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Despite what Dennis Green may have you believe, early-season form does not confirm that teams are who we think they are.  Even underlying stats about true talent, such as Pythagorean winning percentage, have been shown to hold little predictive power at this early stage of the year. 

That's hardly a surprise just five weeks into the season, as single-game outliers can drastically sway a team's ranking (see Tampa Bay).  Though this rankings formula does incorporate a gradually diminishing measure of 2013 strength to reduce some of the early-season noise, we still do not have a clear line of demarcation, after which we can fully believe in the rankings. 

Consequently, there are a couple teams in the middle who no one can really seem to get a grasp on.  Let's take a look at two of those teams to see which side of the ledger they most likely belong.

 

The Enigmas

Are these storied franchises going to emerge as playoff contenders or disappointing washouts?

 

- After floundering around the first three weeks, the San Francisco 49ers have moved into the top half of the rankings for the first time this year following a pair of tight home victories.  There seem to be two schools of thoughts on the Niners—some like Football Outsiders suggested that the Niners were toss-ups to reach the postseason, but the general public appears to believe that Jim Harbaugh has established an impermeable foundation incapable of such a sudden collapse.

Harbaugh's own dubious future with San Francisco throws a monkey wrench into that theory, but since everything surrounding that situation is hearsay at the moment, we'll leave that out of the equation.  On the field, the 49ers have shockingly been buoyed by the second-most efficient defense, highlighted by the fifth-best pass defense in the league so far.

On paper, that unit looks like the Niners weakest link.  With Aldon Smith suspended and NaVorro Bowman recovering from his gruesome January knee injury, the 49ers have lost arguably the game's best edge-rusher and all-around linebacker.  In addition, San Francisco lost 60 percent of its starting five-man nickel secondary from 2013, a total that has increased to 80 percent with Tramaine Brock injured since Week 1.  The Niners replaced those four losses with:

  • Chris Culliver, who missed the entire 2013 season and whose greatest claim to fame stemmed from heinously ignorant comments made during media day at the Super Bowl.
  • Perrish Cox, who has been waived four times since entering the league in 2011 (including by the 49ers themselves last November).
  • Jimmie Ward, a rookie converted safety thrust into the slot corner position, and
  • Antoine Bethea, a seemingly receding veteran who appeared ill-suited for an in-the-box safety role opposite free safety Eric Reid

Ward has struggled, but the trio of Culiver, Cox and Bethea have been excellent this season, with the latter shockingly thriving as arguably the league's best safety through the first four games.  The 49ers have not really received any pass-rushing help from the Smith-less crew, but the secondary combined with a slightly above-average run defense has been sufficient to sustain San Francisco as an elite defense.

However, there are signs that things are going to crash, even before Smith and Bowman return in the second half of the year.  For one, the numbers just don't add up: check out the traditional stats comparing how the Niners defense was doing at this time last year, as well as a visualization showing where the 2014 defense rankings in pass and run EPA:



The 49ers may be off to the same 3-2 start, but their pass defense is worse across the board from last year.  Furthermore, the EPA chart portrays San Francisco as a slightly above-average unit against both the run and pass.  Perhaps that's better than some forecasted before the season, but it's still far from what we'd expect from the second-most efficient unit.

In reality, San Francisco is making timely plays, as their pass defense WPA ranks fifth, despite an EPA/P that only ranks 14th.  There are more numbers to support this—FO's drive stats show that the 49ers have posted the highest turnover-per-drive rate, while also benefiting from the fourth-best starting field position that makes those turnovers more likely to translate into points (and thus a disproportionately higher WPA).

Colin Kaepernick does not appear to have made enough progression to totally offset regression from those numbers.  Though he will likely blow away his previous career-bests in completion percentage, yards and touchdowns, Kaepernick is also making more mistakes, as evidenced by a lower EPA/P and adjusted yards per attempt.  Anecdotally, Kaepernick's late-game woes against Chicago and Arizona illustrate how the young quarterback is still trying to come to grasps with his burgeoning workload.

