Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
07 Jan 2008
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2008.
For the next two weeks, we'll be splitting Audibles in two, one for each conference. This edition discusses only the two AFC Wild Card games. Click here to read about the two NFC Wild Card games.
Bill Barnwell: So, wait. John Henderson grabbed Ben Roethlisberger's jersey from behind, but not his pads. That's still a penalty?
Stuart Fraser: John Madden said that was a rule change this year. I'll believe him.
Pittsburgh's opening drive is notable for consisting of mostly quick passes. Bruce Arians has been much criticized in various circles of Pittsburgh fandom for many seven-step drops, which are invitations for Roethlisberger to hold on too long and get sacked.
Pittsburgh's opening drive is in no way notable for being followed by a kick return to the 1, though I wish it was.
Bill Barnwell: The tipped pass from Heath Miller to Hines Ward was fun, but boy, was that a terrible throw. Miller settled into a zone and Roethlisberger threw it late and then both high and wide. Two plays later, a forced throw results in a pick-six.
How do you get a low block on defense?
Ryan Wilson: To be fair, on the tipped pass to Ward, Ben looked off the middle linebacker, who had moved left, and the safety snuck down on Miller. If the safety doesn't cheat (I think Santonio Holmes was running a go), Miller's open. That was just unlucky. The Rashean Mathis pick, however, was just awful.
The penalty on Russell was the same penalty they called on Matt Hasselbeck in the Super Bowl. There's some dumb rule about the offense, after a turnover, not being able to block the turnover-recovering team low. I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now.
Vince Verhei: Yes, that was very reminiscent of the call against Hasselbeck in the Super Bowl two years ago. Speaking of which, it's amazing that two years after that game, both Hasselbeck and Roethlisberger look so bad today.
Stuart Fraser: I admit that I was thinking, "the Steelers need to take a downfield shot soon" just prior to the second Roethlisberger pick, but you know, not to a player double-covered when you have Santonio Holmes open for a first down...
...and after the second Roethlisberger interception it's like somebody threw a switch and it's the Week 15 game again. Roethlisberger is dropping deep and getting sacked, Fred Taylor is running free up the middle ... did I hallucinate the first quarter?
Bill Barnwell: What a great throw by David Garrard on the Maurice Jones-Drew touchdown. Right in stride, in a spot where Jones-Drew could catch it without having to slow down or turn towards it, while keeping it away from the linebacker. Simply fantastic.
Mike Tanier: Why weren't they using MJD more as a running back? We had this argument three weeks ago when the Jaguars threw a pass on second-and-9 and got intercepted and I said I liked the call. Keep in mind that I liked the isolated pass surrounded by running plays, like they did in that game, not the three straight passes to start the fourth quarter leading 28-17, like they did tonight. That was just daffy.
Michael David Smith: Grady Jackson's having a good game.
Vince Verhei: Looks like Bobby Petrino did him a heck of a favor by cutting him midseason.
Tim Gerheim: Nobody really ever complains about early parole. (Believe it or not, not a Michael Vick joke.)
Stuart Fraser: Gah. My fan-addled brain is currently thinking of last year's AFC Championship, but there are only two Peyton Mannings, unfortunately. Also, the Steelers have to kick off.
(The Steelers kick short.)
Phew. Now all they need is a drive that isn't killed by an interception.
Aaron Schatz: The Jaguars are making some open-field tackles in this game that are just sick.
Vince Verhei: And on the other side of the ball, David Garrard just took over. Scrambling for first downs, hitting a pair of deep posts to set up MJD's touchdown run. That was reminiscent of a drive from the middle of the year when Garrard hit three or four posts in a row on the way to a touchdown.
And the Jags make another big hit on the ensuing kickoff.
Aaron Schatz: One statistical trend that has disappeared tonight: Jacksonville's mediocre regular-season run defense, especially against runs up the middle. They're concentrating on stopping the run up the middle and it has completely worked. Jacksonville allowed 100 rushing yards in seven games and at least 60 rushing yards in 13 games. At the start of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh has 30, and 10 of those were one run early in the first quarter.
