This week's edition of The Weekly League features some brief notes about the Miami-Minnesota game and then some less-than-brief notes about the New York Jets-New England match-up.
The following games have been chosen as they'll be available to the greatest portion of the network-watching audience on Sunday, per the NFL maps at the506.com.
The Four Factors you see for each game represent each team's ability in four important categories (pass and rush efficiency, pass and rush efficiency against) relative to league average (where 100 is league average and anything above is good). They're also for Week One games only. In other words, they're to be taken with the giantest grain of salt ever.
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The Miami Defense
I suspect that last week's Buffalo-Miami game was painful to watch in its entirety. We in the Upper Midwest joined the game with a couple minutes left, and even that was probably too much. With the exception of a fourth quarter drive on which he went 7-for-7 with 82 yards (including lost yards from a sack), quarterback Trent Edwards looked absolutely lost, checking down almost instantly despite his team being down by five and deep in their own territory.
Is Buffalo's incompetence in this game a sign of their true talent (or lack thereof)? Make no mistake: the Bills' passing offense was bad last year, finishing with an average of 5.1 Y/A -- or, roughly 18% worse than league average. But also consider this: the Dolphins' passing defense was also terrible last year, conceding 7.1 Y/A -- or, roughly 15% worse than league average.
In this particular instance, there's reason to think that Miami's defense is an improved unit. Most notably, they signed Karlos Dansby this offseason. Despite a lackluster 2009 by his own standards, Dansby finished with a higher +EPA/G (2.84) than Miami's best linebacker in that category (Joey Porter, with a 2.20 +EPA/G). Ditto for 2008 and 2007. Are these numbers conclusive? Absolutely not.
Cameron Wake, Specifically
Cameron Wake is the exact reason why I hope, someday, it'll be possible to see in what percentage of a team's defensive snaps an individual player has participated. Consider: last year, Cameron Wake recorded 5.5 sacks despite starting only a single game and being deployed almost exclusively as a third-down pass-rusher. He also finished second on the team in QB Hits. Those seem like crazy excellent rates. Of course, until we now Team Snap%, we don't know the whole story.
Wake is generally an interesting character. Before signing with Miami in January of 2009, he played two seasons in the Canadian Football League, where he led the league in sacks both years.
Brandon Marshall Is a Target
The Dolphins aren't screwing around with Brandon Marshall. Of quarterback Chad Henne's 34 passes, 13 of them were intended for Brandon Marshall. That figure is almost double the next-most targeted Dolphin receiver.
This game will be/is already being billed in a couple different ways.
From the Boston Globe, for example, we get Tony Massarotti's piece on the similarities (both coaches' sons) and differences (particulary, the volume and frequency of their respective speech acts) between Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick. We also get Albert Breer suggesting that "for now, the Jets are getting an early gut check and the pressure is off the Patriots" and also asking, in re the Jets: "Has the swagger subsided? Is confidence an issue?"
Undoubtedly, those are appealing narratives to some. To this particular, very handsome man, not so much.
I'm always curious about these attempts to provide a psychological interpretation of something -- i.e. football performance -- so generally divorced from psychology. Somewhere, in the very shadiest part of my memory, I recall noted sabermetrician Bill James saying that he believed psychology was the true curse of the 20th century. Because I like hyperbole and am easily swayed by strongly worded statements, I'll go ahead and just agree with him.
To what degree do the coaches' personalities, or the "swagger" of a team -- to what degree do these things influence what occurs on the field? Perhaps 5%? Maybe 10%? Probably less than both of those figures, is my guess.
There are obviously things that impact a game more significantly. What are they? Here are some guesses:
• The raw athleticism of the players.
• The football-specific skills of the players. (For example, an outside linebacker could be huge and fast, but does he know how to get by blockers?)
• The coaches' respective abilities to design effective plays.
• The players' respective abilities to execute those plays.
• The abilities of both coaches and players to adapt to game conditions (i.e. score, opponents' scheming, etc.).
All of those things impact a game to a considerably greater degree than being sufficiently pumped, and yet they receive an inordinately small amount of attention. I'm skeptical that it's what readers want -- this psychologizing business, that is -- but I could very easily be wrong here.
