Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Jan 2006

Any Given Sunday: Steelers over Colts

by Ned Macey

This season was long thought to be the Indianapolis Colts' year. When their nemesis, the New England Patriots, lost on Saturday night, a trip to the Super Bowl seemed preordained. But the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't get the memo, and they dominated the Colts early before hanging on for dear life in one of the biggest upsets in recent playoff history.

The Colts beat the Steelers in a 26-7 thrashing in Week 12. A return to the scene of the crime seemed likely to produce a similar result. That changed in the first quarter, in which the Steelers jumped to a 14-0 lead by changing their philosophy. By the time the Colts recovered, the deficit was too large and a ferocious Steelers pass rush dismantled the once-dominant Indianapolis offensive line.

The Steelers attempted to impose their will on the Colts during their regular season encounter. They ran the ball on their first seven first down plays. As I mentioned after the Chargers beat the Colts, such a strategy plays to the Colts' strengths. They sneak active safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss into the box to shut down the run. The better strategy is to pass early when they expect the run.

Indianapolis Defense
DVOA by Quarter, 2005

Qtr DVOA Rank
1 28.1% 31
2 -32.4% 2
3 -1.8% 13
4 -30.2% 3

Bill Cowher either read my column, or more likely learned from his own mistake. He had the offense come out firing against the Colts. Ben Roethlisberger threw on seven of the first ten plays in leading an 84-yard touchdown drive. Taking advantage of the Colts early is essential to beating them. They ranked 31st in the league in defense in the first quarter according to DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' main advanced metric and is further explained here.) In the other three quarters they were among the best in the league. Pittsburgh's offense also excels early, and the quick start changed the entire complexion of the game.

While the Steelers eschewed the run early to great effect, the Colts were undone by their pass-happy ways. The signature play of these teams' first encounter was Peyton Manning's 80-yard touchdown to Marvin Harrison on the team's first play from scrimmage. The Colts followed with a lengthy drive that stalled only after a personal foul penalty. At that point in the game, Manning was 5-of-5 for 124 yards.

The Steelers then made some crucial adjustments, double-teaming Harrison and bringing their creative blitz package. From that point forward, Manning was a rather pedestrian 10-of-20 for 121 yards with two sacks and an interception. The Colts mounted no drives of even 40 yards the rest of the game. The strong running of Edgerrin James controlled the clock and earned enough first downs to prevent a comeback, but the Steelers were clearly on to something.

The Colts appeared not to have noticed the adjustments of the previous encounter and came out throwing on Sunday. They ran on only three of their first 14 plays. While James' three runs yielded nothing, the eleven pass plays yielded as many sacks as completions. Only on their fifth drive did they commit to the run. More than half the plays were runs, and most of the passes were underneath. Tarik Glenn's false start denied a touchdown, but the drive still covered 96 yards.

The Colts failed to learn from that successful drive and started the second half with seven passes and only two runs on their first two drives. The deficit was then only eleven points, and a balanced offense was still an option. Manning makes the decision about whether to run or pass on any given down. Such a system allows flexibility to exploit a defense's weakness and is a major reason the Colts boast the league's best offense.

On Sunday it also allowed a quarterback to indulge his own hubris. Manning himself noted the trouble the offensive line was having with the Steelers blitzes. The offensive line was consistently confused and inept on passing plays. Nonetheless, he insisted on throwing the ball. Not one of Hunter Smith's six punts followed a sequence when the Colts ran on two of the three preceding downs.

The last of these early second-half pass plays was a sack at the one-yard line. The ensuing punt return gave the Steelers the ball on the Colts' 30-yard line. They converted the great field position into their final score and a 21-3 lead. At that point the Steelers went into a prevent, allowing Manning to gain some rhythm. He played well down the stretch, and thanks to a bogus replay reversal and a great play by linebacker Gary Brackett, Manning had one last chance.

He did his job marching the team into position for a game-tying field goal. Unfortunately for the Colts, long-time kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed badly on the most important kick of his career. As the ball sailed wide right, Manning and Coach Tony Dungy were left to face the now familiar question of whether or not they can win the “big one.�

Dungy is now 5-8 in the playoffs. This was the first of the eight losses to come in a home game. Dungy's teams have been thoroughly trounced in several of his playoff losses. He will never escape the fact that Tampa Bay won it all the year after they fired him unless he wins a Super Bowl on his own.

DVOA in Sunday's IND-PIT Game

TOT OFF DEF ST
IND 43.5% 37.9% -8.9% -3.3%
PIT 29.7% 11.9% -16.7% 1.1%

He was clearly out-coached on Sunday despite the close score, with Pittsburgh's aggressive early play coming as a surprise. His team, however, was not exactly outclassed. The Colts outgained the Steelers in terms of both yardage and yards per play, and forced the only two turnovers that withstood replay review. Because the Pittsburgh offense slowed in the second half, and Manning's only interception was overturned, Indianapolis actually ended up with the higher DVOA for the game. If Barry Switzer and Brian Billick can win Super Bowls, Dungy certainly can. He is among the best regular season coaches in football, guiding his team to the playoffs a league-best seven straight times. He may not be part of the solution to the playoff failures, but he is not the problem.

Manning will have a reputation for poor performance when the stakes are the highest until he wins a Super Bowl. Since his second year, the Colts have been in the playoffs as much as any other team. He is now just 3-6 in those opportunities and has only made one AFC Championship game. In his six defeats, the oft-maligned defense has given up more than 24 points only one time. The 18 points scored by the Indianapolis offense on Sunday marked its best showing in a losing effort.

If Trent Dilfer and Tom Brady (inexperienced 2001 version) can win the Super Bowl, Manning is clearly not the lone problem. Manning has had exceptional playoff performances when his team wins, and his overall playoff numbers are adequate. Manning is certainly asked to do more than those quarterbacks were, and the Colts spend a good portion of their cap on him. Despite this investment, they have now built a quality defense, and the skill players and offensive line are also well-compensated.

The last three playoff losses all boil down to the same weakness. The offense in general and the offensive line in particular struggle with physical 3-4 defenses. Last season Manning and Co. throttled a Denver defense that was statistically as strong as New England's. Yet Manning ran for his life the last two years in Foxboro, and on Sunday the line never gave him a chance on a number of plays.

The Indianapolis offensive linemen have consistently been near the top of our rankings in terms of both run and pass blocking. They ranked first in both this year. Much of this is done with technique rather than pure skill, however. Blocking for Manning (who likes to unload the ball) and with James (who is one of the best backs at blitz pick-up) inflates their stats. Manning's skill in detecting where a blitz is coming from increases their effectiveness a great deal. Against a 3-4 with only three known rushers and so many players close to the line, neither Manning nor the line always knows which players will attack.

The results in past playoff failures have been bad, and the results on Sunday were disastrous. Second-year left guard Ryan Lilja frequently was a step slow in determining whom he was supposed to block, and nobody picked up pass-rushing linebacker Joey Porter on two consecutive blitzes in the fourth quarter. Manning struggles when under duress even more than most quarterbacks. It is hard to imagine this potent offense getting off the ground against this style of defense until the line can hold against a pass rush when it is unsure of who is rushing the passer.

For the past three seasons, the Colts have kept their team intact while waiting for Dungy to build a defense. This was supposed to be the year, and in the regular season Dungy's defense delivered. Now the Colts face serious upheaval. Manning has never lined up in a playoff game without Edgerrin James behind him, and Reggie Wayne has been on the left flank since Dungy arrived.

Both are free agents who will be difficult to retain. James' ability as a rusher can be reasonably replaced, but his skill as a blocker and pass catcher is much harder to replicate. The importance of Wayne was highlighted on Sunday. The Steelers took away Harrison, forcing Manning to look Wayne's way 14 times. It is unlikely that Harrison will ever see single coverage with Brandon Stokley, a rookie, or a mid-level free agent lining up on the other side.

Defensive starters Raheem Brock and David Thornton are also free agents, but the defense will probably improve even if they leave. Only one defensive starter is even 30 years old, and the increased experience of Sanders and Doss will help prevent the errors that caused problems in the passing game this year.

