(Ed note: we're happy to welcome Russell Baxter into the CHFF fold this season. He's the former NFL statistician for ESPN and a connoisseur of fine facts, including our Quality Stats.)
By Russell S. Baxter
Cold Hard Football Facts' Fact Creator
Welcome to the 93rd edition of the game we all love to watch and wish we could play (maybe?).
We already know what to expect and that’s the unexpected. The last two seasons in the league have turned into the final minutes of a college basketball game in the sense that the really exciting moments won’t come until the end. How else do you explain an 8-6 Packers’ team and a 7-7 Giants’ squad getting hot in late December and going on to win the tournament?
Submitted for your approval are a few facts and figures regarding the good, the not-so-good and the really not-so-good skinny on the league’s 32 teams.
Ken Whisenhunt’s team won seven of its last nine games (including an NFL-record 4 in overtime), including a victory over the 49ers, so there should be reason for optimism. But will it be John Skelton or Kevin Kolb behind an offensive line now minus left tackle Levi Brown. Last season, the Cardinals gave up a whopping 54 sacks and according to CHFF’s Quality Stats (Offensive Hog Index), were next-to-last in the league in terms of negative pass plays (12.75 percent).
Matt Ryan and company will be looking for a little consistency on their side of the ball as they look to upend the Saints in the NFC South. In 10 victories last season, the Falcons averaged an impressive 31.4 points per game while their offensive unit totaled 36 touchdowns. But in a half-dozen setbacks, this same team totaled 88 points (14.7 PPG) and only seven touchdowns. And Mike Smith’s club brought new meaning when it came to “going for two” as they only managed a safety in the 24-2 loss to the Giants in the Wild Card Playoffs. The Falcons' 4th down playbook leaves much to be desired.
Want one significant reason the Ravens won their first division title since 2006 and got within a game of the Super Bowl? This was a better team when it came to closing out games. Despite 12 wins in 2010, Baltimore allowed a surprising 122 points in the fourth quarter and overtime that season, then went on to blow a 21-7 halftime lead to the Steelers in the Divisional Playoffs. Last season, John Harbaugh’s club allowed only 137 points in the entire second half, including just 66 points after three quarters.
Much gets made about the offseason acquisitions of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to bolster the Bills’ ineffective pass rush, which produced 10 sacks in a win over the Redskins and 19 sacks in their other 15 games last season. But here’s hoping that Dave Wannstedt’s defense doesn’t miss the boat on stopping the run. The Bills ranked 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed, 27th in rushing yards per attempt (4.76) and allowed 120-plus yards rushing in their last six games and a total of a dozen contests in 2011.
The Panthers’ drastic improvement on offense was unfortunately offset by their problems on the other side of the ball. Carolina’s offense scored 31 more touchdowns (47) than in 2010 (16). But thanks to injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards (a big factor for the team’s T-28th ranking in CHFF’s Defensive Hog Index), the Panthers allowed 46 offensive touchdowns part of a team-record 429 points given up by Ron Rivera’s club.
The Bears might not have been able to defend their NFC North crown last season with or without Jay Cutler, who led his team to a 7-3 start before going down, but you can look for Lovie Smith’s team to pick up where it left off last season. After a slow start which saw the teams run for 161 yards in their first three games, the Bears averaged 142.6 YPG rushing the rest of the season even minus Pro Bowler runner Matt Forte the final four weeks.
We seemingly always associate the Bengals with their offense, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has done a solid job with his unit thanks in part to a fairly deep line rotation. Worth noting that Cincinnati finished 10th in the NFL against the run in 2011 and increased their sack total from 27 in 2010 to 45 last season, hence why this team ranked ninth in CHFF’s Defensive Hog Index a season ago. And they’ll need that kind of play or better once again this season if they’re going to make consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years (1981 & ‘82).
Little wonder why the Browns invested so heavily on offense in the first two rounds of April’s draft with the additions of running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden? The Cleveland offense scored 20 touchdowns last season, as much as Eagles’ running back LeSean McCoy. And coming out of the locker room wasn’t a strong suit for the 2011 Browns, who were outscored 82-26 in the first quarter and 62-35 in the third quarter, managing just two touchdowns each in both of those periods.
While them Cowboys made some strides on defense from the previous season, coordinator Rob Ryan and company still have some work to do and hopefully the arrivals of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and rookie Morris Claiborne will help. After tying for the league lead in touchdown passes allowed (33) in 2010, the Pokes gave up “only” 24 scores through the air. But they surrendered multiple TD throws in nine games, including their combined four losses to the Giants and Eagles. Familiarity obviously breeds a third-place finish.
For all of the Tim Tebow and defensive heroics last season in the Mile High City, there were certainly plenty of opportunities for dramatic comebacks. The Broncos were outscored by a combined 206-107 in the first half of games last season, including a mind-boggling 154-33 in the second quarter. And while the team made amends on those numbers in the playoff win over the Steelers (taking a 20-6 lead into the locker room that afternoon), they were blasted 35-7 in the first half of their 45-10 Divisional Playoff loss to the Patriots.