Smith and Bowman figure to offset some expected regression when they return to the lineup, though the latter could be limited the entire season.  San Francisco does not look like the same juggernauts they have been the past three years, but with no real crippling liabilities, their depth should carry them to another winning record.  Still, if the 49ers' WPA regresses to a top-15 rather than top-five mark, San Francisco could lose a couple wins in what figures to be a brutal NFC wild card race.

 

- Whereas the Niners have recently re-established themselves as a model franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers are tenuously holding onto that label after two consecutive 8-8 seasons.  Though they are only ranked 18th this week, AFA's own stats suggest that they like Pittsburgh better than that.

The Steelers are mostly weighed down by an unimpressive 0.45 opponent GWP, which is tied with the Rams for the worst opponent strength in the league.  But Pittsburgh does possess the ninth overall offense and 12th overall defense, as they are essentially slight above-average in every statistical category.

However, the Steelers' play has not matched those steady indicators.  While the defense has settled in as an unspectacular unit, the offense has exhibited significant fluctuations in EPA every week, not necessarily in logical relation to opponent strength:

Among Pittsburgh opponents, only the Panthers currently rank in the top 10 in defensive EPA, and that was somehow the Steelers' second-best offensive EPA of the season.  That win was catalyzed by 264 rushing yards against a defense that has otherwise conceded an average of 96 rushing yards per game.  On the other hand, five of their six halves against the Browns, Buccaneers and Jaguars have been uninspiring; that trio represents three of the five worst defenses so far by these rankings.

Despite these inconsistencies, the Steelers offense seems likelier to settle in as a top-10 unit.  Pittsburgh possesses the seventh-best overall offensive success rate, with red-zone woes (26th in TD percentage) likely accounting for the discord with EPA.  Ben Roethlisberger is also thriving in his second season under Todd Haley's scheme, posting his highest success rate and adjusted yards per attempt since 2009.  Roethlisberger's interception rate has diminished significantly over the past two seasons, and while the deep shots are fewer and farther between, the steadiness of top targets Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell has created an efficient low-risk, moderate-reward passing game.

If there's a real area of concern, it's the defense, specifically the pass coverage.  By virtue of playing Tampa Bay and Jacksonville the past two weeks, the Steelers have yet to feel the effects of losing Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Ike Taylor for extended periods.  Out of desperation, Pittsburgh has lured old hero James Harrison out of retirement.  Harrison may remain fearsome as ever, but his pass-rushing skills have long dissipated, and he generally appeared a step slow and surprisingly unaware in his debut.

The Steelers are about to receive a boost in opponent GWP, as Pittsburgh faces Cleveland, Houston, Indianapolis and Baltimore over the next month.  Their AFC North competition does not do them any favors; despite their Week 5 losses, the Bengals and Ravens remain two of the conference's more well-rounded teams, while the Browns have experienced a startling bout of stable quarterback play.

So long as Roethlisberger remains healthy—far from a given considering his history, by the way—Pittsburgh should possess one of the AFC's better offenses.  But if the defense regresses towards bottom-10 status, the offense has a razor-thin margin if the Steelers are to return to the postseason for the first time since their ignominious Tebow-fueled exit in 2011.


Biggest Movers

These teams experienced the biggest rise and fall from Week 4.

 

- As the vanguard of underachieving teams over the past few seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have totally bucked pessimistic preseason expectations in racing out to a 4-1 start.  The Cowboys experienced a nine-spot rise in the rankings this week, and enter the top 10 for the first time in any week over the past two seasons.

The Cowboys are just one of two teams with top-10 efficiency marks in both pass and run offense, along with the Saints and Browns.  DeMarco Murray is almost single-handedly staving off the increasing irrelevancy of running backs, posting a 53.2 percent success rate that trails only Chris Ivory among backs with at least 50 carries (Ahmad Bradshaw, who has 49 touts, would also rank ahead of Murray).

Murray's emergence as a throwback bellcow has significantly alleviated Tony Romo's burden.  The 34-year-old Romo has long elevated below-average teammates and coaching up to respectability, but after undergoing back surgeries in consecutive offseasons, he has evolved into a complementary threat within the Dallas offense.  Romo is on pace for his fewest attempts and touchdowns in years, but his current 69.2 percent completion percentage is also far above his 64.8 percent career rate.  Consequently, his 53.5 percent success rate is the highest mark of his career, and the third-highest in the league.

