Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

Most Recent FO Features

ThomasEar10.jpg

» 2013 Play-Action Defense

Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?

24 Jan 2006

Any Given Sunday: Steelers over Broncos

by Ned Macey

Ben Roethlisberger is deservedly the toast of the town in Pittsburgh today. Rumor has it that Jerome Bettis is returning to his hometown to play the final game in a Hall of Fame career. The Pittsburgh offense was indeed superb, but the reason the Steelers enter the Super Bowl as slight favorites is a dominant defense that is equally strong against the run and pass.

The Broncos were happy to see the Steelers upset a Colts team that had embarrassed them in two consecutive playoff losses. Hosting the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos tried to rely on what got them there: an aggressive defense that never stopped attacking. Failure to adjust to the opponent left Mike Shanahan as the second quality coach to be outdone by the Pittsburgh brain trust.

Pittsburgh's loss to Cincinnati in Week 13 left them 7-5 and needing to win out just to make the playoffs. The well-told story involves a rededication to doing things the "Steeler" way. Much was made during the regular season of Pittsburgh's emphasis on the running game. The real key was an improved defense that now disrupts passing games as much as running games.

By midseason, the Steelers would get into trouble on defense when opponents used max-protect schemes that allowed quarterbacks the time to get receivers down the field. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are both quality players but not exactly All-Pros. Nobody can hold one-on-one coverage for a long period of time if the blitz fails to get to the quarterback, and everyone in the secondary was exposed at times this year.

The Bengals game was the low point for the Steelers, with the Carson Palmer-led offense racking up 38 points. That was the sixth time in the first 12 games they gave up more than 21 points. The Steelers have not given up more than 21 in their last seven games. A fully-healthy Joey Porter has led a pass rush that has gone from good to downright dominant.

A week after getting to Peyton Manning five times, the Steelers brought Jake Plummer down three times and harassed him many more. Jon Kitna was sacked four times in relief of Carson Palmer, and the Steelers' recent success shows that their win in Cincinnati may have had less to do with Palmer's injury than was first assumed. The Bengals, Colts, and Broncos gave up the fewest sacks of any team during the regular season.

The pass rush changed the game again this week when Porter forced a fumble on a first-quarter sack. Five plays later, Pittsburgh scored a touchdown for a 10-0 lead and complete control of the game.

The fumble by Plummer was the beginning of what was a very disappointing game. Writers everywhere are now dismissing the very real steps forward Plummer took this year. Four turnovers are hardly the stuff of legends, but other than the atrocious interception he threw at the end of the first half, none was a terrible play. Plummer is certainly no John Elway, but for historical comparison, Elway threw at least one interception in his first nine playoff games. He threw three in the Super Bowl against Washington.

All this game proved is that Plummer needs a solid running offense and a sturdy defense to be effective. If he gets stuck in a large deficit, he will still make mistakes. That is true of 90 percent of quarterbacks. Plummer was the inferior quarterback on Sunday, but he is not the problem in Denver.

The Steelers defense simply played better than the Broncos offense for most of the first three quarters. But on offense, the Steelers were able to sprint to a lead thanks to superior coaching. The Broncos' constant blitzes were able to frustrate the indomitable Tom Brady in the Divisional round. If they could be that successful against Brady, one could imagine what they might do to Roethlisberger. Strict adherence to this erroneous theory proved to be their undoing.

Roethlisberger is an amazing talent. He has been the third-most efficient quarterback in football in both of his two seasons in the league according to our advanced statistics (although not third in total value, because Pittsburgh runs so often). Last year, much of his success was attributed to playing with a dominant running game, great receivers, and an excellent defenses. His struggles in the playoffs seemed to bear out this critique.

This year, the Steelers have a mediocre running game and a receiving corps that features Antwaan Randle El and Cedrick Wilson as the second and third receiver. Only the strong defense remains. Roethlisberger took last year's postseason failures as incentive to improve this year, and watching him in the pocket on Sunday was like watching a seasoned veteran.

Even as good as Roethlisberger is, nobody could accurately predict how the Steelers would be successful on Sunday. In games Roethlisberger played, the Steelers ranked 17th in DVOA on third down. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' advanced metric that measures performance on a per play basis and is further explained here.) The Broncos ranked second in third-down defense and particularly excelled against the pass in large part due to their ability to intercept third-down passes.

These trends looked like they would be continued on the Steelers' very first third down. Facing third-and-3, Roethlisberger went to the air. Champ Bailey made a play on the ball and almost came away with the interception. The deflection went to Hines Ward for a first down. From that point on, the Steelers dominated on third down. They converted seven of their next eight third downs, all but one of which required at least six yards.

The success was attributable to excellent coaching. First, the Steelers mixed max protection throws down the field with dump-offs to backs and receivers. The Patriots had great success with screen passes, and the Steelers converted several that kept the defense honest.

Second, they attacked Dominique Foxworth, the Broncos' rookie cornerback. A year ago, the Broncos were bounced from the playoffs when they tried to cover Reggie Wayne with Roc Alexander. This time they did not face a receiver of Wayne's quality, but multiple receivers took advantage of Foxworth, who seemed to allow a bigger cushion each time he gave up a completion. Foxworth led the team in tackles, never a good sign for a cornerback.

The final piece of brilliant play-calling came on the Steelers' first touchdown when they directly attacked the Broncos' best cornerback. The Steelers knew Bailey liked to make big plays. Facing a third-and-8 from the 12-yard line, Wilson faked a slant. A pump-fake by Roethlisberger got the All-Pro corner to bite, and Roethlisberger hit Wilson in the corner of the end zone for the game's first touchdown.

The Broncos tried to mount a second-half rally, but the deficit was too large. The loss was their third consecutive playoff loss in which they allowed at least 30 points. This year's team was better than those that fell to the Colts. The young secondary that struggled on Sunday should improve next year. They have as good a chance to get back to the playoffs as anybody. Pittsburgh has proved that once you are in the playoffs, you have a chance to do something special.

Two impressive wins in a row have made the 11-5 Steelers favorites in the Super Bowl over 13-3 Seattle. Our DVOA rankings agree that the Steelers are a slightly better team as long as Roethlisberger is quarterback, but they still have some reasons for concern.

Their offense cannot consistently run the ball. The Steelers surprised both the Colts and the Broncos with their willingness to throw the football, but Seattle is unlikely to be similarly fooled. The Seahawks excel in run defense, and they will not have to use extra defenders to keep the mediocre Steelers running game in check.

The Steelers also have a continuing habit of giving up big pass plays. They gave up two receptions of at least 30 yards to Ashley Lelie in the AFC Championship Game. Dallas Clark beat them for a 50-yard touchdown. Carson Palmer's only pass attempt was a 66-yard completion to Chris Henry. Even in their last regular season game, they let Shawn Bryson gain 63 yards on a pass play.

None of these plays were made by number one receivers. In fact the Steelers have kept Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, and Rod Smith under control the past three weeks. With Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, Jerramy Stevens, and maybe even Seneca Wallace, Seattle has a host of secondary weapons who could make a big play.

Finally, the Steelers will be unable to replicate two crucial elements of their domination of the Broncos. They recovered both of the Denver fumbles while watching their own fumble go harmlessly out of bounds. More importantly, no matter how good their coaching, they cannot expect to once again convert eight of their first nine third downs.

Had they missed on even a couple more third-down opportunities, the game would not have gotten out of hand, and Denver could have remained balanced on offense. Denver had some early success running the ball with Mike Anderson. The early deficit forced the Broncos to abandon the run and leave the game in Plummer's hands.

The real lesson from the Steelers' two wins is not that they are the best team in the AFC. They are deserving of the AFC Championship, but Denver and Indianapolis are both as good as Pittsburgh. The key to their playoff success has been coaching.

If the Patriots' run of playoff success taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that coaching is the difference-maker in the playoffs. When the talent level is the same on both sides of the field, play calling and play design separate champions from chokers. The last two weeks, the Steelers coaches have convincingly out-coached their opponents. This trend is not limited to the AFC. Seattle doesn't have half the talent on defense that Chicago has, but the Seahawks had a quality game plan and dominated a Carolina offense that had just abused the superior Chicago defense.