Kicker Mike Vanderjagt, now a miserable 0-2 in meaningful playoff kicks, will likely depart as a free agent as well. He will not be missed. The last difficult clutch kick he made came in the 2002 regular season. His inability to kick off wastes an extra roster spot. He could be economically replaced by a number of different players this off-season.

These departures after another early flameout will lead many observers to believe the Colts' window with the current nucleus is shut. For inspiration, the Colts should consider the team that sent them to an early vacation this year. The Steelers were coming off a 15-1 season that ended bitterly with a home defeat in the AFC Championship game. They lost their second receiver in the off-season and started a new running back this season. They find themselves back in the AFC Championship game, and this time they do not have to face New England.

The powerful Colts offense and the constant Brady-Manning comparisons have made the Colts-Patriots “rivalry� over-analyzed. The team that has been most tormented by the Belichick/Brady combo is actually the Steelers. Twice the Steelers have hosted the Patriots in an AFC Championship game, and twice they have been defeated. Bill Cowher is now in his 10th postseason tournament, and he has no rings to show for it.

The Steelers go into Denver this week as the first sixth seed to make the AFC Championship game. They are far from your typical sixth seed. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the Steelers are now 25-4, with two of the losses coming to the Patriots. Even counting games Roethlisberger did not play, the Steelers ranked as the fifth best team in all of football according to our DVOA metric.

Denver is the best team remaining in the playoffs, but they did not exactly appear dominating against New England. Everything about Cowher says he will return to the run game against Denver. He needs to consider leaning on Roethlisberger more in run situations. Against Indianapolis, the Steelers running backs averaged 3.1 yards per carry. DVOA says that the Steelers are more successful on passing plays than running plays, even after including the Tommy Maddox games. When John Lynch walks into the box on Sunday, Cowher would be wise to let Roethlisberger throw down the field.

Conventional wisdom says the difficulty of going on the road for the third straight week will be too much of an obstacle for the Steelers. After beating the Colts when everybody told them they might as well stay home, I doubt they're too concerned with conventional wisdom.

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.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 17 Jan 2006

107 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2006, 3:33pm by Loyatulla

Comments

1
by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:16pm

I'm intrigued by the defensive DVOA by quarter stats for the Colts. What is the reason for their improvement after the first quarter? Is it possible that a suspect defense was getting bailed out by a great offense which piled on points and put opposing offenses under pressure?

2
by PatsFan (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:17pm

You guys need to get in touch with the LATimes's Bob Oates. He's been saying for over a year that Cowher could win it all if he's just ditch his run-first conservatism and let Big Ben throw.

3
by Israel (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:26pm

Nice piece on the Colts, Ned. When to we see the Steelers half?

4
by cthoover (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:27pm

Great article.

5
by JMM (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:31pm

Again, I will mention Cowher's philosophy is not "run first." From: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/tribune-review/sports/steelerslive/s_414...

"Added Cowher: "I think when we're playing our best we have great balance." '

How does Indy come up with a higher DVOA? It's offense was that good? 5 sacks count for nothing compared to turnovers?

6
by DJ Any Reason (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:35pm

I think Cowher gives Wizzer a great deal of leeway in designing and implimenting offensive schemes, so I'm not as concerned about a return to the ground-game mentality.

In re: 2, I agree with Oates, sort of. Clearly, in the playoffs last year Ben was the problem, not the solution. This year its a different story, obviously. Just looking at Ben's DVOA, though (3rd overall in 2004, 3rd overall in 2005) suggests the Steelers ought to pass more, and I think they'll open it up more in 2006 (as they did in 2005 vs. 2004).

Of course, as I've been saying, just look at who the most talented players on the Steelers are (Ben, Hines, Heath), and its clear what sort of offense would be best.

7
by DJ Any Reason (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:36pm

Re: 5

After Q1 the Steelers didn't do so good on offense. For example, they were 2/2 on 4th downs, which implies 0/2 on preceeding 3rd downs, which hurts DVOA since those are failures.

8
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:43pm

Nice piece. I posted this on the audible thread this morning, but it seems appropriate here as well:

If I am going to criticize Manning for anything, it is for demanding such a large percentage of his team’s salary cap that it inhibits the ability to accrue talent and depth elsewhere, which means they are left thin at offensive line, among other positions. Having said that, a player needs an extraordinary amount of faith in his team’s management to not get as much money as he can. It’s easy for somebody on the outside to recomnmend that somebody else leave a few million on the table, but the people making such remarks usually have never been in a position to forgo very large sums of money. There are players, however, who occasionally take the leap of faith.

As far as Dungy is concerned, does anybody doubt that if he had his Tampa Bay defense, with the Colts’ offense, he would very likely win a Super Bowl? Of course, you couldn’t fit all that talent under the cap, but my point is that anybody who doubts his ability to put a Super Bowl-winning defense on the field is crazy; the team he now coaches simply devotes more cap room to offense, leaving less talent for defense.

Dungy’s biggest problem at Tampa was that he never made a good hire for offensive coordinator, and I really don’t know why that was the case. He then goes to the Colts’, where a good offensive structure is already in place, albeit with a lot of cap room devoted to skill positions, and is asked to build a good enough defense with remaining cap room to win a Super Bowl. Obviously, they aren’t there yet, and the pre- existing offensive structure may be part of the reason.

It would have been interesting to see how Manning would have developed under a Joe Gibbs-type, offensive-oriented, head coach. Give Gibbs enough time, and he is going to have a very physical, very tough, offensive line, and Gibbs is going to do whatever possible to protect the quarterback. This means Manning’s numbers likely wouldn’t have been as gaudy, especially since there would be less cap room to devote to skill players, but it may have been a better way to maximize Manning’s talents, in terms of winning championships.

9
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:44pm

His inability to kick off wastes an extra roster spot. He could be economically replaced by a number of different players this off-season.

Heck, they'd probably do fine just to hold on to Jose Cortez and try to find a kicking coach who can improve his accuracy. The Colts were smart to pick him up (which I actually wondered why they weren't doing earlier!), and he's got plenty of leg strength.

What I hope they don't do is pick up Josh Huston with a second-round pick.

10
by Matthew Furtek (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:45pm

Re: Heath Miller
Is he the difference between playoff loss and Super Bowl for the Steelers offense? At least, him and Big Ben. I don't remember who the Steelers had at TE before him... but it doesn't seem like teams in the league are able to cover gifted TEs (due to illegal contact rules?).

I was shocked that he dropped so far in the draft, even due to injury. I went to Virginia concurrently and he was a complete beast of a receiver.

11
by JMM (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:47pm

Re: 7
Yes, but they made them, and those should be counted as successes. The Colts were 1 for 2 on 4th down. They also had failures. But the difference between the two offenses 37.9 to 11.9 does not represent what I thought I saw.

12
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:48pm

Ned, nice piece. Fair, balanced, objective, and, I'd imagine, very difficult to write.

13
by RowdyRoddyPiper (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:48pm

Great article, snark from Israel not withstanding ;). This really is the greatest pro-football site out there. Kudos to you for writing this after such a tough loss. I know after the AFC Championship game last year, I basically ignored football until the superbowl...and I live in Philadelphia.

14
by Dr. SE Hinton Wannabe (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:51pm

Freely offered fact for any AFC championship preview: Jake Plummer hasn't faced the Steelers defense since his rookie season, 1997.

15
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 1:54pm

It'll be darned interesting to see how the Broncos use Lynch vis-a-vis Pittsburgh's running game or defending Heath Miller. Lynch MUST have a very good game in order for the Broncos to have a good chance to win, although the Broncos have mobile enough lbs to tempt them to use an lb to counter Miller. I think that would be a mistake, and if they try it, Pittsburgh better make them pay. Of course, Lynch is still a good player, so he may well have very good game.

16
by Dr. Nonlinear Value Function (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:05pm

It’s easy for somebody on the outside to recomnmend that somebody else leave a few million on the table, but the people making such remarks usually have never been in a position to forgo very large sums of money.

I'd like to suggest that even from a pure self-interest point of view, it would be worth it for Peyton to take a salary cut if that cut led to his winning (or even just playing in) the Super Bowl and thus adding more money in endorsements than he lost in salary. However, his current endorsement contracts might be so massive that it would be difficult for him to garner significantly more. (It would be challenging to put together, but what sort of graph would arise from comparing voluntary salary reductions to increases in probability of winning the Super Bowl? Perhaps it would be best to use such voluntary salary reductions to encourage teammates to take similar reductions, thus having an even greater effect.)

