Saturday, September 6, 2014

Steelers Game 1 Preview - vs. Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers – 1:00 p.m.
CBS – Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
All-Time Record: Steelers lead 65-57
Last Meeting: December 29, 2013 – Pittsburgh 20, Cleveland 7

The season is quickly upon us. The Steelers and Browns are going to open up play while the Ravens and Bengals will also play each other so a lot of AFC North love in the first week of the season. Nothing better.

As it was for every game last season 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.

And now lets take a look at the Browns.

Offense

Last season the Cleveland offense wasn’t the worst in the league last year but they certainly weren’t good. They finished the year 17th in the league with just over 339 yards per game but scored just 19.3 points per game. They were one of seven teams to not average 20 points per game and their offensive DVOA of -14.4% ranked 26th in the league.

They ranked 25th (-9.2%) and 22nd (-7%) in the pass and run, respectively, in terms of DVOA and outside of Josh Gordon they really had no playmakers to speak of. Their leading rusher was Willis McGahee with only 377 yards and outside of Gordon, who is suspended all season, the Browns leading receiver was Greg Litlte with 465 yards. Jordan Cameron was a breakout player with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns but you need more than a tight end to be successful.

In total Cleveland threw 20 picks between three quarterbacks and lost seven fumbles for a -6 turnover differential. Not idea when your offense can’t get anything done.

Brian Hoyer is getting the starting nod for the opener over rookie Johnny Manziel. Last season Hoyer was decent before getting hurt as he threw for 615 yards on 96 attempts and had five touchdowns and three interceptions. The Browns won four games last year and Hoyer started for three of those games. Actually one of those games he got hurt (the win over Buffalo) so I am not sure if it counts, but it sounds better if you are a Browns fan. Despite getting some good results in those games he ranked 28th in the league in both DYAR (5) and DVOA (-10.4%). He is able to chuck the ball around but is probably more of an average guy. The Browns are said to have plans on using both him and Manziel because we all know that using two quarterbacks is a great strategy.

Ben Tate comes to the Browns from the Texans. If you remember Tate has always been the fantasy talk of the town because of Arian Foster’s injury history but he never really took off. Last season with Foster banged up Tate carried the ball 181 times for 771 yards and four touchdowns. Tate was right around league average ranking 26th in DYAR (50) and 25th in DVOA (-2.0%). The Browns didn’t run the football well last year and while they have a pretty offensive line I just don’t expect much.

From the tight end position Cameron really runs the receiving game in terms of catching passes from anyone on the team. Despite 917 yards and seven touchdowns Cameron caught only two touchdown passes after the fourth week and had only four games over 60 yards receiving after the first four games where he had games of 108, 95, 66, and 91 yards receiving. Against the Steelers he caught 11 passes for 101 yards in two games.

Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin are the starting receivers. Neither player was on the Browns last year with Hawkins playing for the Bengals and Austin playing for the Cowboys. Hawkins made only 12 catches last year for Cincinnati for 199 yards and four catches of 20 yards or more. In 2012 he was a little more in the offense with 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns but that is really all he has on his record.

Austin spend his entire career with the Cowboys and was hurt much of last year which resulted in only 24 catches for 244 yards. Before that he was a big part of the Cowboys offense. In 2009 he catch 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns and followed that up with a 69 catch, 1,041 yard season in 2010. As soon as 2012 he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns so he will be the main piece along with Cameron in filling in for the void that Gordon left.

In terms of the run game it will be interesting to see where the Browns go under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan. Shannahan’s Washington team finished the 2013 fifth in the league in rushing yards per game (135.3 yards) but finished just 23rd in the league with an adjusted line yards of 3.75. Cleveland finished middle of the pack with a adjusted line yards of 3.83 which was 18th in the league. They were ninth in power success rate (70%) but finished 18th in power ranking (20%). In short yardage situations the Browns were pretty successful but on a whole they really were average in giving their running backs a chance of getting to the second level.

The Browns really relied on running the football off Joe Thomas. They led the league in ALY when running to the left tackle at 5.13 yards but were 22nd or worse in all other areas but running to the right end (15th). The Browns were pretty balanced across the board where they ran the football. They ran the ball up the middle or off the guards 67% of the time and ran off the right and left tackle an equal 11% of their 308 running back carries. They ran to the right end 6% of the carries and the left end the other 4% so this really isn’t a team that only pounded the rock to Joe Thomas. It will be interesting to see how the Browns plan to attack their running game this year.


Defense

Defensively the Browns have some good talent and are going in the right direction. They still aren’t a great defense but they could be a lot worse. Last season they registered a defensive DVOA of 8.2% which was 24th in the league and ranked 23rd in both pass defense (14.1%) and run defense (0.7%). They finished the 2013 season ninth in the league allowing only 332 yards per game but finished more towards the bottom in terms of points given up per game (25.4).

Against the pass the Browns are especially good when teams are throwing against Joe Haden. I think Haden probably gets looked over a good bit but that is because the Browns have been so bad. When teams were targeting their top receiver, which Haden would shadow, the Browns posted a DVOA of -17.8% which ranked fifth in the league. Passing against Hadden is not an overly successful thing you can do and the battle that will go on between him and Antonio Brown will be really fun to watch.