Pittsburgh and Seattle are about as evenly matched as they come. For the Steelers to finish their remarkable run, they will need continued excellent play from Roethlisberger. More importantly, they will need coaches on the sideline who again will put their players in a position to exploit their opponent's weaknesses. Bill Cowher and staff sent Tony Dungy and Mike Shanahan home thanks to a superior game plan. We will see if they have any tricks left in the bag for Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game. This is the final column for the season; Any Given Sunday will return in September.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 24 Jan 2006

97 comments, Last at 30 Jan 2006, 9:21pm by Sid

Comments

1
by Steve Z (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:17pm

If the Patriots’ run of playoff success taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that coaching is the difference-maker in the playoffs. When the talent level is the same on both sides of the field, play calling and play design separate champions from chokers.
This point can’t be emphasized enough!

Good article!

2
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:25pm

Well said.

Besides general bad bounces going against Denver all day, which made the game get out of hand, Denver's DEF simply didn't make the plays they have all year. Bailey, Foxworth, Ferguson and Lynch all had potential picks that they didn't convert, with Bailey's and Ferguson's both going to Ward for a 1st down & TD respectively. Up until Plummer's awful pick in the 2nd quarter, I kept saying "although we're down by XX, we're really not playing that bad!"

Simply put, it was the Steelers day. The bounces went their way, and they made the big plays while the Broncos didn't. Great coaching, a little luck, and solid execution. If they do/get the same in XL, no way Seattle can beat them (of course, if the bounces could go Seattle's way, it goes the other way :-)). My hat is off to them.

3
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:25pm

Ned,

Excellent column. Take all those nasty things I said last week and invert them. This article addressed what the Steelers did to win, denied the "Plummer choked" meme, and identified both strengths and weaknesses Pittsburgh has going into the Super Bowl.

I'd only have a couple of quibbles: You say "the Steelers will be unable to replicate two crucial elements of their domination of the Broncos," referring to fumble recoveries and third-down conversions. I'd say "the Steelers can't be assured of replicating" these elements -- fumble recoveries being random, they're just as likely to continue to go the Steelers' way as they are to not; and with regard to third downs, you said it better later in the paragraph: The Steelers can not expect to convert eight of their first nine third down, but that doesn't mean they won't. But that's mostly semantics -- your message was that there are a couple of things that contributed to the Steelers' win that they can't count on happening against Seattle, and I agree.

Finally, I predict an onslaught of Fox-trolls reading "The real lesson from the Steelers’ two wins is not that they are the best team in the AFC" as "The real lesson from the Steelers’ two wins is that they are not the best team in the AFC." Those of us with a more than passing acquaintance with the English language realize that's not what you said -- you said the the Steelers, Colts, and Broncos are all about as good, but Pittsburgh outcoached Indy and Denver. I'll take that any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

4
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:26pm

Ned, I propose you start a new feature on FO. This one called "Whoops, we really got that one wrong!" While I could easily pick on KUBIAK (and Kevin Jones!), instead what about this:

Last week, your site mocked Peyton Manning and the Colts for not max protecting against the Steelers' blitz package. This week, you indicate that maybe the Steelers have devised ways to beat the max-protect scheme, as early as mid-season. Could it be possibly that the Colts had already figured this out, and thought their best chance at scoring points was the minimum protection/maximum receivers scheme they devised? Even though they ultimately failed, does their plan look different in retrospect?

FWIW, I agreed with your assessment last week. I believed that the Colts were a superior team and a poor game plan caused them to fail against the Steelers. However, Pitt's dismantling of the Broncos has caused me to revisit my initial assessment. Can FO do the same?

5
by RowdyRoddyPiper (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:27pm

Excellent piece Ned. The analysis on coaching being the difference is spot on. You can't really beat teams solely on atheletic ability at this point in the season. I guess the question for me is: Did Roethlisberger's improvement as a QB allow the coaches to call a better game, or did the coaches call a game to Roethlisberger's strength. The third option of course is that it's a bit of both.

6
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:28pm

They recovered both of the Denver fumbles while watching their own fumble go harmlessly out of bounds.

I've said this elsewhere, but the second one of these is the one place where who recovered the fumble is totally unimportant.

It was 4th and 10. The only person who can advance a fumble on 4th down is the person who fumbled the ball, and that was Jake Plummer who was standing 5 yards away from the pile just watching his team try to scramble to recover it. The instant one of his teammates manages to get possession of the ball, they're down, and the ball goes back to the Steelers.

It's actually hilarious that Plummer wasn't diving in trying to get the ball, but of course, the game really was totally over long before that.

7
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:36pm

And BTW, you probably know I'm a big fan of FO and your system, so please don't think I'm a troll. I'm actually quite serious. Can assessments of past games be reconsidered based on more recent games? Can Peyton's performance be re-assessed? Can John Kitna's woeful game be reconsidered? In retropect, it's obvious that Pitt was better going into the first week of the playoffs than everyone thought they were. If these games were played again, I don't expect that everyone would be blaming the Colt's as they were last week, but rather praising the Steelers.

8
by MdM (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:41pm

Great coaching is important to playoff wins. As an Eagle fan, this just hurts. I think of when Fox out-Foxed Reid, or when Gruden pulled the upset to close out the Vet. And in the 2nd half of last year's Superbowl, whiffing on screen pass after screen pass. I'm seeing it through Eagle colored glasses, though :(

9
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:43pm

Did Denver switch to a "Max protect" scheme to confound the Steelers blitzes?

10
by Luz (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 12:55pm

hmmm... i wonder about the long passes. i certainly don't claim this to be the case, but didn't most of those passes come late in the game when the steelers D didn't seem to be as aggressive? i'm not sure myself.

also, i think the success that denver had early with the run game can be attributed to mike anderson. he was often getting hit 2-3 yds further then where he ended up. he was breaking tackles or running through defenders in a very impressive way. scheme-wise the steelers seemed to be in position and anderson would make a good play regardless.

11
by Israel (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:07pm

Nice piece, Ned. You are a man of your word.

12
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:08pm

A very minor quibble: "Mike Shanahan as the second quality coach to be outdone by the Pittsburgh brain trust." When you refer to the Steeler coaches, you tend to say "the Steeler coaches" or "the Steeler staff" or "Cowher and staff." When you refer to the Broncos or the Colts or the Seahawks, you tend to say "Mike Shanahan" or "Tony Dungy" or "Mike Holmgren." No wonder the Steelers won--Bill Cowher had lots of help from assistant coaches, while poor Shanahan and Dungy evidently had to go it alone. There seems to be this idea that Cowher isn't much of a coach and his assistants are the real "brain trust." We heard it with Capers, with Haslett, with Mularkey, now with LeBeau and Whisenhut. The Steelers have averaged 10 wins a season and been to the AFC championship 6 times in Cowher's 14 seasons. I guess Cowher's just been lucky in hiring his coordinators; even though he's the main constant through that period, it has to be the variables that are responsible for the consistent success, right?

13
by Robert Visser (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:15pm

I have to say that Larry Coyer's inability to respond to the Steeler's offensive success was as big a factor as the Steeler's defensive success. Leaving Foxworth on an island so long into the first half was disastrous for Denver and the third down conversion rate. With the blitz not working and the Steeler's run game going no where. Coyer should have rotated one of the linebackers or safeties to assist Foxworth in coverage. With the amount of talent Denver has on defense this lack of adjustment was simply inexcusable. With Denver now giving up an average of 41.3 points in its last three play-off exits the time has come to take the blinders off and, while respecting what Coyer has done in regular season performances, recognize that this team really needs a Greg Williams or Dick LeBeau. Is there any doubt that one of these co-ordinators would not have coached up the talent on Denver's defense?

14
by rk (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:32pm

Re: 13
I'd say there is quite a bit of doubt that LeBeau would have "coached up the talent on Denver's defense" considering that his unit gave up 34 to the Patriots in last year's playoff exit for the Steelers.

15
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:35pm

#12, a good point. Great coaches surround themselves with other great coaches. Thus, Billichik in New England has assistants move on, to good effect. In retrospect, all the great teams of the past 30 years had future great coaches on their staff. Did anyone else see that photo of the Packers coaching staff when they won the SB? Lots of future NFL coaches on that squad.

Anyway, whether you can point to Shanahan or to Cowher or to their staffs, certainly Pittsburgh outcoached Denver. I've wondered before and will wonder again if maybe Denver was more prepared for Indy than Pitt and if that affected their ability to game plan for Pitt.

16
by Theo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:39pm

I expect Saneca Wallace lining up as a receiver for one play in the SB.
Question is: what play are they gonna run with him?

