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21 Jan 2005

AFC Conference Championship Preview

by Aaron Schatz, with additional analysis by Michael David Smith and Ryan Wilson

 

Three notes before we get to the preview.

First, the requisite upfront admission of bias. I'm a Patriots fan. Ryan is a Steelers fan. I wrote most of this preview and he contributed his thoughts. We hope you find it fair and balanced, and not in a FOX way.

Second, I'm not sure what has happened over the last two weeks but our discussion threads have declined in quality to such an extent that I actually had to close down a thread earlier this week due to name calling, flamewars, and overall stupidity. Maybe it is the pressure as we get later into the playoffs and the stakes are higher in each game. Maybe it is our increased popularity. Maybe -- and this scares me -- most of my fellow Patriots fans have just become colossal jerks, because discussions about the Patriots seem to collapse into drivel faster than discussions about anything else.  (Man, that is really depressing to me, but the fact that I'm saying it is not an invitation to slag Patriots fans in the discussion thread instead of talking about this game.)

We have worked very hard at Football Outsiders to create a website where fans can have respectful, intelligent discussion about the NFL without trying to prove how big their penises are because they can write that their team RULEZ in big capital letters. We don't want you calling another poster an idiot.  We don't want you saying, "the fact that my team is never going to lose again is so obvious that if you don't believe it you are a moron and probably a member of Al Qaeda." We don't want you making posts that are completely devoid of evidence for your assertions. Well, unless you are trying to make a clever joke.

Frankly, we don't want to go to a registration-only comment system and I don't have time to go through deleting flame wars. So if you are one of the people who has been a jerk around here, knock it off.

In that spirit, a final note. I've taken the Manning-Brady irrational argument thread off the front page. If for some godforsaken reason you still need to participate in this argument, you will find it here.

 

Fans have been anxiously awaiting this rematch between the NFL's top two teams since the Steelers annihilated an injury-riddled Patriots squad on Halloween to end their NFL-record 21-game winning streak. No two teams strike such an even balance between offense and defense, or between the run and the pass. But after New England embarrassed Indianapolis while Pittsburgh squeaked by the Jets, some may wonder if this game is still a battle of equals.

* * * * *

For those who may be visiting this site for the first time to read this preview, some explanations for our statistics. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here.  Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative VOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, split into rush and pass, along with rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) I've also listed each team's red zone performance on offense and defense.

TREND is the WEIGHTED DVOA trend, based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here). Weighted DVOA now includes playoff performance, and the weights for all teams were moved an additional two weeks ahead from the regular season. Except for TREND numbers, all DVOA statistics on this page are regular-season only unless otherwise noted.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense.

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a third-power polynomial trendline. That's fancy talk for "the curve shifts direction once or twice." Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Last week's AFC semifinals preview is here. The early week AFC conference championship debate discussion thread is here. This week's NFC conference championship preview is here.

 

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

  NE OFF PIT DEF
DVOA 26.3% (4) -15.0% (4)
TREND* 23.2% (3) -18.1% (3)
PASS 42.1% (2) -19.6% (3)
RUSH 12.2% (5) -9.2% (6)
RED ZONE 16.7% (7) 2.9% (20)

In their first meeting, the Steelers learned that they can stop the Patriots when Corey Dillon is out of the lineup. But with Dillon healthy, the Patriots present the Steelers with the best offense they have faced all season.

Dillon excels both at hitting the hole provided by his blockers and at evading tacklers afterwards for extra yardage. But the Steelers stuffed more runs at the line of scrimmage than any other team, and their linebackers are ferocious tacklers. If the Steelers have a weak link, it is right end Kimo von Oelhoffen, but this is a bit like being the least popular Beatle. The Steelers were above average stopping runs in von Oelhoffen's direction, but the league's best team stopping runs elsewhere.

With snow in the forecast, and a dominant rushing performance in the rear-view mirror, one would expect the Patriots to emphasize the run. But New England's biggest advantage over the Steelers comes from their multi-faceted passing game.

According to our DVOA ratings, only the Colts' passing attack was better than the Patriots' in 2004. The Patriots, who are known for running different route combinations to put defenders in difficult positions, will attempt to spread the field in Pittsburgh. That could force the Steelers to replace one of their physical front seven players with an extra defensive back.

