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True Turnovers, Week 16: Saints ahead of Ravens’ 2017 mark, but Browns most improved this year

December 20, 2018

With two games remaining in the 2018 regular season, the New Orleans Saints are ahead of the team with the best True Turnover mark from the 2017 season.

Last year, the Baltimore Ravens paced the NFL at plus-23 in PFW’s new metric. This season, in 14 games, the Saints are sitting at plus-24. Can they top that mark over the final two games?

We only developed our True Turnover metric this offseason, measuring not just net interceptions and fumbles gained/lost, but also the other two ways teams can give up possessions: via missed field-goal attempts and on fourth-down failures.

We ran the 2017 numbers but went no farther back than that. Perhaps this offseason we’ll spend a day looking at 2016, or maybe even 2015, to get a more complete picture of what a truly dominant or pathetic showing in the True Turnover differential is.

But right now, the Saints are getting it done and arguably have been a more complete team in a few respects than last season’s unit, even with more narrow victories lately plus a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

The 2017 Saints had a very respectable mark of plus-11 on True Turnovers, but they’re 13 better than that so far this year. This year’s club has cut way down on their own offensive True Turnovers so far — from 26 to 17 — and already have forced three more True Turnovers (41, the third-most in the NFL) on defense.

The team with the biggest differential, however — and it’s not even close — is the Cleveland Browns. We suspect that if we ran the numbers back 10, 20 or 30 years, the Browns’ 2017 mark of minus-35 on True Turnovers could truly have been a historic mark of futility. That means they averaged a net of more than two possessions per game that they coughed up, which is just absurd.

But this year, the Browns are shockingly among the league leaders in True Turnovers. Through 14 games, even with major in-season coaching changes, the Browns are sitting at plus-7, which is tied for 10th in the NFL. So yeah, we’ll save you the math: That’s a difference to date of plus-42!

What stands out, too, is that they’re doing it with a rookie QB taking most of the snaps and that no Browns defender has been directly responsible for more than five turnovers. It truly has been a remarkable team effort, even with some standout performances from a few individual playmakers on defense, such as Myles Garrett.

The next biggest one-year team improvement so far has been the Miami Dolphins, who were minus-19 last season, which was the fourth-worst mark in 2017, and who are now sitting at plus-17, which is third best in the league. That’s also a massive net difference of plus-36.

It’s perhaps no shock that the Browns have gone from an 0-16 season last year to a 6-7-1 record so far. The Dolphins haven’t seen that massive an improvement in the standings, but they were 6-10 a year ago and already have surpassed that (7-7) with a slim chance to make the playoffs still and a shot to up their win total by as many as three in 2018.

The teams that have fallen off the most? Well, a shocking one is Baltimore. We mentioned how the Ravens led the league last season, and that was a big reason why they were in the playoff race until the final seconds of the final game in 2017, despite some serious offensive shortcomings.

But they’ve sunk to minus-3 so far this season, for a net drop of minus-26 a this point. The lack of defensive True Turnovers — 49 last season, only 25 thus far in 2018 — is the biggest drop-off. The Ravens are still competitive so far, and you certainly could say they’re better in some respects this season vs. last. But the defense has become more reliant on stopping people as opposed to taking the ball away, which might not be a sustainable quality as we project forward with the playoffs in mind, even as effective as they’ve been on that side of the ball.

Other teams that have dropped significantly from last season to this one: the Eagles (minus-25 difference), Steelers (minus-23), Jaguars (minus-22) and Vikings (minus-18). You could maybe lump the Patriots, who are off by a factor of minus-13 to date, into this group of slightly-to-very under-performing presumptive Super Bowl contenders entering the season.

Perhaps after the completion of the regular season, we’ll also give a full breakdown of the final numbers and compare them over a three-year period or longer. But right now, we’re just mulling how ridiculous an improvement those Browns and Dolphins seem to be making.

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