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AFC North Data Points: Division Outlook Through Week 16

With Week 16 in the books and Week 17 on tap, I wanted to look at some important data points within the AFC North, considering the Pittsburgh Steelers’ final two games this season are within the division. First, the current standings:

The Steelers are now in third place in the AFC North, thanks to a 5-2 record since the bye week, and are a game up on the Cleveland Browns. In their matchup in Week Three, the Browns were the victors 29-17 sans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has played the last four games in which they’ve gone 2-2. Since my last division outlook, Pittsburgh has jumped above the Browns in the standings, something I pointed out as a possibility considering Cleveland’s tougher stretch of games since week ten. Pittsburgh’s next challenge is the Baltimore Ravens, and it will be very interesting to see how the division fares to end the season, and how the Steelers close out 2022 within it.

The Cincinnati Bengals now lead the AFC North, with a one-game edge on Baltimore, who held the crown earlier this season. The Bengals are playing very good football overall right now, currently on a seven-game winning streak, and close out the season against two tough teams, the Bills and perhaps a very meaningful game against the Ravens for playoff positioning. For Baltimore, it always feels like we’re talking about injuries, and it’s Lamar Jackson atop this list again at the all-important quarterback position as he was in the Week 14 matchup, a 14-16 Pittsburgh loss. His availability, or lack thereof, will be huge to monitor as we see how the division and playoff positioning pans out.

Let’s dive into some data, with Expected Points Added (EPA) for the AFC North offenses by week:

Looking at Pittsburgh first, we can see it’s been a tale of two seasons per se, with their pre-bye week numbers largely in the negative, and post-bye faring much better overall with several positive outings. Their strongest EPA to date was recently in week 15 against the Panthers, a 24-16 win where the running game had 156 yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky only needed to attempt 22 passes for 179 yards, with a high 77.3% completion rate and no touchdowns or interceptions. This performance only ranks seventh best in the division though, giving comparative context to the low ceiling the offense has had this season.

Pittsburgh’s second-ranked performance came in week 13 against the Falcons, a 19-16 win in similar fashion, with 154 yards on the ground, and quarterback Kenny Pickett throwing 28 times for 197 yards with a low 57.1% completion rate, but did have a touchdown and no interceptions. The Steelers’ third-ranked EPA performance came in week 10 against the Saints, a 20-10 victory where the running game had their best outing of these games with 217 yards and two touchdowns, along with Pickett’s 30 attempts for 199 yards on a 60% completion percentage, with no touchdowns or interceptions. All wins, with common themes feeding off the running game, low number of pass attempts, and taking care of the football. Here’s to hoping they can get back to this recent success considering their last outing against the Raiders, barely eking out the win 13-10 with only 106 rushing yards, a higher number of 39 pass attempts with a 66.7% completion rate, and 244 yards along with a touchdown, but threw an interception as well.

Cincinnati has four of the top six EPA performances in the AFC North this season, coming in week seven (Falcons), nine (Panthers), six (Saints), and 13 (Chiefs), all of which were wins. Only two negative EPA performances, week eight (Browns) and the opener against the Steelers their worst mark of 2022. Baltimore’s best EPA performance on offense was in week two (Dolphins) and ranks fifth in the division on the season, along with another strong showing in week three (Patriots) that ranks eighth in the AFC North. They have been very up and down since their bye week, and their best performance with Huntley at the helm (since week 13) came against Pittsburgh, largely due to a strong running game (215 yards) that the Steelers’ defense will need to remedy in hopes of victory. Of the five worst EPA marks in the division, Cleveland has four of them, three of those in the last four games upon Watson’s return from suspension against his former Texans, Bengals, and Saints. It will be interesting to see how his play trends in anticipation of the season finale against Pittsburgh.

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

Lots of variance for each defense in the AFC North, and the top EPA performance came from the Browns in week 13 against the Texans in a 27-14 victory, holding the running game to 82 yards, along with 201 yards through the air including a touchdown and two interceptions. Cleveland also has the worst EPA performance in the division, coming in week ten against the Dolphins, a 17-39 throttling where they allowed 302 passing yards and three touchdowns, along with 195 on the ground and two touchdowns. They are coming off two stronger games against Baltimore and New Orleans, and it will be interesting to see how this trends against the remainder of their schedule, Washington and Pittsburgh. Baltimore has the second-best EPA game in the North, coming in week 11 against the Panthers in a 13-3 victory, allowing 196 passing yards but getting two interceptions, along with holding the ground game to only 36 yards. Their worst mark came in week two (Dolphins) and was the second worst game in the division, a 38-42 loss allowing a whopping 469 passing yards and six touchdowns, but able to get two interceptions and only 86 rush yards. Cincinnati has the third-best EPA performance in the North, coming in week three (Jets) in a 27-12 win, allowing 285 pass yards but getting two interceptions and limiting the run game to 76 yards. Their lowest mark came in week 13 (Chiefs) and was the sixth lowest rank in the division, highlighting less extreme lows in their defensive performance this season. They were able to come away with a 27-24 win in this one, despite allowing 223 pass yards and a touchdown along with 138 on the ground and two touchdowns.

