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?
10 Dec 2013
by Mike Ridley
On a day that featured a cornucopia of fantastic finishes, the Pittsburgh Steelers barely missed out on their own when Antonio Brown's left foot narrowly grazed the sideline on his way to the end zone, ending the game and likely Pittsburgh's chances of making the playoffs.
On the final play from Pittsburgh's own 26-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Emmanuel Sanders, who was able to advance the ball to the Pittsburgh 45-yard line before starting a lateral parade. Eventually, the ball would come back to Roethlisberger, who tossed the ball (possibly illegally) to Brown back at the 33. Brown dodged three defenders as he advanced into Dolphins territory. In an effort to avoid Miami's final defender, a diving Chris Clemons, Brown's left foot touched the boundary around the Miami 13-yard line, adding one more misstep to Pittsburgh's season.
Pittsburgh's loss to the Dolphins drops them to 5-8, ensuring them of their second consecutive non-winning season, something they had done only one other time in the previous 26 seasons. With their win, the Dolphins are now 7-6, sitting just behind the Ravens for the sixth AFC playoff spot with three games to play. Baltimore, also 7-6, owns the tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head win over the Dolphins in Week 5.
The Dolphins were able to come away with a win thanks a surprisingly strong rushing performance. Entering the day, Miami was just 18th in the league in rushing with a -5.0% DVOA. On Sunday, they were able to take advantage of the Steelers' 21st-ranked rushing defense to reach season highs in both yards (181) and DYAR (32). They also amassed a rushing DVOA of 23.2%, their second-highest mark of the season. Ryan Tannehill and Daniel Thomas led the attack, combining for 161 yards on 18 carries, with each having a run of at least 48 yards.
Tannehill's running abilities helped him overcome a relative off-day through the air. He looked noticeably troubled by the snow at times and finished the day completing just 20-of-33 attempts, with a pick-six to Troy Polamalu. He particularly struggled on third-and-long situations, converting just one of seven attempts on third-and-7 or longer. The one he did manage to convert was solely the result of Charles Clay breaking Polamalu's tackle to change a loss into a 10-yard gain. This continues a season-long struggle for Tannehill; following Sunday's action, he has converted just 21.8 percent of these situations, 26th among current starting quarterbacks.
The Dolphins won the game, but the final VOA favored Pittsburgh.
|Dewey Defeats VOA … Sorta|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
However, Pittsburgh received a significant boost from their last play, which added 62 yards to the Steelers total in one play. If we take out that last play, the numbers tell a slightly different story.
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Pittsburgh's final play ended up representing 15 percent of their total yardage on the day. Without it, their yardage drops to 350 and their yards per play falls from 6.5 to 5.6.
With Pittsburgh just missing out on their Cal-Stanford attempt, the play of the day goes to Charles Clay, who caught a five yard pass from Tannehill on second-and-6 and turned it into the game-winning touchdown by breaking the tackles of Polamalu (again) and Cortez Allen. Which reminds me...
The third-year tight end was a handful for the Steelers secondary, bruising his way to 97 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner with 2:53 left in the fourth quarter. Six of his seven catches resulted in successful plays and he converted on all three of his third-down targets. Over the last seven games, Clay has converted third downs on nine of his 14 targets. His 64.2 percent conversion rate is tied for the third-highest mark in the league since Week 8.
Clay's stats are among the league's best at tight end. He's fifth in touchdowns (six), receptions (60) and yards (678) and after adding 36 DYAR on Sunday, he's now ninth among tight ends with a season total of 99. Part of this comes from Clay's stellar catch rate. Of all tight ends with at least 50 targets, his catch percentage of 69 percent is tied for sixth in the league.
Where the former fullback may fall short is his consistency. Outside of his top three performances, in which he accumulated a DYAR of 108, he's been below average. He's failed to eclipse 10 DYAR in eight games, three of which were below zero. His worst game came in Week 10 against Tampa Bay, when he had successful plays on just two of his eight targets and finished with -29 DYAR. With such a loaded group at tight end, it's this lack of week-to-week production that may keep Clay on the outside looking in.
According to Mike Harris' DVOA Playoff Odds Report, Pittsburgh entered this weekend with a 30.9 percent shot at making the playoffs, best among wild card contenders not named the Chiefs. After falling on Sunday, they now sit at 5-8 and trail five teams for the final AFC wild card slot. The loss dropped them two games behind both Baltimore and Miami, to whom they lose both tiebreakers. A win by either team eliminates Pittsburgh from contention. Even if both should lose their final three games, the Steelers also trail the Jets and Chargers by a game and lose the tiebreaker to the Titans, thanks to Tennessee's Week 1 upset. Save for an epic collapse by the teams above, the Steelers will be at home for the second-straight January.
Miami, on the other hand, has their highest playoff odd incrase in weeks. Winners in three of their last four, the Dolphins are on the right side of .500 for the first time since their bye week eight games ago. Although Miami's schedule offers no freebies over the final three weeks (versus Patriots, at Buffalo, vs. Jets), their schedule is considerably easier than their closest competitor, Baltimore. The Ravens, who hold a tiebreaker over the Fins thanks to a Week 5 win, have three division leaders left on their schedule with bouts against Detroit, New England and Cincinnati remaining. If Miami could pull off wins in two of its last three, they could very well find themselves playing in the tournament.
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