17
by Born a Bronco Fan/Die a Bronco Fan (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:46pm

Ned,

I usually only comment on Aarons articles and just read the rest but this one is awesome. I have spent the last two days sticking up for Jake. Your article defends that. The Broncos had opportunities to make plays that could have changed the complection of the entire game (I am not saying they would have won but it should have been a better game). The team that was going to win Sunday was the team that got ahead early and could play safe from there.

I think another key in the game was the first drive for each team. Denver got one first down away from being in field goal range and Pitt got the first down to get them into field goal range. Champ should have made the interception but they still had chances to stop them.

I like that you give a lot of credit to the coaching but the players need to make plays. Foxworth was too afraid of getting beat and some dropped passes and missed blocks were not the coaches fault. Ben and Porter were stellar, no mistakes, practically a perfect game for both.

You mentioned Elway threw interceptions in his first 9 playoff games, hec, Ben threw 3 last year. We are relatively young on defense, add another WR (TO maybe), an quick pass rusher for 3rd downs and a little depth and this team is real good next year.

Great Article and I hope that Cohwer and Bettis win it all, they are deserving.

GO BRONCOS!!!

18
by Matthew (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:55pm

Why is it that no one seems to be mentioning Darrent Williams? I'm a Broncos fan, and when I heard before the game that Williams wasn't going to be playing much, my thoughts were "Well, it's going to be Reggie Wayne against the rookies all over again." While Foxworth has been solid as a rookie, Williams is obviously a far-superior player at this point. To me, had Williams played, this game changes completely. Wilson just abused Foxworth, and I can't believe that he would have been nearly as successful against Williams.

19
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 1:58pm

Is it just me, or did Bettis change from "long shot HOF potential" to "first round HOF lock" in the last few seasons? I don't want to denigrate the guy, but it seems to me that his greatest skill has been his longeviety (which is pretty impressive, considering how many running backs get injured each year). However, is the fact that he's been around forever (allowing him to amass a lot of yards) really enough?

20
by J.S. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 2:01pm

Re: Pawnking (#4)

I have to agree with you on that point. no where last week was a piece written like this one. everyone just seemed to want to be down on the Colts for blowing it. (by everyone I mean everyone, not just FO)

It amazes me that now in the wake of the win over denver that everyone is saying that every team that they played either had a bad game or poor scheme to play them. well as he stated in his article above, Bill Cowher has just been able to outhink, out adjust, and have his team outplay everyone else up to this point.

21
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 2:05pm

I do think the Broncos were outcoached somewhat, and it happened in the manner that drives me nuts; when a defense does not adjust it's scheme to an offense's strength, which seems to me to occur more frequently than the reverse. Bears/Panthers, of course is a more glaring example.

Having said that, coaching doesn't have much to do with guys not making eminently makeable plays. When a qb like Roethlisberger gives you a play on the ball, you gotta make the play at least some of the time, otherwise he is gonna kill you a few plays later. Denver didn't do so, and got killed in the process.

Pittsburh's defense operates best in obvious passing downs, which most defenses do, but they are well above average in capitalizing on obvious passing downs. However, while they are good, they ain't the '85 Bears or the 2000 Ravens, and a superior offensive line, which doesn't have to make up a fourteen point deficit, can punch them in the mouth through the running game and greatly mitigate the Steelers' penchant for creating chaos. Denver was having success running, and Alexander is a better running back than anything Denver has. We'll see if Seattle's different run blocking scheme can experience the same success, if Seattle's defense doesn't let Roethlisberger and Co. go wild early on. I think they can.

22
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 2:14pm

16: That's Seneca "Slash" Wallace. Who's thought of highlier than any other backup QB playing wide receiver in the playoffs.

23
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:06pm

Great column Ned. I completely agree with the whole 'coaching is the difference' school of thought, but as well as that, I thought the Steelers O-line did a fabulous job with picking up the blitz, and (coaching again) Denver never really came to terms with that.

No-one seems to have mentioned the other 'hidden' play in the early part of the game, Washington breaking up an interception in the endzone. The score was either 3-0 or 10-0 and if Foxworth (I think) comes down with the pick, Denver get a touchback. Instead, if memory serves, Pittsburgh scored on the drive.

24
by Vlad (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:07pm

#18, darrent williams is no bryant mcfadden ;) And considering the wild blitzes your guys were throwing at the steelers and the great protection, somebody was bound to get open. Thus, the game wouldn't completely change. Lets be charitable and make it 24-17, but come on the victor was clear.

25
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:10pm

Fumbles are not random in their recovery, and even DVOA incoroporates this. So a harmless fumble on the sideline is basically exactly that, a harmless fumble, unable to be recovered by either side. That's not good luck on the Steelers part, its just... something that happened. It might matter for player evaluation (ie, he wasnt thinking about, hey, I can just fumble it here!) but, if Steve Smith fumbled 30 yards downfield there will be three defenders and no one on offense to get the ball. Some fumble recoveries are more random than others, and some are very predictable. Like ones that go out of bounds. Those I can predict who ends up with it pretty much every time.

26
by jeff t (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:22pm

Will Allen,

You've mentioned several times that the Steelers can be run on. I don't see anything in the statistical record or my observations to think that this is true [Note: I am a biased Steelers fan]. I am curious as to what you see (or have seen) that leads you to draw this conclusion. I'm not trolling here or anything, just curious.

That's not to say that Seattle will run it successfully. They have a terrific OL and one of the best RB in the NFL.

27
by SVH (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:23pm

#6: Plummer takes enough heat for real flaws--no need for the cheap shot about his effort. He fumbled, his momentum took him away from the play, he turned around to get to the ball and a Steeler yanked him back, till a half dozen bodies are lying on the ball and the whistle had blown. He gave all he had that game (how many sacks did he twist out of through sheer effort?) and that wasn't fair criticism.

As for other people saying the defense not adjusting, I agree, but it worked against NE. Brady started to carve the blitz up in the second half, but Denver stayed true to what had worked for them all year and blitzed again, result, interception by Bailey. Result this week, dropped/slightly missed interceptions 3 times. Live by the blitz, die by the blitz, and hindsight is always 20/20 on when they should have adjusted and when they should have stayed with the plan.

I think Denver's big problem, which has been true forever, is that the Broncos can't generate pressure on the QB without rushing 5+ guys (not since Lyle Alzado or maybe Simon Fletcher anyway). So they have to blitz since any QB can pick apart a defense given enough time, and it's feast or famine as a result. I've come to believe it's a scheme issue (and how that scheme affects the players they sign). Not in terms of talent, but how that talent is used. The best 4-3 ends for pass rushing are smaller and faster (see the Bears or Giants, for example--Strahan at least was playing closer to 260 this year, despite his listed weight). Not to mention Burgess or Freeney and so many other individuals. Yet Denver consistently goes for larger, almost 3-4 style ends, and then lines them up and tells them to stop the run first and foremost no matter what. Even when pass rushing, it seems like their first job is to smack an offensive lineman every play (check their stances--you almost never see a Denver DL lined up really wide in obvious "I'm going around that corner towards the QB no matter what" mode--it's either a straight bull rush or a stunt, no speed moves at all).

I know Denver toyed with going to the 3-4 this past year--I wish they would. It fits their personnel and coaching habits a lot better than how they currently run the 4-3, and might enable them to generate pressure without having to sell out their DB's in man coverage all day long. It would almost certainly get more sacks--I think the reason Denver's sack #'s are so low is that when you are obviously going to big blitz, the QB gets rid of the ball fast (often leading to incompletes and INT's, which are great, but that's why they get so many pressures without getting actual sacks--the offense/QB always knows it coming and speeds up their throw accordingly).

Great game (and gameplan by the Steelers). I sure hope Whisenhunt does NOT get hired by the Raiders. Keep him in someone else's division please. And beat those Hawks--I've been marooned in Seattle the last decade and so many fans around here are fair-weather boosters it makes me sick. Yeah yeah, gross generalization and lots of true fans too--but boy has the bandwagon gotten full the last couple weeks around here--and the Mariners and Sonics should be warning the Hawks how quickly it will empty too.

28
by Steve Z (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:29pm

Re: #26

You’ve mentioned several times that the Steelers can be run on. I don’t see anything in the statistical record or my observations to think that this is true....
The Steelers finished the year second in Rushing Defense DVOA. They were sixth in 2004 and 2003. Somewhere during the season, the Steelers’ defense neutralized a running game or two.

29
by tunesmith (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:41pm

I read the article and felt like it was leading up some points that were left unexplored:

1) what defensive adjustments the broncos should have made but didn't
2) what it was about denver's defensive scheme that was actually weak, and why
3) was the point that pittsburgh was in an analogous situation back during their cincinnati loss, and made the correct adjustments that denver did not? what were they?

