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20 Nov 2007
by Ned Macey
The Super Bowl Steelers are back! Ben Roethlisberger has recaptured the form that led them to a Super Bowl Championship in only his second season. The Steelers are the biggest threat remaining in the Patriots' quest against history. Sure, they had a minor hiccup against Arizona, but they were playing their old offensive coordinator. And the loss in Denver was, well, an emotional Sunday night contest.
That's two losses with an explanation, but what about Sunday's loss to the lowly Jets? No such easy excuse can be found, and the Steelers' struggling offensive line and special teams play are largely to blame.
At this point, the Steelers' offensive success appears to consist mostly of Ben Roethlisberger nearly getting sacked, escaping, and finding talented receivers downfield. The rest of the offense is Willie Parker running into five defenders. To the Jets' credit, they were able to take down Roethlisberger seven times and stall the Steelers offense. A couple of big plays and one impressive late drive provided just enough offense to pull out the win.
Pittsburgh's losses to Arizona and Denver were in part excusable because at least they were competent teams. Both are now 5-5 and in the playoff hunt. The Jets, meanwhile, were 1-8 with their lone victory a narrow win over the winless Dolphins. One year removed from a playoff appearance, the Jets appeared to be among the very worst teams in football. A change at quarterback generated most of the headlines over the last couple weeks, but the offense, while weak, was not the major problem. Stopping the other offense was the issue, but now the insertion of a new inside linebacker has fortified the struggling run defense.
The Steelers always want to establish the running game, and that certainly seemed like a reasonable game plan against the team that allowed the most yards per game on the ground. The Steelers ranked second in the league in rushing yards, but that total was largely inflated by the sheer number of attempts. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings, which measure stats on a per-play basis, the Steelers feature a league-average rushing attack.
Still, league average is substantially better than the woeful Jets run defense was until this week. But the Jets' front seven rose up and dominated the line of scrimmage. They stacked anywhere from five to seven men within several yards of the line of scrimmage, confusing the Steelers offensive linemen. The aggressive attacking defense completely stymied the Steelers' rushing attack.
Special credit should go to rookie inside linebacker David Harris. The University of Michigan product was never truly appreciated in college and fell into the Jets' lap in the second round. Since an injury to the highly touted Jonathan Vilma, Harris has taken over and been much stronger at the point of attack. Vilma's game was to run around blockers, frequently making plays five to ten yards downfield. The Jets without Vilma still feature speedy linebacker Victor Hobson and the do-everything safety, Kerry Rhodes, so the overall team speed remains strong.
Of course, Harris also started in Week 9 when the Jets were gashed for more than 200 yards on the ground. The Jets made another important change in the bye week, featuring Shaun Ellis in an outside linebacker role. Ellis is too weak to hold up as an every-down defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, but he's big and physical for an outside linebacker, and a quality pass rusher to boot.
The Jets played Ellis mostly at defensive end on the first drive of the second half, and Pittsburgh enjoyed their most success running the ball. Otherwise, rookie free agent Mike DeVito filled in at defensive end for Ellis and has the potential to be a real credit to the Jets' scouting staff.
The Steelers were unable to consistently run the ball, and they fared worst when Parker took the ball. Parker totaled only 51 yards on 21 carries. Backup running back Najeh Davenport gained 39 yards on only eight carries. This disparity has been a year-long trend. Davenport ranks third among running backs in DVOA; Parker ranks 39th. That's a big reversal from a year ago, when Parker was the much more successful back even on a per-play basis.
The problem is that the Steelers offensive line has declined from adequate to poor. The holes that sprung Parker last season are nonexistent this year. He is understandably frustrated and trying to bounce runs to the outside. Davenport, meanwhile, is a bigger back able to move the pile while still having enough quickness to get to the corner. Make no mistake, Willie Parker is a better running back than Davenport, but in this case, the backup may be better suited for this offensive line.
