Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
19 Nov 2013
by Mike Ridley
The Curse of Bobby Layne lives on.
In the 55 years since the Hall of Fame quarterback was traded to the Steelers, the Detroit Lions have gone 0-9-1 in Pittsburgh, their latest loss being particularly damaging. With what was essentially a two-game lead in the NFC North and the NFC's second-easiest remaining schedule, the Lions simply had to take care of business against teams that were a combined 23-41 to wrap up their first division championship since 1993, when they still resided in the NFC Central. Instead, they gave up 37 points to a mediocre offense and dropped to 6-4, with only a tiebreaker keeping them ahead of the Bears. Heading into the final six games with only a slim lead, the Lions must step back and ask: are they capable of winning with their defense?
The major headlines Sunday may have been about the Lions’ high-octane offense going stagnant in the second half, but the real issue in Detroit's loss was their defense. The Lions gave up a season-high 37 points to a Steelers offense that had only crossed the 25-point threshold twice entering Week 11. More telling was their inability to get the slightest bit of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, who had been sacked 35 times in the Steelers' first nine games. This continues a season-long problem for the Lions, who came into the game 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Lions were completely incapable of generating a rush with their four-man front. Their 2.4 percent sack rate with their standard pressure was less than a third of the rate the Steelers had been giving up to that same four-man rush (7.3 percent).
Without any sort of pass rush, Roethlisberger was able to have his best game of the season. He connected on over 64 percent of his passes and tied his season high with four touchdowns. He also avoided a turnover for just the third time this season (courtesy of dropped picks by DeAndre Levy and Rashean Mathis -- more on this later). He used his time in the pocket to carve up a Detroit secondary that decided covering Antonio Brown was optional, allowing Pittsburgh's top threat to come away with 147 yards and two early scores that staked the Steelers to a 14-point advantage. Detroit would come back, thanks to an impressive 27-point second quarter, but ultimately, their inability to get the Steelers offense off the field led to their fourth loss of the season.
The Steelers played a solid, if not spectacular game in all three phases to notch their fourth victory of 2013.
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
A breakdown between the quarters shows that just like the game itself, Detroit's VOA was carried heavily by their big second quarter.
|Qtr||Off. VOA||Def. VOA|
The Lions fourth quarter was by far the worst. They were able to manage just 41 yards during the period, zero through the air. In this time, Matthew Stafford went 0-for-10 with an interception, giving the Lions an offensive DVOA of -128.7%.
Much will be made over Jim Schwartz's decision to go for a fake field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. I won't begin to speculate on whether or not it was the right decision. As Aaron Schatz noted in Audibles, Schwarz probably saw a situation on film he thought they could exploit. The execution may have been flawed, but there was likely evidence on tape that supported the decision. It's what followed that was reprehensible.
Up four with the Steelers backed up to their own 3-yard line, the Lions were still in a strong position to win the game. Statistically, they were still the most likely to score next. Instead, Detroit's defense allowed Pittsburgh to march 97 yards down the field in 16-play, touchdown-yielding drive that knocked over eight minutes off the clock and gave the Steelers a lead they would not relinquish.
A large contributor to Detroit's offensive dormancy in the second half was their lack of a ground game. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell were able to produce 4.3 yards per carry during the first half, highlighted by Bell's 18-yard scamper. In the second half, their production disappeared. Facing the league's sixth-worst rush defense by DVOA, the duo managed to gain just over 2.3 yards per carry -- Bush had 12 carries for 12 yards -- in the slick field conditions of the second half.
Wet conditions only amplified the effects of Detroit's subpar running game. The Lions wide receiver corps, already known for their drops, struggled to catch the ball in the damp environment. Calvin Johnson had a notable drop on fourth down in the first quarter. Brandon Pettigrew dropped a touchdown pass in the second that led the Lions settling for a field goal and Mathis' dropped pick allowed the Steelers to kick a field goal. The drop by Levy didn't allow the Steelers to go on and score, but it did prevent them from taking over near midfield instead of starting the next drive on their own 12-yard line. Kevin Ogletree also had a drop late in the fourth that would’ve put the Lions near the red zone, but being down 10 at the time, it was likely too late to matter.
The inability to run play-action in the second half also severely hampered the Lions offense. With the run game sputtering, Schwartz all but abandoned play-fakes and screens in favor of downfield throws, with his average pass traveling 17 yards downfield in the fourth. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Stafford was 6-for-9 for 139 yards and a touchdown on play-action in the first half. In the second half, play-action passes were called just three times, resulting in only 25 yards.
With no run game, no play-action and multiple drops, Detroit's offense came crashing down in the second half.
Pittsburgh was able to keep Roethlisberger upright for most of the game through their use of max protection. This usually resulted in seven-on-four matchups, thanks to the Lions sending standard pressure on 89-percent of the Steelers' dropbacks. With the added protection, Roethlisberger was often able to wait a little longer on routes, allowing his receivers to find holes in the Lions' zone defense. As a result, Big Ben finished 25-of-38 for 332 yards and three touchdowns, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Roethlisberger’s big day through the air helped keep the Steelers in the fight for not only the last AFC wild card but potentially the AFC North title, as well. The Bengals, who lead Pittsburgh by 2.5 games, have been one of the league’s most inconsistent teams, ranking 25th in our variance metric. With one game remaining against Cincy and several other winnable match ups left on the docket, the Steelers still retain a puncher’s chance to make the playoffs.
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