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10 Dec 2013

Any Given Sunday: Dolphins Over Steelers

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.

By the VOA

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
MIA 18.9% 15.3% -2.4% 1.2%
PIT 23.7% 8.1% -6.2% 9.5%

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
MIA 18.9% 8.5% -2.4% 7.9%
PIT 16.3% 8.1% -6.2% 2.1%

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.

Play of the Game

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...

Is Charles Clay a Pro Bowler?

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.

Going Forward

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.

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 10 Dec 2013

12 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2014, 5:10am by oimeoi

Comments

1
by John G. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:02pm

Actually, should the Steelers and the Ravens both finish 8-8, the Steelers own that tiebreaker (they will have division record if one Ravens loss is to Cincy and common games if the 2 losses do not include Cincy). The Dolphins can be 8-8, but the Steelers need the Jets at 8-8 as well. In this case, the Jets will win the divisional tiebreaker over Miami due to divisional record. Then, the Titans and Chargers can be no better than 8-8.

The 8-8 Steelers, Jets, Chargers, and Titans go into a 4 way tiebreaker for the #6 seed. The Steelers will only have 6 conference losses if they are 8-8. All other three teams will have 7 or more conference losses should they be 8-8 and this situation occurs. Thus, this is the only scenario where the Steelers can get into the playoffs with Dolphins or Ravens wins

4
by Mike S. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:35pm

You beat me to it - I was still editing mine below when you posted. However, unless I missed something, the Titans would also have only 6 conference losses at 8-8 (they have 6 currently and would need to win out to go 8-8). So in a 4-way, the Jets and Chargers drop out at conference record and then the Titans beat the Steelers head-to-head.

5
by Mike Ridley :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:41pm

I obviously should have played around with ESPN's Playoff Machine a little bit more. Thanks for the clarification.

9
by intel_chris (not verified) :: Wed, 12/11/2013 - 11:52am

Yes, I love the playoff machine too. It saved me from my excel spreadsheet I was using to calculate the various combinations. Someday I will write a real program to calculate and show the combinations that are needed for each team to make the playoffs, but it will probably have to wait until I retire which is still a few years off, as it will take more than the free time I have these days to write it. It's not a complicated program, as it is simply a decision tree, but it isn't a 5 minute thing, at least not with the tools I'm comfortable with.

Every team in the AFC except Houston still has a combination (no matter how rare) that they get into the playoffs as long as that team gets to 7-9 or better. Well, SD needs to get to 7-8-1 to make the playoffs as far as I can tell, but still that is possible for them at this point assuming they can at least tie either Denver or KC and beat Oakland. Because Baltimore and Miami are both guaranteed records of 7-9, no team can make the playoffs at 6-9-1 or worse.

The NFC picture is more constrained, and I believe that a 9-6-1 record is needed (for Arizona, Green Bay and Chicago), as Carolina and SF both bottom out at 9-7 and appear to hold the tiebreakers. Either Dallas or Philly could potentially slip in at 9-7. I haven't done as much analysis on that side of the playoff picture, as I have less emotional involvement on those outcomes.

6
by Tim F. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:48pm

I don't see how you can call the divisional advantage to the Jets if Jets and Miami are both tied at 8-8. If Miami gets that one more win at the Jet's expense, they'd both be at 2-4 in the division (presuming losses to NE and Buffalo).

So... I think you are saying (but am unsure?) that the Steelers need a 6-way tie (Steelers, Jets, Chargers, Titans, and Ravens) at 8-8 with Miami losing to the Jets but beating NE and/or Buffalo but not both if the Ravens and Dolphins do not lose out?

That's the kind of playoff math not worth calculating, just wait another week for it to be confirmed that there is no way the Steelers can get in.

2
by Crunch (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:23pm

"Pittsburgh entered this weekend with a 30.9 percent shot at making the playoffs, best among wild card contenders not named the Chiefs."

I'm confused, are Carolina (69.5%) and San Francisco (88.6) not considered Wild Card contenders, or was this meant to refer only to the AFC?

3
by Mike S. (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:29pm

Have to pick a nit here - technically either the Ravens or Dolphins (or both!) could win this week and it wouldn't eliminate the Steelers. Pittsburgh and Baltimore split their series this year, so the tiebreaker moves on and Pittsburgh would win all possible 8-8 scenarios by either division record or common opponents. And even though Miami holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, if they lose to the Jets in week 17 and wind up in an 8-8 tie with them, the Jets would win their tiebreaker on division record and then the Steelers beat the Jets head-to-head. If the Chargers also made it to 8-8, Pittsburgh would beat both in conference record. For that matter, it's even theoretically possible for Pittsburgh to grab the #6 seed if they lose to Cincinnati as long as everything else goes perfectly.

Is any of that likely? No. Realistic? Probably not (I certainly expect them to be home for the playoffs). But it's still theoretically possible.

7
by johonny (not verified) :: Tue, 12/10/2013 - 5:04pm

I'm not sure Tannehill looked troubled by the snow at times. That seemed to me to be about how Tannehill looks usually. If anything he ran better than normal. It also seemed like the Dolphins used more misdirection, read option, and motion than normal. If Tannehill and Wallace could work out those deep routes timing... but they usually don't snow or no snow.

8
by JMM* (not verified) :: Wed, 12/11/2013 - 7:44am

"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."

I'm sure you can tell whatever story you want, in any game, if you selectively pull out the outliers.

10
by iron_greg :: Wed, 12/11/2013 - 2:01pm

Yes but wouldn't you agree that a completely crazy 62 yard play with SIX laterals and a freak breakdown in coverage qualifies as just a tad bit more of an outlier than other "outliers" like your basic 80 yard rushing TD?

11
by tuluse :: Wed, 12/11/2013 - 2:21pm

They've always removed failed hail mary attempts. Pretty sure this should qualify.

12
by oimeoi :: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 5:10am

I obviously should have played around with ESPN's Playoff Machine a little bit more. Thanks for the clarification. The 8-8 Steelers, Jets, Chargers, and Titans go into a 4 way tiebreaker for the #6 seed. The Steelers will only have 6 conference losses if they are 8-8. All other three teams will have 7 or more conference losses should they be 8-8 and this situation occurs. Thus, this is the only scenario where the Steelers can get into the playoffs with Dolphins or Ravens wins
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