17
by JonL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:21pm

I agree, nice piece. Not to give someone a project or anything, but I wonder what the Colts' O-line has looked like the past few years against other 3-4 defenses.

18
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:25pm

The problem, doc, is that a player has to have enough faith in his team's management to believe that leaving some money on the table actually will significantly increase the probability of winning a Super Bowl. Such faith is often unwarranted, due to incompetence, or management's lack of commitment to winning, or, like in the case of the Cardinals, a combination of both. Any star Cardinal player, or 49er these days, among other teams, would be nuts to make such a sacrifice.

I do wish that a breakdown of the top ten percentages, in terms of salary cap consumed, for each teams' players was more easily found. It would really help understand personnel decisions better.

19
by kleph (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:26pm

great article. i particularly appreciate the explanation of why the colts seem to be susceptible to the 3-4. this sentiment seems to be cannon although all i usually see given to back it up is the fact they have struggled against new england in the playoffs.

20
by WesM (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:33pm

I'm sure this has been mentioned in another discussion thread, (but with the site unavailable for much of Monday...,) but I have to wonder if the Colt's slow start (especially the O-line's, arguably they never started,) will be blamed on the team's half-assing a quarter of the season?

I surely hope it does, and that as a result the follow-the-leader mentality of the league kicks in and we see an end to teams "resting" their teams at the end of the year. (Didn't Denver keep most of their personnel in at the end of the regular season?)

21
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:34pm

Will:

I find it fascinating that you are such a strong advocate of employee sacrifice. Do you honestly believe the Indianapolis Colts are financially hamstrung by Manning's contract?

The Colts could either:

A. engage in the standard win now, pay later approach to obtain free agent talent

B. do a better job of acquiring talent via the draft

C. both

Suggesting that one individual's contract is the barrier to a team achieving its goals is something I would expect team ownership to trot out in front of disgruntled fans.

Which means I think it's hogwash.

I am a free market guy. The team can maximize its earnings as can the employees.

But that's just me.

22
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:36pm

Dr Function,

That's a lovely idea, but so was Communism.

If Manning gives up part of his share of the salary cap, I firmly believe that the reaction of his teammates will be "sucker!", and rather than agree to reduce their own salaries, will attemppt to grab as much of the spare cash as they can.

Can you really see Reggie Wayne turning down the big bucks from a team with cap room (Vikings possibly, or the Chargers?) to re-sign with Indy? Wayne is one injury away from losing out on a big payday (Walker, Javon & Brees, Drew).

This isn't Mike Alstott signing a contract to finish his career as a one team player. It's unrealistic to think that without guarenteed salaries that players will accept a 'hometown rate', except in very unusual circumstances.

23
by Carlos (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:44pm

Great article, but...

The Colts appeared not to have noticed the adjustments of the previous encounter and came out throwing on Sunday. They ran on only three of their first 14 plays. While James’ three runs yielded nothing... Only on their fifth drive did they commit to the run....the drive...covered 96 yards.

The Colts failed to learn from that successful drive and started the second half with seven passes and only two runs on their first two drives.

I think the kind of monday morning quarterbacking saying "they should have run/passed more" is pretty cheap and flimsy, as is this.

The key to consistent offensive OR defensive execution is deception. This used to be only true on offense, back in the ancient times (pre-46 defense) when defenses just lined up and tried to react to the offense. Now deception is the key to success on either side (this is really only true in the pro game, where the differences in strength and ability from team to team are slight, vs. the college game where USC's offensive line can just manhandle most defenses).

There's obviously no magic formula of run vs. pass, so long as the offense can catch the defense in favorable situations. Drawing conclusions from three runs or from 5 or even from a drive isn't likely to lead to much success, since the success of a couple of plays has more to do with tiny events that the offense leverages into a meaningful gain than it does with the superiority of the run vs. the pass.

24
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 2:53pm

17: Houston has a 3-4 defense, so it's not just the scheme. The 3-4 allows a team to disguise blitzes, but so does a zone rush where a down lineman drops into coverage. The way to beat the Colts offense is to disguise your coverage and throw off Manning's pre-snap reads. Then you overpower the offensive line.

25
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:03pm

I surely hope it does, and that as a result the follow-the-leader mentality of the league kicks in and we see an end to teams “resting� their teams at the end of the year.

No. No, no, no, no, no. First off, Indy and Seattle didn't struggle because they rested players. And even if they did, that's not what happens all the time. You can't look at two games and decide something.

Five teams abandoned at least one game last year - PIT/PHI/IND/ATL/SD. Philadelphia and Atlanta abandoned two games last year, and Pitt, Indy, and San Diego one each. Philly didn't struggle out of the box - they trounced Minnesota, and if you look at the DVOA week-by-week graph, the drop that occurred in the final three weeks of the season vanished entirely in the postseason. Philly probably played conservatively in the Dallas game as well, as while their playoff seeding wasn't guaranteed, it would've taken a miracle of tiebreakers for them not to land the top seed at that point.

Teams don't struggle after the bye week, and they don't struggle after resting starters. If anything, the Colts didn't rest enough - Diem struggled mightily during the Colts game, and he hadn't played for weeks due to an injury in the Chargers game.

Please, please, don't use two games this year as a reason to ignore all the times this has happened before.

26
by Ned Macey :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:11pm

I would add that a 3-4 is not magic. If the players and coaches are not good, it is of no value. Look what the Colts did to a banged up New England team this year (although note that Romeo Crennel with an over-matched Cleveland team was much more successful than Mangini, but that's for another day).

Pittsburgh gave up huge plays early against Indy in the regular season game, but they adjusted thier scheme to keep receivers in front and better disguise their blitzes.

As for deception of plays, the most important part of the no-huddle as run by Manning is to use plays the defense is not anticipating. The whole thing Porter complained about leading up to the game was that they run when a defense plays pass and pass when a defense stacks the box. On Sunday, they almost always chose pass even when the game was in reach. Assuming no ego on Manning's part, that meant he was either a)consistently mis-reading the defense or b)Pittsburgh is so good that they can stack against the run and rush the passer and cover all at the same time.

If you know that your pass protection is not holding up, and it didn't from the first series, then how do you not try and make the linebackers hold with a more developed ground game? The Steelers were playing pass, and the Colts decided to run anyway. That was the mistake. If the Steelers had played 9 in the box, I'd avocate that the Colts throw on 90% of their plays.

27
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:18pm

I'm assuming Ned meant "and the Colts decided to pass anyway." :)

28
by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:24pm

Re:#3

Seconded.

I know you're a Colts fan, Ned, but there's only about 3 paragraphs in the entire article that concentrate on the Steelers....

29
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:30pm

Ok. Just for the Steeler fans wanting more "analysis".

Steelers came, they saw, they kicked some *ss.

Pretty much sums it up.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled program entitled, "How Everyone Failed But Me: The Peyton Manning Story"

30
by Harry (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:35pm

Is there any evidence that Cowher really believes in "run-first conservatism" or isn't it more likely that until this year he just never had a decent NFL caliber quarterback? Look who he's had as starters - O'Donnel,Tomczak,Maddox and Kordell. Would you want to put the game in those guys' hands if you could avoid it? Big Ben was still a rookie last year and has had a hurt thumb for much of this year. I suspect we will see a much greater emphasis on the passing game from the Steelers from here on out.

31
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:47pm

Freak, I fail to grasp what Manning does, vis a vis negotiating with the Irsay family, that has any implications regarding free market economics. The state is not involved in any manner (if we exclude the effects of taxpayer subsidized stadiums on NFL economics), thus free market economics is not affected in any way. Secondly, if you read my post, you will see I'm not a strong advocate of Manning doing anything, since I clearly stated what an extraordinary amount of faith in management a player would have to have in order to pursue such a course.

Yes, the Colts could draft better or sacrifice for the future in order to try to win today. If we assume that the Colts will draft to their utmost ability, in terms of winning, which is not an assumption that can be made for all teams, then, if the Colts don't want to mortgage their future, then the other way the Colts can maximize their talent today is to convince players to spread out the cap space among as many positions as possible.

