NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for their personnel, their opponents and their evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.
As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @cfrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.
Now, let's dig into the relevant data heading into Week 8 of the 2019 NFL season:
TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS
A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans: One of the reasons that Brown leads the team in receiving yards (337) is his ability to create the space his quarterback needs to complete passes. Charting his routes with computer vision shows the rookie finds at least five feet of separation at the time the ball leaves his quarterback's hand 21.1 percent of the time, which is the highest rate on his team (think of 20 percent as an above-average rate). Changing from Marcus Mariota (who was completing 59.1 percent of passes this season) at quarterback to Ryan Tannehill (who completed 79.3 percent of his passes in Week 7, when he took over the role) projects to benefit Brown, especially against a generous Bucs pass defense (304.5 passing yards allowed per game, worst in the NFL) in Week 8.
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Minnesota Vikings:Vikings receiver Adam Thielen carries a major on-ball (targeted on 22.7 of the team's passes) and off-ball (the coverage he draws helps create space and opportunities for skill players) impact for the team. But with the veteran banged up out forThursday's game against Washington, the strategy for the Vikings' offense will shift some. One player who had been gaining momentum prior to Thielen's injury, and who now forecasts for a potential breakout, is Smith. The rookie tight end has caught 12 of the 14 passes thrown his way (85.7 percent) so far this season, while Next Gen Stats show he's had 3 or more yards of separation on 71.4 percent of targets, which is the second highest rate among tight ends this season (minimum of 10 targets).
New York Jets: I understand that, coming off a 33-0 trouncing by the Patriots on "Monday Night Football," it likely feels weird to see that my model picked the Jets to upset the Jags in Jacksonville this weekend. But don't let recency bias cloud your vision. The Jets project to have more wins coming to finish the season than their current 1-5 record might indicate.
Here's one point to consider from each side of the ball:
Offense: The Jets have faced some strong defenses through Week 7, but among every team's remaining schedule, the Jets' features the second-lowest combined unit win shares of opposing defenses. Per Football Outsiders, the Jets' offense is in the top two in terms of having faced the hardest average DVOA of opponent, and it's among the top two in easiest remaining DVOA. This week against the Jaguars, who traded away top cornerback Jalen Ramsey last week, expect to see the passing game look more like the outfit that helped them beat the Cowboysin Week 6. While the Jets currently rank last in yards per play (3.75), remember that this average includes the three games Sam Darnold missed with mono. When you combine the Jets' potential ability to run efficiently against the Jaguars' defense (Jacksonville is allowing 4.98 yards per rush on first down, fifth highest) and Darnold's ability to connect with receivers deep, this game projects to be won through big plays and start the Jets' ascent to 15th in yards per play by season's end.
Defense: The Jets' defense has been inconsistent when it comes to applying strategic pressure. For example, they have the lowest percentages of pressure in the red zone in both attempted pressure (16%) and disruption (12.2%), with zero sacks. While stopping the run is an area of success (3.25 yards allowed per attempt, second-best in the NFL), the Jets have stopped the pass only intermittently. This week against the Jags, the Jets project to slow Leonard Fournette enough to force more obvious passes. Deep passing for both teams -- especially when it comes to limiting the success of Jacksonville's Gardner Minshew -- is likely to be the key to this game. This is also an area where the Jets will improve, especially with linebacker C.J. Mosley, who missed four games with a groin injury, back on the field going forward.
A DEEPER DIVE ON ...
Offensive coaches script out a certain number of plays to start each game. Most of the time, it's something like 15-20 plays designed to get their quarterback and offense in rhythm. While it's easy to look at aggregated data that shows if (and how many) points teams scored on opening drives, the more interesting strategic consequence is how the efficient teams are succeeding -- or what's keeping other teams from doing well. My 10-season model proves a strong correlation between teams that score during the scripted plays and those that win, along with a correlation between those that don't score during scripted plays and those that lose. So far this season, the trend is holding.
Let's examine the keys for two the best opening-drive teams below, then turn our attention to areas of improvement for two teams that rank very low in opening-drive success.
Baltimore Ravens: In seven opening drives, six resulted in scores (85.7 percent, No. 1), with four touchdowns (tied for the most), and two field goals.
The key:The threat of the run (especially outside). Looking at the yards per play earned on likely scripted plays, the Ravens rank second (to the Packers) with 9.2 yards. Lamar Jackson has a 125.6 passer rating (seventh best) and a 10.7 yards-per-rush mark (third best). Jackson's true dual-threat nature keeps initial defense schemes simpler, especially because teams have his rushes outside the tackles on film, and this helps Jackson ensure his passes are on time.
Green Bay Packers: In seven opening drives, four resulted in scores (57.1 percent, tied for No. 4). All four were touchdowns (tied for the most).
The key:Pre-snap movement. Matt LaFleur's Packers have called for plays with movement before the play starts more than any team (63.2 percent of first two drives, most). Moving players around in the formation ahead of the snap helps Aaron Rodgers diagnose defensive alignments so that he can create and exploit mismatches. Further, gathering early information about the defense helps LaFleur and Rodgers get a head start on what they're facing when their script is over.
Chicago Bears: In six opening drives, the Bears have just one score, a touchdown (16.7 percent, tied for 24th).
Area to address:Third down. Pass completions in the scripted start are not necessarily the problem, as on first and second downs, Bears quarterbacks have completed 70.6 percent of their passes, with a 104 passer rating (both marks are average). With the second highest number of pass attempts on first and second downs in the scripted start (an average of 4.6 per game, second only to the Chiefs), the Bears are setting themselves up for success, with the lowest average yards to go on third (4.5) in the probable scripted period. Third down is where Chicago tends to crumble. On probable scripted plays, the only team with an average of less than 2 yards per play on third down is the Bears (1.85 yards per play on third down, ranking last).
Philadelphia Eagles: In seven opening drives, they've scored twice, with one touchdown and one field goal (28.6 percent, tied for 19th), but they also have committed a turnover.
Area to address:Pressure-beating plays. Seventeen teams have allowed zero sacks during the likely scripted time. Sixteen teams have not allowed a defender to come within five feet of their quarterback on more than 10 percent of dropbacks in the scripted period. Carson Wentz has been disrupted on likely scripted dropbacks at the fifth-highest rate (29.6 percent), resulting in one sack. One way some teams evade pressure is by focusing on higher-probability passes. The Eagles have completed passes at the third-lowest rate (51.3 percent; think of 70 percent as average) on likely scripted drives. Looking at third down and focusing on the first quarter, Carson Wentz has a 4.6 passer rating, the lowest in the NFL. This adds context to how these slow starts create unfavorable come-from-behind scenarios.