Pittsburgh’s results largely correlate to edge rusher T.J. Watt’s availability this season. In weeks two through eight, we see the Steelers’ defense only had one above-the-line performance, and their two worst showings against tough opponents (Buffalo and Philadelphia). Their lowest mark was in week five (Bills) which was the third worst mark in the AFC North and a 3-38 clobbering, allowing 432 passing yards including four touchdowns and an interception, and 120 rush yards and a touchdown. Upon Watt’s return in week ten, the defense provided their best EPA performance against the Saints in a 20-10 win, allowing 174 passing yards and a touchdown, but getting two interceptions and limiting the ground game in a wow performance to only 29 yards! After a downtrend from weeks 12-15, the Steelers had their second-best performance last week against the Raiders in the 13-10 win, allowing 174 passing yards and a touchdown, but getting three interceptions and holding the run game to 58 yards. Clear theme for Pittsburgh here too, under 200 pass yards, turning the ball over, and limiting the opposition’s run game.

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

The Bengals and Steelers land above the mean in both data points, and are two of nine teams to do so across the league. Cincinnati tops the division on both sides of the ball, ranking fourth in the NFL on offense with a strong 48.8% success rate and tenth on defense, allowing a 42.8% success rate. Pittsburgh has allowed a 43.2% success rate on defense, which is second in the AFC North and 11th in the league, along with a 44.7% success rate on offense that ranks 17th and third within the division. Baltimore has the second rank in the North on offense, with a 46.6% success rate that ranks very well at sixth in the NFL, and are right at the league mean on defense, allowing a 44.3% success rate that ranks 18th across the league. This is a tough element in the Steelers’ next opportunity against them, and hopefully, the Steelers can trend positively on the defensive side of the ball in this game to right some wrongs from the last matchup. The Browns bottom the division on both sides of the ball, with their better mark coming on offense with a slightly above the mean 44.5% success rate that ranks 15th in the NFL, along with allowing a 45.3% success rate on defense that is 23rd in the league. Hopefully, the defensive number plays into Pittsburgh’s hands in the finale, as the young offense hopes to close the season out strong.

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

Cincinnati once again lands above the mean in both data points, scoring the most points in the division (391) which ranks sixth in the NFL. On defense, they have allowed 306 which ranks second in the division and ninth in the league. This gives them a +85-point differential which also ranks sixth in the NFL and tops the AFC North. Baltimore holds the top rank in the division on defense, with only 272 points allowed which impressively ranks third in the NFL, and are third in the division with 321 points forced which ranks 15th across the league. Their +49 differential is second in the North and ranks seventh in the NFL just below the Bengals. The Ravens’ defense will no doubt be a big challenge again for Pittsburgh, who have obviously struggled to put up points this season.

Speaking of the Steelers, they land above the mean on defense allowing 319 which is third in the division and 13th across the league. The big thing that jumps out is their far cry from the AFC North (and most of the NFL) on offense, only scoring 264 points which ranks 29th in the league and gives them a division-worst -55 differential which is 27th in the NFL. Here’s to hoping there’s an improvement in the final two games, even if it’s slight as we hope for more consistency moving forward. Cleveland is the only divisional team below the mean in both, with 323 points forced (14th) and 343 allowed (22nd), and hopefully, this is another aspect that leads to a victory in the finale for Pittsburgh.

Another key factor to team success is turnovers, and here are the results for both sides of the ball through week 16:

Three AFC North teams land above the mean in the turnover department, with Baltimore leading the pack on only 16 turnovers (T-2nd in the NFL) along with 24 takeaways on defense which ties for fourth-best in the league. This gives them a +8 differential, which will no doubt be a huge element of the game on Sunday, and hopefully, the Steelers can buck their season trend. The Bengals are second in the division with 17 turnovers which ties for third in the league and tie with several teams including the Steelers with 20 takeaways (+3 differential) which is just above the NFL mean and ties for 13th across the league. Pittsburgh pairs this with 18 turnovers which is third in the division and T-fourth in the NFL, along with a +2 differential. Would be huge to come out on top of the turnover battle the rest of the way, along with a hopeful positive touchdown to interception ratio on offense to improve the scoring data we saw a bit earlier.

To close, here are teams’ explosive play results in 2022:

No AFC North squad is above the mean on both sides of the ball, and Baltimore’s defensive number jumps out right away on the positive side. They have only allowed 47 explosive plays, which ties for seventh-best across the league. They pair this with a lower mark on offense, with 46 which is third in the division and ties for 26th in the NFL. So, if the data holds true, I wouldn’t expect a big change from Pittsburgh’s offense in the explosive play department on Sunday, who only have 42 which ranks very low at 30th in the NFL. The Steelers’ defense will hopefully limit explosive plays in the matchup as well, considering the Ravens’ low totals on offense as well. Pittsburgh did win the battle in week 14 with four explosive plays on offense while allowing three on defense, and here’s to hoping this is the case again in week 17.

The Steelers’ defensive number has left much to be desired overall though, allowing 63 on the season which ranks 29th. Bottoming the division in both and having a whopping -21 differential that’s 31st in the NFL has been painful, and really needs to improve moving forward. The Bengals and Browns land on similar points of the chart, with the former having 57 on offense that ranks 12th in the NFL which tops the North, and allowed 55 on defense which is second in the division and 16th across the league, for a +2 differential. Cleveland has 56 on offense which is second in the division and tied for 13th in the NFL, and have allowed 57 on defense which is third in the AFC North and tied for 18th across the league for a -1 differential.

So, the Steelers have fared well in the success rates this season on both sides of the ball, been above average in points allowed on defense and turnovers on both sides of the ball with both encouragingly trending positively through the season overall, but very poor in scoring offense and explosive plays on both offense and defense. This gives us a great sense of where this team is at with data context, and here’s to hoping we have an enjoyable final two games ahead to close the season.

What are your thoughts on the division in 2022? How do you think Pittsburgh and the AFC North will fare in the final two games? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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