Game Theory

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The formula for NFL success! Plus, the truth about Lamar Jackson

NFL franchises use contextualized data to create competitive advantages. In order to realize an edge, teams need to employ the right data in the right way at the right time. This means distilling, interpreting and applying only the most influential data in a framework that accounts for personnel, opponents and evolving game situations. My goal is to be your analytics department. Each week this season, I want to work for you by giving you a peek into which numbers flag in my models as the most impactful ... or the most misunderstood.

As always, let me know if your eye test is picking up on something interesting, or if there's a stat/trend you'd like me to take a deeper look at. You can hit me on Twitter @CFrelund. As with any great analytics department, the more collaborative this is, the more value we can create.

STAT TO TRUST

Wait, lemme tweak that subhed a tiny bit for this week ...

EQUATION TO TRUST

At least 35 percent of earned first downs on first/second via the rush + Positive third-down differential = Playoff potential

OK, I have to very clearly acknowledge that this is quite oversimplified. Generally speaking, it's crucial to adjust for points allowed, style of play, short passes that are just disguised runs (like a jet sweep), opponents and complementary football balancing. And of course, relating everything to time and drive details is also vital.

But that equation above is the core of one of the most predictive formulas for making the playoffs that I have written. (Yes, it's boiled down to stats you can track/have easy access to. Maybe, if you ask me nicely, I'll provide a more in-depth version -- with some data on GitHub, if you want to play in R.) Given the current playoff picture, this kind of predictive equation comes in handy.

There is a huge logjam in the AFC, with six teams currently sitting at 6-3. Thus, the expanded postseason field is far from settled. Here's where my AFC playoff projections stand right now:

Table inside Article
Team Division champ Playoff participant
1) Kansas City Chiefs 90.6% 98.0%
2) Pittsburgh Steelers 72.4% 97.0%
3) Buffalo Bills 61.3% 88.8%
4) Baltimore Ravens 25.4% 88.7%
5) Tennessee Titans 52.3% 68.8%
6) Indianapolis Colts 47.5% 67.5%
7) Miami Dolphins 36.2% 58.6%
8) Las Vegas Raiders 9.2% 58.0%
9) Cleveland Browns 2.1% 53.6%

As you can see, a mere 15.2 percentage points separate the fifth- and ninth-ranked potential playoff teams. Obviously, remaining schedules factor in, and it is certainly a stylistic balancing act, but I want to examine the Nos. 6-9 teams through the prism of the EQUATION TO TRUST ...

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
6-3

The Colts absolutely excel in the first part of the equation, as 79 of their 165 earned first downs on early downs have come via the rush. That's a 47.9 percent clip, which is outstanding. When it comes to third-down differential, though, Indy's a bit underwater: The offense converts 37.5 percent of its third downs, while the defense yields a conversion rate of 40.5 percent. This is really on the offense, as that 37.5 figure ranks 30th in the NFL, ahead of just the Bears and Jets. The D is generally doing its job. While that 40.5 percent third-down rate falls in the middle of the pack, Matt Eberflus' unit remains quite stingy in the big picture, ranking first in total defense (290.4 ypg) and fourth in scoring D (19.7 ppg). It's up to Philip Rivers and Co. to bring that third-down rate up. In five of the Colts' remaining seven games, my model projects a narrow victory or defeat. Long story short: When it comes to Indianapolis punching a playoff ticket, it's incredibly important for the offense to do enough to complement the defense.

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
6-3

Like the Colts, the Dolphins are anchored by their defense. Unlike the Colts, the Dolphins hit both benchmarks of the equation. Eighty-four of Miami's 198 earned first downs on early downs -- 42.4 percent -- have come from the ground game. Meanwhile, the Dolphins convert 38.5 percent of their third downs, while yielding just 34.0 percent conversions. The Fins, winners of five straight, have a golden opportunity to keep the streak alive over the next three weeks, with advantageous matchups against the Broncos, Jets and Bengals. It's crucial that they make the most of this favorable stretch, while rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa is still getting his feet wet, because Miami closes the regular season with an extremely challenging four-game slate: vs. Kansas City, vs. New England, at Las Vegas, at Buffalo.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
6-3

While Jon Gruden's Raiders have seemingly forged an identity as a ground-and-pound operation, the Raiders actually have the lowest percentage of first downs earned on early downs in this quartet: 38.5 percent (62 of 161). That said, second-year back Josh Jacobs is indeed an individual force on first and second downs, ranking third in the NFL with 35 rushing first downs earned. When it comes to third-down conversion rate, the Raiders are in the black, but in a bloated fashion: They boast the best third-down conversion rate on offense (50.4) and 25th-best rate on defense (47.4). This aligns with the team's discrepancies in many other statistics -- for example, Las Vegas ranks eighth in scoring offense and 19th in scoring D -- underscoring the general idea that these Raiders will go as far as their offense takes them.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
6-3

Among these four teams, the Browns earn the highest percentage of early-down first downs on the ground: 48.0 (59 of 123). No huge surprise there, as the dynamic RB duo of Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb has combined for 48 early-down firsts. Cleveland's third-down differential, though, is the worst of this group: The Browns convert 41.8 percent of first downs and allow 48.7 percent conversions. Despite being tied for eighth in takeaways (14), the defense will have to do more to hold up its end of the bargain if the Browns want to make it to the postseason. Going up against Philadelphia's flawed offense on Sunday should help.