The Cowboys have also won both their one-possession games this season—their Week 2 comeback vs. St. Louis and last week vs. Houston—largely fueled by more clutch late-game performances from Romo.  I wrote last year about how Romo has actually been one of the league's most clutch quarterbacks over the past decade, a truth he has perpetuated in 2014.  In one-possession fourth-quarter situations, Romo has so far been in line with his exemplary career numbers:

Romo in 4Q, 1 possession games
 QB RatingTD:INT ratioCmp %Yds/Att.
2006-13100.52.364.08.6
2014109.22.070.68.1

That will become more important as the season goes on, as the Dallas defense is largely getting by with smoke and mirrors at the moment.  The Cowboys rank just 27th overall in defensive efficiency, but have managed to concede just 20.6 points per game because of a 3.6 percent interception rate that ranks fifth in the league and a 75 percent defensive fumble recovery percentage that ranks third.  The latter stat is almost entirely luck-based and practically unsustainable, while Dallas' lack of a consistent pass-rush and mediocre secondary personnel would seemingly indicate likely regression in the former stat.

But the Cowboys have still banked four wins, and those will not eventually disappear along with their good turnover fortune.  Dallas has yet to play a division game against NFC East competition that, apart from bumbling Washington, appears surprisingly formidable this season.  With even a .500 record over those six games, the Cowboys' out-of-division success would likely position them as strong playoff contenders.


- After entering Week 5 as one of just two undefeated teams, the Arizona Cardinals have plummeted all the way to 25th in the rankings, a 15-spot drop that exceeds any other free fall this week. 

Part of that simply stems from Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas posting a horrific combined performance against Denver.  Combined, the two accrued -0.03 WPA, -1.2 EPA and an average 24.3 percent success rate.  Those numbers would have been Jets-like if not for Thomas' fluky 80-yard touchdown throw to Andre Ellington, the rookie's only completion of the afternoon.

But severe issues with the running game remain, and a previously stout defense has likely taken one too many flesh wounds to continue on.  Calais Campbell's MCL sprain represents the straw to break the camel's back.  Widely considered the best mortal 3-4 defensive end in the game (i.e., non-J.J. Watt category), Campbell was having another sterling campaign, ranking in the top 10 of virtually every AFA stat for the position.

The remaining personnel have not exactly performed up to expectations, either.  After smart football minds waxed poetic about Arizona's secondary this offseason, the Cardinals have subsequently posted the second-least efficient pass defense in the game.  Being eviscerated by Peyton Manning is no shame, but Arizona's issues did not start last week:



The All-Pro cornerback duo of Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie has underwhelmed, combining to average 0.5 EPA per game.  If posted by a single player, that would rank 44th out of 45 qualified cornerbacks, ahead of only Philly's Nolan Carroll.

Cromartie's decline is simply a continuation of his poor final Jets season, but Peterson does possess a track record that would suggest future improvement.  Combined with the deepest safety corps in the league (one that should improve as Tyrann Mathieu returns to full speed), the Cardinals' secondary will improve.

However, the front seven issues might simply be too pervasive to overcome.  Campbell and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy will eventually return, but John Abraham, Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby are all long gone from last year's stout bunch.  Although Arizona's run defense has been solid against two woeful rushing attacks (San Diego, Denver) and two league-average ones (NY Giants, San Francisco), it remains to be seen if veteran retreads like Tommy Kelly, Frostee Rucker and Larry Foote can hold up over the long haul.

The Cardinals are not going to survive in the NFC West gauntlet if their offense must carry the load, especially given the uncertain health situations surrounding Stanton and original starter Carson Palmer.  Arizona is a vertically-based offense centered around big-play threats like Ellington and Michael Floyd, which is not exactly conducive to ball control and consistent production.  Unless the secondary tightens up quickly, however, those sudden strikes are going to have to arrive on a more frequent basis.


Pooch Punts


- The Buffalo Bills still sit just 20th overall in the rankings, weighted down by the fifth-worst overall offense in the game.  Despite the immortal Fred Jackson's typical exploits, Buffalo ranks just 25th in run success rate at 35 percent.  That low mark is mostly due to C.J. Spiller's frustrating regression, as the enigmatic fourth-year back has continued floundering after a poor 2013 campaign, posting negative EPA and WPA so far.

