All NFL teams have now played at least six games, which means we are more than one-third of the way through the 2021 regular season. Six or seven games is still a rather small sample, but it’s enough action to look at some early trends around the league. Some things in the NFL are just as we expected, but other metrics have given us surprising results so far in 2021.
The Baltimore Ravens are struggling to convert on third down. The Cleveland Browns have a problem turning drives into touchdowns. Derek Carr of the Raiders is doing more than ever before, and Stefon Diggs of the Bills isn’t doing as much as expected. What do these stats mean for teams going forward? It could be something, or it could be a mirage that requires a bigger sample — but it certainly is interesting.
Below, we explore these topics and look at surprising stats for each of the AFC teams using a mix of numbers from Football Outsiders and ESPN Stats & Information, then explain what it means for the rest of the season. We did the NFC last week.
Offense struggles on third down
The Ravens’ offense has been excellent on first and second downs this season but can’t get out of its own way on third downs. On first and second down, the Ravens have 20.5% DVOA, which ranks fourth in the NFL and first in the AFC. Then on third and fourth down, the Ravens drop to -44.1% DVOA, which ranks 31st in the league ahead of only Chicago.
Using conventional stats, the Ravens have converted on 31 of 85 third-down attempts. That ranks 24th in the league. They rank worse in DVOA than conventional metrics in part because DVOA penalizes them extra for third-down turnovers — the Ravens have five of those. These late-down issues played a big role in Baltimore’s upset loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, as the Ravens converted just 5 of 16 third downs and then just 1 of 4 fourth downs.
The good news for Ravens fans is that performance on late downs is less consistent than performance on early downs. There’s also nothing in Baltimore’s recent history to make us think that the Ravens are an exception to this general rule. Last season, the Ravens ranked sixth in offensive DVOA on third and fourth downs. The season before, they ranked second. It’s almost assured that the Ravens will improve from 31st over the next few weeks.
Buffalo Bills (4-2)
Decreased production for WR Stefon Diggs
The Bills are playing very well so far this season — so well, in fact, that they currently rank No. 1 in DVOA ratings. But one player is definitely not playing as well as he did a year ago, and that’s Diggs. In 2020, Diggs led the NFL in both receptions and yards. Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) rated him as the second-most valuable wideout in the game behind Davante Adams. He caught 77% of targets for 96 yards per game.
This season, Diggs ranks only 39th among 66 qualifying receivers in the DYAR metric. He has caught just 64% of his targets and has only one 100-yard game so far this season. Diggs is on pace for 105 receptions and 1,312 yards, which would give him excellent numbers by standard stats, but still doesn’t match last season’s 127 receptions and 1,535 yards despite the extra game on this season’s schedule.
The good news for Bills fans is that last season is more in line with Diggs’ recent performances than this season is. Diggs ranked in the top 10 for DYAR in three of the past four seasons. It’s very likely that he picks up his pace and plays a larger role in the Bills’ passing game moving forward. That will make the Bills even better than they’ve been so far, just another reason they’re a major Super Bowl contender.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-2)
Curious pressure rate
The Bengals have played excellent defense so far this season, ranking fifth in defensive DVOA. That’s a huge improvement over ranking 27th a season ago, and the pass rush has been a big part of that improvement. The Bengals got defensive tackle D.J. Reader back from injury and made major free-agent investments in the pass rush by signing defensive linemen Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi. The Bengals rank fifth in the league in pressure rate, harassing opposing quarterbacks on 33.1% of opposing dropbacks.
The surprising stat for the Bengals is less related to their improvement on defense and more related to trying to figure out how they’re doing it. Strangely, the Bengals are bringing pressure despite not doing well in metrics that usually indicate a team that brings pressure. The Bengals rank only 29th in the league in pass rush win rate. Hendrickson’s personal pass rush win rate of 23.0% is tied for 14th among edge rushers, but his partner Sam Hubbard is all the way down at 55th with a 7.3% win rate. None of the Bengals’ interior defensive linemen are in the top 40 for pass rush win rate.