30
by Carlos (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:41pm

Great article.

I'm really looking forward to the Super Bowl, as I could see this game going either way. Roethlisberger has been awesome these past few weeks, and Seattle -- who I had completely underestimated based on only seeing the first Redskins game -- has looked very sharp on both sides of the ball.

Most interesting to me is that Seattle got great pressure (and had great success) last week rushing only 3 lineman and dropping 8 into coverage. I'd love to see them do that. I thought Denver and Carolina really did themselves in by blitzing LB and safeties obviously and basically directly into the interior lineman.

31
by Glazius (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 3:44pm

Unfortunately, I slept through the first half, damn you grad school, but from what I saw of the replay of the Bailey/Ward tip drill that wasn't all Champ whiffing, Hines got his hands in there and broke up the interception. Nate Washington did the same thing in the endzone. Lalie did the same thing from the Broncos' end.

Now, that cross-body lob to Ward in the back of the endzone, that was a more whiffed interception, but I don't think when a receiver goes in to break up an interception that it could easily swing one way or the other, at least not to the extent that a fumble is a random bounce. Especially with Ward, the man's a scrapper.

--GF

32
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 4:00pm

He fumbled, his momentum took him away from the play, he turned around to get to the ball and a Steeler yanked him back, till a half dozen bodies are lying on the ball and the whistle had blown. He gave all he had that game (how many sacks did he twist out of through sheer effort?) and that wasn’t fair criticism.

Sure it's fair. It's not severe criticism, mind you - I doubt there's a QB in the league that would've done differently. But if there's a Steeler grabbing and holding him, then he should've struggled like utter hell to get to the ball. Who knows, a ref might've seen that and called holding. He's the only one who can advance it - literally, the only person who could possibly save the play.

Personally I thought it was hilarious that the Broncos/Steelers were still fighting for it. They have to, of course, because it's all instinct, but they should've just let a Bronco pounce on it if they were thinking. Safer that than some freak weirdo chance like the ball squirting loose, Plummer picking it up and running for a first down.

33
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 4:04pm

jefft., if I remember correctly, Pittsburgh ranked about 13th and 18th in adjusted line yards for runs at the two ends, while ranking very high for runs up the middle. This is not altogether surprising; Casey Hampton is a terrific nt, but not hugely mobile in the manner of a lineman like Richard Seymour, and while the Steelers have great pass rushers at the perimeter, great perimeter pass rushers often are not terrific run stuffers. The overall rushing DVOA for Pittsburgh is also greatly aided by the number of plays Polamalu makes near the line of scrimmage, but I think Holmgren and Hasselbeck are good enough to punish the Steelers if they sell out to stop the run. A superior offensive line can attack Pittsburgh's defense at the perimeter, as long as there is a qb and an offensive coach skilled enough to keep them honest.

You could see that this was exactly what Denver had in mind, and were having some success with, until Pittsburgh put up so many points so quickly that the running game had to be abandoned. I'd take Hasselbeck any day of the week over Plummer, and Holmgren is certainly Shanahan's equal in terms of offensive coaching. If Seattle's defense comes with a good plan, and makes plays when presented with the opportunity to do so, I think it likely that Alexander will have a good day.

34
by Countertorque (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 4:26pm

For the regular season, the Den pass defense was 4th, Indy's was 6th and Seattle's was 25th.

Why do people think that the Seattle defense can keep a lid on the Steeler passing game? Did they sharply improve during the playoffs? I don't think their performance vs. Carolina counts for much, as they only had 1 guy to defend.

35
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 4:51pm

Well, countertorque, I'm not particularly confident that they will, and if they don't, the game isn't going to be nearly as much fun to watch as I would like.

36
by Manteo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 4:51pm

Countertorque - while I won't deny the DVOA, a lot of the yardage came 1)Against backup players in the secondary; and 2) Late in games when opponents were trying to play catch-up.

The Hawks devised one gameplan to stop the league's best reciever; now they will need another plan to stop a more-balanced but less-deadly receiver set.

What worries me, though, is the QB - Delhomme, for all his "5-1 in the playoffs" hype, apparently has a bad case of tunnel vision, and when forced off his star reciever, he starts to make dumb mistakes. Big Ben seems like a much cooler character, and thus much more dangerous.

37
by mattfwood (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:05pm

Will -- yes, Hasselbeck is better than Plummer any day of the week. Choking proclivities aside, is he better than Manning?

The Steelers D isn't invincible, but it is much better than it was at mid-year now that Porter and Farrior are healthier.

And if beating the Palmer-less Bengals, the Colts, and the Broncos doesn't impress you, I don't know what would. In the regular season the Steelers also beat the Chargers and kept Tomlinson and Gates under control; played well enough against the Jags and the Patriots, even though they lost both games; shut down the Bears running game; held the Bengas to 13 points back in October; etc. Again, not invincible, but not exactly unused to success against quality offenses.

38
by Israel (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:13pm

32 writes "Safer that than some freak weirdo chance like the ball squirting loose, Plummer picking it up and running for a first down.

Or someone's getting hurt, now that you mention it.

39
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:16pm

Israel: Good point. I still think it would've been hilarious for the Steelers to completely ignore the fumble, watch a Bronco dive maniacally for the ball, and then walk over and pat him on the back as the officials blow the play dead, giving the ball back to the Steelers.

40
by Lance S. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:20pm

Re. #10

I agree that Anderson's yards came through sheer determination. On half his runs the Denver line was completely blown up, w/Steelers getting penetration 2-3 yards into the backfield. He was surrounded by defenders for the whole run. As a Steelers fan I was pulling my hair out, screaming for someone to bring him down. Quite a Marine-esque effort.

41
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:25pm

re: 31

I agree Ward should get LOTS of credit for both breaking up the Bailey "pick", and then making the play for the 1st down... and I also agree that every "potential" pick won't necessarily be converted... the difference in the game was that Pitt made the plays (see Ward), while Denver didn't make any of the plays (see Champ, et. al.).

Like I said, my hat is off to Pitt and I like their chances in XL... they're playing great.

My Denver-homer "fond imagination scenario" is simply because all year those "potential picks" WERE converted... hence 14-4 record on the season. It also shows why all the stats in the world won't tell who will win the game (see disclaimer at the end of every Aaron power ranking column), because in the end, you have to get the bounces and/or make the plays THAT WEEK to win... past performance may hint at the future, but it guaruntees nothing.

42
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:29pm

One reason that I think that Pitt can be run on is that they've shown they can be run on in the playoffs. Rudi Johnson had a fairly decent day, James had a 4 ypc average, and Mike Anderson did well for Denver. The factor in the last two games (and why DVOA looks at it as a 'success' for defense) is that the running game was essentially abandoned. James rushed only 13 times. Anderson rushed only 8 times. That shows up as a good play for the Steelers, even though on an individual level they had success as far as DPAR is concerned.

Heck, Baltimore had success running against the Steelers.

As to Seattle's D - I think their D is higher rated than 25th, though I know their passing D is lower. And I know why - because they give up long 3rd downs on passing and occasionally give up big plays. That being said, don't make Ben into the second coming of Brady quite yet; while he was able to do very well in the playoffs, he has been shown to have bad days - most notably a horrible day against the Detroit defense in week 17. He's not invulnerable; I just don't know what went wrong in that game.

43
by cjfarls (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:34pm

Re: 18

Interesting thought that Williams would've been more effective/agressive than Foxworth... somethng to ponder and look forward to 'til next September ;-)

I guess I got used to both of them playing well, so didn't think it was a huge drop-off between the 2. I am looking forward to having both of them again next year...

44
by Craig Richardson (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:45pm

Re: #37. "The Steelers D isn’t invincible, but it is much better than it was at mid-year now that Porter and Farrior are healthier"

Undeniable. But the Hawks' lack of national visibility has hid just how banged up /they/ were on defense. Trufant, Dyson, and Herndon aren't the greatest set of cornerbacks in the league, but their backups are worse, and there were games that all three were missing.

With the first-string secondary (save Hamlin) back, I agree with Will Allen - if the front four can contain the run without linebacker help, the Hawks have the personnel back healthy to have a shot at coming up with a scheme to keep it low-scoring. If they're getting Herndon caught in single-coverage off busted blitzes, it will be a long day.

45
by mattfwood (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 5:56pm

Craig --

I wasn't commenting on the Seahawk defense. They've certainly looked good too in these playoffs -- but while er're talking about being banged up, we could mention Clinton Portis and the Carolina running back corps.