Stuart Fraser: One trend that has continued: Heath Miller is a first down machine. When he was naming his Every Play Counts All-Pro Team, MDS wondered if he ought to mention Santonio Holmes, who'd had a good year in an offense not keyed to getting the No. 1 receiver gaudy numbers. I thought the idea was right but he had the wrong target. Miller has had an incredible season -- 50% DVOA doesn't happen often -- but his receptions have been limited as the Steelers have had to keep the tight end in as a blocker. Today's performance might get Miller a bit more (well-deserved) national attention.
Ryan Wilson: For Aaron's trend comment, I would point you to Sean Mahan, No. 61, for the answer to the question: "Why can't the Steelers run up the middle?" Marcus Stroud's out. John Henderson's out. It has very little to do with Jacksonville, I think, and everything to do with the center getting pushed three yards into the backfield.
Aaron Schatz: Although the Jags also have some good depth there. Derek Landri is pretty good.
(Miller scores on a 14-yard touchdown to make it 28-23, Jacksonville. Pittsburgh attempts a two-point conversion and succeeds, but the play is called back on a holding penalty. With the ball moved back 10 yards, they go for two again and fail.)
Ryan Wilson: Sean Mahan, right on cue with the hold on the two-point conversion.
Vince Verhei: I seriously, seriously question the call to go for two after the holding penalty. You're down by five. Kick to make it four. Then, even if Jacksonville kicks a field goal to go up seven, you can still tie it with a touchdown. Now that they've gone for two and failed, if Jacksonville kicks a field goal, Pittsburgh would need to make the next two-point conversion to tie it. I understand going for it to pull within a field goal, but not from the 12-yard line.
Now, that said ... Where has this Ben Roethlisberger been all night? And where did the Jacksonville pass rush go?
(David Garrard throws an interception right to Ike Taylor.)
Stuart Fraser: Since Ike Taylor just caught a pick, I think I can safely say we've entered a parallel universe.
Aaron Schatz: Where was David Garrard throwing that ball? The receiver was 10 yards in front of the pass!
Vince Verhei: Is something wrong with my TV, or did David Garrard just turn back into a pumpkin?
Stuart Fraser: The sensible answer (as opposed to my previous comment) as to what happened to the Pittsburgh offense, is that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians remembered his game-plan in the fourth quarter and went back to calling mostly three-step drops and short pass plays, which minimizes the liability of the pass protection (and, for that matter, the run blocking). It was, of course, what they did on the first drive too.
Bill Barnwell: Did Marcedes Lewis just give up on his route on the ugly Garrard interception? It looked like he was running a double-move off an out and just gave up on the go part. Or got blocked, one or the other.
If this game were actually well-played and close, I would be canceling my date tonight. Instead, it's just ugly and close. They show football games at wine bars, right? No? Oh well.
Vince Verhei: Hines Ward grabs his defender by the facemask and yanks him around, and the penalty gets called on the defender. I'm starting to get annoyed.
A nominee for goat of the game that the mainstream press will not note: Greg Jones drops a pass that would have converted a second down, then blows a block to allow a sack on third down.
Mike Tanier: At about four minutes left in Steelers-Jags, both coaching staffs were suddenly struck stupid. I am watching some dumb football late in this game.
Ryan Wilson: I think Jack Del Rio just wrestled the KCW award away from Tomlin's timeout on that late challenge. Jeebus... Wait, I change my vote: Bruce Arians for the third-down draw play on the previous Steelers drive.
Mike Tanier: OK: On the Steelers third-down quarterback draw. First, don't have an empty backfield. Make the defense respect the handoff because they know you may try to run out the clock. With the back in the backfield, you can run that play like a little spread-option and maybe freeze some defenders. The whole design and the situation it was used in was bad.
The Del Rio challenge was bad. Not having a play ready going into the two-minute warning was worse. You wasted a timeout challenging a play that wasn't that close. Maybe you could find time to call two plays and get the offense into hurry-up mode.
