One Statistical Area Where Every NFL Team Must Improve Most in 2012
No matter what team you want to put under the microscope, there are always going to be certain areas that every team can show improvement. Maybe it is a certain component of offense, defense or special teams.
Improvement could be made in turnover margin, penalties, red-zone efficiency, sacks created or allowed, converting on third down or points allowed; there is usually at least one area that stands out that could use some major improvement.
So, with that thought in mind, we are analyzing the final statistics from the 2011 season, and determining one statistical area that every NFL team must improve in 2012. For some teams there are a plethora of statistical areas worth exploring, but we are limiting our study to just one topic per team.
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The Arizona Cardinals offensive line has to improve in 2012 if they want to give their quarterback any chance of improving the offense.
By allowing 54 sacks in the 2011 season, the Cardinals were only one sack away from being tied for allowing the most in the league.
Being ranked No. 31 in this category is something that neither Kevin Kolb or John Skelton is very proud of.
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Atlanta was one of the teams we really had to do some digging to find any faulty areas, but we think we succeeded in uncovering something. The Falcons defense has to improve on third-down defense in 2012.
Last year, the Falcons allowed 93 third-down opportunities to be converted into first downs, which were the most of any NFC defense.
Getting a stop on third down and getting off the field has to be a priority for the Falcons in 2012.
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John Harbaugh is widely considered to be one of the better NFL head coaches. That is why I was surprised to learn in my research that the Baltimore Ravens only went for it on fourth down just seven times in 2011. That was the fewest fourth-down chances that any team took in the NFL last season.
There is conservative, and then there is ultra-conservative. Maybe he prefers not to be second-guessed by the media, but you would think a coach with his level of confidence can afford to gamble a little more.
Knowing that the Ravens have such a good defense, that should give him the confidence to pull the trigger. One could also read into this that he lacks confidence in his offense to convert those chances.
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Ryan Fitzpatrick led the NFL in 2011 by throwing 23 interceptions. Fitzpatrick took a big hit from London Fletcher in the game played in Toronto, which broke some ribs and injured his clavicle. Fitzpatrick wasn't the same after that, and the interception totals just kept piling up.
In 2012, the Bills decided to do something about Fitzpatrick's mechanics and hired David Lee to come in and be Fitzpatrick's quarterback coach. Lee is charged with improving Fitzpatrick's mechanics and his footwork, which have been the cause of some of his interceptions.
Fitzpatrick has never had a coach fine-tune his mechanics before, as he has always just gone out there and winged it. We will see if the attention to detail results in a specific change.
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The NFL is a game that includes a battle for field position. When it came to the Carolina Panthers and special teams, that was an area that needed improvement.
John Baker had been serving as the punter for Carolina since 2005, but in 2011, his game went south. In 66 punts last year, Baker's average net punt was only 34.1 yards, which was the worst in the NFL.
As a result, the Panthers released Baker in March, and opened the job up to Nick Harris and Brad Nortman, with the winner to be announced in training camp.
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It was obvious to everybody that the Chicago Bears had to improve their passing attack, so they did something about it in the 2012 offseason. The Bears traded for Brandon Marshall, drafted Alshon Jeffery and signed free agent Eric Weems.
Just how bad was the Bears passing attack in 2011? The Bears attempted 473 passes in 2011, which was the second-fewest number of attempts in the NFC. The 268 completed passes were the fewest of any NFC team.
Perhaps the 49 allowed sacks influenced the Bears decision to have Jay Cutler exposed as little as possible behind the porous offensive line.
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Of all 32 NFL teams, the one team that I had the most difficulty in surfacing a glaring statistical weakness was the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals were just good enough in every major statistical category that they never appeared close to the bottom of any area that we researched, which was across the board.
I admit this is a stretch, but in 2011 the Bengals only came up 160 first downs via the pass, which was the third-fewest in the AFC.
If you don't feel too shaken up over that, there is also this item. The Bengals converted only 34.6 percent of their red-zone opportunities at home in 2011.
Surely that is an area that they can attempt to improve on in 2011, as they ranked No. 30 in the NFL in that category.
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The Cleveland Browns had a wide range of glaring statistical areas that need improvement. For now, the one area we will isolate is the inability of the offense to score points.