Outside of Haden the Browns struggled against the pass. They ranked 20th against the second receivers and 31st against both tight ends (25.3% DVOA) and running backs (20.7%). Hello Heath Miller and Dri Archer.

In terms of pass rush the Browns sacked opposing quarterbacks 40 times in 2013 and ranked 21st in the league with a 6.5% adjusted sack rate. They return their top three pass rushers with Jabaal Sheard (5.5 sacks), Barkevious Mingo (5.0), and Paul Kruger (4.5) with Desmond Bryant coming back after having 3.5 sacks.

Against the run the Browns were right around the middle of the league. They gave up just over 111 yards per game which was good for 18th in the league and ranked 16th with an ALY of 3.83 yards. They did a fairly terrible job in short yardage situations holding teams to only a 79% power success rate which was dead last in the league while stuffing opposing backs at the line of scrimmage or behind it 18% of the time (15th in the league).

Opposing running attacks ran more frequently to the right side of the Cleveland defense, running to the offensive left end 8% of the time and the offensive left tackle 13% of the time. The Browns had mixed success on the right side of the defense ranking dead last in the league when teams ran to the offensive left end (4.75 ALY) but were second-best in the league against runs to the offensive left tackle (2.76 ALY). Team typically run their most running plays up the middle or off the guards and the Browns were 19th in the league with a 4.01 ALY in those situations.

In terms of personnel Cleveland has to replace their top-two tackles from a year ago in D’Qwell Jackson (141 total tackles) and T.J. Ward (112 total tackles). Free safety Tashaun Gipson is the top returning tackler (95 total in 2013) while he also intercepted five passes and defended 11 of them. I talked about Haden before but he led the team with 20 pass breakups and four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Phil Taylor is a solid run stuffer with Karlos Dansby complimenting Kruger and Mingo after making 122 tackles for Arizona last season.


Special Teams

The Browns special teams regressed in a big way in 2013. After being the second-best unit in the league in terms of DVOA last season they ranked 14th with a DVOA of 0.9%. Last season the kick game performed well with Billy Cundiff handling the duties. In terms of field goals Cundiff is back this season after hitting 21-of-26 attempts. He went 12-of-13 inside 40 yards but missed 9-of-13 outside of 40 yards. No really all that ideal.

The Browns also were above the line, as Mike Tomlin would say, in terms of punt returns thanks to Travis Benjamin who averaged 11.7 yards per punt return including a 79 yard return for a touchdown. Benjamin also will handle the kick returning duties after making three returns last season for an average of 48.7 yards including a long of 86 yards.

The Steelers

-The Steelers have a lot to prove coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons. They really struggled at the beginning of last season but were able to come on strong late. A lot of people are saying that the strong finish last season will vault them into a strong start this season. The fact remains is that there is a lot of change from last season. On the defensive side the Steelers have got a lot younger with Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, and Jarvis Jones while on offense they start Markus Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, and Kelvin Beachum. With the youth comes some inexperience and while those guys who were here last year were successful that doesn’t mean they will be successful this season.

-A point of emphasis for the Steelers this year is going to be trying to get better in the run game. They were dreadful last season and while most people don’t subscribe to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” there is still this thought that the Steelers are a running football team even though they are far from it. The Steelers offense ranked 12th last season in DVOA (4.4%) but was carried by the league’s ninth-best passing game (23.5%) while there rushing attack was 29th in the league (-14.9%). The run game is as much the offensive line as it is the running backs but all told they had an ALY of 3.79 yards which was 22nd in the league. To be successful at running the football you have to be up to run up the middle and/or off the guards. Last season the Steelers ran up the middle 68% of the time and that was the second highest rate in the league and way above the league average of 54%. The Steelers ranked 18th in the league running up the middle with an ALY of 3.82. If you are going to pound the rock in one particular area you should be pretty good at it. The Steelers were not.

-That being said the Steelers are going to live and die through the pass. Antonio Brown is going to be the start and finish to any success. The Steelers are pretty thin in the receiver department with Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton, and Justin Brown. That is a far cry from good depth and with Moore already ruled out of the game it is going to stretch the receiving core even more. Brown is no doubt going to be matched up against Haden and that is going to be an outstanding matchup. Last season Brown was very successful in two games against Cleveland. In the right he made six catches (10 targets) for 92 yards and a touchdown while catching nine passes (14 targets) for 87 yards in the second matchup.

-The key to the Steelers passing game is obviously Ben Roethlisberger but in the same sense it is going to be how often and effectively they run the no huddle offense. They used it sparingly last season to varying success but this preseason they were using the no huddle early and often. I am not sure if that is because they wanted the first team to use it more but I would have to assume that it gets used more this season. The Steelers ran the no huddle 23% of their offensive plays last season after running it less than 5% of the time in the five seasons prior. [http://triblive.com/sports/steelers/6519503-74/huddle-roethlisberger-steelers#axzz3CT86lNog] Since the 2010 season the number of no huddle plays has doubled league wide and I expect the Steelers to run even more of the no huddle than they did last season.

PREDICTION – The Browns aren’t going to be as bad as they have been, I think, but they still aren’t a good football team. I think if they are going to play two quarterbacks then they are going to lose. Teams can be successful using multiple backs but I think quarterback is a little different in that aspect. Hoyer isn’t that good and Manziel is just a rookie. Steelers 24, Browns 13.

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