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10 Sep 2013

Any Given Sunday: Titans Over Steelers

by Mike Ridley

Football is back! No longer are Sundays reserved for church service, yard work, or the occasional NCIS marathon on the USA Network. Back are endless pregame shows, office pools and valid reasons to crack open a beer before noon. All is right with the world ... unless, of course, you're the Pittsburgh running game.

Pittsburgh entered the season as a possible playoff contender with a projected 8.6 mean wins. We expected a rebound from an aging defense to make up for a below-average offense. What we didn't expect was for the offense to be ... what happened on Sunday.

During the offseason, Todd Haley and new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. implemented a new outside zone-blocking scheme to help revive a rushing offense that was second-worst in the league last year, according to DVOA. As mentioned in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 (still on sale!), we had questions about how effective this scheme would work with the players on hand. Outside of Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey and second-year guard David DeCastro, there appeared to be a lot of square pegs and round holes.

You've likely already heard how this story plays out. Just eight plays into their season -- after being gifted the easiest two points in NFL history -- Pouncey was lost for the season with a torn ACL and MCL after DeCastro inadvertently dove into his knee while attempting a cut block. (Patriots fans will note that Bernard Karmell Pollard was credited with a half-tackle on the play but was not directly involved in the incident.) The Steelers then went on to have their worst rushing performance (32 yards on 15 carries) by yardage since 2006, when Baltimore's top-ranked defense held Pittsburgh to 11 carries and 21 yards.

Going forward, the Steelers will now be using Kelvin Beachum at center, who, as J.J. Cooper pointed out in Audibles, is the team's preferred blocking tight end and primary backup at all five line positions. That leaves the Steelers without an adequate player to seal the edges or reach the second level. If this wasn't bad enough, it means that Guy Whimper, he of the questionable blocking prowess, is now closer to meaningful playing time.

On the bright side, uhh ... the Pittsburgh has the Pirates to celebrate?

By the VOA

The final score may not have shown it, but both film and VOA agree that the Titans dominated all three facets of the game.

Wrath of the Titans
Team Off. VOA Def. VOA Special Teams VOA Total VOA
TEN 1.7% -41.6% 8.7% 52.0%
PIT -36.3% -3.6% -4.4% -37.0%

You're probably wondering, "Wait, how does Tennessee have a better special teams VOA than Pittsburgh after they returned a kick for a safety?" Due to the rarity of this play, much like a blocked punt or kick, it has little predictive value going forward. What does have predictive value is Brett Kern downing four punts inside the 20-yard line, including two inside the 10 (a holding penalty moved a punt caught at the 17-yard line back to the 9-yard line, as well). Also working against the Steelers was Markus Wheaton's idea to return a kick to his own 7-yard line.

Offensive Breakdown
Pass VOA -8.3% 22.2%
Rush VOA -109.8% -8.3%

A look into the breakdown of the offensive VOA ratings shows an even more telling story. Pittsburgh accumulated a Rush VOA of -109.8%. This marks the second time in the last seven games (Week 12 against the Browns) that the Steelers have reached the -100.0% threshold. To put that in perspective, a -100.0% rushing DVOA has only happened two other times since the beginning of last season.

Call of the Game

A little more than halfway through the second quarter, the Titans had fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 26 yard-line, trailing by two. Prior to this drive, the Titans had only amassed 35 yards and it was apparent that scoring opportunities were going to be minimal. Despite being stopped on third-and-1, Mike Munchak gave Jackie Battle the ball again, this time gaining just enough to move the chains. The Titans went on to score six plays later, giving them the seven points that would prove to be the winning margin.

Spotlight on: Titans' Defense

The Titans ended last season with a franchise-worst (and league-high) 471 points allowed. With an offense that features a 55-percent passer and run-first approach, Tennessee knew the only thing that could keep them out of the cellar was an improved defense.

So where did the improvement come from?

As noted above, Brett Kern did an excellent job in pinning the Steelers deep in their own territory. Aside from the four punts that pinned them inside their own 20-yard line, the Titans didn't allow the Steelers past the 25-yard line on any of their five kickoff returns. By keeping the Steelers deep in their own territory, the Titans were able to adopt a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, even though they rarely needed it.

On Pittsburgh's first drive of the game, the Steelers converted three third downs with an average of 8.7 yards to go before eventually fumbling the ball away on their fourth third-down attempt. This would be the high point for the Steelers offense. Following that first drive, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers were only able to convert one of their nine third-down attempts. The astonishing thing is the Titans weren't forcing Ben and the Steelers into third-and-longs. The Steelers faced an average distance of 6.1 yards to go on their final nine third-down attempts. In fact, each time Roethlisberger threw the ball, he had an average distance of only 7.5 yards to go for a first down, easily the lowest in the league last week. Despite this small number, Pittsburgh only accumulated 14 total first downs.

The Titans were able to keep the Steelers offense at bay by constantly putting pressure in the face of Roethlisberger. Jurrell Casey, in particular, was wreaking havoc on the Pouncey-less front line. The 305-pounder was constantly finding himself in the backfield and notched the first two-sack performance of his three-year career.

Casey's power and technique were on full display during this sack of Ben Roethlisberger.

Off the snap of the ball, Casey is able to use a bull rush to push back Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro, who tries to chip block Casey.

By the time that Roethlisberger comes set to pass, Casey has already discarded Gilbert before quickly moving past Isaac Redman.

Roethlisberger pump fakes, but before he can get into throwing position again, Casey closes in on him and takes him down.

Jurrell Casey is just one cog in a young defense that appears to be on the rise. He, along with corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty shone brightly on Sunday. We'll keep the anointing oil in the cabinet for now, but on this day, the Titans defense looked for real.

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 10 Sep 2013

9 comments, Last at 26 Jan 2014, 3:39pm by Mohammed


by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 09/10/2013 - 11:47am

As I mentioned in another thread, the Steelers lived up to the spirit of "National Jump to Conclusions Day" by looking bad enough to establish themselves as a dark horse contender in the Jadeveon Clowney sweepstakes.

by dedkrikit :: Tue, 09/10/2013 - 12:38pm

The Steelers just signed FA Velasco (started at C for the Titans last year). He was ranked pretty highly for his blocking at other sites. I imagine they would get him out there as quickly as he learns their blocking scheme.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 09/10/2013 - 1:07pm

"DeCastro inadvertently dove into his knee while attempting a cut block."

Let me fix that for you.

"DeCastro dove into his knee while attempting a chop block."

by bengt (not verified) :: Tue, 09/17/2013 - 10:47am

That's wrong. He is allowed to perform a cut block on the player engaged with Pouncey because Pouncey was lined up next to him.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 09/10/2013 - 1:10pm

"The Titans went on to score six plays later, giving them the seven points that would prove to be the winning margin."

That's an odd way of phrasing it. The score that made a game 7-2 was not the score that provided the winning margin in a 16-9 game. In hockey parlance, that's not the GWG.

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 09/11/2013 - 6:13pm

Maybe Roethlisberger will have to learn to not depend so much on the pump fake.

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