But Buffalo seems to realize this problem, and the veteran Jackson has eaten into Spiller's snap total the past two weeks.  Combined with a terrific all-around defense (fifth-highest efficiency), the one missing facet remains at quarterback, where new starter Kyle Orton has provided a dose of cautious optimism after spearheading a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Lions.

Orton was actually dreadful for much of that game, posting a -2.9 overall EPA as the result of three poor quarters (highlighted by a pick-six).  But he was solid in his lone start for Dallas last season, posting a 3.7 overall EPA and 50 percent success rate in a narrow defeat to the Eagles.  In his last extended cameo as a starter, Orton was reasonably competent for a disappointing 7-9 Kansas City squad.  Orton had a 48.3 percent success rate that ranked 13th in the league, though his low EPA and WPA totals reflect his low ceiling.

Nonetheless, "reasonably competent" would be reason for celebration in Orchard Park.  EJ Manuel has been a bottom-five quarterback in virtually every AFA stat since entering the league last season.  The upgrade from bottom-five to bottom-15 is massive, one that could end Buffalo's 21st century playoff drought.


- The San Diego Chargers have busted into the top five for the first time this season, a ranking that aligns with the mainstream perception of the Bolts.  Philip Rivers' has earned plenty of deserved attention for his MVP-caliber campaign, but in reality, it's San Diego's massive defensive improvements that have spurred their rise into the league's top tier.

Last season, the Chargers' defense ranked last in both this site's rankings and FO's DVOA.  The signing of Brandon Flowers, drafting of Jason Verrett and healthy return of Dwight Freeney has totally transformed a woeful unit, as San Diego now ranks fifth overall in defensive efficiency.  That trio has propelled the Chargers to a tie for the most efficient pass defense in the league, along with Miami.

The AFC West race should be highly intriguing down the stretch, as the Chargers and Broncos have essentially assembled the same roster—exemplary pass offense, poor run offense, complete well-rounded (though Denver's run defense looks better given all of San Diego's front seven injuries). 

Health luck is the only thing keeping the Chargers below their AFC West rivals at the moment.  San Diego has already lost three centers for the season, as well as valuable role players like Danny Woodhead and Kwame Geathers.  But starters like Ryan Mathews, Mant'i Teo, and Shareece Wright will eventually return, perhaps narrowing whatever gap currently exists between two of the AFC's elite teams.


- Though they occupy the rankings basement at the moment, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have seemed far from the worst team in the league over the past two weeks.  In defeating Pittsburgh and narrowly losing to New Orleans in a pair of difficult road contests, the Bucs have demonstrated why many pinpointed them as preseason sleepers.

Unfortunately, Tampa's numbers are going to be skewed for a while by that historic 56-14 pummeling against Atlanta in Week 3.  The pass offense in particular has found its footing under Mike Glennon the past two weeks.  Despite a pass EPA/P that currently ranks 27th, it's clear that ranking stems almost entirely from the Falcons outlier:



Make no mistake, there are very real depth issues throughout the Tampa roster.  With all due respect to the likes of Danny Lansanah, Louis Murphy and Scott Solomon, it is a bad sign if those players have emerged as vital pieces of the roster.  The Bucs are still way too top-heavy, as they are essentially the bizarro Falcons—a team with a few All-Pro-caliber defenders carrying an otherwise underwhelming supporting cast.

But Glennon has built upon a promising rookie campaign, stabilizing the quarterback position after it became clear that Josh McCown's 2013 success was a small-sample size success story.  If the second-year quarterback continues to progress, all those pundits may have simply been one year early on the Tampa Bay bandwagon.


Here are the complete team efficiency rankings after Week 5.  As always, observations, questions and critiques are welcome in the comments.

