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Predictions in Review: AFC East

During the 2013 offseason, I wrote 32 articles under the RPO 2013 tag. In my Predictions in Review series, I review those preview articles with the benefit of hindsight. Previously, I reviewed the AFC West, the NFC West, the AFC South, the NFC South, the AFC North, and the NFC North.  Today, the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills website complains about team’s schedule, June 24, 2013

Last summer, the Buffalo Bills website argued that the NFL schedule makers did Buffalo a big injustice by giving the team six games against teams coming off extra rest.  That was the most in the league: no other team had five such games, and as it turned out, the two other teams that had 4 games against teams with extra rest were the two most disappointing teams in the NFL (Houston and Atlanta). Meanwhile, the Chiefs, 49ers, and Patriots were the only teams in 2013 not to face an opponent coming off extra rest, and all three wound up making the playoffs.

So yeah, the Bills had a legitimate gripe. But what actually happened?

  • The Jets played the Patriots on Thursday night in week two, and then hosted the Bills ten days later in week three. The Jets won, 27-20.
  • The Jets then got to play the Bills in week 11 after New York’s week ten bye. That wasn’t so helpful for Gang Green: the Bills crushed the Jets at home, 37-14.
  • Another division opponent, Miami, got to play Buffalo after the Dolphins’ bye week. But the Bills went into Miami in week 7 and won, 23-21.
  • While the Bills were beating Miami, the Saints enjoyed a bye. In week 8, Buffalo went to New Orleans and was slaughtered, 35-17.
  • In week 12, the Bills were off, but the team’s week 13 opponent, Atlanta, was playing on Thursday night. So Buffalo’s game off the bye came against a team with 10 days rest. In Toronto, the Bills collapsed at the end, ultimately losing in overtime, 34-31.
  • In week 14, the Jaguars played on Thursday night and won their third game in a row; in week 15, Buffalo edged the Jaguars, 27-20.

Add it up, and the Bills went 3-3 against teams coming off extra rest (and 3-2 if you exclude the Atlanta game, when Buffalo was coming off its bye), and 3-7 against the rest of the NFL.

But here’s the good news, Bills fans: only two games in 2014 come against a team with extra rest! Of course, with Buffalo, there’s always a bad news element to any piece of good news. For the third time in four years, the Jets will have extra rest in both games against Buffalo. As in 2013, the Jets play Buffalo after a Thursday night game in Foxboro (this year, that comes in weeks 7/8). And the Jets have a bye in week 11 before traveling to Buffalo in week twelve. This “unfairness” is mitigated a bit by Buffalo having a Thursday night game in week 11 against Miami.

2012 Rearview Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, July 29, 2013

In June, I ran a contest to predict the passing stats for Tom Brady in 2013 (results here); as a result, I called my Rearview ANY/A articles my Patriots preview article. Of course, there was good reason for that: Brady was the most valuable quarterback in 2012, after adjusting for strength of schedule. It’s hard to remember that after he had such a down year in 2013, but Brady was excellent against a tough schedule two years ago.

The quarterbacks with the toughest schedules in 2012 were all in the NFC West: that didn’t change too much in 2013, as the Seahawks, 49ers, and Cardinals all ranked in the top five in adjusted ANY/A allowed.  Peyton Manning actually had the 2nd easiest SOS in 2012 and another easy one in 2013. Sometimes, great numbers against an easy schedule means a quarterback is about to have a down year. But, uh, not always.

Projecting the 2013 Jets, August 26, 2013

Note 1: When the Jets hired Marty Mornhinweg, a common refrain among Jets fans was that in his eleven years as offensive coordinator, none of his teams ever ranked worse than 15th in yards. My response to that claim was this article. Conclusion? The Jets ranked 25th in yards in 2013. I was pretty pessimistic about the hire originally, although I’ve come around a bit since he’s arrived. Still, the results were pretty ugly in 2013.

Note 2: How ugly? The Jets ranked 30th in ANY/A in 2012, but there were reasons to expect that mark to improve, at least a little bit, in 2013. I wrote:

Right now, you’d be hard-pressed to expect the Jets to finish in the top 24 in ANY/A this season, but they don’t necessarily project to be as bad at 30 again, either.

Post-script? The Jets ranked 32nd in ANY/A. So, uh, yeah. However, the Jets passing attack wasn’t all bad, it was just bad in big ways. The team didn’t even rank in the bottom ten in yards per attempt1, but was the only team to rank in the bottom three in both sack rate and interception rate. So yes, Geno Smith and the passing offense was a disaster.

Note 3: In my preview article, I spent a lot of time ranting about the decline of the team’s run defense. That concern turned out to be misplaced, although even I’m not quite sure how the rush defense went from 26th in rushing yards and 21st in yards per carry two years ago to 3rd and 1st, respectively, in 2013. After losing superior run stuffers Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito, I thought the team would be in trouble: instead, Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis were monsters against the run, and rookie Sheldon Richardson was outstanding. Even David Harris had a bounce-back year after several declining seasons. A potential weakness turned into the strength of the team, much to my surprise.  In 2014, expectations are again sky high for the run defense, with all of the major players returning.