Now, it is theoretically possible (I'm not familiar enough with the NFL rules for structuring contracts) for a player to gain an agreement from a team that he will take less money, in return for the team spending that money on other talent, with failure to do so triggering a provision which sends the cash back to the player who agreed to the sacrfice. It would be very complicated to hammer out, however, and it ignores that teams can demonstrate a lack of commitment to winning through other ways than failure to spend money on player compensation. I observe the Vikings closely, so I have some familiarity with the topic.

My comment about being critical of Manning may have been a little too subtle, in terms of what I meant to say, which is that I don't have a lot of reasons to be critical of Mannning. However, it is unavoidably true that if quarterback A is paid x dollars, while quarterback B is paid x plus y dollars, quarterback A's team has less money to spend on talent elsewhere.

Whether this makes sense depends on what the precise figures are and what percentage of cap space these figures correlate to, and what the performance difference is between the two players. Although qb is undoubtedly the most important position on the field, it is quite possible in the cap era to overpay for even the most top-notch qb performance, which is why I would like to have cap percentage numbers more easily accessed, so as to better analyze personnel management and contract negotiations.

32
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:50pm

10: I think more of a difference is that Ben's (a) got more experience, (b) not burned out. Last year was Ben's rookie year, and in the playoffs he was in games 17 and 18 after playing no more than 11 or 12 the previous four years in college. This year his conditioning is likely better, and due to his injuries the Indy game was only game 14 for him.

Last year PIT's starting tight end was Jerame Tuman, who is now their #2; #2 TE was Matt Kranchick, who's now the #3 TE for the NYG. Tuman had one catch for 19 yards on Sunday, but is more known for his blocking than pass-catching (three catches for 57 yards in the regular season; 9 catches for 89 yards in 2004), so clearly Miller is a difference -- but I don't think as much a difference as Ben's experience and conditioning.

33
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 3:53pm

Re 26: If there is any truth to the "Manning cannot win the big game" canard, it is that in playoff games, he calls pass plays much more frequently than normal, espically when the Colts are behind by 6+ points (And the game is still in reach). I don't think it's an ego thing, as much as he beleives his team's best chance of winning will be through his arm, even when game situations make a running play more valueable. It's either that or both New England and Pittsburgh have figured out how to disguise thier pass defense in a way that makes it look like a run defense.

34
by chris (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 4:06pm

I think Ned's critique of the play-calling holds water. The Colts had one worthwhile drive while the game was still close, a drive that featured Edgerrin James. Certainly, deception on both sides of the ball matters, but on offense part of that is at least giving the opposing defense a reason to respect both the run and the pass. Indy didn't do that. They had five 1st half drives; the 1st four of which featured 3 runs and 11 passes. The 5th drive featured 8 runs and 7 passes, but it started with three consecutive runs. On Pittsburgh's side, they weren't as unbalanced as one might think. On their two first half touchdown drives totaling 17 plays, they ran 7 times.

35
by jeff t (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 4:25pm

The difference in this game: the Steelers DL completely whipped the Colt's OL. Those guys were able to beat their man one-on-one consistantly throughout the game. According to TMQ, the Steelers only blitzed (sending more than 4 rushers) on 14 of 57 plays.

36
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 4:29pm

Ned,
I'm with James, London. Great piece and not entirely pleasant (but probably therapeutic and healthy) to write.

I don't think it will be so easy to replace Thornton, and isn't Corey Simon due a pretty good bonus next season, if they keep him?

What's the solution for the OL? I am stumped. They may have broken down late in the season, esp if you look at the sack numbers and, as Aaron pointed out, James's YPC. Could it have all been Diem? And Clark, not drafted as a blocking TE, really whiffed on a blitz or two late in "max protect" with Porter (I think) coming around the left side and Clark heading into the interior against somebody there--leaving Porter (or whoever) utterly untouched. Maybe they draft a fast, skinny, 6-3/275 lb tackle and convert him to a blocking TE.

And finally, regarding #26 Ned, don't you think it would be good for Manning to run some "wrong" plays to throw the D off? Say it's 2nd and 5 and it looks like they're stacking against the run. Run anyway. Do it a few times. Play-act that you're really pissed and surprised. Yel your ass off at the OL in front of the D. James'll get one or two, maybe more, and there's always another down. Either the D will mistakenly think they're tricking him (leading to a killer deep strike in the second half), or for the ones who ARE trying to trick him, it will have backfired--they leap back to cover pass and rush only three, and James breaks loose for 12 yards while their LBs are backpedaling. And if it fails, there's always another down, plus like a baseball pitcher setting up the batter with some early throws, it may put a cerebral defense off (I'm thinking NE here) for the NEXT play. and many of the following plays because they're thinking they know him and suddenly, they are not so sure. That half step hesitation, as we know, could be huge.

37
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 5:00pm

I'm not sure whether to praise Ned for being able to and actually write this article in the wake of the game Sunday (in his shoes I'm not sure I could) or criticize him for seeming to focus more on "why Indy lost and what they do next" than on "why Pittsburgh won and how this will carry over to subsequent postseason games."

The first six paragraphs read like most of the AGS articles, covering the strategies used by both teams and adjustments they made. After that, though, by my count 14 of the next 21 paragraphs are about the Colts, with the only paragraphs about the Steelers being:

- How the Colts can take heart from the fact that the 15-1 Steelers flamed out in the playoffs last year, changed at two key skill positions, and made the AFCC this year;

- How the Steelers have been more "tormented" by the Pats and post-season failures than the Colts;

- The Steelers are really good, especially with Ben at QB;

- The Steelers are really good at passing the ball, and Cowher should embrace the pass in running situations;

- The Steelers have a shot on Sunday.

What about more information on how the Steelers D disguised coverages? What about more on how Polamalu timed the snap count several times on blitzes, drawing blockers and leaving Porter unblocked? What about more (say, statistics) on the Steelers' relative success of passing on 1st and 2nd down vs. 3rd down, and whether/how that changed as the game went on? What about more on how Pittsburgh defensed the stretch run, and whether they can be expected to perform similarly against Denver?

Frankly, I feel this isn't up to Ned's usual standard. It's natural to focus on one's own team, but I think I've been spoiled by how well the FO writers usually do in balancing their coverage and not letting their personal interests show through. While I don't feel that the article is in any way biased -- no "we wuz robbed" BS from FO, thankfully -- I think Ned got caught a little in focusing on how his team lost and what the future holds for them. Alas, for some of us, there are still games to be played, and I'd rather hear what FO thinks about them between now and February 6th.

38
by X Coach T (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 5:04pm

Great article Ned! Great analyzation of the Steelers/Colts matchup.

Two things, first, did the Steelers pull out all their tricks to win this game or is this their typical attack on a good QB/running game? So far, all that I have read, it seems to me that the more balanced a team is the more trouble the Steelers have. Denver is as balanced as they come, with devotion to the run.

Second, as a Bronco fan, back in the late seventies we had a coach that went 9-5 (can't remeber his name) and then left to become GM for the 49ers. The next year the Broncos went to the Superbowl and lost to Dallas. After that year we went downhill until Reeves came and drafted Elway and the 49ers took off. The guy couldn't coach as well as he could build a team. Does this sound like Dungy?

With that said, I believe he is one of the best coaches in the league. His composure is amazing. I do think he was out coached but come on, he just lost his 19 year old son. Who could keep their minds on football with something like that so recent? What a tragedy that is now multiplied by the loss and being outcoached. I would take him to coach my team anytime!!!

39
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 5:49pm

Manning's playcalling is certainly fair game for examination, but it is remarkable how frequently a team's playcalling is inadequate when a team gets down 14 points very quickly, and the team's offensive line is getting horsewhipped. The chicken or the egg question looms large, and there is no obvious answer to it, but when o-lineman are flat-out whiffing on their blocks, I dunno if the playcall is the critical element.

Lombardi probably was not looking down on this game with the famous gap-toothed smile; more than likely he nearly repeated his NFL Films-famous exclamation, by thundering, "What the hell is going on down there!", thus breaking the referee's concentration in the replay shroud, thus leading to the botched interception call.