Normally a team with a low pass rush win rate will bring pressure through blitzes, but the Bengals also rank 26th in blitz rate, blitzing on only 19.6% of dropbacks. The Bengals’ pressure rate is a bit of a mystery, so figuring out if it’s going to continue is a bit of a mystery as well.
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Struggles in the red-zone
The Browns rank sixth in the NFL in offensive DVOA this season, but they’re having trouble scoring touchdowns. They are only 23rd in DVOA in the red zone — more specifically, they are 30th passing the ball inside the 20. Conventional metrics show the same problem. The Browns have scored touchdowns on 14 of 25 red zone drives, or 56%, which ranks 24th in the league.
The good news for the Browns is that red zone performance is much less consistent than performance overall. It is very likely that the Browns’ offense inside the 20 will improve to match their offense overall, which will lead to more touchdowns and more wins over the final stretch of the season. There’s nothing inherently wrong about Cleveland’s scheme in the red zone; it was seventh in DVOA inside the 20 a season ago.
Denver Broncos (3-4)
Bridgewater’s feeling the pressure
The Broncos are having some problems protecting their quarterback, and it might come back to bite them during the rest of the season. Right now, Teddy Bridgewater is 31st out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks with a 37.5% pressure rate. Pressure rate, like sacks, is a stat that is dependent on both the quarterback himself and his offensive linemen. Often, quarterbacks will switch teams and still maintain a high or low pressure rate because pressure rate is tied to their style of play. But Bridgewater was only 19th in the league in pressure rate on the Panthers last season. He’s definitely feeling more pressure with Denver.
So far this season, Bridgewater has a 49.1 QBR under pressure. That ranks ninth in the league, so the Broncos have somewhat gotten away with allowing so much pressure on Bridgewater. It’s a problem going forward, however, because quarterback performance from a clean pocket is much more consistent than performance under pressure. Bridgewater has a 55.6 QBR without pressure, which ranks 21st in the league. It is more likely that his performance under pressure will drop toward 21st than it is that his performance without pressure will rise toward ninth.
Houston Texans (1-6)
Solid defense in the middle of the field
I could regale you with any number of horrible offensive statistics. For example, you might not know that the Texans currently have one of the 10 worst running games ever measured with DVOA, going all the way back to 1983. But none of those offensive statistics would be particularly “surprising.” We all know the Houston offense is terrible.
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The surprise, instead, is that the defense is not terrible. Overall, the Houston defense ranks 18th in DVOA. Even less terrible is the pass defense, specifically, which is above average and ranks 12th. And even less terrible than that is pass defense in the middle of the field. The Texans actually rank fifth in the NFL against passes thrown in the middle of the field — they even lead the league with five interceptions on passes over the middle. Linebacker Christian Kirksey is solid as a zone defender, and safety Justin Reid has also played very well. So it’s not all doom and gloom in Houston. Just mostly doom and gloom.
Indianapolis Colts (3-4)
The run defense is good
The Colts are a surprising No. 1 in run defense DVOA so far this season. It’s particularly surprising because the Colts aren’t at the top of the league in a number of other run defense metrics. For example, the Colts rank only 11th in run stop rate and 12th in adjusted line yards allowed per carry. The Colts rank seventh in yards allowed per carry, not including scrambles.
But when it comes to judging efficiency based on the down and distance, no defense has been better. The Colts have a top run defense on every down and from every point on the field. It’s particularly good in goal-to-go situations, stuffing runners on 4 of 4 chances from the 1-yard line.
Obviously, this week presents an extreme test for the Colts’ run defense, and in fact Derrick Henry in Week 3 ran for 113 yards against the Colts, the most they’ve given up to any one running back so far this season. And the strong run defense won’t help them as much in future games against pass-heavy offenses such as Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5)
A near-elite offense in the first quarter
Jacksonville ranks 24th in offensive DVOA this season, but they are inexplicably fifth in the league in offense in the first quarter. It’s not just DVOA that likes the Jaguars’ first-quarter offense. They gain 6.34 net yards per play in the first quarter, which ranks ninth in the league. Then the Jaguars drop in DVOA to 19th in the second quarter, 16th in the third quarter and 30th in the fourth quarter. So much for the idea that bad teams build their offensive stats in garbage time!