The Browns had a top-10 defense in 2011, but it didn't do that much good since the Browns were only able to average 13.6 points per game.
When you are averaging less than two touchdowns per game in the current NFL, you are going to walk away with a loss more often than not.
The Browns hope that the addition of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden will help to kick-start the offense to be more productive.
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Despite playing in the NFC East division, which includes quarterbacks that love to throw the ball often such as Michael Vick and Eli Manning, it is somewhat surprising to see that the Dallas Cowboys defense was only in position to deflect 57 passes for the entire season in 2011.
That number was the third-fewest in the entire NFL, and was second-fewest in the NFC. By deflecting just 57 passes out of 545 pass attempts, that means that the Cowboys defense is in position to get their hands on the ball roughly 10-11 percent of the time.
That also means the receivers are open the other 90 percent of the time, which is why the Cowboys needed to upgrade their secondary so badly this year.
Taking care of the football was sometimes difficult to do for the Denver Broncos in 2011.
Of course, the Broncos had one of the NFL's leading rushing attacks, but they wound up fumbling the ball 17 times last year, the most in the AFC.
Now with Peyton Manning at the controls, it makes sense that the Broncos will be passing more and running less. It will be interesting to see how much the Broncos are able to avoid fumbling away the pigskin in 2012.
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It is always a plus for an offense to keep the opposition guessing as to what they will do on short-yardage situations. Having the ability to run the ball effectively and pass the ball on third down gives an offense a strong advantage so that defenses are left to wonder what you will likely try to do.
With respect to the Detroit Lions, you don't have to guess much, as they only managed to tally 71 first downs via the rush in 2011. That low total ranked them No. 31 in the entire NFL and was the worst number of any NFC team.
When you aren't threatened by the run, it allows the defense to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. The Lions should address this issue in 2012.
Green Bay Packers
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Despite having talented players like Charles Woodson, B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews, the Green Bay Packers couldn't have been very pleased with their defensive performance in 2011, as they ended the year with the worst overall defense in the NFL.
That is why the Packers focused their first six draft picks on the defensive side of the ball in the 2012 draft, as that side of the ball was crying out for an infusion of talent.
The Packers allowed 246 first downs via the pass, which was the most any defense in the NFL gave up in 2011. The 29 sacks last year didn't help out the secondary very much, either. We will see how much progress the defense makes in 2012.
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It is hard to identify what is truly behind this statistic, but for some reason the Houston Texans wide receivers just don't draw many penalty flags. In the 2011 season, the Texans passing attack generated only 14 first downs via penalty in the NFL, which was dead last in the NFL.
We can speculate as to the reasons why. Either Matt Schaub isn't a fan of throwing the ball up for grabs, where there is a chance for greater physical contact or interference penalties, or the Texans pass patterns aren't complicated enough where opposing secondaries have to resort to holding the receivers to prevent them from getting beat on the play.
This is one aspect of the game that will be interesting for Texans fans to watch this year. Does the trend continue, or is there some other reason that the Texans receivers can't get a break on penalty flags?
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The Indianapolis Colts had a brutal year in 2011, which is generally what happens when you have the first-overall draft pick. We could cite a number of bad statistics that bear out how poor the Colts played, but since we are limiting it to one stat, we will examine how the Colts fared in the turnover department in 2011.
The Colts defense generated only 17 total turnovers in 2011, which was second-lowest in the AFC. On top of that, the offense gave the ball away 29 times, resulting in a +/- ratio of -12, which was tied for second-worst in the AFC.
If your defense can't take the ball away, and the offense keeps giving the ball away, that is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, and is something that Chuck Pagano has to address this year.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars are badly in need of an offensive makeover. Dead last in overall offense and in passing offense in 2011, the Jaguars needed to go in a new direction in 2012.
Averaging only 136 passing yards per game and 259 yards of total offense might have worked in another era of the NFL, but those totals are well short of the norm in the current NFL.
The Jaguars took a step in the right direction by hiring head coach Mike Mularkey and signing free agents such as quarterback Chad Henne and wide receivers Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans.
Jacksonville also drafted wide receiver Justin Blackmon, so the targets now appear to be in place. It will be up to Blaine Gabbert and/or Henne to deliver the ball to them.
Kansas City Chiefs
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The Kansas City Chiefs struggled in 2011 in a number of ways. Sure, they lost some key players to injuries, but their backups didn't perform very well, either.