Ah, but the game ends the way it played out for most of the second quarter: with Roethlisberger standing in the pocket pondering the meaning of life until he gets sacked. He is becoming Bledsoe Junior, only with mobility.
Michael David Smith: Big mistake by Del Rio to challenge with just over two minutes left. You just can't waste a timeout there.
Vince Verhei: I didn't have a problem with the Jacksonville clock management. They were at the midfield at the two-minute warning. They still had two timeouts. They had plenty of time to score, and had to be careful not to score too quickly and leave Pittsburgh too much time.
Something has changed about me as a football fan. In games like this, where I don't have an inherent rooting interest in either team, I used to always pull for the underdog. Now I cheer for the team that I think is better; I thought Jacksonville would kill Pittsburgh tonight, and now I'm ecstatic that they just barely won. Is that something that happens as we get older, that we like to see teams get what they deserve? Or is it a selfish thing, like I've been validated?
Tim Gerheim: I've gone the same way, a little bit, and I think it's a consequence of being an "expert." If it's Dolphins-Patriots this year, I'm probably inclined to root for the Dolphins because they're legit underdogs and it's nothing special to be able to say "I called it" on a Pats win. But if it's a game like tonight's where I'm in some way on record saying Jacksonville should win, I root to be right. (This is why I'm now sort of a Chargers fan -- I rooted for them to be good for two seasons following PFP chapters in which I and the numbers said they'd be good.)
Will Carroll: We get paid to be right, or at the very least, smart. Rooting for being right is just the same as rooting for your paycheck to come on schedule -- it's the smart play.
Ned Macey: This might be me because I write Any Given Sunday, so I am always looking at upsets, but the thing that really pisses me off in a game with no rooting interest is when the team that plays better doesn't win. I know we've been pimping Jacksonville all year and we're basically right, but they were not the better team today. Interception return for a touchdown, kick return to the two-yard line for a touchdown. Two missed 2-point conversions that would otherwise have created a tie. Steelers outgain them by more than 100 yards with only one more meaningful turnover. I'm betting on a higher VOA for Pitt, but I could be wrong. VOA will (correctly) reward them for the kick return, but bad as Pitt's special teams are, they don't give up one of those a game.
Garrard had a pretty bad game throwing the ball on the big stage, but paging a competent wide receiver. Maybe he had open guys and was not pulling the trigger, but I certainly didn't see it. The Jaguars have wasted more first-round picks in the past five years to be this good a team. Leftwich, Williams (not totally wasted, but he doesn't start over Wilford and Dennis freakin' Northcutt), Matt Jones, Marcedes Lewis. I guess Nelson shows some promise. Can't wait for them to draft James Hardy when he comes out.
I'm sorry I'm late to this party because I was behind on my DVR, but what the hell was with the overrule on the Holmes catch? It ended up being meaningless, but weren't Madden and Michaels right?
The two-point effort from the 12-yard line is KCW-worthy. I was screaming about it at the time. It is one of those deals where preparation doesn't help you because you can't anticipate the first holding call of the game, but you have to think quickly there.
Speaking of holding, we don't have an offensive holding penalty all game, and they call that one on Mahan? Then the only other call the whole game is on the Jaguars' very next play. What a joke. That's embarrassing. Either swallow your whistles or call holding, but don't inject yourself at that crucial moment, and don't call lame make-up calls. By the way, there were no offensive holding calls in the Seahawks-Redskins game. If I were blocking Kyle Vanden Bosch or Shawne Merriman or Michael Strahan on Sunday, I'd hold the crap out of them.
Michael David Smith: I usually root for the underdog in a game where I don't have a rooting interest, but during the wild card week I usually root for the better team because I want to see good divisional round games. Especially this year, with how much better the top two seeds in each conference are, I would be worried that an upset in the wild card round would just mean some boring football in Round 2.
