Friday, November 22, 2013

Steelers Game 11 Preview - @ Cleveland Browns

The Steelers and Browns. Nothing about that gives you a lot of excitement. While it has been fun to make fun of Cleveland for much of the recent fact I think deep down a lot of people would be happy if this was a more competitive rivalry.

Another point to make is that while the Browns and the Steelers have the exact same 4-6 record they are a much worse football team than the Steelers. The Browns are pretty bad but in all honesty the Steelers have lost to a lot worse teams in the last five years. Hopefully the Steelers have learned from the past but we have seen that isn’t always true.

The Steelers are coming off two wins. You know what that means, they are one win away from a winning streak. That hasn’t happened yet this year and a win would get them one game closer to .500 and put some pressure on the teams above them to keep winning.

Off to the preview.

As it is every week here are some of the key terms I am going to use to break down the Browns for your reference. All information came from Football Outsiders :

DVOA - DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.

DYAR - Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the player’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.

ALY - Adjusted Line Yards. Based on regression analysis , the Adjusted Line Yards formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:

Losses: 120% value
0-4 Yards: 100% value
5-10 Yards: 50% value
11+ Yards: 0% value

These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.

Power Success - Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.

Stuffed - Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).

Adjusted Sack Rate -  Gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.

Catch Rate - Catch Rate represents the percentage of passes to this receiver completed. This is a reference to incomplete passes, not dropped passes.

Success Rate - This number represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. A player with higher DVOA and a low success rate mixes long runs with downs getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. A player with lower DVOA and a high success rate generally gets the yards needed, but doesn't often get more.

Effective Yards - translate DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. This provides an easy comparison: in general, players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate, while players with fewer Effective Yards than standard yards played worse than standard stats would otherwise indicate. Effective Yards are not the best way to measure total value because they are more dependent on usage than DYAR.

QBR - Total QBR (listed as just QBR) is a metric created by the ESPN Stats & Information group. Total QBR is based on the expected points added by the quarterback on each play, then adjusts the numbers to a scale of 0-100. League average is 50. There are five main differences between Total QBR and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (with further explanation here):

-Total QBR incorporates information from game charting, such as passes dropped or thrown away on purpose.
-Total QBR splits responsibility on plays between the quarterback, his receivers, and his blockers. Drops, for example, are more on the receiver, as are yards after the catch, and some sacks are more on the offensive line than others.
-Total QBR has a clutch factor which adds (or subtracts) value for quarterbacks who perform best (or worst) in high-leverage situations.
-Total QBR combines passing and rushing value into one number and differentiates between scrambles and planned runs.
-Total QBR is not adjusted for strength of opponent.

Browns Offense

We are going to start with the Browns offense because, well, that is how we start with every preview of teams that the Steelers play. The Browns offense is bad and there really isn’t too way about it. They were OK for a few weeks when Brian Hoyer was the quarterback when the Browns had three straight wins over the Vikings, Bengals, and Bills. The problem is that Hoyer got hurt and the Browns have relied on Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell to play football at the quarterback position and they have lose four of their last five games. So, yay.

Anyways, the Browns offense isn’t good. They rank 25th in the league averaging only 318.1 points per game and are about as good running the football as the Steelers are. They also score less than 20 points per game (19.2) which makes them one of only seven teams that don’t average at least 20 points per contest.

According to Football Outsiders the Browns have the 28th ranked offense with a DVOA of -14.5%. Maybe what is most funny about that is that the Baltimore Ravens and ELITE quarterback Joe Flacco rank 29th in the league in total offense thanks to their -18.8% DVOA. ha ha.

The Browns really aren’t good at anything. They rank 28th in the passing game with a DVOA of -7.0% and rank 25th with a DVOA of -13.2%. They are wildly inconsistent with a variance of 8.8% which is 27th in the league and I guess that makes them dangerous because they are able to eventually be a good offensive football team here and there.


Here is a breakdown of the offense:


Quarterback: Jason Campbell
Completion %: 55.7% (73-131)
Yards: 809
Touchdowns: 6
Interceptions: 3
QBR: 35.9 (36th)
DYAR: 56 (23rd)
DVOA: -4.9% (22nd)

This might be hard to believe but the Browns have been a mess at quarterback. They have played three guys under center this year and all of them have been pretty bad. I didn’t think this would be true but Campbell has been the most valuable in terms of advanced statistics. That doesn’t mean he has been good but he’s been the best of the bunch.