The more you throw, the more opportunities quarterbacks get to be thrown. And it was no different in the Motor City last season as the Lions got off to a rousing start in terms of pass protection but saw their numbers drift the other way over time. After giving up only six sacks during the team’s 5-0 start, quarterback Matthew Stafford was dropped 30 times during the team’s 5-6 finish. With a bit better pass protection, the Lions’ signal-caller may threaten Tom Brady’s NFL record for TD passes in a season (50 in 2007).
Green Bay Packers
True, the 2011 Packers did allow the most passing yards in a season in NFL history. But it’s also interesting to note that while Green Bay defenders gave up 29 scores through the air, they also intercepted a league-high 31 passes and returned four for touchdowns. The real issue of note was the fact that the Pack ranked second in the NFL during their Super Bowl title season of 2010 in points (240) and offensive touchdowns (22) allowed, compared to last year’s total which saw them give up 359 points and 39 offensive TDs.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips managed to do in one season what the organization couldn’t do in its first nine years. The Texans not only totaled a franchise-record 44 sacks in 2011 but allowed only 278 points (17.4 PPG). This team record marked the first time in the club’s brief 10-year history that they held opponents to less than 20 points per game for an entire season. And let’s not forget how far Phillips brought this group in one year as Houston gave up a whopping 427 points during their disappointing 2010 campaign.
While it’s apparent that the entire team missed Number 18 (aka Peyton Manning) during the 2011 season, perhaps the more disturbing number was indeed 19. That was the number of points the Colts managed in the first quarter last season. This is bad news for a team that was used to getting a lead then turning their pass rush on opponents who were forced to throw to catch up. Meanwhile, Indianapolis surrendered a whopping 108 points in the opening quarter last season, and went into the locker room outscored a combined 237-108 in the first half in 2011.
How important was running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2011, to the Jacksonville offense (which finished last in total yards and passing yards)? The Pro Bowl runner scored more than half (11) of the team’s 21 offensive touchdowns. Perhaps more distressing was the fact that Jones-Drew tied for the club lead with three scoring receptions. It’s somewhat fitting that the 44 sacks allowed by the team equaled the numbers of points the Jaguars managed in the first quarter last season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Injuries were a big part of the Chiefs’ fall from first to last in the AFC West a year ago. But you also never knew what to expect from Todd Haley/then-Romeo Crennel’s club. The team outscored the opposition by 56 points (137-81) in seven victories, but Kansas City was dusted to the tune of 257-75 in their nine setbacks. Of course, when one goes through three starting quarterbacks and doubles its turnovers (28) from the previous season (14), it’s actually a wonder this squad posted seven victories.
It was only 10 years ago that Ricky Williams became the first Dolphins’ player to lead the league in rushing, something Reggie Bush (coming off his first 1,000-yard season) would love to achieve in 2012. The former Heisman winner and Super Bowl champion closed his initial season with four straight 100-plus yard rushing performances and hit the century mark five times in 2011. In an obviously different role with the Saints, Bush ran for 100 or more yards just once in five seasons. Apparently, the only thing working against the Dolphins’ running back winning the rushing title is that his team is not in the AFC South (see the previous three years).
Talk about hit or miss? No team had more sacks than the Vikings a year ago (50), and no team gave up more scores through the air (34). Minnesota defenders gave up at least two touchdown passes in 11 contests, and failed to pick off a pass in an equal amount of games. Opposing passers completed 68.2 percent of their throws (only the Colts were more generous) and generated a 107.5 passer rating along the way, the highest in the league. The 3-13 record was the team’s worst finish since the very short lived-Les Steckel Era of 1984.
New England Patriots
It wasn’t long ago in a galaxy not far away that a lot of the Patriots’ passing attack centered on the underneath routes of Wes Welker and the home-run strikes of Randy Moss. But it’s been a whole new ball game in Foxborough lately. In 2009, exactly one-fourth (7) of Tom Brady’s 28 touchdown passes were caught by tight ends. But the Patriots’ signal-caller has thrown for 75 scores the last two seasons, 42 of those touchdowns (56 percent) going to Rob Gronkowski (27), Aaron Hernandez (13) and now former Patriots’ tight end Alge Crumpler (2).
New Orleans Saints
While the Saints came up short of the Super Bowl in 2011, it wasn’t for a lack of not only trying but basically beating the best of the best for the most part. A quick look at Cold Hard Football Facts Quality Standings and you’ll see New Orleans tied for second with a 6-1 record vs. teams with winning records last season (their lone loss to the Packers who finished 5-0 against winning teams). And while Green Bay was a gaudy 15-1 a year ago, it was the 13-3 Cajuns who owned the league’s best scoring differential (+208) in 2011.
New York Giants
They were a .500 team with two games to play in 2011, but the Giants managed to pull themselves together down the stretch to win a second Super Bowl title in five seasons. And one big factor was the play of quarterback Eli Manning, who did the ultimate shake-off of a bad game enroute to another championship. Including playoffs, the Super Bowl XLVI MVP enters 2012 having thrown 13 TD passes and just a pair of interceptions in his last six games, all wins. In that Week 15 loss to the Redskins, Manning was picked off three times.