Aaron Schatz: On NFL Matchup this morning, they were showing the first game between these teams, with Jamal Williams just pushing Kevin Mawae out of the way on running play after running play, and talking about how the Titans would have to double Williams. So far through the first quarter and a half today, no Mawae, but Eugene Amano is on Jamal Williams one-on-one, no double-team, and he's really taking him out over and over. It's pretty remarkable.
Would somebody like to explain to me why Chris Davis is running eight-yard patterns on third-and-12 for Tennessee? Maybe Tennessee should consider just moving the entire offensive line over to the left side on every play.
Doug Farrar: On Philip Rivers' end zone interception, Cortland Finnegan absolutely had Chris Chambers covered deep, but Vincent Jackson was wiiiiiiiiiide-open on a post about 15 yards upfield. When we talked about Eli Manning taking what the defense gave him, throws like that would NOT have fallen into that category.
And as I write this sentence, Rivers throws into double coverage (to Chambers) in the end zone with an open man underneath 15 yards upfield. Incomplete pass. I'm sensing a trend here. And these are first-and-10 and third-and-11 plays, not desperation situations.
Ned Macey: In Rivers' defense, he accurately read that Chambers -- his theoretical deep threat -- had single coverage on the outside. Chambers just got no separation. On the second one, Rivers was under enormous pressure, and Michael Griffin sprinted full speed to just break up a touchdown.
People are going to say that LaDainian Tomlinson should get the ball more, but what do you do when he gets less than one yard per carry? Is Tomlinson's career in danger of going the way of Barry Sanders? For comparison purposes, does that make Rivers Scott Mitchell?
Stuart Fraser: Chambers did have some (not much) separation -- he had about a stride deep on Finnegan, but he had to come back because Rivers underthrew the pass.
(Chargers tight end Antonio Gates severely sprains a left toe late in the second quarter. His status for the rest of the playoffs is unknown at this time.)
Patrick Laverty: OK, two questions: How do you dislocate a toe in football? Any other joint, I understand, but a toe? And why does someone like Antonio Gates need a cart to get off the field for a dislocated toe?
I guess I'm just ticked because he's my playoff fantasy team tight end. Heck, stick some lidocaine in it and get back out there. It's a toe! You're the team's leading receiver. This is the playoffs. Git 'er done!
Bill Barnwell: Mangling your toe hurts. A lot. I could barely walk on this and it hurt for two months. Playoffs schmlayoffs.
Doug Farrar: Rivers is looking very, very good with more intermediate stuff at the start of the third quarter.
Aaron Schatz: What happened to Marcus McNeill, though? The difference between this year and last is really noticeable.
Doug Farrar: As it is with Kris Dielman, who was flagged for a chop block on Albert Haynesworth. That left side is not what it was last year.
Aaron Schatz: I know some people have a problem with Phil Simms, but occasionally he says something so true you can't help but agree with him. For example, when Simms just said, "I don't know much about kicking." Hard to argue with that.
Doug Farrar: Oh, my goodness. Fourth-and-one from the Titans' 2-yard line and the Chargers elect to kick the field goal. Thoughts? San Diego was 19th in Power Success, and only the Cardinals allowed a higher Power Success percentage. Down 6-0, I think you go for it.
Michael David Smith: I actually disliked the three plays they called prior to the field goal more than I disliked the decision to kick, although I do think they should have gone for it.
Tim Gerheim: I agreed with the decision to kick. The field goal allows the San Diego momentum to continue to slowly build, albeit not as quickly as a touchdown would have, but a failed fourth down attempt would have been incredibly deflating for the Chargers, I think.
Aaron Schatz: OK, can somebody please explain to me why there is no holding call on Scott Mruczkowski of the Chargers when he basically hooks Antwan Odom's arm and pulls him to the ground on the Vincent Jackson touchdown?
Tim Gerheim: I don't understand your question. They don't call holding in the playoffs.
Ned Macey: Back to what I mentioned in the Pittsburgh discussion: The refs have called a whopping two offensive holding penalties today, one in each game. I don't know how the magic penalties database works. Do we know how many holding penalties there are in an average game, or can we not sort out holdings on special teams plays?