STAT TO QUESTION

77.7: Lamar Jackson's passer rating to receivers aligned wide, which is a significant decrease from last season's 99.9 figure.

OK, I'm not saying that the statistic itself is fabricated. It's real. What I'm saying is, anyone taking this sort of stat to single out Jackson for disparagement is doing it wrong.

Let's get this out of the way: Lamar's not broken. The reigning MVP is not crashing back to earth.

Yes, it's true that the numbers are down from his transcendent 2019 campaign. In addition to the metrics cited above, Next Gen Stats reveals decreases elsewhere, like in Jackson's production on downfield passing attempts (10-plus air yards):

Downfield attempts in 2019 (31 percent of Jackson's throws): 50.0 comp pct, 11.9 yds/att, 18:2 TD-to-INT, 126.0 passer rating.
Downfield attempts in 2020 (34 percent of Jackson's throws): 46.4 comp pct, 9.0 yds/att, 8:2 TD-to-INT, 100.0 passer rating.

And on top of all the stats, Jackson recently created a stir by telling Rich Eisen defenses know what the Ravens are going to do when they line up.

With all this in mind, I really dug into Baltimore's Jackson-led offense, and came up with some key takeaways ...

First, the number of plays Baltimore runs -- and how they're sequenced -- is quite similar, season over season. As in, Call X on first down followed by Call Y second and so on, in such a way that is a very repeatable pattern from game to game and also from last season to this one. Sure there are some differences based on defensive looks, but even those follow a somewhat-regular pattern. Most teams have about a 25 percent occurrence of calling the same sequence over a four-game period; the Ravens are around 42 percent over their past four games.

Secondly, you can't lose a guard of the caliber of Marshal Yanda (and then, an LT like Ronnie Stanley) without a negative impact for at least some amount of time.

Thirdly, the Ravens heavily invested on their defense this past offseason via free agency and the draft, so they are actually realizing a return on the investment they made, with the NFL's top scoring D (18.3 ppg).

Lastly, Jackson -- fresh off an awe-inspiring sophomore season -- is now the focus of more defensive coordinators' goals. They're tailoring specific looks just to stop this offense. The middle of the field has been more crowded this season than last. Looking at the part of the field where Jackson's intermediate and shorter passes travel shows that there are more closely covered potential pass catchers (by about 25 percent) than last season. Consequently, Jackson has been forced to take more attempts to receivers aligned wide: This accounts for 34 percent of his passes in 2020, as opposed to 27.7 in 2019. And, as highlighted at the beginning of this blurb, the Ravens quarterback has been less efficient in this area. Same story with the increased deep shots.

So, going back to that original point, Jackson's decreased numbers aren't weird. It's the chess game. Defensive coordinators countered his MVP season by forcing him into the more challenging throws outside the numbers and downfield. Now he has to counter the counter. But I'm not betting against the electric 23-year-old -- and I'm certainly not betting against his team.

Baltimore knocks it out of the park when it comes to this column's EQUATION TO TRUST. At least 35 percent of earned first downs on first/second down come from rushes? Check! The Ravens sit at 42.7 percent (47 of 110). Positive third-down differential? Check-PLUS! The Ravens are converting 43.6 percent, allowing 33.7 percent conversions.

Count out Lamar and Co. at your own peril.

TWO SLEEPER PLAYERS FOR WEEK 11

Josh Reynolds
Josh Reynolds
Los Angeles Rams · WR

Reynolds has received a robust 27 targets over the past three games, and my models like the Rams receiver in Monday night's game at Tampa Bay, based on the assumption that Los Angeles will struggle to efficiently move the football on the ground. The Rams have used the run game on 50.3 percent of snaps on first and second down, but the Bucs allow the second-fewest yards (3.2 per attempt) on early downs. Reynolds' use -- and the routes he typically runs -- means he's likely to be the subject of Jared Goff's attention this week in a contest where the game script favors passing the second half.

Kalen Ballage
Kalen Ballage
Los Angeles Chargers · RB

Can we consider this a revenge game vs. the Jets, with Ballage going against his old coaching staff? I don't know about that, but I do know that Ballage ran 18 routes in Week 10 after running 12 in Week 9 (per Next Gen Stats). I also can see that New York's defense only gives up 4.0 yards per attempt on the ground on first and second down, but is far more generous in the passing game: 108.9 passer rating allowed on early downs, the third-highest mark in the NFL. So perhaps some short passes will be a nice addition to Ballage's fantasy stat line in a game where the chances of the Chargers running the ball in the second half are very high.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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