The offense really struggled to put points on the board, as the team averaged only 13.3 points per game, which was No. 31 in the NFL last year.
Scoring fewer than two touchdowns per game will usually result in a loss. The Chiefs need to sign Dwayne Bowe to a new deal and have the passing offense start clicking, especially with the passing attacks that they will be facing around the rest of the AFC West.
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The photo in this slide proves that the Miami Dolphins are more than capable of forcing a fumble. You just wouldn't know it from what they did in 2011, as the Dolphins defense came up with a dismal total of three fumble recoveries for the entire season, which was the lowest total in the NFL.
Creating turnovers and finishing the play is a combination of skill and desire. Those traits were apparently lacking in Miami in 2011, so they hired Kevin Coyle to come in as the new defensive coordinator to light a fire under some of the players. We will see if his methods are effective this year.
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Another team that is in need of a major secondary upgrade is the Minnesota Vikings. During the 2011 season, the Vikings pass defense accounted for only 50 deflected passes, the lowest total in the NFC.
Considering how many passes they see from Green Bay and Detroit, that is pretty surprising.
Not only that, but the Vikings' total of eight interceptions last year was tied for dead last in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts.
It is not like the Vikings have no pass rush, since Jared Allen led the NFL with 22 sacks. The Vikings simply need an infusion of playmakers in the secondary.
New England Patriots
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If the New England Patriots had a stronger overall defense in 2011, they probably would be the defending Super Bowl champions, instead of defending AFC champions. As is, the Patriots finished the year with the No. 31 overall defense in the NFL and the No. 31 pass defense in the NFL.
The Patriots gave up gobs of yards due to an inconsistent pass rush and a porous secondary. The amount of personnel changes that Bill Belichick experimented with in 2011 were mind boggling.
To the extent that the Patriots have the right combination of pressure up front and better coverage from the secondary in 2012 remains to be seen. They will surely be tested often this year to see if they have shown much improvement.
New Orleans Saints
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Maybe ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should have been less concerned with placing bounties on offensive players heads and more concerned with the defense creating turnovers in 2011. The New Orleans Saints defense last year created only 16 turnovers for the year, fewest of any NFC team.
If you get players psyched up about a certain aspect of defense, they can focus on that, and forget about other components.
It would be interesting to see how many times the Saints passed up an opportunity to pick off a pass or try to strip the ball from the ball carrier, when they opted instead to go for the big hit in hopes of knocking the player out.
That will have to be reserved for another story for another day.
New York Giants
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There was a time not that long ago when the New York Giants had a very solid running game. But that was clearly not the case in 2011, as the Giants finished dead last in the NFL in rushing for the year, averaging just 89.2 rushing yards per game.
With Brandon Jacobs now in San Francisco, the focus will fall on Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson to bring the Giants running game back to respectability.
The Giants proved in the playoffs that they could generate a decent running game when they needed to, but whether they can do it for the entire 2012 regular season remains to be seen.
For now, NFL defenses will have to consider the Giants a pass-first offense, until proven otherwise.
New York Jets
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During the 2011 season, the Jets gave away the ball 34 times, which was the most of any team in the AFC. That number of turnovers makes it harder on the defense and puts their back up against the wall.
If the Jets can't take better care of the ball this year, they may very well fall short of the playoffs again.
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This picture is the trifecta. An Oakland Raiders player, a referee and a penalty flag on the ground. They just go hand in hand like soup and a sandwich. In 2011, the Oakland Raiders were penalized 163 times, by far the most of any team in the NFL.
It has to be frustrating for either the offense or defense to have a good drive going and then get hit with a costly penalty to stall the drive. Or, for the defense to be making a good stand, only to let the offense off the hook by taking a careless penalty due to lack of focus or concentration.
Now with Al Davis resting in peace, it will be interesting to see if the Raiders change their focus and play with more discipline in 2012, or if they revert to their old methods.
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One of the biggest reasons the Philadelphia Eagles failed to advance into the playoffs in 2011 was due to costly turnovers.
The Eagles committed 38 turnovers, which was the second-highest total for any NFC team. Eagles quarterbacks combined to throw 25 interceptions last year, which were the most of any NFC team.