He is completing almost 56% of his passes which is actually better than Weeden has been throwing (52.8%) but 56% is not really all that good. At all. Last week he got the start against the Bengals in a blowout loss and competed only 27-of-56 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. He also threw three picks and had a 4.43 yard per attempt average. Yikes. His 6.18 YPA would rank 31st in the league if he qualified for the statistical leaderboard.

Campbell does have a good game this year. In a November 3 win over Baltimore he completed 23-of-35 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns while not throwing a pick. He actually threw all his picks on the season last week but, whatever.


Running Back: Willis McGahee
Attempts: 106
Yards: 275
Rushing Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: -101 (36th)
DVOA: -28.8% (35th)

I mean, the Browns run game is brutally bad. It isn’t really just on any one player but McGahee hasn’t been good in the least bit. The Browns sold off Trent Richardson early in the season and while he wasn’t really all that good for the Browns it really left them shorthanded in the backfield. At one point McGahee was a viable option to get the bulk of the carries but he is more suited for a secondary toll and that just isn’t what is happening now.

So far this season McGahee has rushed for over 50 yards in a game just one time. That game was the win over the Bills when he gained 72 yards but it took him 26 carries (2.8 average) to get to that point. Last week he rushed six times for 13 yards with six of those yards coming on one carry. He hasn’t reached the end zone since the Bills game back in early October and just doesn’t really give the Browns a lot.

Football Outsiders ranks 36 qualified backs. McGahee ranks dead last with a -101 DYAR and ranks 35th with a DVOA of -28.8%. His success rate of 42% is good for 26th in the league and he has as many fumbles as he does touchdowns.


Receiver: Josh Gordon
Catches: 40
Yards: 751
Rec. Touchdowns: 4
DYAR: 108 (32nd)
DVOA: 4.5% (39th)

One of the lone bright spots for the Browns on offense has been Gordon. There was actually talk at the trade deadline of him being shipped off somewhere but the Browns defended to keep him. Honestly without him the offense would struggle to score any points.

Gordon has posted four 100+ yard performances this season and is coming off a five catch, 125 yard performance against the Bengals where he found the end zone one time. He has been targeted 81 times this season which is the most on the team but less than half of those have gone for completions which sets his catch rate at 49% which makes him one of a dozen receivers, of the 88 that qualify at Football Outsiders, that have a catch rate below 50%. Clearly this isn’t all his fault since the QB play has been abysmal but, well, I have no idea.

Two games ago against a pretty good Chiefs defense he caught five passes for 132 yards and a score so in two of his last three games he’s caught for over 125 yards a game and if Ike Taylor isn’t on his game he is going to give the Browns somewhat of a chance.


Tight End: Jordan Cameron
Catches: 56
Yards: 629
Rec. Touchdowns: 6
DYAR: 87 (7th)
DVOA: 9.7% (15th)

If Gordon has been a part of the bright spot for the offense then Cameron has been an uber bright spot. He is ranked as one of the best offensive tight ends in the game right now and has advanced ratings that are higher than Rob Gronkowski. He is a red zone target and while there is little on the outside to compliment him he’s been targeted 78 times and has a team-best 56 catches.

Cameron has cooled off significantly since his 10 catch, 91 yard, three touchdown performance in late September against the Bengals but he still represents one of the top targets for whomever is playing quarterback.

Last week against the Bengals he caught six passes in seven targets for only 29 yards and had a long catch of only eight yards. His last big game came against the Chiefs on October 27 when he had four catches (on four targets) for 81 yards. His last touchdown catch came against the Packers on October 20.

His catch rate is among the best among tight ends at 71% and while he has been pretty quiet the Steelers can struggle against athletic tight ends like Cameron. I think it would be different if there was a little bit more skill around the Browns offense but with the nonexistent run game and only Gordon out there to draw and kind of attention I think it will be hard for the Browns to force feed Cameron.