New York Jets
Yes, quarterback Mark Sanchez enjoyed a career year last season with 26 touchdown passes and yes, he was also his own worst enemy, coughing up the ball 26 times on 18 interceptions and eight fumbles. But that usually-reliable ground game just wasn’t its same old self in 2011. Rex Ryan’s running attack was held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in five games last season, not awful unless you consider that during his first two seasons at the helm (including playoffs), the Green and White was held below a c-note on the ground just five time in 38 contests.
Most may not recall that the Silver and Black were a 7-4 football team last season after 11 games that appeared to be headed towards its first playoff appearance since their Super Bowl season of 2002. But that disappointing 1-4 finish saw the Raiders give up 31.8 points per game and a total of 16 offensive touchdowns. Of course, stopping opponents was an issue all season as only three teams in the league gave up more points and only Minnesota allowed more scores through the air (31), which is why former Broncos’ defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is now running the show in Oakland.
There’s plenty of talent on that Eagles’ defensive front, which went after quarterbacks with gusto last season but also missed the boat on occasion when it came to other members of the opposing backfield. Despite getting all but four of their 50 sacks (tied for the most in the league) from a total of nine different players, the Birds ranked only eighth on CHFF’s Defensive Hog Index because they were as nearly as effective against the run, finishing 16th in the NFL in rushing defense and 19th in yards per carry allowed. Juan Castillo’s unit may want to put on the brakes a bit on its way to the quarterback.
Think Dick LeBeau knows a little something about defense? The Hall of Fame cornerback has enjoyed an amazing run in the Steel City as the Black and Gold has allowed the fewest points in the league two consecutive seasons and four of the last eight years dating back to 2004. Keep in mind that the Steelers have allowed a total of 459 points in their last 32 regular-season games (14.3 PPG) dating back to 2010. Last season alone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up an NFL-high 494 points.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams finished dead last in the league in points (193) last season (the second time in three years), as well as 32nd in our Scoreability chart. All told, St. Louis managed a grand total of 18 touchdowns in 16 games, which included an interception and punt return for scores. That equals the total trips to the end zone by Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski last season. Quarterback Sam Bradford threw six touchdown passes in 10 games, equaling the amount managed by then-Packers’ QB Matt Flynn in a Week 17 win over the Lions.
San Diego Chargers
In 2010, no team gave up fewer total yards and fewer passing yards in the league than the Chargers, who also finished a very respectable fourth in the NFL in rushing defense. One season later, the Bolts fell to 16th in total defense and a dismal 20th against the run. San Diego’s potent pass rush produced 15 fewer sacks (32) in 2011 compared to the previous year (47). And no team was easier to exploit on third down last season (49.23 percent) than Norv Turner’s perplexing club.
San Francisco 49ers
Safe to say we’re going to go a little Hog wild here. The Niners’ defensive front is pretty highly regarded, as is coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit. Our Defensive Hog Index tells us only the Ravens were better up front last season. Using the CHFF’s Offensive Hog Index, the bottom three teams on this list are the Rams, Cardinals and Seahawks, who have the unenviable task of facing the San Francisco defense twice every season. Coincidence? I think not.
It’s the third season in the Pacific Northwest for Pete Carroll and he’ll roll out his third different opening-day starting quarterback in rookie Russell Wilson. And while the youngster settles in, you can be sure that the Seahawks’ head coach is hoping that his opportunistic team of a year ago can pick up where it left off. Seattle totaled a whopping 20 takeaways during the team’s 5-3 finish, something that was missing during the first half of the season when the ‘Hawks forced 11 turnovers during a 2-6 start.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Forget the old expression that the buck stops here. These Bucs just stopped last season after a 4-2 start, losing their last 10 games. In those contests the Bucs gave up an astounding 349 points and committed 32 turnovers. Now consider that the previous season when Tampa finished at 10-6 they allowed just 318 points and gave up the ball just 19 times in 16 contests. The Buccaneers went from plus-9 in turnovers in 2010 to minus-16 in turnover differential last season.
If Mike Munchak’s team is going to challenge the Texans for AFC South supremacy this season, they not only need a solid showing from second-year quarterback Jake Locker but a return to Pro Bowl from by running back Chris Johnson. And obviously as Johnson goes, so goes the Tennessee running game, which was held below 100 yards rushing in 12-of-16 games last season. From 2008-10, the Titans were held below the century mark on the ground just 11 times in 48 contests.
Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III comes to the nation’s capital with high expectations. But given last season’s performance by Redskins’ quarterbacks, perhaps the most important thing the former Baylor Bear can do is what he shouldn’t do. A year ago, the combo of Rex Grossman and John Beck teamed for 18 touchdown passes and three scores on the ground while being sacked 41 times and committing 30 of the team’s 35 turnovers. And while consistency is great, Mike Shanahan could have done without his team coughing up the ball at least twice in every game but two last season.