40
by steelershomer (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 6:19pm

Manning’s playcalling is certainly fair game for examination, but it is remarkable how frequently a team’s playcalling is inadequate when a team gets down 14 points very quickly, and the team’s offensive line is getting horsewhipped.

That's just the point. A good offensive coordinator will call certain plays to protect the offensive line. A good offensive coordinator will also have the game sense to call a run play and get a first down, for example, at the end of the game with time outs left, so that the kicker will have a shorter kick. Manning's comments after the game that called into question the performance of his teammates on the OL were surprising, since, almost uniquely among NFL quarterbacks, he has the responsibility of calling all the plays, and therefore an opportunity to make adjustments if the OL is being beaten.

How did the Bills handle their no-huddle offense? Did Jim Kelly have help with the playcalling in critical situations, to help him manage the game? I'm trying to think of historical examples to compare Manning's offense to, and get a better sense of his performance.

41
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 6:30pm

Is there ANY logic to the blocking scheme the Colts O-line was using probably 2/3 of the time where the guards pulled and blocked outside while the tackles blocked inside? I think I have seen them use this in a couple of isolated instances before, but they used it most of the game and it CRUSHED them. How could you possibly square up and block well in this scheme? Why would you stay with it when it is failing so miserably? If Diem is having trouble blocking on the outside due to the injury (as it seemed obvious he was), take him out of the game or just line him up as a guard! Can anyone explain this scheme?

42
by Fnor (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 6:40pm

The key to the Steelers confusing Manning regarding run/pass D was Polamalu. A standard run D has the saftey up on run support, with a tight formation on the D line. In pass, the safety is usually back and the line is more loose to allow the line room to rush the QB. The Steelers only have 3 linemen, and while they do have both loose and bunch alignments for their D line, their run packages run out of either (in a loose alignment, the ends push in to keep lanes from expanding so the two ILBs can hit the gaps). Plus, the extra LB means the safety can be taken out of the mid zone and blitzed.

So! If a 3-4 defence does it right, like PIT and NE and occasionally SD do, you can both conceal coverage and the type of play you're running, because the line and the safety can be pretty much anywhere you want (within reason) without really declaring what you're doing. The tradeoff is that against a particularly speedy RB or strong line, you're playing with fire unless you have a spectacular safety, and if your rush doesn't get there on pass plays, your short zones can be eaten up by precision passing to TEs and RBs. It's a high-risk/high-reward setup, with the ability to mitigate some of the risks by acquiring excellent personnel and designing your schemes with subterfuge in mind.

43
by Fnor (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 7:06pm

#41: Perhaps it's a scheme designed to knock blitzing LBs off balance? Normally the defender has an advantage because they have 3-4 yards to build up momentum to slam into a lineman. Since Indy has small linemen, perhaps they thought that by stunting with their line, they could have the guards having momentum outward, pushing the end out of his blitz pattern and possibly into a blitzing LB, while the tackles came in from the side and had a little momentum to push any ILBs that were rushing in off to the side so they no longer had a direct line at the QB. If (IF!) that's what they're doing, that would take a crapload of finesse and timing to pull off appropriately, but it would lessen the disadvantage a smaller line has against fast, physical LBs on blitzes with the new disadvantage of the chance of the whole thing just blowing up in your face.

A theory.

44
by PATRICK IN QUEBEC (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 7:37pm

sorry for my english guy i live in montreal and i speak french.

in the first afc championship two years ago in foxboro, in the first half Manning go with the pass in the first half and no points, i think at the half patriots is 15-0 for Pats. the first drive the colts in the second half eight runs two pass and a touchdown. it's simple with Manning 3-4 base defense plus one good rushers and drop seven. Manning is just to enough patient. This guy this season a good season because is patient with running james, suddenly the game vs san diego, manning lost is patience.

45
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 7:42pm

Sometimes, steelershomer, there ain't no protectin' somebody, and when people are getting whipped this bad, that well may be the case. None of us have adequate insight as to how the Colts handle the divison between Manning, Moore, and the line adjustments to know where the chicken is and where the egg is.

46
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 7:49pm

#43. I guess that makes a tad bit of sense theoretically, but it doesn't seem like there's really enough time to swap and get your feet set, ever. And it certainly doesn't explain staying with it when it is blowing up over and over.

47
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:00pm

Yeah, one really needs to know how these decisions are made within the Colts' coaching staff to understand it better. Ultimately, it's on Dungy.

48
by aih (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:04pm

On the "rest" question, I heard Bill Polian asked about it on the radio this morning. He observed that the four Indy off. lineman (Diem was hurt) played more during the "rest" games than anyone else because they didn't have many other linemen, so he pooh-poohed the rest theory. He also blamed the loss on the line even more than Manning did. This strikes me as unfair. If he is calling the plays at the line, Manning should bear some responsibility for not calling plays designed to counteract what the Steelers were doing. There were a couple: quick pass to TE when Polamalu blitzed clean on 3d down, and the pass to James near the goal line. But mostly, he just faded back and heaved it downfield.

49
by J (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:07pm

8

Click my name for more salary information....check the year links to compare Indies QBs' playing salary (explained on the site) to other teams' QB playing salary...salary numbers are not in for this year, though.

Here is Indies DEFense playing salaries since Dungy has been there....

.........DEFENSE........DEF SALVOA

2002.....$21,538,766.....-17.57%

2003.....$20,510,836.....-31.46%

2004.....$17,938,870.....-45.34%

.........DEF DVOA........DEF EFF

2002......7.40%...........10.17%

2003......2.20%...........29.26%

2004......2.30%...........43.04%

DEFENSE is defense playing salary.
DEF SALVOA is defense salary value over average (playing salary)
DEF DVOA are the great stats from here.
DEF EFF is simply the DEF SALVOA + DEF DVOA

In 2004, Indies defense playing salary was 45.3% less than the league average for that year!

50
by GaryS (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:09pm

I'm sorry, there is no excuse for Manning not to have won that game. He was given two chances, first from his own 20 with 2:30 left, then from his 43 with 52 seconds, and both times with 3 TOs left. Truly great QBs win those games; over rated and over paid ones lose them, then blame their own team mates for the loss.

The bigger the game, the more frantic Peyton becomes. I wonder whether his audibles leave his team mates more confused than the defense.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the substandard OL play was that since Peyton signed his big contract, at least 2 starters had to be let go in free agency.

Manning is a hypocrite, if you ask me; all the big talk about winning and being a champion, but when the chips are down, he drags in all the money for himself then blames his lesser paid team mates for the loss. He is a no class loser.

51
by Carlos (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:19pm

Re: Manning's play-calling...

The challenge to an "analytical" criticism of the play-calling is that there's no control group.

Yes, Pitt got a lot of pressure all game long, including in the first quarter. But I'd say Indy failed to move on their first three drives MORE because Manning was bouncing around and then throwing like a "spaz" (to quote my football illiterate but observant wife). Manning's throws in the first quarter were just awful.

And the playcalling might have looked a lot smarter if he'd come out throwing sharper.

52
by WesM (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:46pm

Re: #25, (in re: #20)

Woah! I didn't say that Indy and SEA struggled because they rested their starters; I said I hoped it would be perceived that they did. I just want to see an end to preseason level play in December.

53
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:48pm

I'm an equal opportunity critic here, so how about the Colts D? Surely they deserve some of the blame for letting the Steelers score at will in the 1st quarter?

21-18 doesn't really reflect the officiating fairly either. This game easily could have been 35-10 Steelers. I saw at least 3 steelers drives end prematurely because of uncalled defensive holding and pass interference and we all know about the interception.

I don't know how much of that good Colts DVOA is prematurely ended drives from officiating or the Steelers simply going more conservative. They looked like they could have scored at any time if they wanted.

54
by jeff t (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:55pm

I am not sure play calling would have made much of a difference regarding the Steelers pass rush. The fact is, the Pitt DL completely whipped the Indy OL. According to TMQ, the Steelers only blitzed (sending more than 4 rushers) 14 of 57 plays.