I just wanted to push back on the notion that the Steeler D is somehow doing it with smoke and mirrors -- that the Colts or Broncos blew the game and just had bad gameplans. Fact is that the Steelers did have good gameplans to stop those typically potent offenses, and then they went out and executed those plans.

46
by Tim Gerheim :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:01pm

Kal (#42)

If I understand you right, you have DVOA and DPAR exactly backwards. DPAR is the additive stat; DVOA is figured on a strict per-play basis. The running backs who had only 13 or 8 carries will have low DPAR because they didn't accomplish a lot, but they will have fairly high DVOA's because they were efficient on the plays they did run. Likewise, there is no DPAR for the Steelers' defense, only a DVOA, so it should be fairly poor (at least by Pittsburgh standards) against the run for the playoffs because of the relative success of the opponents on their few rushing plays.

47
by chris clark (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:03pm

RE 19:

I don't know if Bettis has gone to HOF shoe-in in the last few seasons, but he has become a sentimental favorite due to longevity. Reminds me of when Elway finally won a SB and people told me (a long term Broncos fan) that he deserved it because he was 37.

However, I don't know about anything else, but it does seem that Bettis is still EARNING his salary and is still playing well. I think that there is more than just loyalty that has kept the Steelers from releasing him. In that sense, I think longevity counts, because he is still helping his team. At some level you HAVE to be good to last.

48
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:09pm

I really, really hate to inform Denver fans, but just to complete the misery after losing the championship game, Denver players are now being quoted as saying they want T.O. to come to Denver. They seem to think that they could handle him.

Oh, the poor souls.

49
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:10pm

#46: if that's the case, why does DPAR show success for Indy but Pitt's running DVOA also show success?

50
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:16pm

DPAR is points above replacement - DVOA is value over average. An average player is not a replacement player - the average player in the NFL is better than replacement. 0% DVOA is an average starter, and -13.3% is an average backup.

So Willie Parker is a below-average starter, but way better than a backup, and so that's valuable to a team. That doesn't mean that DVOA says that Bettis and Parker should switch places, because DVOA tends to be high for situational players, because they're not usually forced into situations where they can't perform well.

51
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:30pm

What is it about football fans that causes them to interpret an assertion that a superior offensive line can attack the Steelers at the perimeter as being the equivalent of saying that the Steelers defense is doing it with smoke and mirrors? Would only asserting...

"The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is the finest collection of football players to ever put on pads. They have no weaknesses, no points at which they can be defeated, and the Seahawks may as well not even leave Seattle. ABC should run a nine-hour festival of "Desperate Housewives" instead."

...be sufficient in giving the Steelers their respect?

Look, the Steelers have a very good defense. They are not a perfect defense, nor are they an all-time defense along the lines of the '85 Bears or 2000 Ravens. If they were, they would have won games with Maddox at QB the way the Ravens did when their offense was doing nothing.

Seattle, on the other hand, has a very good offensive line. They get paid too. It is not unreasonable to suppose, although not a certainty, either, that a very good offensive line, with one of the best running backs, with an efficient passing attack, will have success running against a team which ranked 18th and 13th in adjusted line yard on runs at the ends. Is it a certainty? Of course not, and it is very doubtful if Seattle's defense gives up a lot of early points. Saying, however, that one believes that the Seattle Seahawks will have a good day running the ball, if Seattle's defense plays reasonably well, is not some grand insult or flagrant show of disrespect to the Steelers.

Respectfully yours.....

52
by Thoreau (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:31pm

#49: Probably because the R in DPAR stands for replacement, and the A in DVOA stands for average. A replacement player is by definition worse than average, which is why you will see guys with positve DPAR's but negative DVOA's, but you won't see guys with negative DPAR's and positive DVOA's.

53
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:35pm

Ah, that makes sense. Thanks.

54
by Thoreau (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:38pm

Of modest interest in the whole can Seattle run or not/can Pittsburgh pass or not debate...see link for the box score of the 2003 game between the teams. Alexander 20 for 48 (not good) , though the Steelers let Maurice Morris break off a 43 yard run. Jerome Bettis put up similar numbers to Alexander. Meanwhile, Tommy Gun went 21/35 226 1 0. Interestingly, Hasselbeck put up virtually identical numbers. Seattle won 23-16 at home in a game that was quite close.

55
by Paul (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:42pm

Re 47: A couple years ago, the Steelers made Bettis choose. He was coming off an injury plagued year, it was obvious he wouldn't survive a full 16 game schedule as the number one back in a one primary back offense (particular a Steelers offense). But he was making 5 million per year. So the Steelers asked him to take a pay cut (to between 1 and 2 mil--I believe, I could be wrong), be a role player, and he agreed. He's been in that role for several years now. It was one of the smartest moves the Steelers have made. Bettis has been healthy at the end of the year and performed wonderfully. Steeler fans still remember Harris and Webster leaving at the end of their careers--its not a good feeling.

As far as HOF is concerned, if Bettis had retired when the Steelers made him choose, he probably still would be a HOF candidate, but not as certain. His best years with the Steelers were solid ones with many 100 yard games. The last years plus a SB ring would probably make him an absolute lock. With the appearance but no ring, he's still probably guaranteed as #5 all-time yards, but he might not be first year ballot.

56
by J (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:52pm

First, great article.

Two comments...

1. All teams make adjustments thoughout the game. Indy was using pulled their guards to defend against the outside blitz (if, upon reading the steelers D, they felt no one was coming from the middle). After the half, they did switch this blocking scheme to a zone-type blocking scheme where the tackles took the outside guy. The Steelers made adjustments to their adjustment, and still had success. I have not had time to review the Bronco/Steeler game, but I am certain adjustments were made.

2. As far as the Steelers, it has been my feeling for most of the season that the Steelers were very careful not to show their hand too early.

Last year, they peaked too early. They put everything into beating NE/Philly early in the season. Fine, they won the games. However, when it came time to play NE in the playoffs, NE new what to expect. They already got the Steelers best play/game-plan, and made their own game plan using this info.

In this year's big games (cincin and Indy), they played to win, but did not show their entire hand. They saved their best for the playoffs.

Doing so was quite a gamble - they almost missed the playoffs, but it has paid off.

It seems the conservative Cowher decided this would be the year to go for it. He seemed to have gambled with the season, and is making more aggressive decisions in the games.

57
by chris clark (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 6:54pm

RE 3 (23, 29)

Ned, it is interesting that you attribute the difference to being out-coached rather than out-played. I thought the Steelers out-played the Broncos and the way they picked up the blitz was emblematic of that. Of course, living/dying by the blitz had been exposed before, as recently as the 3rd period on NE-Den when NE was moving well with the pass due to picking up the blitz. IMHO, the fact that blitz returned to working in Q4 of that game was not due to a coaching adjustment.

Now, if the suggestion is that Den needed to abandon the blitz earlier because they weren't getting to Roethlisberger, how quickly do you have to notice that? IIRC, Lynch hit Brady on the 1st pass. Do you give up because Lynch doesn't his Roethlisberger on the first pass?

Maybe some coaching adjustments would have helped. However, I don't think there are many coaching adjustments can make up for being out executed.

BTW, I don't mean by this the Broncos weren't trying. I think they brought their A (or atleast A-) game. Pittsburgh is simply playing A+ with extra credit tacked on. And there is coaching credit due, I think that the previously mentioned Q3 of the Pats game showed that you could successfully pass on Den if you could counter the blitz. Explointing the fact that your team is executing well and exposing the other teams weakness is good coaching.

However, in this game, I think it was superior executing which came first. The Steelers were the better team on Sunday and any stats that suggest otherwise or that probablisticly the Broncos win even 51 out of 100 replays are missing what really happened.

Changing some luck factors might make the game closer, but even my orange colored glasses don't make me see that game as ever being a Broncos win. (Well, maybe calling that 1st non-fumble a fumble and giving Bailey that 1st pick and putting the Broncos up by 10-14 could do it, but that is really living in a fantasy world.)

As I said before, I hope the Steelers have not already played their SB, because they may need that same game in 2 wks. Too bad they are now favored rather than disrespected....

58
by Steve Z (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:12pm

Re: #56

It seems the conservative Cowher decided this would be the year to go for it. He seemed to have gambled with the season, and is making more aggressive decisions in the games.
I think he learned some things from past playoff defeats, on the one hand, and, on the other, it bears keeping in mind that the Steelers will have about 11 free agents they must make decisions on this off-season. Then there are players like Jeff Hartings (who has an $8 M salary next year), Tommy Maddox, Duce Staley, etc., each of whom make a lot of money and take up a lot of cap room. Next year’s Steelers’ team could look much different than this year’s team.