Is this something you can bet on going forward? Probably not. First of all, overall offensive efficiency is a lot more predictive than first-quarter splits. Second, that first-quarter efficiency hasn’t actually led to many points. Jacksonville is averaging just 3.8 points in first quarters so far this season.
Kansas City Chiefs (3-4)
A poor offensive trend to monitor
Almost every stat about the Chiefs is a surprise this season, starting with their 3-4 record. The Chiefs were AFC favorites before the season, and somehow they’ve been outscored 203-188 so far. What really stands out about the Chiefs is the decline on offense over the past three weeks. A lot of Kansas City’s offensive problems are being blamed on turnovers, and they certainly play a large role — their 17 turnovers are the most in the NFL. But for the first four weeks of the season, those turnovers didn’t really hold the offense back too much. For Weeks 1-4, the Chiefs still led the NFL with 37.1% offensive DVOA.
But the past three weeks have been different. It’s not just about turnovers. The Chiefs are gaining less yardage and running shorter drives. For Weeks 5-7, they rank 24th in the league with -11.3% offensive DVOA. Even if we look at only plays without turnovers, Kansas City still would be just 13th in offensive DVOA over the past three weeks. The struggles are no longer just about sloppiness, and the Chiefs have to find a way to move the ball better again.
The offensive problems are hiding the fact that the Chiefs’ defense is actually playing better in recent weeks. In the first four games, the Chiefs had the worst defense in the league. In the past three weeks, the Chiefs are 24th. That’s not good, but it’s not horrific like the way their defense started out.
The good news for the Chiefs is that most of the precepts of analytics point upward for them right now, including:
A larger sample tells us more than a smaller sample. We learn as much from the Chiefs’ first four games as we do from their past three games. There’s no major injury that marks the decline in Kansas City’s offense the way there is for a team like Seattle. The Chiefs are just as much that offense from September as they are the offense that has been struggling a bit in October.
Offense is more consistent than defense. Even with the decline of the past three weeks, Kansas City is still fifth in offensive DVOA. It’s more likely that they stay fifth on offense without further decline than it is likely that the defense stays 31st in the league without regressing a bit more toward the mean.
Yardage is more consistent than turnovers. Yes, it’s distressing that the Chiefs haven’t been gaining as much yardage over the past three weeks. But over the entire season, the Chiefs are still the most efficient offense in the league at moving the ball and moving the chains. That’s likely to continue. Roughly three turnovers per game is not likely to continue. Last season, no offense in the league turned the ball over more than twice per game (Denver led the league with 32).
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Las Vegas Raiders (5-2)
QB Derek Carr‘s success throwing deep
The biggest change for the Raiders this season? Carr is suddenly throwing the ball much deeper than he ever had in his career. Based on NFL GSIS data, Carr had never had an average depth of target (aDOT) over 8.6 yards in his career. He dipped down really low with 7.0 yards in 2018 and 6.7 yards in 2019. That was the third-lowest aDOT in the league two years ago. Last season, Carr bounced back to an aDOT of 8.5 yards.
But this season, Carr is throwing it even deeper. Through Week 7, Carr’s aDOT of 9.3 yards ranks ninth in the NFL. Carr is succeeding on those deep throws, too. He leads the league with 923 passing yards on passes over 16 yards through the air, and he ranks fifth in DVOA on such passes. The caveat here: Carr is suddenly throwing shorter since Jon Gruden resigned as Raiders head coach and Greg Olson took over the playcalling. Over the past two games, his aDOT is only 8.4 yards. That’s a small sample, but it could show that something has changed with the coaching change in Las Vegas.