Note 4: I was nearly as wrong about the pass defense, which I thought would be just fine in a post-Darrelle Revis world (remember, he missed nearly all of 2013). The pass rush was arguably better in 2013, but the play of the secondary was abysmal. Dee Milliner didn’t just have rookie pains, he was one of the worst starting corners in the league. Milliner saw 30 more targets than the average cornerback would have seen last year based on his number of snaps, the most in the NFL.2 One of the only worse cornerbacks than Milliner was… Antonio Cromartie, who played at a near All-Pro level in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, Cromartie allowed 937 yards last year, the third most in the NFL. That sort of regression was impossible to predict, but the duo doomed the Jets pass defense. And the safety play wasn’t very good, either: neither Dawan Landry nor Antonio Allen (or, uh, Ed Reed) were able to cover those deficiencies.

Here was my conclusion:

Swapping out Shonn Greene for Chris Ivory means the running game shouldn’t be any worse this year, and could be a bit more explosive. The rush defense remains a concern, but the pass defense will be able to contain most opponents. For all the criticisms levied at Rex Ryan, he’s effective as getting the most out of his parts on defense. With great quarterback play, the Jets would be an 11-5 team. With average quarterback play, they’d probably be an 8-8 team. I don’t think we’re going to see the passing game look like the 2012 Cardinals, and the floor is probably the 2012 Jets. That’s also the most realistic expectation, so I see another 6-10 season on the horizon. And that likely means the Jets will be in the market for a new head coach in four months.

Well, the quarterback play was certainly below average. And my errors on the rush and pass defenses seemed to cancel each other out.  The Jets had the points differential of a team that was even worse than 6-10, so my projection was only off because I didn’t see New York wildly exceeding their Pythagenpat record (of course, the team was also really unlucky when it came to fumbles).

Can Mike Wallace excel with poor play from his left tackle?, August 29, 2013

As it turned out, the Miami left tackle position was kind of an issue in 2013.

But the premise of this article was whether a deep threat like Mike Wallace would struggle behind a potentially poor Dolphins offensive line that was replacing Jake Long with Jonathan Martin at left tackle.  The results were inconclusive, but I noted that Wallace had already had great years — notably in 2010 — while playing with a weak offensive line.

Wallace had a weird year — he set a career low with just 12.7 yards per catch and was widely labeled a bust, but he also set a career high with 73 receptions. Ryan Tannehill was sacked an insane 58 times, and it’s pretty reasonable to conclude that the team’s bad offensive line was the primary culprit. As for Wallace, there are below-average and bad offensive lines, and then there was the 2013 Dolphins. Tannehill and Wallace also struggled to connect on deep balls, so I’m not sure the line deserves all the blame there. There were some chemistry issues, and some have also begun to question Tannehill’s deep ball. But clearly, the offensive line was a disaster last season.

Fortunately, things do appear to be on the upswing for 2014. On the first day of free agency, Miami gave Branden Albert twenty-five million dollars in guaranteed money to come to South Beach. The team also signed Shelley Smith (St. Louis) to play left guard, and will bring back Mike Pouncey at center and Dallas Thomas at right guard. Finally, the Dolphins drafted Ja’Wuan James, OT, Tennessee to man the right tackle position. The pick was a bit of a reach, but it’s probably one that will make Wallace happy.

  1. What a feat!! []
  2. Kind of a neat stat, I think. Pro Football Focus has target data for cornerbacks available here.  The average cornerback was targeted on 9.8% of all snaps. That sounds about right: there was a pass attempt (excluding sacks) on about 54% of all plays (including sacks) last year, which would indicate the average cornerback was targeted on about 18% of all pass attempts. That math isn’t exactly right since there are more cornerbacks on the field on pass plays, so maybe we bump the number down to 16%. Then, consider that on a handful of pass plays, there are no targets (thrown away, tipped at line, etc.). That probably brings us back up to 20%, and there are about 5 defensive backs on the average play, so it would make sense that a given cornerback would average being targeted on about 20% of all pass plays with a target. Fuzzy math, of course, but my point is I’m inclined to believe PFF’s numbers.  Anyway, Milliner was targeted 103 times on 747 snaps. Assuming a 9.8% target rate, he “should” have been targeted only 73 times, so this means he was targeted 30 more times than “average” last season. Here were cornerbacks who saw 15 more targets than average: Brandon Boykin (PHI – 27), Marcus Cooper (KC – 23), Marcus Sherels (MIN – 22), Terrell Thomas (NYG – 21), Jerraud Powers (ARI – 18), and Tramaine Brock (SF – 17). And the reverse? Well, you probably won’t be surprised to see the names at the top of the list: Richard Sherman (-40), Darrelle Revis (-32), Alterraun Verner (-21), Alan Ball (-21 — although remember, the Jaguars faced more rushing plays than any team in the NFL), Keenan Lewis (-21), Tramon Williams (-20), Patrick Peterson (-18), and Janoris Jenkins (-18). []
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