Today, we move into the post-bye portion of the 49ers schedule in our 2014 opponent preview featuring one of the NFC's best and a pair of NFC East teams trying to rebound from a 2013 season that was most unkind.
2013 Record: 11-5
Pythagorean Wins: 10.8 (overperformed by 0.2 wins)
Record in Close Games: 4-3 (.571, 13th-best)
Strength of Schedule: 5.8 percent DVOA (fifth-hardest)
Turnover Margin: even
After wasting two years of Drew Brees's prime with putrid defense—culminating with a 7-9 in 2012 that featured Sean Payton coaching Pop Warner and a last place finish in defensive DVOA in the aftermath of Bountygate—New Orleans bounced back with another double-digit win season and re-established their NFC contender status.
New coordinator Rob Ryan's defensive makeover led to one of the league's largest turnarounds in 2013. The Saints 22-spot jump in the defensive DVOA rankings nudged them into the top 10 and was bested only by the Bills' 23-spot improvement. That swift rise up the rankings was spearheaded primarily by a pass defense that improved from 28th in pass defense DVOA to sixth and in typical Ryan fashion, pressure on the quarterback had a lot to do with it. Led by defensive end Cameron Jordan (12.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Junior Galette (12 sacks), New Orleans finished with the NFL's fourth-best Adjusted Sack Rate.
A revamped secondary should provide even more help in 2014. The addition of Jairus Byrd at free safety to pair with last year's first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro gives the Saints one of the best safety tandems in the league. Champ Bailey and 2014 second-round selection Stanley Jean-Baptiste were added to the mix at cornerback. At the age of 36, Bailey is no longer capable of locking down opposing number one receivers, but he's savvy enough to be effective in zone coverage underneath with Byrd having his back over the top.
With the Jimmy Graham contract situation out the way, the largest concern on the offensive side of the ball has been taken care of. Graham will continue to do Graham things, abusing opposing linebackers and safeties in the process. Marques Colston will continue to be a safe, reliable target up the seam and on intermediate routes. Robert Meachem and Kenny Stills will continue to slip behind the defense for one or two bombs per game. And Pierre Thomas will continue to head a more-efficient-than-you-think running game while Mark Ingram does his best to ruin it.
The biggest change-up on offense comes with the departure of Darren Sproles to Philadelphia. His role in the offense will likely be handled by first rounder Brandin Cooks. Sean Payton did a fantastic job of designing plays to get the ball to Sproles in space and I suspect we will see much of the same with Cooks, who will have major Rookie of the Year potential given the situation he's entering couldn't be a more perfect fit.
You may see the four game improvement in the win column and the aforementioned leap on defense and think that New Orleans is due for some regression. In reality, the 2012 season—played under some very unusual circumstances—was the outlier. New Orleans should see a lighter schedule in 2014 by virtue of getting to replace the NFC West with the NFC North. And even if the defense stumbles a bit, with Brees and the offense doing their thing it should be more than sufficient to keep the Saints among the NFC's best teams.
2013 Record: 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 5.6 (overperformed by 1.4 wins, fourth-luckiest)
Record in Close Games: 3-3 (.500)
Strength of Schedule: 3.0 percent DVOA (seventh-hardest)
Turnover Margin: minus-15 (second-worst)
If you weren't paying close attention to the New York Giants last season, 1) good on you and 2) you might look at that 7-9 record and think it wasn't too far off the typical Giants' season from the last five years or so. Maybe a few extra Eli Manning interceptions, a few extra injuries and a few extra bad bounces landed them a game under .500 rather than a game above it. It turns out things were much worse than that.
New York finally strayed from their typical fast start, second-half slump and occasionally catch fire at the very end of the regular season and win a Super Bowl routine. Instead, the Giants started 0-6 before stringing together four straight wins and, ultimately, seven of their final ten to put together what looks to be a respectable record. But a lot of things went very poorly for the 2013 Giants.
Those few extra Eli picks? Well there were actually a lot of extra Eli picks. Like almost double the season before. Manning's 4.9 percent interception rate was the worst in the league, the worst of his career and his first season north of 4.0 percent since his rookie campaign.
Those few extra injuries? That one's downright laughable. With 144.6 Adjusted Games Lost, the Giants were the most injured team in the NFL by a comfortable margin. New York's AGL was the highest that Football Outsiders has ever recorded. Indianapolis, the second-most injured team, was nearly closer to league average health than they were to the Giants. Injuries spread through the Giants locker room like the plague as they somehow managed to have the league's most injured offense and second-most injured defense.
And those few extra bad bounces? If Eli's season-long interception party and all those injuries weren't enough, the Giants also had a fumble recovery rate that fell in the bottom third of the league. The high interception rate plus the low fumble recovery rate pushed the Giants turnover margin from a plus-14 in 2012 (fourth-best) to a minus-15 (second-worst) in 2013.
The good news for Giants fans is that none of those things are likely to stick in 2014 and general manager Jerry Reese has made several roster changes on both side of the ball to ensure that it won't.
