Andy Dalton and the Problems of Familiarity

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Through the first nine weeks of the season, Andy Dalton was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His unexpected improvement was one of the keys to the Cincinnati Bengals’ perfect start. His struggles Monday night — just 203 yards on 44 dropbacks, plus an interception — were a big reason why Cincinnati surprisingly fell from the ranks of the unbeatens against Houston.

In fact, Dalton’s struggles against the Texans should not have been a surprise, for reasons that suggest the fifth-year quarterback could well bounce back against the Arizona Cardinals this week but will likely struggle once again in the postseason.

Familiarity Creates Problems

The problem for Dalton is he performs significantly better against opponents who have not played the Bengals recently. This phenomenon was discovered by Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry. Against what he terms “uncommon” opponents, those who did not play the Bengals earlier that season or the previous season, Dalton is an excellent quarterback who has a great deal of success. Against “common” opponents, those who have faced the Bengals previously, Dalton finds the going much more difficult. Table 1 has the basic details.

Table 1. Dalton vs. Common and Uncommon Opponents

Comp. Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT%
Common Foes 59.0% 6.5 3.4% 3.5%
Uncommon Foes 67.1% 8.0 6.7% 2.5%

Dalton completes a higher percentage of his passes, for more yards per completion, throws many more touchdowns, and throws fewer interceptions against teams that have not played the Bengals lately. Table 2 has the numbers for just 2015, adding Football Outsiders’ per-play DVOA metric and another factor, Dalton’s sack rate.

Table 2. Dalton v. Common and Uncommon Opponents, 2015 Detail

Comp Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT% DVOA Sack%
Common Foes 63.7% 7.7 5.2% 3.0% 3.2% 6.9%
Uncommon Foes 68.3% 8.6 6.8% 0.6% 47.8% 2.4%

More Than Just Opponent Adjustments

The simple explanation is that Dalton is faring worse because he is facing better defenses. Many of the Bengals’ common opponents are AFC North foes and other teams who have ranked highly in their division. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, however, suggest this is not the case. Opponent adjustments say Dalton’s 2015 performance against uncommon opponents has been even better than the raw statistics suggest, while his performance against common opponents has been worse than it looks.

Opponent adjustments were a part of the 2014 story, but only a very small part. Dalton had a non-adjusted VOA of 15.7 percent against uncommon opponents against an adjusted DVOA of 14.4 percent and a VOA of -20.9 percent and DVOA of -19.8 percent. Adding in opponent adjustments explains a very small part of the difference last year, and none of it this year or in 2013. There really does seem to be something else going on.

Sacks Are Part of the Story

The last column in Table 2, on sack rate, is especially informative. This is one area Dalton has improved from his younger days. He took an NFL-leading 17 coverage sacks in 2012 according to Football Outsiders’ charting data. Dalton has done a much better job of avoiding sacks and especially coverage sacks the past three seasons, but he still gets sacked at a much higher rate by common opponents.

Table 2’s cumulative numbers conceal one very interesting detail. Dalton’s 2.4 percent sack rate in his five games to date against uncommon opponents breaks down as four sacks by the Seattle Seahawks and no sacks by any of the other foes. Meanwhile, Dalton has been sacked at least twice in every game against a common opponent.

This season’s sack data continues a trend from 2014. That season, Dalton had a personal adjusted sack rate of 6.1 percent against common opponents compared to just 2.4 percent against uncommon foes, who often did not even sack him at all. Whatever Dalton does so well against uncommon opponents is reflected here as well.

Deep Balls Are Part of the Story

One thing that stood out Monday night was how much Dalton struggled throwing the ball down the field. He completed just two of his nine attempts thrown more than 15 yards downfield. This is another theme that runs through the common vs. uncommon opponents distinction.

Dalton has been a better deep ball thrower this year against common opponents, with great success against the Baltimore Ravens most notably, but the splits still stand out. His worst deep games were against Houston and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while he has posted an above-average DVOA in deep passes against all uncommon foes.

Last season’s numbers are cloudy because of an injury-plagued season from wide receiver A.J. Green and the absences of tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones, but 2013 shows just how much difference common and uncommon games can mean to Dalton’s deep ball performance. In uncommon games, Dalton had a DVOA of 156.9 percent and a success rate of 56 percent on deep passes, versus a DVOA of -20.1 percent and a success rate of just 28 percent against common opponents. To put that in context, Dalton against uncommon foes was the best deep passer in the league by a significant margin and the second-worst deep passer in the league against teams more familiar with the Bengals.

What It Means Going Forward

Andy Dalton is a much better player against teams the Bengals have not faced recently. In particular, he is sacked much less frequently and is a much more effective downfield passer. This is one reason the Bengals have fared so well in interconference play and why he could do well against the Cardinals on Sunday night and the St. Louis Rams the next week. The bad news is, the Bengals still have four common foes left to play in the regular season, and most of the likely AFC playoff teams — New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, and even Indianapolis — are common foes. After an inspiring start, Cincinnati could be looking once again at a disappointing result and another fast playoff exit.

Sunday Night Football odds: Eagles laying touchdown against Cowboys

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The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are coming off a bye while the Dallas Cowboys had a short week to work on their road woes should tip off straight-up bettors, but the spread might be another story.

