all of that with their reliance on Jamal “D-U-N Done” Lewis, and even a defense improved by the additions of Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams (assuming they return to their 2006 form and avoid overeating/getting hurt) and a dominant offensive line won’t be enough to get them in.

Who should start-Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn?

PFP: It depends a lot on their performance in training camp. Anderson had the breakout season last year, his projection is a lot better than Quinn’s (a 1.3% DVOA to a -22.7% DVOA , and a 6/6 NY/P to a 4.6 NY/P ) and the Browns didn’t resign him with the idea of sitting him behind Quinn (though they did structure his contract to make it a lot easier to replace him with Quinn in 2009). Anderson’s breakout wasn’t all it’s been made out to be though. He started out scalding hot, with 20 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions in his first 10 games, but he finished by throwing 10 picks and only 9 touchdowns in the final five games of the season (something I covered when the Browns were shopping Anderson early this offseason). If Anderson falters in the preseason and Quinn excels, don’t be surprised to see Quinn under center when the Browns open the season against Dallas.

Cincinnati Bengals

Who’s to blame for the hubbub surrounding Chad Johnson?

PFP: While Johnson isn’t innocent, it’s startling how little support Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer and the rest of the organization offered him once the media went into attack mode during the season. While they all were likely tired of his antics, some support by the leaders of the team could have cut the “scandal” off at the pass and even been used as a way to rally the team. Instead Lewis, Palmer and the rest of the organization leadership looked the other way while the media went after Johnson, leading to situation quickly and predictably spiraling out of control when Johnson tried to keep from being lumped in with Pacman Jones, T.O., Chris Henry and other real troublemakers. The man likes celebrating—it’s not like he was involved in a crime or threw his teammates under the bus while doing sit ups during a protracted hold out. The thing is, Johnson was a very good receiver in 2007 (he was 6th in DYAR by a wide receiver) and is likely to be very good again in 2008 (he has a projected DVOA of 13.8%), something the Bengals likely realized when they chose not to trade him to the Redskins. The lack of a trade was a surprise, considering the clubhouse issues created this offseason, but it was also a smart move by the Bengals, provided Lewis can keep the team’s chemistry from going south, since the Bengals need Johnson’s production for at least another year, when the three receivers the Bengals took in the draft might be ready. Whether or not Johnson is gone after this year, the way Lewis handled the situation (and all the other off the field issues) means he should be, especially considering his inability to get them back to the playoffs since 2005.

Will Antwan Odom live up to his big contract?

PFP: Probably not. Odom’s coming from a line that featured the best defensive tackle in football (Albert Haynesworth) and a defensive end that had 12 sacks and 18 hurries (Kyle Vanden Bosch). He will get some support, however, so offensive lines won’t be able to concentrate solely on him. New teammate, Robert Geathers had 19 hurries from the outside linebacker position last year. Odom will still be the defender that offenses plan on double teaming, however, which will be a new experience for him.

How much will the loss of Madieu Williams hurt the Bengals’ secondary?

PFP: They’ll miss him a lot. Williams made 18.2% of the team’s plays while he was in, the highest of anyone in the secondary, and he had the second highest Success Rate (45%, 51st best by a safety) and the third highest Run Stop Rate (53%, 16th best by a safety) on the team. He was also the only play in the secondary that couldn’t be described as “old” or “inexperienced”. Without him, the Bengals will have five players in their secondary under the age of 25 and will also start two 31 year olds entering their decline. Expect any improvement by the youngsters to be offset by the decline of Deltha O’Neal and Dexter Jackson, who were 1st and 3rd in Success Rate on the team last year.

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