Doug Farrar: 418 offensive holding penalties (non-special teams, including offsetting and declined) called this season divided by 256 games = 1.63 per game.
Aaron Schatz: About the Titans: There's really only so much an defense can do -- and more specifically, there's only so much a front seven can do when the offense can't score and the secondary blows a couple of coverages to allow major gains.
I'll be shocked if they overturn the touchdown that makes it 17-6 San Diego, but I gotta ask -- did anyone else think from the camera angles they showed on television that the third Rob Bironas field goal was good, not wide left?
Bill Barnwell: I thought it was pretty close, at the very least.
Sean McCormick: No, that kick looked wide to me.
Not sure what happened to Tennessee's tackling, but it's been noticeably worse this quarter.
Aaron Schatz: And once the game is 17-6, Tennessee can't run the ball, and once they can't run the ball, San Diego can pressure Vince Young whenever they want, and there is no way he can handle it, and this sucker is over.
Vince Verhei: We may as well just print that comment by itself and call it good. It almost perfectly captures the entire game in a nutshell, at least from the Titans' offense point of view. It's clear that Tennessee's backup linemen are adequate run blockers who are hopelessly outgunned by San Diego's rushers.
As for Tennessee's defense, I think they were just asked to do too much for too long to win this game. Not so much that they were physically tired, but the law of averages says that if you ask someone to do something over and over again, they're eventually going to fail a few times in a row. I did notice that Tomlinson's first good runs on the day came when he ran to the right, and Travis LaBoy ran a big looping pass rush both times, taking himself out of the play.
Last night Aaron noted that Seattle's front seven made their secondary look better than they really are, and I think that's even more true for Tennessee. Rivers had plenty of receivers open throughout the game, he just had more time to pass and played smarter in the second half.
Doug Farrar: Rivers got a lot better from the start of the second-half drive because he wasn't trying to force throws. Which, one would assume, had something to do with a Norv Turner adjustment. Norv doesn't seem like the sort to put forth a Moss-like, "The best part was shutting you guys up" comment, but he's got at least one week to feel that way if he so chooses.
For me, this day was about preconceptions. Had Jay Cutler played as Eli Manning did against Tampa Bay, I might think differently about it. And if Ken Whisenhunt had led his team to a playoff win after all that pressure and having to relocate midseason due to the horrible fires, I might look at that a bit differently as well. I have no idea what either win means in the long term for these guys -- whether we've seen watershed events or just good days -- but it certainly has been interesting.
Mike Tanier: That's the tough part of this job: Knowing when to adjust our opinions and when to write off events as flukes. I usually hound on Tom Coughlin, Norv Turner, and Jack Del Rio, and here they all were winning playoff games. Odder yet, I picked all three to win in Rundown. In Turner's case, my opinion of him hasn't changed. Coughlin, well, I don't know what to think, because I also think Kevin Gilbride is a nincompoop. Del Rio and his staff showed me a lot this year, because he doesn't have overwhelming talent and the schedule was tough and that team plays some excellent fundamental football.
The thing about Manning and Rivers is that I am still evaluating them almost on a throw-by-throw basis, and so I don't really have a hard time giving them credit for good games or blaming them for bad ones. They are still pretty young and having typical ups and downs, but they both have some playoff appearances under their belts and now some wins. Throw in Big Ben and that's quite a class of quarterbacks, though I think we are impatient for them to turn into John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino, not three guys who win some games but still have three-interception, five-sack brainfarts.
Bill Barnwell: I think the thing about guys like Eli and Ben that I'm trying to understand is how quarterbacks develop. I see Eli doing the same things he's done since his rookie year and I wonder -- and maybe Dave Lewin might be a good person to speak to this when it comes to quarterback development patterns, but I'm thinking more scouting-wise here -- how do quarterbacks improve as they gain experience in the league? What signs are there?
175 comments, Last at 10 Jan 2008, 4:53pm by Jonathan