The Eagles, led by quarterback Carson Wentz, are 7-point favorites on the Sunday Night Football odds against the Cowboys with a 43.5-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. Philadelphia is 16-3 straight-up and 12-6-1 against the spread in its last 19 games after having at least a full week off, while Dallas is 0-9 SU in its last nine games after playing the Monday prior.

Dallas carries a good head-to-head trend of being 5-1 SU and ATS in their last six road games at Philadelphia, according to the OddsShark NFL Database, and is also 6-3 ATS in its last nine road games as an underdog of 6.5 or more points.

The Cowboys are 3-5 both SU and ATS after a home loss against the Houston Texans on Monday. Dallas and quarterback Dak Prescott have habitually struggled to score points on the road, and a nicked-up offensive line faces a very strong Eagles defensive line led by tackle Fletcher Cox. For all the formidability of its front four, though, the Eagles are giving up 4.5 yards per rush and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should find some room to the outside as both a rusher and pass receiver.

Dallas will be without wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) and will need more out of Amari Cooper in the passing phase as the ex-Oakland Raider enters his second game for the Cowboys.

The Eagles, who are 4-4 SU and 3-5 ATS and need the win to have any reasonable chance at defending their Super Bowl crown, are 7-1 SU and 6-2 ATS over their last eight games at night. Bettors’ confidence in the Eagles’ offensive capabilities might come down to the health of right tackle Lane Johnson (knee), who is expected to play and provide resistance to the Dallas pass rush.

Quarterback Carson Wentz now has wide receiver Golden Tate, recently acquired via trade, in his arsenal against a Cowboys pass defense that allows the sixth-worst opponents’ passer rating (101.1) in the NFL.

The ground game has generated middling results for the Eagles, who are still hoping either Corey Clement or Wendell Smallwood can take a lead role. Dallas also allows the second-least yards per rush in the NFL, which is a small reason to think the Cowboys will offer some resistance by forcing Wentz into obvious passing downs.

Wentz will likely face some long-yardage scenarios, though, as the Cowboys allow the second-least yards per carry.

There are pronounced UNDER trends in this matchup. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last three games against the Eagles, with an average combined score of 30.67 points. The total has gone UNDER in the Cowboys’ last eight games on the road, with an average combined score of 31.25 points. And the total has gone UNDER in eight of the Eagles’ last nine games at home, with an average combined score of 31.89 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

NFL Week 6 odds: Bengals, Eagles, Patriots are all betting favorites

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The Cincinnati Bengals usually handle struggling teams, but it’s fair to wonder if that trend will be cancelled out by their long-running difficulties against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals, led by quarterback Andy Dalton, are 2.5-point favorites against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Week 6 odds with a 53-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

According to the OddsShark NFL Database, it is only the sixth time in the last 14 seasons that the AFC North-leading Bengals are favored at home against the Steelers, but they are 14-4 straight-up in their last 18 home games against teams with losing records, and are also 6-1 SU and against the spread in their last seven games.

The Steelers, 2-2-1 SU on the season, have dominated the matchup with a 16-2 SU record in their last 18 road games against the Bengals, but they are also 1-6 ATS in their last seven games in the early afternoon.

The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-point road favorites against the New York Giants  with a 43-point total for the Thursday Night Football matchup. The Eagles are 14-6 ATS in their last 20 games against the Giants. The total has gone OVER in the Eagles’ last five games against the Giants, with an average combined score of 54.6. The Giants are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 home games.

The Seattle Seahawks are 3-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 48-point total in a matchup at Wembley Stadium in London. The Seahawks, who will be idle in Week 7, are 7-0 SU and 6-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The Raiders are 2-5 SU and 1-5-1 ATS in their last seven games before a bye. The total has gone UNDER in 10 of the Raiders’ last 12 games, with an average combined score of 43.33.

The Chicago Bears are 3-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42-point total. The Bears are 1-9 SU in their last 10 games on the road against teams with winning records. The total has gone UNDER in five of the Bears’ last seven games, with an average combined score of 37.43. The Dolphins are 0-7-1 ATS in their last eight games at home after consecutive road games.

The Washington Redskins are 1-point favorites against the Carolina Panthers with a 44.5-point total. The Panthers are 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Redskins. The Redskins are 3-10 SU in their last 13 games in Week 6. The total has gone UNDER in four of the Redskins’ last five games in the early afternoon.

The Los Angeles Rams are 7-point road favorites against the Denver Broncos with a 52.5-point total. The Rams are 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The total has gone OVER in eight of the Rams’ last 10 games on the road, with an average combined score of 54.5. The Broncos are 4-13 SU and 2-14-1 ATS in their last 17 games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are 3-point road favorites against the Dallas Cowboys with a 40.5-point total. The Jaguars are 4-22 SU and 6-20 ATS in their last 26 games in the late afternoon. The Cowboys are 0-5 SU and ATS in their last five games in the late afternoon.

The New England Patriots are 3.5-point favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs with a 59.5-point total in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Chiefs have covered in every game so far this season and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games after consecutive ATS wins. The total has gone OVER in 10 of the Chiefs’ last 14 games at night. The Patriots are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 games at night.

And the Green Bay Packers are 9.5-point road favorites against the San Francisco 49ers with a 46.5-point total for Monday night’s game. The 49ers are 0-14 SU and 5-9 ATS in their last 14 road games as an underdog of 7.5 or more points. The Packers are 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 home games as a favorite of 7.5 or more points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.