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
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.
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