55
by chris (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:57pm

#50: Those two linemen aren't exactly gunning for Walter Jones' job. As for winning, this is a guy who has probably won more NFL games than any other quarterback since 1998. Has he played poorly relative to his regular season performance? You'd have to say yes. However, five of his six playoff losses have occurred on the road, and, additionally, I think three have been on the road in freezing conditions, where historically, dome teams win about 25% of the time. And, finally, I have to say that I hate it when people talk about an athlete's personal qualities based on what we see on the field. That's why I go to this site, where we can calmly talk about a wonderful sport, and not have to hear about someone being called a loser because they're only in the (being ungenerous to Manning) 80% percentile of NFL quarterbacks. I didn't care for his thinly veiled attacks on the offensive line either, but it's easy to be magnanimous and generous in victory, less so in defeat, particularly one like this. So, how about we talk objectively about how Peyton Manning performed on the field instead of making personal attacks?

56
by Theo (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:58pm

Nice Colts article.
Next week: how the Broncos were beaten by some team.

57
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 8:59pm

Gary S, what clear, unique, and valuable insight. Thanks a ton. You've sure settled things. I guess we can all go home now.

toe tapping....

toe tapping....

humming....

he gone yet? Good. Carry on, gentlemen.

As a Colt fan I really, REALLY appreciate you guys picking this apart and I sympathize with the Steeler fans saying "hey, what about us? After all, we WON the damn thing." You sure did, but the mainstream media is awash with Pitt/Denver stuff right now, and FO will be for the rest of the week. I don't get to hash and re-hash Indy OL tactics with many folks living in Seattle....

Patrick, I have seen Manning patient, I have seen him impatient. I am not sure what the difference is. Is it because he has time or is being rushed? Is he panicking because of the score? (I think not--he's overcome large deficits before). Constipated? I think he is truly confused to some extent by the D schemes outlines above (thanks fnor), and then the Colts receivers he expects to see in certain locations at certain times are not there, whether they are bumped or they see the D differently than he does and they run an alternate route (making everybody look confused). Add in protection breakdown and you have a real mess. He keeps trying to fix what is broken, rather than try plan B, such as running, or screen passes.

I do think they need to ride James as much in the postseason as they did in the regular season, even if there appears to be little benefit the first ten times. The benefit will come as the D changes the way it plays, or anticipates run more and more, etc. and sets up the play-action passing game.

And your English is far superior to my Francais.

J, that's a pretty cool analysis. So Indy IS being very salary efficient with their D. (in a business sense, that's great!) How so for their O? Of course, by being efficient, what that really means is "kinda cheap for what they get in return" and when rookie contracts are up, the promising young D men want bigger paydays, so they go elsewhere (Marcus Washington on the skins, Mike Peterson on Jags, both at or near all-pro levels this year....)

58
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:01pm

56

I doubt that. I think some team beating the Seattle Seahawks will be bigger news.

59
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:03pm

Re: #30, Neil O'Donnell was a very good quarterback, and if you'll look back to Cowher's lone Super Bowl year (1995), the Steelers did quite a lot of throwing the ball that year. It's funny how the Steelers love their running backs so much, but it was the one season between Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis that they actually managed to win the conference championship with Byron Morris and Erric Pegram splitting carries... much like how the Artist Formerly Known as Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker do now, come to think of it.

Denver's going to win, because they're a much better team than anyone realizes and Mike Shanahan is going to remind the world of what Tony Dungy couldn't, namely that Bill Cowher is, in fact, Bill Cowher. But the point that the Steelers are much better now that they have their first good quarterback since O'Donnell is dead on.

60
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:05pm

Sigh. I always double post like this and I sincerely apologize. But I do have another point:

Cowher let Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger throw so much last week because he figured they didn't have much chance of beating the Colts, anyway, so they might as well try something crazy and throw the ball. This week, Cowher thinks he has an excellent chance to beat the Broncos, so he's going to go back to playing not to lose and being ultra-conservative. Cowher didn't revitalize himself in a week. Trust me, he's still Bill Cowher.

61
by Bobman (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:07pm

Chris,
In context, his remarks were rather fair, really (he was specifically asked about the protection breakdowns--saying "no comment" might sound even snarkier). Polian was a bit harsher. And Tarik Glenn was even harsher on himself and his linemates (of course, one has free license to criticise oneself!)

Crushinator, then why didn't they score more? I thought they looked like they were firmly in control (perhaps less so than you) and against a team like Indy, it's stupid to say "we're up by 18, game over."

They were clearly trying to dominate (going twice on 4th down) and take the Indy O out of the game, but they just didn't mount any scoring drive. Cowher conservatism? After the 1st quarter, the Indy D looked like it has for a while now, very good on two downs, poor on third. Just good enough to lose respectably. And Pitt just simmered instead of boiling over on them. Maybe it was Ben's injured hand.....

62
by J.S. (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:12pm

RE: 52
One of the anwsers to not having "Pre-Seaon" play in december is to eliminate the Bye week in the playoffs. But as the system is set up now this would mean that we would have to create a lower parity by allowing the top 8 teams into the playoffs from each conference. I would much rather go back to the 16 weeks no bye, and then the top four teams play it out. But then of course I am old school and the thought of anyone of the current players or teams trying to play "iron man" football is a joke. I don't think anyone of our "current" stars could do this. By "current i mean anyone drafted into the NFL after 2000.
most of the players playing like Rod Smith, Brett Favre, Etc all remeber what it was like to play without a break through the entire year.

63
by Fnor (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:16pm

#46: The thing is, the tackles are the only ones that have a long distance to cover in that theory, and they wouldn't be setting, they'd be pushing the LB coming through the line into another block or out of the way in the backfield, or if there's none there picking up an outside rusher or doubling their backup assignment.

64
by Balaji (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:17pm

#60: Cowher let Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger throw so much last week because he figured they didn’t have much chance of beating the Colts, anyway, so they might as well try something crazy and throw the ball.

Oh, come on now. Is that why he let Ben throw and used all those gadget plays against Cincinnati? Because he figured they didn't have a chance of beating them when they faced a poor run defense and Jon Kitna?

As a longtime Steelers fan, I'm nervous about the next game too. But don't you think it's possible that Cowher has finally opened up the passing offense because he finally has a quarterback with whom he feels comfortable doing so? O' Donnell was a good QB, but I wouldn't call him a franchise-level player like Brady, Manning, or even Carson Palmer.

Sometimes Pittsburgh fans are unbelievable. They scream for years for Cowher to be more aggressive in his approach, and when he finally does it, they still find something to complain about.

65
by Fnor (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:19pm

#57: Problem with riding James in the postseason is that he's kind of worn out by then. If I were the colts I would've shot through the air more during the regular season (accusations of running the score be damned) and lessen his carries so he is more fresh in the postseason and can really do some damage.

66
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:20pm

How anybody thinks they can critique quarterback play based upon what they see on t.v. in one game is beyond me, except in the most obvious situations, like when a clearly open receiver is overthrown by an unpressured qb. I'm sorry, but without acess to a coach's tape, one cannot adequately evaluate quarterback play, simply based upon one game. DPAR is useful once the sample size is large enough, but one wouldn't take the DPAR from the season's first weekend and proclaim who was a good qb, and who sucked. One would actually need to see the games in great detail to actually know which quarterbacks played well, which ones stunk, and which ones had their numbers disproportionately affected by the unavoidable relationship between one football player's performance with the performances of other football players.

Perhaps Manning did play hideously, but it just seems odd to me that people will make very broad denunciations of things they have very spotty information on, whereas they will overlook the things with which they much more complete information, in this case the line play.

Chris' remarks above regarding the sample size of playoff games, and the extremely broad generalizations people will draw from such small sample sizes, is well-considered.

It just seems to me that many people tend to be entirely irrational when evaluating quarterback play, more irrational than in their evaluations of other players.

67
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 9:26pm

Crushinator, you are correct, in that the Indy defense sleepwalking until it was 14-0 was the second most important factor in the game, next to the offensive line's impersonation of a rented mule.

68
by DGL (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 10:19pm

#59: That's "Bam" Morris. Only his mother called him "Byron".

(Ah, youth.)