59
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:28pm

When can we start a good "Irrational Rothlesburger vs. Hasselbeck" forum?

60
by Paul (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:28pm

When did Steeler fans turn into whiners? What is this crap about disrespect? They were FAVORED on the road in a playoff game. Is that not enough respect? Come on, they were an 11-5 6th seed. Do you honestly expect that they would have been universally recognized as the best team in the AFC? Just nod quietly to one another that you knew they had it in 'em.

61
by NedNederlander (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:28pm

Hartings is getting $8 million?!? As for Maddox, Cowher had to grit his teeth to even play Maddox when Batch and Ben were hurt. I seriously thought he might play Randle El over Maddox. That Maddox is gone is a given, and should in no way affect the team. Staley certainly didn't contribute this year (though I wish they would use him more in the playoffs; he's rested and a good runner when healthy), so if he leaves, no letdown from this year, and if he stays, probably an improvement.

Steelers probably need to draft or sign a running back or another wideout, I'd say. Losing Burress hurt more than was apparent (he was Ben's favorite long target, and tough for other team's to match up with, sizewise, though his final season wasn't much to speak of statistically). I still consider the Steelers secondary a weakness, but maybe it is just the Pittsburgh defensive scheme that makes their secondary look bad.

62
by Sean D. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:33pm

I don't know if its true, but ESPN was reporting that Denver would be $30 million over the cap next year. If that's right then the comment "They have as good a chance to get back to the playoffs as anybody." is probably not very accurate.

63
by Luz (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:47pm

RE: bettis HOF?

i don't know, do you consider curtis martin to be a sure HOFer? i do. they're pretty similar. neither has ever had a mind-blowing season or been the first pick in a fantasy draft, etc. however, both have been extremely consistent and durable. i really can't remember jerome missing games until he started to break down two or three years ago. it looks like martin is now hitting the injury wall too. regardless, i would think that these two RBs make the HOF regardless of anything that happens from this point on.

64
by J (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:47pm

58

I would like to get into the whole salary cap thing; esp. concerning the Steelers, but that's what the off season is for.

All I will say now, IMO, they are in alright shape...not great, but certainly not horrible.

65
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:48pm

The Steelers seem to be great against the primary receiver, and have been that way all season long. However, if you have a good second and third option, you can do well against the Steelers. This happened against Cinci three times, it happened against Indy, it happened against the Patriots...heck, even Detroit got into the mix a bit. Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Branch - they all had subpar days, but TJ, Wayne, and basically everyone not named Branch did great. Even Denver followed this pattern - Rod Smith did okay but the guy that had the big game was Lelie.

66
by mattfwood (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 7:59pm

Whoa who whoa! I am not a whiner looking for more respect or universal recognition that the #6 seed should have been hailed as the best team in the AFC. I thought that the Steelers would lose to the Colts, so shows what I know.

It's just that Will's saying a team with a superior offensive line may be able to run the ball on the Steelers feels different than saying "a superior offensive line, which doesn’t have to make up a fourteen point deficit, can punch them in the mouth through the running game and greatly mitigate the Steelers’ penchant for creating chaos. Denver was having success running, and Alexander is a better running back than anything Denver has. . . ." Etc.

As for whining about lack of respect, I don't know that the Steelers or Steeler fans have any monopoly on that. From what I've heard in the last few months, no one outside of Washington even knows that Seattle is in the United States; no one in the media or in the rest of the league pays any attention to the Seahawks, who currently boast the NFL MVP and I believe 5 Pro Bowl starters on offense; no one knows anything about the Seahawks defense; etc.

Maybe there's a grain of truth in all of that, just as there is in the statement that almost no one -- other than maybe the most optimistic Steeler fans -- though the Steelers could beat the Colts. So yes, they were favored in their first playoff game on the road against a team with the same record as them, whom they had already beaten in Cincinnati, and who had just lost their last two regular season games in ugly fashion.

It's still fair to say that "no one" thought they'd make it to the Super Bowl as a 6. I didn't think they would win three road games.

Anyway, I'm done, and didn't mean to incur any wrath as a whiner. (Can we just trade my "smoke and mirrors" hyperbole for your "punch in the mouth" cliche and call it even?) The whole lack of respect angle is a tired one going both ways -- and truth be told, owes much of its current popularity to the success that the Patriots and Patriots fans have had with it. I am not looking for anything like Will's facetious paean and "Desperate Housewives" plea.

67
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 8:14pm

Fair enough, Mattwod, although, if anything, my previous statement, including the necessity of Seattle's defense preventing quick scores by the Steelers, was more qualified. I'll plead guilty to the use of cliche', but I was merely trying to communicate the need to slow their perimeter pass rush, and one of the best ways to do that to any good perimeter pass rush is to be physical in the running game.

68
by J.S. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 8:53pm

RE: 47 and 63

In my minds eye i think that both of those running backs are HOF material. both have similar numbers (5th AT and 6th AT in rushing yards) Bettis has proven that he is durable and dependable. Both have desecent TD to Rush averages. However the thing that makes both of them stand out to me is:

One: Curtis Martins sterak of consectutive games started for a RB. Now Brett Favre (I am a GB Fan) is the current face of an Ironman for football, however I think that the Martin Streak was more important and valuable. As a running back he was asked to sacrifice his body for 20-30 plays a game going through some of the biggest boys in Football, I think that says alot for a guy.

Two: Betis has asthma, and for a guy to perservere and be able to produce over 13,000 rushing yards in his career I think is also a testement to his great ability at the position of running back.

69
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 8:54pm

Congratulations Ned. This is the first game recap that has it spot-on. Denver lost this game because they allowed Pitt to convert 8 of the first 9 third downs. The only stop still led to points (a FG). It's not like the defense was playing poorly otherwise, either, since Pitt was routinely facing third and long... Denver just fell apart on third down.

I don't know if I blame that on the coaching, though. I mean, Denver's defensive scheme worked just fine on first and second down... it was just third down where everything always fell apart. It was the same script over and over again... give up 2 yards, -3 yards, then 14 yards, 1 yard, 2 yards, 12 yards, etc. When a game goes like that, I question whether it's bad coaching (less likely) or simply poor execution (more likely). It's not like the coaching was great on the first two downs and then Coyer simply forgot what he was doing on third down.

Also, I think it's funny that we don't hear any talk about how Denver "gave this game away", like we heard about the Patriots last week. I mean, both teams uncharacteristically lost the turnover battle in a big way (Both finished -4, despite Denver only losing the turnover battle once in the past 17 games and New England not losing it once in their 11 playoff games). Both teams had stalwarts make uncharacteristic mistakes (Brown's fumble, Brady's int, Plummer's int, Bailey's dropped pick, Lynch's dropped pick, Fergeson's dropped pick). Both teams "only" lost by 14 despite the huge turnover disadvantage... but for some reason New England gave the game away, while the Broncos were just outplayed.

Not that I think this is wrong. The Broncos WERE outplayed. It's just frustrating that people don't acknowledge that Denver was only outplayed as much as New England was.

70
by MRH (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 10:37pm

OK, let’s compare. Here’s some stats. Pick 1 or 2 depending on which set reflects greater dominance:

Total net yards
1. 420 to 286
2. 358 to 308

Average gain
1. 7.4 to 4.8
2. 5.6 to 5.7

Net yards rushing
1. 79 to 96
2. 90 to 97

Avg Per Rush
1. 3.8 to 3.0
2. 2.7 to 4.6

Net yards passing
1. 341 to 190
2. 268 to 211

Comp %
1. 56% to 58%
2. 72% to 60%

Yards per pass
1. 9.5 to 6.8
2. 8.6 to 6.4

Sacked/Yds lost
1.0-0 to 2-7
2. 2-7 to 3-12

First downs
1.15 to 16
2. 20 to 16

3rd down conversion
1. 3-11 to 4-14
2. 10-16 to 5-11

4th down conversion
1. 0-1 to 0-1
2. 0-0 to 2-3

Time of possession
1. 28:12 to 31:48
2. 36:07 to 23:53

The trick is, 1. is NE to DEN and 2. is PIT to DEN. DEN-NE is very close: DEN really didn’t outplay NE overall EXCEPT in turnovers. PIT outplayed DEN pretty much across the board, INCLUDING turnovers. So that’s why people feel NE gave the game away but DEN was outplayed. I don’t agree with that analysis but I see where it’s coming from - DEN helped cause those turnovers, but if not for them, it’s a very near run thing. (And when a team outplays another very badly, it wins 20-10 despite being –3 in turnovers.) DEN had a great season, but in the end lost to a team having a greater one.