Los Angeles Chargers (4-2)
Run defense is awful
The Chargers rank dead last in run defense DVOA, so far. Los Angeles allows success on runs both short and long. It ranks 31st in adjusted line yards allowed per carry, suggesting that the defensive line is porous in the initial stages of each run. And ranks 30th in second-level yards (those 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and 28th in open-field yards (those 11+ yards past the line of scrimmage), so the Chargers are also giving up a ton of long, highlight-reel carries.
The good news is that they are excellent against the pass: fifth in pass defense DVOA. And because passing is more efficient than rushing, it’s better to be good against the pass than against the run. There’s even some thought in the analytics community that bad run defense is effectively a good thing, because you are inviting your opponent to use less efficient running plays instead of putting the ball in the air. Even with the worst run defense in the league, the Chargers give up more yards per play through the air (6.15) than on the ground (a league-worst 5.43, not including scrambles).
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Not many yards after the catch
Dolphins’ receivers are averaging a league-low 3.8 yards after the catch. This stands out in particular because the Dolphins throw such short passes. Short passes are usually supposed to result in more yards after the catch. Miami’s average depth of target is 7.4 yards, which ranks 28th in the league.
If the Dolphins want to improve their offense, they either need to throw the ball deeper downfield, or they need to gain more yards after the catch.
New England Patriots (3-4)
Run blocking has been bad
The surprise for this season’s Patriots is how bad the run blocking has been all season. This was supposed to be an offense built around the run game. Last season, the Patriots ranked 10th in run block win rate and third in adjusted line yards. This season? That’s dropped down to 29th in run block win rate and 22nd in adjusted line yards. Through Week 7, New England runners have been stuffed for a loss or no gain on a league-leading 22.8% of carries.
The good news for the Patriots going forward is that they might be settling their offensive line situation. A number of their starting linemen have missed time due to COVID-19 protocols, but the Patriots had four of their five original starting linemen back against the Jets and had their best run-blocking game of the season. Yes, it was against the Jets. But run defense has actually been the best aspect of the Jets in recent years, so they aren’t pushovers in that department. Moving Mike Onwenu to right tackle to replace the injured Trent Brown might prove to be a major improvement that helps the Patriots to reestablish their running game going forward.
New York Jets (1-5)
Performance after halftime
Before halftime, the Jets are easily the worst team in the NFL. They average just 3.4 net yards per play in the first half, over a yard worse than any other team. The defense is also 31st in DVOA before halftime, worse than every other defense except for Kansas City.
After halftime, the Jets are … reasonable? Their offense improves to 22nd in DVOA and averages 5.6 net yards per play, close to the NFL average of 5.8. The defense improves to 18th in DVOA after halftime, allowing just 5.5 net yards per play. This isn’t just because of opponents being way ahead and playing the Jets easy — DVOA adjusts for the score late in games. And the Jets’ offense was fantastic in the second half of their one close game, the Week 4 overtime win over Tennessee. There’s also no reason to believe this is “real” and sustainable. Quarter and half splits do not tend to be predictive, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3)
Opposing kicker luck
No opposing kicker has missed a field goal or an extra point against the Steelers so far this season. That’s not something the Steelers have much control over, unless they manage to block the kick. Buffalo is the only other team that hasn’t had an opponent miss a kick this season.
New England, by comparison, has watched opposing kickers miss seven field goals and two extra points. This is the kind of stat that regresses heavily toward the mean over time.
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Defense is weak on deep passes
The Titans so far have a weakness against deep passes. Overall, the Titans are 18th in pass defense DVOA. However, on passes thrown at least 16 yards through the air, the Titans rank 30th in DVOA. This is going to be a problem in this week’s game, as the Colts currently have the highest DVOA in the league on deep passes.
Down the line, however, it is less of an issue. Most of Tennessee’s remaining opponents are below average on deep passes, including New England, New Orleans, Houston and San Francisco. Even the Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee’s opponent next week, are surprisingly average on deep passes.
This content was originally published here.