2022 AFC North Data Points: Division Outlook Through Week 10

With Week 10 in the books and Week 11 on tap, I wanted to look at some important data points within the AFC North, considering four of the remaining eight games this season are within the division for the Pittsburgh Steelers. First, the current standings:

The Steelers currently bottom the standings with a 3-6 record, with the same record as the Browns but lost to them in week three 29-17 sans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is set to return in plenty of time for the rematch in the season finale. They are in the midst of a reminiscent tough schedule to what Pittsburgh has faced, coming off a tough loss to the Dolphins (39-17) and have the Bills and Bucs up next, along with three division matchups that will be interesting to monitor as Pittsburgh faces an easier schedule the remainder of the season.

The Baltimore Ravens currently lead the AFC North with a one game edge, coming off their bye and have a friendly schedule comparatively, with three division games in their last four outings, and curious to see how things develop leading to the week 17 matchup with the Steelers and their finale against the second place Cincinnati Bengals. The latter is up next for Pittsburgh, who got the overtime win in week one, where the ideal formula for Steelers success of strong defense and special teams were crucial to eke out the victory. Pittsburgh is coming off a game where the return of edge rusher T.J. Watt led a return to strong play for the unit, and hopefully that holds true for the week 11 game on Sunday.

To highlight this, let’s look at Expected Points Added (EPA) for the AFC North defenses by week:

Looking at Pittsburgh, the best EPA results were in Watt’s two appearances in week one (against the Bengals) and last week versus the Saints, where they encouragingly posted their best number of the season (-0.27) and the second ranked performance in the division. Here’s to hoping the Steelers defense can continue that success from last week with Watt back, a possible return for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Myles Jack who each missed last game, and their previous success against Cincinnati. The Steelers worst outings for context were against the Bills and Eagles, very potent offenses in their worst losses of the season sans Watt.

The Bengals have low numbers on defense the last six games, with a split of three games above or below the line, and their worst games in that span against the Saints and Browns. Notably, their second-best number was in the matchup against Pittsburgh, and posted a division best number in week three versus the Jets. Cleveland has largely been below the line, in six of their nine games to date, and coming off the worst number in the division last week against Miami along with other poor outings against the Jets, Chargers, and Patriots. Baltimore’s best outings came in their opener and last game similar to Pittsburgh, and have been mostly below the line thus far, including their worst number (second worst in the division) in week two facing the Dolphins.

Now for the other side of the coin, here are the EPA results for the division on offense:

The results for Pittsburgh are bleak overall to say the least, with only two positive results, but an encouraging element is them coming off their best number of the season, largely due to the running game. Knock on wood this continues, along with some encouraging scheme adjustments and route combinations coming out of the bye week in the pass game. Each divisional opponent has at least six positive EPA performances on offense, highlighting the stark difference and need for the arrow to continue up for quarterback Kenny Pickett and the Steelers.

Cincinnati posted three strong performances in their four outings prior to their bye, highlighted by the two highest EPA results in the division, but important context is they came against Atlanta and Carolina and their other top five result came against the Saints. Only two negative games, with the worst being the opener against the Steelers when quarterback Joe Burrow threw four interceptions, and he will no doubt be looking to rebound though wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase seems extremely unlikely to play due to injury. Cleveland opened the season strong with five positive EPA performances, with their best result in week two against the Jets, which was the third ranked performance in the division so far this season. Week six was the worst outing for them and the division, when they faced off against the Patriots. Baltimore has been the least up and down, never straying too far below the line along with their best EPA result in week two against the Dolphins, a shootout in which they actually lost.

Next, I wanted to provide success rates for offenses and defenses from nflfastR, which is defined as EPA > 0 for each play:

Here we can see the Bengals are the only AFC North team that are above the mean in both data points, with a particularly strong fourth rank on offense, along with the tenth rank on defense. The Ravens and Browns are both comfortably above league average on offense (seventh and 11th respectively) but well below average on defense (24th and 26th). The Steelers are above slightly above the mean on defense with a 43.5 success rate allowed (13th), which is encouraging when stacking their numbers across the league and considering the earlier takeaways on the team’s health (knocks on wood). Their 42.5 average on offense is well below average but ranks higher than I bet many would expect at 20th.

Now for a points view for offenses and defenses from Pro Football Reference:

The Bengals are again above the mean on both sides of the ball, ranking ninth in points forced on offense (second in the division) and 11th in points allowed on defense, which is the top rank in the North to date and highlights another tough element to this week’s matchup for Pittsburgh. The Ravens also fare well in these terms, with the sixth rank on offense which tops the division and the 13th rank on defense which is second best in the AFC North. The Browns are also above the mean on offense (13th) but have allowed the most points in the division by far on defense, which is currently 24th in the NFL.

Then on the far left we have the Steelers, highlighting the well documented struggles putting up points on the offensive end (31st), and very painful to see the comparison to their foes in the North, with Baltimore nearing 100 more points! The defensive number is currently near the mean and 19th in the league, which is third in the division. Obviously, the scoreboard is the most important element to any football game, and fingers crossed Pittsburgh can narrow the gap on the rest of the 2022 journey.

Another key factor to team success is turnovers, and here are the results for both sides of the ball through week 10:

Baltimore leads the AFC North in both regards, with only nine turnovers which is tied for fourth in the NFL, and also well above the mean in takeaways with 16 (sixth). Cincinnati is second-best on both sides of the ball in the division, with ten turnovers (T-8th) and 13 takeaways (T-11th). Pittsburgh is at the mean with 12 takeaways for the third rank in the division and tied for 15th league wide. Their 14 turnovers are a division worst and currently 26th in the NFL, but hopefully Pickett and the offense can continue to build off the strong results last game when they had no turnovers and won the explosive play battle.

Speaking of which, here are the explosive play results for teams to close:

Here we can see no AFC North team lands comfortably above the mean on both data points. The Bengals are slightly above average in both to date, and currently have the second rank in the division on both sides of the ball, with a stronger NFL rank on defense (11th) along with a tie for 15th on offense. They have regressed to the norm after a stellar 2021 season on offense, and it will be interesting to see what this looks like against Pittsburgh. The Ravens have the top result on defense in the North and currently rank eight in the NFL and are third in the division on offense and well below the mean league-wide (T-28th). The Browns hold the top spot in the outlook and tied for eighth in the NFL in explosive plays on offense, and the third rank in the division on defense which ties for 20th. Then there’s Pittsburgh, looking lonely on the bottom left of the chart with the worst numbers by far in the division, and ranking 29th on offense and 30th on defense. While there are many areas to improve in for the team, this is one of the biggest I will have my eyes set on along with scoring offense as the rest of the season unfolds.

What are your thoughts on the division thus far? How do you think Pittsburgh will fare for the rest of the season, and within the AFC North? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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