I also don't know that I'd call Neil O'Donnell a "very good" quarterback. Good, certainly. Above replacement-level, sure. No Kyle Orton, without a doubt. Very good? I don't know, did you watch that Super Bowl?

69
by thad (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 10:23pm

"Perhaps Manning did play hideously, but it just seems odd to me that people will make very broad denunciations of things they have very spotty information on, whereas they will overlook the things with which they much more complete information"

Hi,
welcome to the internet.

70
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 10:29pm

Touche', thad, touche'.....

71
by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 11:07pm

Re:#68

What's interesting about Neil O'Donnell is that he has/had one of the lowest INT rates in NFL history. I think at one point he was second only to Troy Aikman.

So naturally, he starts throwing them like it's his job in his only Super Bowl appearance...

72
by BillWallace (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 11:11pm

Pittsburgh fans better watch out criticizing Cowher. Karma will give you Norv Turner as your next coach. In this case the grass is most certainly not greener on the other side.

73
by Balaji (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 11:31pm

#72: I agree wholeheartedly. Does anybody realize that after this week, the Steelers will have played in 6 of the last 12 AFC championship games? Granted, they've done terribly once they get that far, but how many teams even get that chance at all, let alone with any frequency?

74
by thad (not verified) :: Tue, 01/17/2006 - 11:58pm

A quick look back at the Steelers playoff pass atts
93 vs KC 42(with a 10 pt lead at the half)

94 vs Browns 23 (up 21 at the half)

94 vs SD 54(with a 7 point lead at the half)

95 vs BB 35(with a 16 points lead at the half)

95 vs Colts 41(with a 4 point lead at the half)

SB 30 49(with a 6 point deficit at the half)

1996 vs Colts
OH MY GOD THIS IS INSANE DOWN BY ONE AT THE HALF THE STEEERS PASS ONLY 22 TIMES

1996 vs NE 39(21 point deficit at the half)

1997 vs NE 31(4 point lead at the half)

1997 vs DB 36(Down by 10 at the half)

ok I decided to stop here cause I think the point is made.
There have been some games where Cowher just went totally pass wacky.
I mean that Chargers game? Up by 7 at the half and 54 passes?

75
by Justin Zeth (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 12:59am

Yeah, I did watch Neil O'Donnell play that Super Bowl. I also watched him play a lot of other games, and Super Bowl XXX was an aberration. O'Donnell had plenty of arm, good accuracy, and always made good decisions.

Aikman slipped behind him at the end of his career. O'Donnell has the lowest career INT rate in NFL history (minimum 1000 attempts, I believe, or 2000).

So, yeah, O'Donnell was pretty good.

76
by Vash (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 1:03am

72: The intelligent ones love Cahr (and that's most of us, though not the most vocal!)

77
by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 1:40am

Justin,

Yeah, I'll give you "pretty good," too. Career passer rating of 81.8, which this season would put him at number 19, between Steve McNair and Chris Simms (in 2004, between Byron Leftwich and Aaron Brooks, again number 19; in 2003, between Chad Pennington and Brad Johnson at number 12). 57.8 completion percentage, 6.72 YPA. 120 TDs and 68 INTs over about the equivalent of 8 full seasons.

Pretty good, and SB XXX was an uncharacteristic meltdown, but I don't know about "a very good quarterback".

78
by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 3:21am

Does anybody else think that maybe part of the Colt's problem lies with the defensive scheme? the quick lead the steelers got allowed them to play aggressively on defense all game long, i'll bet if they got burned with an 80yd TD on the first play they wouldn't have dialed up blitz after blitz. Back to the scheme, after reading Aaron's article in the NYTimes, i thought 'what a boring, easy to scheme against defense.' Pitt came out with a choreographed passing assualt that they knew would work because Indy plays the same defense every play! I'm not saying the Tampa-2 is worthless, TB and Baltimore won SBs with relatively simple defensive schemes, but got away with it because of ridiculuous talent. Dungy's 05 Colt defense has a couple good players, but it works well only because the offense scores so much and others teams have to pass to get back in the game. I think that stat regarding the Colt's first quarter defense is telling as well, teams can work out a set number of plays to run against their vanilla D that they can practice all week long, but as the game progresses, teams start to press since Indy ussually puts points on the board and sacks and INTs then follow.

79
by Tequila (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 8:48am

Cowher has not always led a run-run-run offense. I recall the O'Donnell SB year as being one where 5-WR spread formations were used regularly and O'Donnell had 460+ pass attempts. Kevin Gilbridge was OC for two years, don't forget.

80
by ernie cohen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 10:34am

I assume that DVOA is designed to work much like the system described in "The Hidden Game of Football" (but geared to individual plays, rather than drives). That is, the value attributed to a play should be something like the difference in the team's chance of winning before and after the play. The fact that IND, the losing team, had a higher total DVOA for the game even though IND recovered the only fumble (which DVOA presumably, and rightly, ignores) seems to mean something is amiss. Am I missing something?

81
by Fnor (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 11:19am

#80: Kind of. It's compared to the average play that would be run in that situation rather than trying to determine the chance of winning. It also measures a play's success towards getting a first down or a score.

As for the fumble, DVOA does count fumbles forced regardless of who recovers it, since recovery is random and causing fumbles usually is not. Plus the added value of a 40-yard fumble recovery run is probably a gigantic-value play, since the average play would have you losing six points, as opposed to losing no points, gaining posession and good field position.

82
by Ron Mexico (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 11:34am

Re:#74

Well, one explanation for the Chargers game could be that the Steelers were getting absolutely nowhere on the ground. 66 yards rushing on 26 attempts. They also committed 8 penalties, so it's possible that some were of the false start/holding etc. variety, forcing them into passing situations.

It's amazing that they lost that game. They led 13-3 at one point, and completely dominated TOP 37:13 to 22:47. And they held the Chargers to 13 first downs.

But two long TD passes, and coming up empty 4 times in goal to go at the end of the game prevented them from getting destroyed by San Francisco...

At any rate, those numbers don't really prove that Cowher goes pass-whacky, unless you have the breakdowns for when the passes were made.

83
by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 11:58am

Going back to Sunday's game, one thing that I haven't seen explained.

I think a casual observer watching the game would say that the Steelers played better.

Every article and commentary I read on the game says that the Steelers played better.

This was not a case like the NYG/MIN game this year where three return TDs won the game; pretty much everyone says that Pittsburgh played a better game than Indy.

So what is it about DVOA that gives Indy a higher DVOA than Pittsburgh for this game? And does this worry anyone about the accuracy of DVOA?

Typically, if the losing team has a DVOA 50% higher than the winning team, you would be looking for unexpected factors -- key penalties, big returns on turnovers, etc. -- to explain the win. In this case, those unexpected factors were either not present or in Indy's favor. So how does DVOA get this game so "wrong"?

84
by JMM (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 12:49pm

RE 83 (and 11)

I asked the question earlier. The point which doesn't seem to fit to my eyes is Indy's Offensive DVOA - 39.9 vs 11.9 for Pitt.

Did Manning steal the magic beans? Hopefully Aaron will address in his bye week mailbag.

85
by Mikey (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 1:07pm

Hey, can we get the Champ Game threads up today? I'm going nuts checking the AGS, and Power Rankings, AND Audibles threads looking for new stuff.

86
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 2:54pm

#63. That makes sense. However, in the game it didn't go that way. I can see it if you had the guards block the defensive ends every time and then the tackles be ready to block an inside OR an outside rusher. But that's not what happened. Often times the tackles blocked the ends and then the guards came out and blocked outside rushers.

#65. James had 2.5 weeks off before the game and was looking pretty fresh.

#83. I'm not sure. All traditional statistics got this game wrong too. If you would have told me before the game that the Colts would be 2-0 in turnovers (ignoring the crazy int call) and have more yards on offense, I would have figured there would be no way we could lose.

87
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 3:41pm

How well does DVOA account for field position? A thirty yard punt from the one yard line is a helluva lot more punitive than a thirty yard punt from one's thirty-five yard line, or even one's twenty, and punting from the one yard line is more likely to result in a thirty yard punt.

Then, the Colts also get a 90-plus yard drive, getting multiple positive plays towards first downs, but only get three points. I wonder if extreme differences in field position is more likely to produce a result where the losing team has a higher DVOA.