RANK TEAM LAST WK GWP Opp GWP O RANK D RANK
1 CIN 1 0.65 0.50 1 7
2 SEA 2 0.63 0.56 2 10
3 DEN 4 0.61 0.53 6 6
4 SD 8 0.56 0.48 11 4
5 MIA 6 0.56 0.47 21 1
6 GB 5 0.55 0.51 15 8
7 DET 3 0.55 0.50 14 3
8 WAS 13 0.52 0.48 7 16
9 DAL 18 0.52 0.49 5 27
10 BAL 9 0.52 0.53 17 21
11 NO 7 0.52 0.46 3 30
12 SF 19 0.52 0.48 19 2
13 IND 17 0.52 0.49 10 18
14 CLE 16 0.51 0.51 4 31
15 TEN 15 0.51 0.54 18 20
16 NYG 11 0.51 0.49 20 14
17 KC 14 0.51 0.54 25 17
18 PIT 23 0.50 0.45 9 12
19 NE 27 0.49 0.51 22 11
20 BUF 24 0.49 0.52 28 5
21 CAR 25 0.48 0.48 23 9
22 HOU 21 0.47 0.49 13 24
23 CHI 20 0.47 0.50 16 25
24 ATL 22 0.46 0.50 8 32
25 ARI 10 0.46 0.55 29 23
26 NYJ 12 0.46 0.50 27 13
27 MIN 26 0.45 0.49 24 19
28 STL 30 0.44 0.45 12 22
29 PHI 28 0.44 0.47 26 15
30 OAK 29 0.39 0.50 31 26
31 JAC 31 0.38 0.51 32 29
32 TB 32 0.38 0.48 30 28

TEAM OPASS ORUNSR% OINT% OFUM% DPASS DRUNSR% DINT% PENRATE
ATL 7.7 39 3.5 1.5 7.8 56 1.2 0.50
ARI 6.1 29 0.0 1.4 7.4 67 3.1 0.28
BAL 6.2 42 1.6 1.0 7.1 65 1.6 0.26
BUF 5.9 35 2.3 1.7 6.1 64 3.1 0.57
CHI 6.0 47 3.1 2.3 7.1 56 4.3 0.51
CAR 6.6 32 0.6 2.4 6.2 63 2.8 0.47
CIN 8.7 41 0.9 1.3 5.5 47 3.4 0.35
CLE 7.0 46 0.7 0.4 7.2 51 2.2 0.48
DAL 7.1 49 3.1 2.8 7.2 55 3.6 0.35
DEN 7.8 36 1.9 0.9 5.9 62 1.8 0.44
DET 6.6 40 2.2 2.1 5.7 62 2.4 0.40
GB 6.7 37 1.3 1.6 5.6 49 4.0 0.36
HOU 7.3 36 4.3 2.1 6.4 45 2.6 0.46
IND 7.1 41 2.7 1.3 6.6 56 3.5 0.49
JAC 5.2 33 4.0 1.6 7.2 61 0.5 0.27
KC 5.8 40 2.5 1.8 6.2 54 1.3 0.28
MIA 5.2 54 1.9 2.5 5.3 67 2.0 0.26
MIN 5.6 44 3.6 0.9 6.8 59 3.2 0.47
NE 5.7 45 1.1 2.2 5.9 52 3.8 0.72
NO 6.9 52 2.8 1.1 7.4 63 0.6 0.25
NYG 6.4 42 3.0 1.7 7.2 71 4.6 0.32
NYJ 5.1 48 3.6 2.9 6.2 65 0.6 0.61
OAK 5.3 35 3.9 1.6 6.9 57 1.7 0.35
PHI 6.3 34 2.5 1.9 6.4 60 1.5 0.45
PIT 6.8 44 1.1 1.6 6.1 61 1.7 0.69
SD 8.2 27 1.2 1.5 5.3 54 1.8 0.45
SF 6.3 42 2.6 1.0 5.7 61 3.4 0.65
SEA 6.6 54 0.9 2.6 6.3 69 1.3 0.49
STL 6.8 44 2.6 3.1 7.0 60 2.8 0.77
TB 5.8 34 3.6 3.2 7.4 62 2.1 0.50
TEN 6.2 45 3.7 1.8 6.7 54 3.6 0.59
WAS 7.3 43 2.6 1.8 6.6 64 1.3 0.65
Avg 6.5 41 2.4 1.8 6.5 59 2.4 0.46