Offensive Line
Left to Right: Joe Thomas, John Greco, Alex Mack, Shawn Lauvao, Mitchell Schwartz

Despite being pretty bad in the run game and not having anything else to speak of the Browns have a couple of pretty good pieces on the offensive line. Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the league and Mack has been a really solid perfumer in the middle of the line in his five years in the league.

That being said that doesn’t make up for them being pretty bad overall. Browns running backs are averaging 3.50 yards per carry while the offensive line has been credited with a 3.62 adjusted line yardage which gives them a little more credit for the “success” of the run game than it does the running backs.

The Browns have not been as bad as you might imagine in power situations as they are 10th-best in the league with a power success rate of 67%. While that is nice that they can convert the short yardage situations that doesn’t mean that teams can’t have success on them in the running stopping game. The Browns rank 29th in the league in stuffed percentage at 23% which means that the Browns running backs are getting hit at, or behind the line of scrimmage at a pretty good rate.

The Browns do have some success in the run game when they rush over Thomas where ether rank fifth in the league with an ALY of 4.46. The league average when teams run to their left tackle is 3.84 so you can really see how good Thomas is on that offensive line. The left tackle is where the Browns run the second-most among running areas as 11% of their 192 running back carries have gone to Thomas’ area.

The Browns run an overwhelming amount up the middle/off the guards as 68% of the running back carries have gone there. That doesn’t mean they are successful their as the 3.78 adjusted line yards is 20th in the league and below the league average of 3.90. They are pretty awful in other areas as they rank 25th or lower when they run to the right tackle, right end, and left end.

In the pass game the offensive line is a little closer to league average, which is actually a step up for this offense. Their adjusted sack rate of 7.6% ranks 19th in the league as they have given up 35 sacks on the season. That is a lot of sacks, like two less than the Steelers, but when you adjust for the number of passes thrown and other variables it makes them a little better than the raw numbers.


Browns Defense

The reason that the Browns are able to stay in some close games is because the Browns defense is able to play some good football at times. The Browns rank fifth in the NFL allowing only 306.5 yards per game and while they aren’t overly good in a single area of the defense they are not horrible in any one area. They do give up some points as they rank only 17th in the league giving up 23.8 points per game but they have played some decent football throughout the year.

The Browns rank 19th in the league with a team DVOA of 2.2% which is pretty close to the break even point while they rank 17th in the league in both pass defense (7.7%) and rush defense (-5.4%). While they are pretty average in the rankings they are one of the most consistent defenses in the league with a variance of 3.2% that ranks sixth in the NFL and has given up over 350 yards to an opposing offense only twice this season.

The Browns are coming off a really solid effort against the Bengals last week when the defense gave up only 224 total yards of offense and in their last two games they have given up less than 300 yards of total offense in both games. In face in five games this season the Browns have not allowed 300 yards of total offense.

The Browns have forced 13 turnovers this season and while that isn’t a lot they have forced four in the last two games.

The pass defense isn’t great but when they are going up against the opposing top receiver they are the best in the league, in terms of DVOA, of shutting them down. Against those top targets they have a DVOA of -34.8% and that is on the back of Joe Haden who leads the team with three interceptions and has 13 pass breakups. Haden also has a touchdown on the season and more often than not when a receiver goes up against him they lose in a big way. Top targets are averaging under 35 yards per game. That is shutdown.

The Browns are middle of the pack against the second, third, and fourth targets but where they can be had is against tight ends and running backs. The Browns rank dead last in the league against tight ends with a 27.1% DVOA and they are 30th against running backs with a DVOA of 26.6%. Heath Miller has had some big games so he might be in line for a big game but the Steelers continue to not utilize the running backs but this would be a great game to start looking at them.

Cleveland does a pretty nice job about getting after the quarterback to help out that secondary. They rank 11th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 7.8% which includes 31 sacks on the season. 15 different players have at least one sack for the Browns with the top guy, Barkevious Mingo, leading the charge with four sacks. Nine different players have two or more sacks so this isn’t a case of one guy killing you, it is a case that anyone is capable of getting to the quarterback.