The Most Obvious Thing
Here's some groundbreaking info for you: the Jets performed poorly on offense against the Ravens this past Monday.
So, yeah, that's not much of an insight. If you're the sort to point your internet browser this way, you're probably also the sort to've watched -- or at least heard about -- this game.
In short, here's what the Jets did:
Pass Plays/Net Yards Per: 23/2.6
Run Plays/Net Yards Per: 21/5.5
Consider those numbers with the knowledge that, at no point, was New York either trying to kill the clock, nor were they throwing wildly downfield in an attempt to make up a large deficit. In effect, this was 60 minutes of "normal" football from the Jets and it was horrible.
On top of those numbers you see there, New York was only was only 1-of-11 on third-down conversions. Nor is that surprising: as Mr. Burke has pointed out in these pages, there's a pretty strong correlation between pass efficiency and third-down conversions.
Mark Sanchez, Specifically
As mentioned, Mark Sanchez' performance was worth 2.6 AYPA. He also recorded a -0.53 EPA/P, and -- perhaps most disconcerting -- a -.70 WPA.
To contextualize those numbers a bit, consider: last year, 23 quarterbacks finished with an average EPA/P of zero or better. Mark Sanchez himself -- who, you know, wasn't dominant at all -- averaged -0.01 EPA/P.
As for the WPA, that's even kinda worse. Because each team starts -- generically, at least -- with a 50% chance of winning a game, that means that a team needs only to amass a .50 WPA to win said game. Sanchez, essentially, lost the game all by himself, with .20 to spare. By way of reference, Sanchez recorded only a -1.03 WPA all of last season.
Will Sanchez Be That Bad Again Sunday?
No. It'd be hard to do that. And, of course, it must be noted that the Ravens are an above-average defense, finishing last season with a 105 DPASS+ and 117 DRUN+. By comparison, New England finished last season with a 102 DPASS+ and 95 DRUN+.
So we know that Sanchez was bad. Why was he bad?, is the question. Were receivers not getting open? Was Sanchez not finding open receivers? Were the plays poorly designed/called? Were the Ravens just adapting too proficiently?
It seems like we should know these things.
In any case, KC Joyner of both The Football Scientist and NFL Insider has one idea. In a piece he wrote for ESPN New York, he discusses how well Baltimore focused on rookie corner Kyle Wilson. According to Joyner, Raven quarterback Joe Flacco targeted Wilson's man eight times and Baltimore netted 105 yards on those throws (13.1 YPA).
He goes on to say how poorly the Jets/Sanchez did at roughly the same thing:
As impressive as the Ravens efforts were in going after Wilson, they do beg the question why the Jets didn't seem to put out the same effort in targeting Fabian Washington. Washington's yards per attempt total last year was over twice as high as Chris Carr's last year and yet Mark Sanchez didn't throw a single pass his way until late in the fourth quarter. Carr, on the other hand, was thrown at six times. Four were incompletions, one was a five-yard gain and another was a 33-yard gain nullified by a penalty. Total it up and the net sum of those throws was five yards gained in four passes if the penalty play is taken out.
We don't know if Washington wasn't tested because of a lack of Washington-centered play calls by Brian Schottenheimer or whether Sanchez just decided to not test him. Whichever it was, the Jets would do well to find a way to not to let their opponent's weakest coverage link off the hook so easily in the future.
New England's cornerbacks are Darius Butler and Devin McCourty. They have 16 NFL games between them, and 15 of those belong to Butler.
Though Chad Ochocinco gave Butler props, it couldn't have been for his play. Quarterback Carson Palmer targeted Ochocinco 13 times and was rewarded with 12 receptions for 159 yards, giving the wide receiver a crazy 0.97 EPA/P and 13.6 EPA overall. The latter was the weekend's highest total among wide receivers; the former, the highest for any wide receiver with five or more targets.
Ochocinco's 0.05 WPA suggests that many of these yards occurred when his team was down, but still, if Kyle Wilson's 13.1 YPA was bad, isn't Butler's 12.2 YPA similarly worrisome?