71
by ripped off (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 11:23pm

The reason people think that NE lost a close game to Denver is that the refs gave Denver all 14 points they won by, with a fake pass interference and a forced fumble on Champ Bailey which should have been a touchback, as well as several other incidents like Troy Brown being roughed on the fair catch that was muffed. Nothing against Denver for winning, and all respect to Denver for being a good team this year, but NE made some mistakes that were a result of having to come from behind, and again they lost by the amount that was handed to Denver by the refs. Ashley Lelie always pushes off and gets away with offensive interference, he pushed aside Otis Smith in 2002 and Otis Smith got a penalty instead of Lelie. Lelie always does that stuff and gets away with it.
It would have been more tolerable if NE lost in a fair contest but such is life. Its not something that we can hold against Denver, and unlike all you haters out there talking about tuck rules, NE fans are not blaming Denver for the mistakes of the refs.

72
by calig23 (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 11:24pm

No-one seems to have mentioned the other ‘hidden’ play in the early part of the game, Washington breaking up an interception in the endzone. The score was either 3-0 or 10-0 and if Foxworth (I think) comes down with the pick, Denver get a touchback. Instead, if memory serves, Pittsburgh scored on the drive.

Actually, I believe that was the first drive for Pittsburgh. It was still scoreless at that point.

Nice play for the undrafted, activated for the first time the week before, Washington...

73
by RIck S (not verified) :: Tue, 01/24/2006 - 11:26pm

Pittsburgh had a brilliant scheme that exposed the only weaknesses that Denver has. 1) Dependence on the blitz to get a pass rush and 2) Forced them into a pass first scheme.

On top of those factors, it was just Pittsburgh's day, as luck was definitely on their side. On the first drive, Denver dropped 2 interceptions (one of them a pick 6) and had a close fumble reversal go against them. The TD pass at the end of the half went literally through Ferguson's hands. All year Denver made those plays, but not Sunday.

74
by Jerry (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 7:35pm

I suppose this as good a place as any to post this.

I had the opportunity to go out to Denver for the championship game, and I want to mention how classy the Bronco fans were. The guys I sat next to were rabid Denver fans, but they respected the fact that there was another team on the field (as did I) and were a pleasure to watch the game with. On the way out, many people were congratulatory and wished the Steelers luck in the Super Bowl. So I tip my black-and-gold cap to the Bronco fans. Thanks.

75
by doktarr (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 7:53pm

Last week, your site mocked Peyton Manning and the Colts for not max protecting against the Steelers’ blitz package. This week, you indicate that maybe the Steelers have devised ways to beat the max-protect scheme, as early as mid-season. Could it be possibly that the Colts had already figured this out, and thought their best chance at scoring points was the minimum protection/maximum receivers scheme they devised? Even though they ultimately failed, does their plan look different in retrospect?

Pawnking, I don't think that the argument of the previous AGS was that the Colts should have run max-protect. That's not their game, they never do that, and they shouldn't. I think the point was that the Colts, rather than relying on drop-back passes or shotgun formation, should have run more, and run more passes out of play-action. Max protect is not the Colts game, but play-action most certainly is. This may have helped diffuse the blitz. I think this still seems like sound advice.

76
by Slippery Pete (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 8:30pm

#75:

I don't really have an opinion on whether the Colts should have run more to beat the Steelers, but play action was not the answer. I seem to recall that Joey Porter did not bite at all on play action and instead went straight for Manning every play. He didn't appear to play the run at all.

77
by Kal (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 9:08pm

That was true in the 4th quarter when they weren't even bothering running; in the second, the playaction worked very well.

78
by Fnor (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 9:51pm

I suggest that any time we discuss turnovers we be required to draw ascii diagrams to prove that we actually saw the play and know what happened, because it seems to me that in a lot of peoples' minds, ball anywhere near CB in any situation = blown INT.

79
by white and gold (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 10:03pm

this is off-topic, but I can't find the answer anywhere...
It's all over the place that Cowher chose for the Steelers to wear their road white uniforms, but I haven't read why they are being considered the "home" team to begin with. Is it a coin flip? Or a rotating AFC/NFC thing?

80
by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 01/25/2006 - 10:38pm

rotating.

81
by Kal (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 5:13am

Well, the Champ Bailey almost-int was a bad read by Ben. CB jumped the ball, and it was only a lucky bounce and some nice defending by Ward that saved the int. I presume that's what you're talking about?

82
by Cody (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 3:35pm

RE:69

You don't hear people saying that Denver gave the game away because it would make them hypocrites. The folks who wanted to say Denver got lucky were being pro-NE. Folks who would want to say Pitt got lucky would be pro-Denver. Unfortunatly, the Bronco's experience a -4 turnover ratio the game after acheiving a +4. So if you say that Pitt got lucky, you also have to say that Den got lucky against NE. Which for many would be changing the story, because after Denver won they said it was because Denver was good. Thats why nobody claims that Pitt got lucky.

83
by chris clark (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 5:05pm

RE 82:

Exactly right. I saw one poster (a clear NE fan; I think it was in the Audibles thread) say that Pit got lucky the same way Den did and that in both games the better team lost. I (a Den homer) thought the better team won in both games and that the Den-NE game was closer than the Pit-Den game, meaing roughly that I think Pit was more clearly better than Den than Den was than NE, which is why posts like 70 have some merit. To put it another way, my subjective estimation is Pit wins 80% of the rematches v. Den and Den wins 60% of the rematches v. NE. I wish I could analyze the DVOA and DPAR stats to justify those figures.

Finally, even if NE beat Den, I don't see them beating Pit. I think Pit won the AFC playoffs and outplayed every other team.

Whether they will make it 4 in a row against Sea, I'm not sure, but that why I watch the games. If Pit beats Sea (especially if by 10 or more pts), then I think I will continue to think Den and Ind are close to Sea in skill and that the regular season figures were accurate at least for those 3 teams, although under-estimating Pit. If Sea beats Pit, I will have to wonder what factor the stats are not capturing. (Well, I will always wonder what the stats missed about Pit and why it was underrated.)

84
by Jerry (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 6:42pm

Re #83:

Part of the problem is that DVOA has to reflect the entire season. In the Steelers' case that includes the Roethlisberger injuries, so there were 12 games of Ben's 33.8% as a passer, 1.5 games of Batch's 27.9%, and 2.5 of Maddox's -42.5%. All of these were part of the season and belong in the team numbers, but as long as Ben stayed healthy, only his (superior) numbers were going to affect the playoffs. I guess this is the fine line between being descriptive and being predictive.

85
by Chris Roess (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 7:39pm

Ok, first of all excellent analysis here.

BUT I am tired of theCOMMENTARY that goes along with Schatz's DVOAA ratings. He's been biased against the Steelers all year.

DVOAA ratings cannot account for the following:

1) Steelers lost their first three games this season on the LAST play of the game. Did you hear what I said? They lost their first three games on the last play of the game. Period. Do you remember New England? Vinateri field goal with ONE SECOND left. A game in which the Steelers knocked FIVE starters out of the game. Do remember the Raven's scoring in OVERTIME? How bout Jacksonville, with Maddox interceptions and fumbles, and STILL the Steelers lost in the last play of the Game.

2) Steelers were without Big BEN for some of the games. AND he was RUSTY against Cincinnati during that second game. Steelers beat Cincinnati solidly their first go round.

3) INTANGIBLES, including the Confidence the Steelers gained during last year's 15-1 season. The leadership and cohesion that formed after the devastating loss to New England. The EXPERIENCE gained. Big BEN has been to the AFC Championship one time already before last Sunday (Jake the snake HAD NOT faced this before). Too many intangibles to list that the DVOAA ratings cannot list.

Hey come on now. Give the Steelers credit. Luck has got nothing to do with it. COACHING. Period. GAME PLANNING!

You heard what John Lynch said on the sidelines after the game didn't you? When asked what happened, Lynch said (and I paraphrase), "It was the FIRST time all season that another team read their blitzes and schemes. The only time this season that the Broncos couldn't impose their defensive will on the opposition.

PERIOD. Lynch said it. He said the Steelers DESERVED to win.