The Browns rank eighth in the league allowing an ALY of 3.66. They are not very good in the short yardage situations as they rank dead last with a power success rate against of 89% which means that when it is a short yardage situation then the offense is almost always converting that to a touchdown or first down. Stuffed percentage is about the same for the Browns as they rank 21st in the league at 18% so their defensive line is having really hard time getting off block in the run game and that is good news for a Steelers run game that has been pretty bad at letting teams hit their backs at or behind the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers, like almost every other team, run the ball exclusively up the middle and the Browns do about a league average job of shutting that down. When teams try to run up the middle on the Browns they are successful for an ALY of 3.81 which is just under the league average of 3.92 and that is good for 13th in the league. The Browns are stingy to run against when the offense goes to the left tackle with an ALY of 2.10 which is the third-lowest average in the league.

You can run to the edges on the Browns as they rank 27th when teams run to the left end and 22nd when teams run to the right end but the Steelers run only 11% of the time, combined, to the ends so that isn’t something I assume they will do.

D’Qwell Jackson is the team’s leading tackler with 88 tackles (44 solo) with safety T.J. Ward coming in second with 68 tackles (51 solo). Both have 1.5 sacks while Ward has a pair of picks on the season.

Inside linebacker Craig Robertson has three sacks on the season while Chris Owens, and Jabaal Sheard have 2.5 sacks each. Buster Skrine has a sack and a team-best 15 pass breakups.


Browns Special Teams

Cleveland runs off a pretty decent special teams unit with all of their units ranking above league average except the punting unit. The Browns overall rank 17th in the league according to Football Outsiders with a DVOA of 1.0%.

Billy Cundiff is the kicker for the Browns and so far this season he has hit all but two of his attempts which includes a miss between 30-39 and a miss between 40-49. He’s hit both of his opportunities beyond 50 yards and all of his 20 extra points.

Spencer Lanning punts and is 21st in the league with a 44.9 yard per punt average and also ranks 26th in the league with a 38.0 yard per punt average. In 56 punts Lanning has forced 16 fair catches and pinned the opponent inside the 20 yard line 16 times. Returners are getting 9.6 yards per return off Lanning and the punt coverage team. Lanning also threw an 11 yard touchdown pass this season. So, yea.

The Browns have had six different players return a kickoff this season led by Fozzy Whittaker who has six returns for a 26.3 yard per return average. Greg Little has seven returns for 151 yards (21.6 average) and Bobby Rainey has returned six for a 24.5 yard average. Who knows.

Travis Benjamin has done most of the punt returning for the Browns with an 11.7 yard per return average on 22 returns. That ranks him sixth in the league and his highlight was a 79 yard return that he took for a touchdown.


Game Notes

- This is a pretty significant chance for the Steelers to make themselves a true threat for that final Wild Card spot that is going to be taken by a pretty bad team. If the Steelers want to be in the playoff chase going down the stretch then they have to win this game. No excuses about it. The Browns are not a good football team and the Steelers can lose maybe one more game the rest of the way. That game should not come against the Browns.

- To say this has been a one-sided contest would be a huge understatement. The Steelers are 22-3 against the Browns since 2001 and while all of these games haven’t been blown out the Steelers have just straight owned the Browns. Last season the Browns took one of the two match ups from the Steelers and that probably was the reason they missed out on the playoffs (among other reasons).

- Haden is going to be a bear to deal with and I assume the Steelers are going to do everything possible to get Antonio Brown away from him. That means that Brown will be in motion a lot and he will be taking snaps out of the slot. I am not sure if Haden is going to follow him around every play but Brown torched the Lions and you can bet your money the Browns would rather let Jerricho Cotchery beat them than Brown.

- The Steelers were able to get the win last week without Ramon Foster, LaMarr Woodley, and Brett Keisel and this week it looks like that trio is going to be back. It was a pretty good second half job by the Steelers to shut down the Lions high octane offense and this time all they have to do is shut down Campbell and a bunch of misfits. Those three are going to help but the fact remains that the Steelers have played some bad defense and not blocked the defense with them on the field. They need to carry the play from last week and add these high talent guys to the mix.


PREDICTION - For as bad as the Steelers have been this year this seems like more of a lopsided game on paper that you may think. The Steelers and Browns have the same record coming into the game and while I think they are becoming a much better football team they are still a good ways off that mark. The Steelers win this fairly easy. Steelers 27, Browns 17.

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