88
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 4:10pm

This was definitely a game that ended up close enough that the poor special teams of the Colts mattered. Forget the missed FG, poor coverage and non-existent returns (partially due to a TON of muffs) mattered a lot on field position. Do the Steelers put another touchdown on the board to go up 21-3 if they get the ball at the 50 where the punt was caught instead of the 30? I doubt it, maybe a field goal.

89
by DGL (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 4:24pm

Is a 10-yard difference in average starting field position "extreme"? I'm honestly asking -- I don't know if that's considered an extreme difference or not.

(I know the Gamebook says the average start for PIT was the PIT 38 vs IND 21 for IND, but if you disregard the "drive" after the missed FG at the end of the game, and the one-play "drive" that started on the 2 with 1:20 left -- which only started there because Indy had to go for it on 4-16 with 1:27 left -- the average start for PIT was the PIT 31.)

90
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 5:06pm

It is an interesting question, DGL. In some circumstances even five yards are huge, like the difference between punting from the one, and punting from the six, given that the punt from the one is much more likely to be rushed and thus shanked. I'm just kinda fishing around here, and I'm no expert in DVOA. Thus, I also wonder if an extremely long drive with many first downs, which only results in a field goal, might inflate DVOA beyond it's true value in terms of winning a game.

91
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 7:27pm

How well does DVOA account for field position? A thirty yard punt from the one yard line is a helluva lot more punitive than a thirty yard punt from one’s thirty-five yard line, or even one’s twenty, and punting from the one yard line is more likely to result in a thirty yard punt.

Quoth I...

Punts and kickoffs are judged based on the difference in point value between each kick and an average kick from that position on the field.

As for the punitive effects, I don't think that you should penalize a team for not kicking well when they need to kick well any more than you normally would. You've already rewarded the opposing team for putting them in that position - no need to give them a benefit twice.

That is, if you start on the 5 yard line, and gain no yardage, and then the punter shanks a way below-average punt, yes, it's much worse than if the punter shanks a below-average punt from the 35 yard line. But the reason it's much worse is because the offense started on the 5 yard line and gained no yardage, not because the punter "failed in a clutch situation" or something like that.

92
by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 7:29pm

Thus, I also wonder if an extremely long drive with many first downs, which only results in a field goal, might inflate DVOA beyond it’s true value in terms of winning a game.

That team would have a poor red-zone offense, which would lower its Estimated Wins. The team would have potential (high DVOA), but it wouldn't be capitalizing on it (low est. wins).

93
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 7:42pm

Thanks, pat. I thought that long field goal drive might have helped push Indy's DVOA past Pittsburgh's, despite the fact that getting only a field goal there was defeat of sorts, more so than the typical drive that stalls out in the red zone.

94
by thad (not verified) :: Wed, 01/18/2006 - 10:16pm

re 82
I am not saying that he ALWAYS goes pass wacky, just that sometimes he does.
The general perception of him is that he runs and runs and runs.
And yet, when I watch the playoffs, thats not always the case. The Steelers often, not always, pass more in the playoffs than the regular season.
Including games in which they have a lead at halftime.
And if you think I am digging thru my closet to find the play by plays of games, sorting them out, making a spreadsheet with the data of how often the Steelers passed in the 1st quarter,
well you are crazy, no, not gonna happen.

95
by nihilistnick (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 1:43am

RE: #1

I'm assuming that it has to do with the fact that the Colts D relies so heavily on the pass rush, and aren't so great against the run. After the first quarter, the Colts have usually established a lead and can force opponents out of the run and into playing catch up with the pass, which obviously plays to the strenghts of the Colts D.

96
by DenverMatt (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 3:33am

I wonder if Peyton having so much control over the play calling works against him, and his offensive line. Audibling on every play has got to be hard on the rest of the offense as well. I think the advantage of being able to see the defense and change the play at the line may be counteracted when it is done too much.
Also I wonder if Peyton's running the offense works better against weaker defenses than it does against stronger ones. This would help explain poor performances in the playoffs where you would expect to see better defenses, and also defenses that disguise coverages better, i.e. New England, Pittsburgh, etc., the teams that seem to torment Manning.
Also it is human nature to want to do more yourself, this would work against Peyton calling plays objectively, as he would naturally want to pass more than run.
Could it be that it's not so much that Dungy and Manning are bad in big games, but that the Colts' offensive system is broken? I think Peyton has too much control over the offense.

97
by Pat (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 11:53am

I thought that long field goal drive might have helped push Indy’s DVOA past Pittsburgh’s, despite the fact that getting only a field goal there was defeat of sorts, more so than the typical drive that stalls out in the red zone.

Well, but that's the thing - it was a successful drive. If they repeated that drive 100 times, they'd score a touchdown probably 90% of them. That drive did show that the Colts could drive on the Steelers - primarily by rushing when the Steelers dropped into coverage.

Of course, the Colts went and ignored that for the second half, but hey, you can't measure bad decision making.

98
by turbohappy (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 1:58pm

#96. Agreed. I hope they dial back Peyton's offensive control a bit next year. I think Peyton needs to get better at reading the defense AFTER the snap. If he can't get a good pre-snap read it seems to cause him a lot more problems than most QBs. Maybe he needs to go up to the line with his eyes closed and just call a play sometimes in the regular season and not open them till the ball is snapped to practice :o)

99
by thad (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 7:55pm

DenverMatt,
You may be right..........
but,
How much do you want to change a system that has brought so much regular season success.
Also what if you tweak it to much and the results are a big flop?
Just playing devils advocate.

100
by DenverMatt (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 8:48pm

It has brought them success during the regular season. The most interesting play for me was Peyton Manning sending the punt team back to the sidelines, or so it appeared.
As Will stated in #45, only the Colts know what the division is between Manning, Moore, and Dungy, as far as blocking schemes, etc. But it sure appeared that Peyton was calling everything.
You've got to mix in the run to keep a defense honest even if it's not working. I think the other alternative is what we saw on Sunday.

101
by Hit me baby one more time! (not verified) :: Thu, 01/19/2006 - 10:37pm

What a bunch of drivel, NED! You and all your fellow Colt fans are having yet another pity party and analysis session. You all need to get a shrink, pick a better team and stop wasting web space with this constant garbage.
All year we had to hear how you all were going to go undefeated, then we had to listen to your endless, in-depth analysis of the big AFC championship match-up between you and the Broncos, and now its an article with no information about the Steelers who kicked you in the mouth. Just quit with this Coltsfest already, will you??????????

102
by thad (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2006 - 12:42am

Yeah I would definately agree on mixing in the run, I think everybody knows my position on that, heh heh

103
by thad (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2006 - 1:08am

re 101
Actually I think the Colts fans who came to this site were pretty cool.
Some of them had some pretty interesting things to say for the rest of us who don't see them every week and I really don't recall too many who were overbearing.
Well except for Stan, but the rest of them were always ok.
And when they were 13-0, the undefeated question was really interesting.

104
by Fnor (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2006 - 2:04am

Stan is always grumpy. Nathan and purds and the rest rock.

105
by black (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2006 - 2:24pm

According to Mark Schlereth, on Mike and Mike in the morning, the colts had the worst protection scheme in all his years of playing and watching football. He said it could have been easily corrected, but they were stubborn and it killed them. He put the blame on Howard Mudd. Personally, i think the colts need a big play receiver. Harrison my end up being the greatest possesion receiver of all time, but i've never see him break a tackle.

Nearly all his big plays are off playaction, so if the defense can disregard the run, he's not the type of player you can just force it too and hope he makes a play.

And for all the creative created the colts get, they never go off the script. I don't see any trick plays or exotic formations to confuse the defense. Their best bet would be full game no huddle buffalo bill style and just see what happens.

106
by Myra (not verified) :: Fri, 01/20/2006 - 8:08pm

The colts are without a doubt the most exciting refreshing team to watch. For some reason they just did not show up for the Steelers game. Not that it matters but as for me the is no Super Bowl this year

107
by Loyatulla (not verified) :: Sun, 01/22/2006 - 3:33pm

Excellent analysis, Ned Macey. Thot I'd read & heard all there was to know about this game, but you added a whole new layer of insight.