Much of New England's success is predicated on giving Brady enough time to find the open target. But in the Halloween game, the Steelers dominated an offensive line decimated by injuries and rattled Brady into numerous hurried throws, including an interception returned for a touchdown. If you aren't a fan of Pittsburgh or New England, you may not realize how bad the injury situation was. Brandon Gorin was making his first NFL start in place of injured right tackle Tom Ashworth, then had to switch to the left side when Matt Light was injured early. That meant that Stephen Neal, the converted NCAA wrestler, had to switch from guard to tackle for the first time in his career. So the two tackles combined had one week of practice at tackle and zero weeks of practice at the tackle position each was actually playing. Pittsburgh ran out to a 21-0 lead so fast that the Patriots had no threat of the run, and Corey Dillon's injury had a hidden cost: he's excellent at picking up the blitz and blocking on pass plays. Suffice it to say, protection will be stronger in this game. Over the whole season, only four teams allowed fewer quarterback sacks than the Patriots.

Even with strong protection, though, the Steelers will still get to Brady because they are so good. Like Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his staff, Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau excels at confusing opposition quarterbacks by constantly changing the identity of his pass rushers; after all, he is the inventor of the zone blitz. One down it could be Pro Bowl linebacker James Farrior coming after the quarterback; the next it could be another Pro Bowl linebacker, Joey Porter, or cornerback Willie Williams. The coverage behind the pass rushers is just as strong. DVOA rates the Pittsburgh defense as above average against receivers at every position, and of course safety Troy Polamalu zeroes in on his prey faster than anyone since Boba Fett.

There are three interesting trends to watch which may favor the Patriots on offense

1) On a shorter field Pittsburgh loses its ability to make the big play. The Steelers did not cause a single opposition turnover in the red zone this season, and they had one quarterback sack.

2) The Patriots had the best offensive DVOA in the league when the game was within a touchdown either way in the second half. The Steelers defense was only average in late and close situations. Remember, they let the Giants come back to take a fourth quarter lead before Big Ben responded and the Steelers won.  They let the Jaguars come back to take a fourth quarter lead before Big Ben responded and the Steelers won. And last week they let the Jets get into position to try two game-winning field goals before Doug Brien turned into Pan the Goat-Boy God. (By the way, the Patriots not only had the best offense in late and close situations, they had the league's second-best defense in late and close situations.)

3) Phil Simms may believe there are no such things as halftime adjustments, the Patriots seemed to make good ones. During the regular season they had a 54.4% offensive DVOA in the third quarter, best in the league, and you may remember that last week they came out and ran a third quarter touchdown drive that lasted longer than the Broadway run of Cats. The Steelers, oddly, have a below average defense in the third quarter despite being far better than average the rest of the game.

 

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

  PIT OFF NE DEF
DVOA 16.6% (7) -9.1% (6)
TREND* 19.5% (5) -8.8% (11)
PASS 28.6% (7) -6.5% (11)
RUSH 9.4% (7) -12.3% (4)
RED ZONE 18.9% (6) -39.7% (2)

Everything in Pittsburgh starts with the ground game. 59% of Pittsburgh's offensive plays were runs, the highest percentage in the league by far, and the Steelers ran on two of every three first down plays. Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley are both bruising yet elusive, and when one tires the other is fresh.

Pittsburgh's ground attack is about steady pressure, not breaking a big play. No team in the NFL had a smaller percentage of its rushing yards on double-digit runs, and no defense gave up fewer such runs than the Patriots. The Steelers like to run up the middle behind center Jeff Hartings and left guard Alan Faneca, with fullback Dan Kreider often leading the way. Kreider pummeled New York linebacker Jonathan Vilma last weekend and his blocks are an oft-ignored factor in Pittsburgh's success. The Patriots will counter with underrated Keith Traylor and the rookie Vince Wilfork splitting time at nose tackle, and their run defense has improved as Wilfork has gained more experience.

Even if Pittsburgh chooses to run on every single first and second down, eventually they will gain fewer than eight yards and reach a point where they have to pass on third down. And that's where the Steelers face the greatest question of this game: what happened to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last week against the Jets, and will it happen again?