On the offensive side of the ball—where the Giants plummet in offensive DVOA from seventh to 31st was the largest decline in the NFL—guard Geoff Schwartz and center Weston Richburg were brought in via free agency and the draft, respectively, to upgrade an offensive line that was one of the league's worst a season ago. First round pick Odell Beckham Jr.—a favorite around these parts prior to the draft—replaces Hakeem Nicks on the wide receiver depth chart. And a much-better-than-you-think Rashad Jennings (Jennings ranked fifth in DVOA and seventh in DYAR among running backs in Oakland last season and many think he's primed to have a breakout season in a more featured role) comes in to head up a running back group that was decimated by injuries last year. Finally, long-time Packers assistant coach Ben McAdoo takes over for Kevin Gilbride, whose offensive design and playcalling had grown stale, as the team's offensive coordinator.
The defense was quietly very good last season, ending the year sixth in defensive DVOA as New York's lone bright spot. But that side of the ball did not remain unchanged this offseason. Gone are defensive lineman Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph. They'll be replaced in-house by a pair of 2013 draft picks in Damontre Moore and Johnathan Hankins. The secondary received a significant upgrade with the signings of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond in free agency.
Add up the much needed roster shake-up, a new offensive coordinator that should be able to better take advantage of the talent on hand and the fact that it would be nearly impossible for the Giants to have as poor luck on the turnover and injury front again and you have the recipe for a bounce back season in a division that has no clear frontrunner.
2013 Record: 3-13
Pythagorean Wins: 4.8 (underperformed by 1.8 wins, third-unluckiest)
Record in Close Games: 2-5 (.286, third-wost)
Strength of Schedule: 0.7 percent DVOA (12th-hardest)
Turnover Margin: minus-8 (eighth-worst)
Robert Griffin III was a revelation during his rookie campaign in 2012, steering Washington to a playoff berth and its best record in seven years while leading one of those exciting, new-age offenses that were all the rage at the time. The future was bright in Washington for the first time since Gibbs was in town...the first time. Then, things fell apart as quickly as RG3's knee in the 2012 Wild Card game against Seattle. Washington finished the 2013 season with a 3-13 record, a feat that Football Outsiders gave just a one percent chance of occurring prior to the season.
Griffin never appeared fully recovered from that gruesome-looking knee injury, yet the now-departed Shanaclan appeared intent on putting as much stress on Griffin's knee as possible, increasing his passing attempts per game from 26 to 35. Some of that can be explained by Washington spending more time playing catch-up in 2013, but it didn't take much time watching their games to see they either should've been going to greater lengths to protect him or that he shouldn't have been on the field in the first place.
A gimpy, struggling Griffin and no one to throw to other than Pierre Garçon led to a passing offense that fell from sixth to 23rd by FO's numbers. Washington's pass defense also struggled, falling from a roughly league-average unit in 2012 to the bottom third of the league in 2013. When you struggle to pass the ball and stop the pass, it becomes very difficult for you to win games in today's NFL. For Washington, that was reflected in the win column (seven fewer wins, third-largest decline) and in the DVOA rankings (20-spot drop, tied for the largest decline). And not to be left out, Washington's special teams saw fit to go from one of the worst in the league to historically bad.
With all that said, there is some reason to be optimistic about Washington's prospects in 2014, starting with their point differential. Washington underperformed their Pythagorean expectation by nearly two full games, the third-largest margin in the league. Teams that underperform their Pythagorean expectation that drastically tend to see a bump in the win column the following season.
As is often the case with teams that have fewer wins that you would expect based on their point differential, Washington struggled in close games. After going 5-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2012, Washington went 2-5 in such games last year, good for a .286 winning percentage that topped only St. Louis and Houston. That poor performance in close games isn't likely to stick around in 2014.
Washington's turnover margin and interception rate saw some expected regression last year, but they swung pretty far in the opposite direction. A plus-17 turnover margin (third-best) and a 1.8 percent interception rate (third-best) in 2012 became a minus-8 turnover margin (25th) and a 3.1 percent interception rate (22nd) in 2013. Presuming we get a healthy Griffin, those numbers should settle somewhere in the middle.
Taking a more pessimistic view for a moment, salary cap issues and a lack of draft picks due to the RG3 trade has left the roster talent deprived at various positions. Depth could become a major issue if the team is forced to deal with more injuries in 2014—Washington was one of the league's healthiest teams a season ago—especially on defense.
General manager Bruce Allen did manage to add a couple of significant pieces via free agency in wide receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive lineman Jason Hatcher, both of which provide immediate upgrades at their respective positions. Jackson has seen few defenses he hasn't been able to blow the top off of and the thought of watching an RG3 bomb fall into the hands of a streaking Jackson 60 yards downfield makes the unbiased football fan in me giddy. Hatcher is an underrated player and was one of the lone bright spots on that Dallas defense last year.
Beyond those two players, it's difficult to envision any new addition to the roster providing an impact in 2014. If you're pro-Washington this season, you're banking on a revitalized offense under the watch of new head coach Jay Gruden and a healthy RG3 while hoping that Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan can lead a pass rush capable of masking a subpar secondary. The anti-Washington crowd will see a reckless, injury-prone RG3 and a shocking lack of depth on defense as reason to believe Washington was a one-hit wonder in 2012.
I'm not sure exactly which side of the fence I fall on at this point, but if backed into a corner I think we see good RG3 show up and put Washington back around .500 with an outside chance to win an NFC East that you could talk me into anyone but Dallas winning.