In 2012, the Eagles will be focused on taking better care of the ball. If they can come out of the year with a plus turnover ratio, that should be good enough to earn a playoff berth.
In 2011, their final turnover ratio of -14 tells you all you need to know about why they were on the outside looking in.
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Speaking of turnovers, we now turn our attention from Eastern PA over to Western PA. The Pittsburgh Steelers also had an acute turnover ratio problem in 2011, and that likely was a factor in having to play a playoff game in Denver instead of at home.
The Steelers defense generated only four fumble recoveries for the entire season, which is a rather surprisingly low total.
To make matters worse, the offense was giving the ball away too often, so their final turnover ratio of a -13 wound up being the worst of any team in the AFC.
You can be sure Mike Tomlin will be harping on both of those issues throughout training camp this year.
San Diego Chargers
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The San Diego Chargers defense came up well short in 2011 from the standpoint of forcing turnovers, specifically forcing fumbles that is. Last year, the Chargers defense came up with only seven forced fumbles, which was the lowest total of any NFL team.
Forced fumbles is a product of hard hits, gang tackling, and proactively trying to strip the ball away from the offensive player. That requires a conscious effort to make a play on the ball when progress is stopped.
Coming up with only seven on the year suggests that there was a lack of effort collectively as a unit, and that some players were probably content to make the tackle but nothing more.
San Francisco 49ers
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While the San Francisco 49ers boast one of the best defenses in the NFL, their offense left a lot to be desired in 2011. One area that has to be improved on this year will be in converting on third-down opportunities.
Last year, the 49ers converted on third down just 65 times, which ranked them No. 30 in the NFL. As limited as the 49ers were at wide receiver, defenses could stack the box against Frank Gore and company and stop the run.
With a more balanced offense in 2012, the 49ers should see their conversion percentage go back up again.
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One of the reasons that the Seattle Seahawks have opened up their starting quarterback job to a three-pronged competition is that the offense just didn't generate enough production in 2011.
For the season, the Seahawks came up with only 265 first downs, which was the fewest of any NFC team.
Combine that with 138 penalties, the most of any NFC team, and you have a team that is struggling to win games. The Seahawks have to show improvement in both areas if they are to be a playoff contender in 2012.
St. Louis Rams
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St. Louis Rams fans would like to see Sam Bradford celebrating touchdown passes far more frequently in 2012, because 2011 was a pretty bleak year on that front.
Last season, the Rams were only able to generate nine touchdown passes for the entire season, which was dead last in the NFL. Since the Rams quarterbacks were sacked 55 times in 2011, that might have something to do with the low totals.
The Rams scored only 12.1 points per game, also lowest in the NFL. Combine all of that with the second-worst overall NFL offense in 2011, and the Rams need a lot of help to become a competitive offense again.
The Rams should make some progress this year, but it will take more than one year to build the Rams offense to where it needs to be.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping that drafting Doug Martin will be the answer to turning around their ground attack. In 2011, the Bucs averaged only 91.1 yards per game, which was No. 30 in the NFL, and next-to-last in the NFC.
As head coach Greg Schiano wants the Bucs to become a physical and disciplined team, they will need to be more assertive in running with the ball.
If the Bucs can find a way to become a steady rushing offense, it will help them to control the clock and keep them competitive in more games this year.
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It is hard to believe that a football team that features a talented running back like Chris Johnson, combined with a head coach that used to be an offensive lineman, could wind up with a ground attack that was the second-worst in the NFL, but that would be an accurate description of the Tennessee Titans ground game in 2011.
The Titans averaged 89.9 rushing yards per game last year, and that helps to explain why the team fell short of their goals of qualifying for the playoffs.
Johnson is rededicating himself to the game this year, so that alone might be reason to believe that the Titans will be a threat to run the ball much better in 2012.
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Head coach Mike Shanahan will undoubtedly be coaching Robert Griffin III on the turnover issues that plagued the Redskins in 2011. Washington turned the ball over enough last year that they wound up with a -14 turnover ratio, which was tied for second-worst in the NFC.
When the Redskins weren't turning the ball over, they were walking away from potential points by kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns.
The Redskins converted only 28.5 percent of their red-zone opportunities, which was No. 31 in the NFL last year. Washington is hoping that Griffin will be able to help the team in both of these areas.
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