NFL Week 1: Under Pressure

NOTE: This write-up was completed just before the Antonio Brown suspension was announced and when the resulting 2.5 point move on the spread occurred. Since I already spent the time writing it, I figured it was better to release it than trash it.

The 100th season of the NFL officially kicks off later tonight, which means the return of my weekly write-ups. For those that didn’t follow along last year, each week I look at one of my model plays and break down the matchup to illustrate how and why my model may be finding value on one of the teams. If you didn’t follow along last year, let’s first do a crash course on how the model works. If you’re already familiar, feel free to skip ahead to the matchup.

A Reintroduction for the Uninitiated

The model takes in various inputs and assigns a category rating for pass offense, rush offense, pass defense, rush defense, and special teams. It then uses these category ratings to decide how much the strength of success in each category correlates with overall team strength, which itself is determined separately and independently. A final dynamic formula is used that weighs each category according to the aforementioned correlations, and spits out the expected wins for each team if they were to play against a league average team for 16 games. This formula and the weights it assigns to each category changes throughout the season changes as more data is collected and the model analyzes the data and each category’s importance.

For each matchup, each teams’ expected wins number is divided by 16 to get a per game win probability, which is then interpreted into a neutral field win probability and spread. Various game factors are then added on (home field advantage, etc.) to spit out a final model spread for the game. That spread is compared to the Vegas spread, and any disagreements of two points or more becomes a model play. For each half point of disagreement, 0.25 units are added to the model play. For example, if the model makes the Packers / Bears game tonight Packers +1.5, there would be a 2.0 point disagreement with the current spread of Packers +3.5. As a result, the model play would be on the Packers to win 1.00 unit.

NOTE: This has been changed from last year where each half point disagreement was a half unit. The reason for the change was that last year’s method made it so that the lowest possible play was two units, whereas this year’s method makes it so that the base play is one unit. Despite the change, there is no change in the rate at which the model generates profit since even though the total net is halved, the total risked amount would also be halved. This change has been implemented to last year’s play tracker to be consistent with this year’s method.

Denver Broncos (0-0) @ Oakland Raiders (0-0)

The second leg of Monday night’s doubleheader will pit the Denver Broncos against the Oakland Raiders. The Broncos stumbled through 2018 finishing with just six wins, with a couple of games being throw away by former head coach Vance Joseph who week in and week out proved to have no idea how to manage a professional football game from start to finish. Despite Joseph’s mishaps, the Broncos did fare well against tougher competition last year. In the Broncos’ eight games against eventual playoff teams last year, the Broncos won two (against Seattle and the Chargers) and five of the six losses were by one possession.

Nevertheless, the Broncos decided this offseason to move on from Vance Joseph and hired former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio – the mastermind behind the Bears’ defense that terrorized the league last season and the man whose defense Sean McVay, Mike Shanahan, and Matt LeFleur called the hardest defense to read and attack. The Broncos also changed the head honcho on offense, bringing in the relatively unknown Rich Scangarello who comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. Scangarello has promised to expand and grow the offense from its existing base, which will marry a sense of familiarity with the benefit of doing more with an offense that has ranked 28th in points per game in the last three years. Despite the poor offensive output the Broncos are 20-28 during that span much to the credit of the defense, so any improvement on offense that comes with the inevitable improvement Fangio will bring to the defense should result in more wins for the Broncos this year.

Another pivotal addition was the hiring of Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach, who previously occupied the same position for the Pittsburg Steelers and masterfully crafted blocking schemes that helped Le’Veon Bell and James Conner put together elite rushing campaigns. The obvious beneficiaries are the sophomore year running backs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman who ran behind an offensive line that ranked league average in percentage of runs thats were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Joe Flacco, who in the last four years has an average rank of 28th in passer rating when under pressure, also stands to benefit if Munchak can improve an offensive line that already ranked 11th in adjusted sack rate last year. Given that the Raiders’ defense ranked dead last in adjusted sack rate last year as well as in DVOA allowed even when they do generate pressure, Flacco might have himself a night on Monday against a Raiders pass defense which ranks 31st in my model heading into Week 1.

Derek Carr has similar troubles against pressure, as he ranked 30th in passer rating last year when pressured. Unfortunately for Carr, the Broncos’ defense was the best in the league last year when it came to DVOA allowed on passes under pressure despite only ranking 18th in pressure rate (which I’m sure Fangio can and will improve on this season). The Raiders will also be without Richie Incognito (suspension) and Gabe Jackson (injury), while tackle Denzel Good (who is recovering from back surgery) is slated to start at right guard. Given that the Broncos were already 8th in sacks and adjusted sack rate last year, Carr might be on his back staring up at the lights more than he would like to be. But what if by some miracle the Raiders offensive line can hold a clean pocket for Carr? It might not matter as the Broncos still ranked 5th in DVOA allowed when pressure wasn’t generated:

All in all, it’s pretty easy to see what there is to like about the Broncos on Monday night. The addition of Munchak should offset the loss of center Matt Paradis, and help diminish the rate at which Flacco will be under duress in the pocket. The return of Emmanuel Sanders and the continued development of second-year wideouts Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton should provide Flacco with more weapons through the air than he has had in years past with the Ravens, who notoriously have trotted out some of the biggest hodgepodges at the position. For the Raiders, the additions of Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams might not bear much fruit in Week 1 as Carr finds himself hurrying to get the ball out of his hands, while the first round pick Josh Jacobs might have little room to breathe against the Fangio’s front seven. As for the model, the Broncos are given a 68.1% chance of winning this game on a neutral field. After adjusting for specific game factors, the model makes the game Broncos -2.6. That means with the line currently at a pick ’em, the Broncos show 2.6 points of value making Broncos PK -107 a model play (1.39 to win 1.30 units).