This offensive line is undoubtedly struggling. Dewayne Robertson practically lived in the Steelers' backfield on both passing and rushing downs, taking full advantage of Sean Mahan at center. Marvel Smith was beaten several times on the left side of the line, and Willie Colon was not much better on the right. All told, the running game was stuffed, and Roethlisberger was sacked seven times.
The seven sacks actually do not tell the whole story. Roethlisberger, as is his pattern, eluded possibly a half-dozen more sacks. The Steelers have become too reliant on Roethlisberger's immense physical ability. To date, their strategy has been to struggle on first and second down and allow Roethlisberger to make miracles on third down. Entering the game, the Steelers were a below-average offense on first and second down but were by far the league's best offense on third down.
The ridiculous third-down efficiency is in part attributable to putting the ball in the hands of Roethlisberger, the Steelers' best player. Still, the disparity was so great and the third-down efficiency was so high that a game where third-down failures killed the offense was inevitable. Sunday was such a game; the Steelers only converted five out of 16 third downs.
The reason for the failed third downs was largely the pass rush, but the Jets also performed well in coverage. Darrelle Revis, another rookie, is certainly learning quickly on the job. Meanwhile, safety Kerry Rhodes did a good job of bracketing receivers downfield.
When the Steelers couldn't keep drives going on third down, the Jets were able to hang around. The Jets offense in regulation was basically two plays: a flea-flicker bomb to Laveranues Coles and a 41-yard pass interference on a pass intended for Jerricho Cotchery. Otherwise, the offense struggled to sustain momentum. Thomas Jones ran hard and with some success, but the offense was punting repeatedly.
The Jets forced overtime thanks to an excellent drive engineered by Kellen Clemens. The first-year starter certainly looks the part of a quarterback. He has a strong arm, moves well in the pocket, and even does the little things like play action effectively. The jury remains out on Clemens, who has been erratic at times and made several throws Sunday that could have been intercepted. To date, he is only completing 50 percent of his passes. In the final drive of regulation, however, he showed a great deal of poise working underneath sideline routes for the game-tying field goal. Clemens is definitely worth watching, although we are at least a year away from knowing how good or bad he will end up being.
The game was lost in overtime by the Steelers' true Achilles' heel: special teams. The Jets had the ball first and punted. After the Steelers stalled, they punted to Leon Washington, who busted a big return that set the Jets up for the game-winning field goal. The Steelers' coverage units have been bad all year. Their loss to Arizona was largely the result of a Steve Breaston punt return for a touchdown. Their second win over Cleveland was in doubt to the end because of Joshua Cribbs' kickoff returns. The Steelers avoided Washington on kicks throughout the game, but one returnable punt was all he needed to make an impact.
The Steelers are a flawed team, but they certainly have the talent to beat any team in football. Their defense is legitimately one of the very best in the league. Roethlisberger is capable of making plays nobody else can make, and he has two very talented receivers. To date, they have struggled offensively on the road for whatever reason. They are the fifth best offense in football at home but below average on the road. Nothing about their style of play or personnel would indicate that they are a bad road team. One possibility is that their margin of error on offense is so thin, they can fall apart under more difficult circumstances.
With two wins over the Browns, the Steelers are certainly in the driver's seat for an AFC North crown. Two questions remain: whether they can beat New England in the regular season and what sort of noise they can make in the playoffs. The Steelers have as much upside as any team not featuring Tom Brady at quarterback, but the road woes make a regular season upset unlikely. In the playoffs, they could conceivably make the AFC Championship game or get bounced in the wild card round by a team better than the Jets.
For the Jets, the struggling season allows them to gain much needed perspective. Last season's playoff run was largely a fluke caused by good luck and an easy schedule. Eric Mangini can now work on developing a defense that fits his schemes rather than forcing square-pegged veterans into round holes for the sake of winning now. The Kellen Clemens era has rightfully begun, but the David Harris era may have more of an impact on the Jets' future.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
45 comments, Last at 22 Nov 2007, 12:34pm by Justin Zeth