Injuries. A nagging hamstring, the dreaded high ankle sprain, concussions, turf toe, pectoral tears, ACLs, and the list goes on. Injuries can destroy a season, a team, a unit, a career, a franchise. (see e.g., Browns Defense, 2009). But here, I'm not talking about the devastating brand. I'm talking about injuries on a micro- level. Jerome Harrison, the presumptive #1 RB on the team, won't be 100%. Montario Hardesty, the #2 RB, is sitting out the season. The starting QB hasn't been healthy since the first half of week 1. He bravely stayed out there on one ankle for a half, but will miss his second game. The starting middle linebacker had a set-back on his way back from his second issue with his second chest issue in as many seasons.
The thing is, this isn't unusual, rare, or even all that noteworthy for a football team. It is a part of a violent game with huge, fast, strong players hitting, tackling, spinning, and blocking all at the same time. Is this frustrating? Maybe sometimes. But its what makes football such an intriguing and enjoyable spectator sport.
And these types of injuries make statistical analysis of football mean that much less. The idea of football outsiders' statistics is to take every play and treat it as its own event. Increasing the sample size of a sport with only a 16 game season. But variables make it difficult to figure out how much the stats mean.
This is not to say that the football outsider stats are useless. It is just another caveat to keep in mind when looking at something like a team's DVOA against #2 WRs. How healthy has the team's CB's been? How healthy has the opponents' WRs been? The more deeper the conclusions you want to make using these stats, the more you have to think about these auxiliary issues. This simply means that we have to try a little harder to understand what the numbers mean. There is a little more nuance, more effort required than what we are used to.
And yet, we are actually better off to realize that these numbers have a wide scope. That is, saying a team ranks 5th in the league in defense, or even in defending passes to a certain type of receiver, is measuring something greater than an individual player or collection of players. Sure, the numbers will be impacted if a team's best players aren't on the field, but we are also measuring the quality of the team's coaching, preparation, schemes, and depth (by including injuries as part of the equation). Each of these things are very much part of the game and worth trying to measure.
Each time I write these previews, I think a little more about what the numbers are telling us. And what their limitations are. I don't read a lot of the content on football outsiders, probably because I like to come to my own conclusions from the raw information they provide (and partly because I just don't have the time or interest level to get that deep into it). This deserves more thought and its own post, but for now, let's get on to this week's matchup.
When the Browns have the Ball
We are still using DAVE mainly: 75% Football Outsiders' projection, 25% what happened in weeks one and two. DAVE ranks the Browns dead last in offensive efficiency. Over 25% below league-average. Just based on the games played this year, though, we are 21st. Despite all the griping about the number of running plays, the team ranks 31st in running efficiency, but 16th in passing, actually 8% better than average. Something tells me that this isn't the reason Daboll has called so many passes. And as someone who thinks the passing game is vital, it isn't the number of passes that have concerned me. It is the design. We have beat this subject to death, but it is the biggest red flag of the first two games.
That said, the WRs and QBs have played pretty poorly. Delhomme and Wallace rank 20th and 21st in both DYAR and DVOA. Solidly in the bottom portion of the league. Are we Derek Anderson- or Trent Edwards-bad at QB? No. (Seriously, I don't miss this). But something still noticeably short of good. As for the WRs, well, let's put it this way: Our #3 WR, Josh Cribbs, ranks highest on our team with a 7% DVOA. Next is our #4 WR, Chansi Stuckey, with a -4% DVOA. Our top two guys, well its just bad. I don't even want to type the numbers. If you must know, ask me in the comments, or look it up yourself.
Chris asked early this week, what RB should start and get the most carries this week. My first thought: Peyton Hillis. After looking at the numbers, I think: Peyton Hillis. Harrison looks frustrated, hurt, tentative, uncomfortable, or some combination. He isn't finding the holes and isn't running with the determination and abandon that he ran with last year (for 4 games). Hillis ranks a nice, average-y 18th in DVOA (-1.7%). Harrison ranks 40th (of 40 players that qualify, -57.1% below average*)
*This is still closer to average than our incredibly bad starting WRs.
The Ravens defense has gotten more pub over the last decade than is probably deserved. But Ray Lewis is one passionate
murderer, football player and their front seven, lead by Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Haloti Ngata still intimidates me. Though I don't think they intimidate Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Eric Steinbach, Peyton Hillis, Josh Cribbs, or Lawrence Vickers. And even with some questions in the secondary, the Ravens rank #1 overall in defense according to DAVE; they are #3 in DVOA, including a sick -45% against pass plays.
Stranger things have happened, but this doesn't look to be the game to break out of an offensive funk.
When the Ravens have the Ball
A common thought amongst commentators was that the Ravens offense would take the lead as the defense went through some transition and got a little older, while veteran receivers and a RB and QB coming into their prime would lead the team. Well... you know how the Browns offense has looked so far? Imagine something 20% worse than that. Now you have how the Ravens have looked on offense so far (-37.1% DVOA, 30th in the league--- below Buffalo!). Because Football Outsiders- and most everyone else- thought so highly of Ravens' offense coming into the year, their DAVE is still very respectable (12th in the league). But something hasn't worked against the Jets and Bengals. Joe Flacco (34th with a -42% DVOA) seems to have taken a step, or 10 backwards, the expensive veteran receiving corps hasn't gelled, and looks more veteran than expensive (it would have been a hell of a unit in 2005 though!)
What's that you say? The Jets and Bengals are good defenses and tough teams to score on? Well, the Ravens don't draw a good matchup to break out of their offensive funk either. The Browns have been pretty darn good on defense.
DAVE has us at 6th right now, about 10% better than average. So far, we have played really well against the pass (-12.7%) and the run (-24.6%). I'd like us to get to the QB a little more, though we are ranked 10th in sack rate.
So, we have really good special teams? Right? I mean, we don't have anything to worry about, right? DAVE still has us at a respectable 13th. But that's only on our projection. We have been downright bad in the first two weeks. Our DVOA is 27th (-6%) and we have struggled in the phases we usually dominate (FGs, kick returns). In fact, the only phase of special teams we are doing better than average is kick coverage. But we'll be ok, right? Right? Messrs. Dawson and Cribbs, please calm my nerves.
The Ravens are blah on special teams, too. Only difference is, they were expected to be blah.
Thoughts and Conclusions
Everything points to a defensive struggle. Both teams have played 2 games. The Ravens average score in those games: 10-12. The Browns average score: 14-16.5. Maybe the defenses will score? Maybe the Browns special teams will wake up? Then again, maybe Ray Rice will wake up...