During the regular season, Roethlisberger played at a level matched by few rookies in NFL history. He threw fewer passes than other starting quarterbacks, but when he did pass only Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were more successful. But Roethlisberger had problems in the second half of the year, despite good games against Jacksonville and Baltimore. He threw only four interceptions and was sacked only seven times through his first seven games, but including last week's playoff game he has thrown nine interceptions and been sacked 24 times in his last eight games.

Any struggles over the second half of the regular season, however, paled in comparison to what happened last week. Roethlisberger looked like neither a veteran nor a rookie; he looked like a high schooler. His throws were shaky and inaccurate. He locked onto single targets, allowing the Jets to easily anticipate his throws. Two interceptions were thrown nowhere near their intended receivers.

The Steelers are denying reports that Roethlisberger is dealing with a thumb injury. They deny that he had problems with gloves worn to protect his hands from the cold (Brady wears the same gloves and has no problems). That leaves anxiety as the most logical explanation for Roethlisberger's very rookie-like performance.

While Roethlisberger battles to overcome that anxiety, the Patriots will pressure and confuse him with complex, shifting defensive schemes. Pittsburgh's total of 36 sacks only seems small because they passed less than any other team. Only four teams allowed more sacks per pass play than the Steelers.

To prevent this pressure, the Steelers will likely keep extra blockers back in passing situations, sending out only Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. You may remember from last week's preview that the Patriots were the league's best defense against number one receivers and the league's worst defense against number twos, but with the Steelers it is hard to tell which receiver is which. If the Patriots play zone behind a blitz, Ward excels at finding open seams. If they play man-to-man, Burress becomes the favorite target. After a week of talk about injuries in the New England secondary, the Colts baffled observers by never throwing deep. But the Steelers were the only NFL team to gain over 20 yards on more than 20% of their catches, and they like to go deep early to set up play action later.

The Steelers will also throw screen passes, the only play that consistently worked last week for Indianapolis. Look for the mobile Faneca pulling out to block in front of Verron Haynes, who doesn't get many rushing attempts behind Bettis and Staley but is faster and a better receiver.

By the way, for those who have not been reading the New England press, if you question Jarvis Green's ability to replace the injured Richard Seymour at defensive tackle he will apparently come to your house and personally kick your ass.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

  NE PIT
DVOA 0.2% (16) 3.8% (7)
NE kickoff -4.8 (24) 2.3 (13)
PIT kickoff 7.2 (8) -1.2 (14)
NE punts -0.5 (23) -5.8 (18)
PIT punts -16.2 (29) 19.5 (1)
FG/XP 15.2 (1) 6.4 (8)

With so few special teams plays per game, one big failure tends to stand out and obscure a record of strong performance. In Pittsburgh, fans are worried that punt and kickoff coverage are the Steelers' Achilles heel after Santana Moss of the Jets returned a punt for a 75-yard touchdown last week. They also remember Troy Brown's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown three years ago when these teams last met for the AFC title. But one big failure tends to obscure a record of strong performance. Over the entire season, Pittsburgh actually gained more field position value from their punts than any other team, while New England had horrible punt returns.

New England's one advantage on special teams is the Mariano Rivera of the NFL, Adam Vinatieri. Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed is good, but Vinatieri was perfect this year from 46 yards or less, and is unlikely to be fazed by pressure or the Heinz Field wind currents.

 

OUTLOOK

These were the best two teams of 2004, and their different strengths added up to equal value. No matter which team loses, each team should be proud of its great season. But when the numbers are equal, that is the time to look at intangibles, and those have to favor the Patriots. They have the league's best coaching and, unlike the Steelers, no question about the nerves of their quarterback. This year they had the best offense in the league when the score was within a single touchdown in the second half, and the second-best defense. They have a history of winning close games under pressure with a quarterback who owns two Super Bowl MVPs and a kicker with more Super Bowl-winning last-minute field goals on his resume than every other kicker in NFL history combined.

If they face the Roethlisberger of the regular season, these factors give New England a very tiny edge. If they face the Roethlisberger of last week, they will run away in a rout that reverses the result of the Halloween game.

*TREND numbers are updated through wild card weekend, all other DVOA statistics are regular-season only unless otherwise noted.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 21 Jan 2005

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