86
by Cody (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 9:14pm

RE: 83

Someone said both Den and NE got lucky? Must be a Raiders homer.

87
by Rowdy (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 11:04pm

Even as good as Roethlisberger is, nobody could accurately predict how the Steelers would be successful on Sunday.
Utter nonsense. Steelers fans everywhere predicted the Steelers would be successful by grabbing an early lead, changing strategy to more quickly drain the clock, and frustrating the Broncos to the point that Plummer was forced to do the kind of hail-mary scramble-around force-it-in-there crap that he always does, and that always results in a lot of turnovers. If you are so naive as to not know that the Steelers will happily pass more than they run in the first half, then you have no business speechifying like you are an expert on Steelers football.The Steelers way is to get a lead by exploiting whatever the defense gives you. Any smart offense does the same thing. Since their opponents often begin gamees by stacking the box, the Steelers more often take to the air for that early lead. Then, with a lead, the Steelers drain the ball with a run-heavy second half. Viola--the uneducated and uninitiated looks at the final game stats of Steelers victories (two-thirds of Steelers games) and concludes that the Steelers will stubbornly run the ball to open their next game.
You may dismiss us as homers and provincials and white trash, but that victory more or less unfolded exactly the way most Steelers fans predicted it would. It was a textbook Steelers victory.
they attacked Dominique Foxworth, the Broncos’ rookie cornerback.This qualifies as "brilliant coaching"? C'mon, that's an pathetic assertion. Every team in the league attacks the rookie cornerback.
I'm not sure which essay is worse, this one or the one written by Schatz last week. The "advanced stats" are nice, but they such tools are useless if put in the hands of writers who are unable to make much good sense with them.
The real lesson from the Steelers’ two wins is not that they are the best team in the AFC.
Please consider a visit to the reality-based community. It won't kill you, and you might learn something.

88
by Rowdy (not verified) :: Thu, 01/26/2006 - 11:05pm

Apologies for the bold intemperance. Looks like I tried to insert some un-allowed HTML.

89
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 1:00am

Re 85: I'll take second place to no one as a Steeler fan and I go way back to the days of Tom "The Bomb" Tracy and George Tarasovic. Chris, you sound like a fellow Steeler fan, but I still have to call you on something. You say that the victory over Denver was all game planning and coaching and that "Luck has got nothing to do with it." Yes, the game planning was terrific, and I've posted a number of comments pointing out that the Cowher-haters are now going to have to recognize that he is one of the top coaches. However, luck has a lot to do with every win. As you yourself point out, the Steelers lost their first three games on the last play. I think luck had something to do with each of those outcomes. The Steelers outplayed the Colts, but luck (and maybe a little justice, since they did outplay them) had something to do with Vander Jagt missing the tying FG. The Steelers outplayed the Broncos, but there were a few bounces of the ball during the game that, if they had gone the other way, could have changed the outcome despite the Steelers' better performance. Heck, if you think about it, we were lucky that Roethlisberger was still on the board when the Steelers draft pick came up a few years ago. Luck ALWAYS plays a part--the superior team needs to put itself in a position to take advantage of the luck that comes its way and minimize the effects of the luck that goes the other way. The Steelers have done a great job of that (and there's where coaching helps make a difference). If someone claims that the Steelers are lucky to win, that's only a truism and almost a tautology, because winners always have some luck. If he claims that the Steelers are winning only or primarily because of luck, then he hasn't been watching the games.

90
by Cody (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 3:23am

RE: 89

Zebra style luck got the colts the shot at that field goal.

1 fumble to change the entire outcome of the game?

Before anyone says it, Bailey's missed pick wasn't luck. He must've missed his catch a bit or something, and that knocked the ball into the air. Had he merely tried to knock it down, he would've been ok. This is the second time this year I've seen ward catch a deflected ball like that, and he had to move over to catch it even with a defender bearing down on him. That was just good play on Ward's part. The "near pick" that occured on the throw to Ward for the TD was actually over both of the DB's hand's, by about a foot or so, at least from what I saw. The pick that Nate Washington broke up was just that. Would you call a defender lucky if he broke up a pass? I agree with the Roethlisberger still in the draft thing though. What pick was he....20's I think. Here's a good one, some commentator was talking about Phillip Rivers. He said something about him probably being stuck behind Drew Brees, and that he would probably want to go start somewhere. He then reminded us all that Rivers has major potential, and that he was taken in the draft before Roethlisberger. I guess he figured that one's draft position was a good indicator of success in the NFL.

91
by Steve Maloney (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 5:05pm

RE: 90

Finally, someone agreeing with what really happened with the 'Bailey missed interception.' Ward made a good play to break to prevent Bailey from making that INT. In post-game comments, Ward claimed that (having been his teammate at Georgia) he knew Bailey would be breaking on that pass and so Ward made a deliberate effort to break it up. Yeah, the bounce and subsequent catch for a first-down were lucky, but Ward made his own luck happen (also, Ward took quite a shot from Lynch and held onto that crucial pass). I admit I haven't seen a replay of the Bailey INT against New England in recent weeks, but could not have Troy Brown seen what a dangerous pass Brady was heaving his way and done more to prevent Bailey from jumping in from of him for the INT? Every week I see Ward make the small, intelligent or hard-nosed plays that don't necessarily get reported and that don't show up in the stats. Kudos to G.Easterbrook in his TMQ column last week on nfl.com for his analysis of the Ward-Bailey play.

92
by doktarr (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 6:08pm

RE: 76

Perhaps Joey Porter would have bit on the play action if the Colts had run the ball more.

On a similar note, can anyone explain why the use of the "stretch" play run, and play-action pass out of that motion, has gone from the bread and butter Colts play in 2004 to practically unused by the end of 2005? It didn't seem like it stopped working to me.

93
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 6:16pm

Re 90 & 91: Are you guys missing my point? I did not reference the Ward-Bailey play, but as great a play as it was by Ward, you certainly cannot say that he carefully directed the flight of the ball after he prevented Bailey's interception so that he himself would catch it for a first down. If he's that good, we should throw the ball to him every time and we'd never lose! If you can't admit that lucky bounces happen, so be it, but I still think that a big factor in any game is which team is good enough to seize the opportunities that fortune presents to them. I didn't mention the Nate Washington play at all, how did that get into the conversation--it was a terrific play and something that not enough receivers do. If you aren't going to catch it, make sure the DB doesn't. That this guy just off the practice squad or whatever made such a great play really says something about him as a player. And, although I mentioned "a few bounces," are you really denying that "one fumble can change the whole game"? Bettis' fumble against the Colts almost did that, but Roethlisberger made a great play. I just don't get why people are so reluctant to recognize that luck is a part of winning. Not the entirety of winning, not even a major part most of the time, but a part. It doesn't cheapen the victory, it doesn't discount the great plays, the outstanding coaching, or the careful preparation, it's just part of the game.

94
by Andrew (A.B.) (not verified) :: Fri, 01/27/2006 - 7:47pm

BTW, Aaron said that Denver was #2 in pass defense against 3rd receivers. But Cedrick Wilson was all over the place. What happened?

95
by DGL (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2006 - 2:14am

#94: Maybe the Broncos thought El and Ward were both QBs and that made Wilson #1?

96
by Cody (not verified) :: Sat, 01/28/2006 - 3:57am

RE: 93

Some of the post was not directly intended for you, but there merely to make a full arguement before someone else brought these points up. Yeah the Jerome Bettis fumble would have changed the game, I don't think that is a luck thing though. He went in high, the DB planted his helmet on the ball and *pow*. My take has always been that fumbles are not totally random, the ball flies in the direction which force is applied to it, in this case, away from the endzone. Personally I think that one can become more skilled at picking up a bounncing football with practice. The random part really only comes into to play when the ball is fumbled into an area containing players from both teams, and they see it. Sometimes it will bounce close to one than another. But generally, if you get popped like Bettis ball is gonna head into the backfield every time. As for the Ward catch on the tipped pass, he caught the ball because he didn't give up on it. Saw it get tipped up, locked on to it and got under it. I think we all realize that luck is a small part of every game. But we realize also that you make your own luck. Alot of us don't think that you can attribute sucess/failure to it either.

97
by Sid (not verified) :: Mon, 01/30/2006 - 9:21pm

RE: 17

Ben and Porter were stellar, no mistakes, practically a perfect game for both.

In the same post, you mentioned the near-INT. Denver had several dropped INTs. I remember one for Bailey and one for Lynch. That's hardly "no mistakes" or "practically a perfect game."