You don't see many fifth-round rookie wideouts with real expectations, but Tajae Sharpe is one. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
16 Jan 2009
by Bill Barnwell
The difference between the Steelers and the Ravens this season is a total of about two feet. That's 20 inches inside an upright on Jeff Reed's game-winning field goal in Week 4, and four more inches on Santonio Holmes' graze of the goal line in their Week 15 tilt. Even saying that there's a difference of seven points between them in those two games combined is far overstating how close the outcomes were to swinging the other way.
Much like the Eagles and the Giants from a week ago, this week's matchup is one that pits teams with similar styles, if not necessarily talent or performance levels. Each team features a first-round quarterback known for his big arm who also struggles with blitz recognition. Each employs a pair of running backs led by an overrated "star," with a third rookie back injured and unavailable. Each has a veteran wide receiver who's great as a possession receiver and blocker, across from a talented deep threat who has underproduced. Each has a patchwork offensive line that's managed to get the job done. Each team even has a tricky offensive scheme it has implemented better than anyone else in the league. Both teams use the 3-4 with a set of dynamite linebackers and a future Hall of Famer at safety.
A total of 35 games contested by the two teams has resulted in a weighted DVOA difference of one-tenth of one percentage point. This reminds us of another game between two division rivals who were nearly tied in DVOA: the 1997 Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. Those teams were one-two in total regular-season DVOA, and like the Ravens and Steelers, these rivals had similar styles of play -- although they were offense-first and this year's models are defense-first.
The biggest difference between that matchup and this one were how the first two games between the rivals played out. In 1997, the Broncos dominated the Chiefs in Week 1 en route to a 19-3 victory. The Chiefs got their revenge in Week 12, winning at home even though new starting quarterback Rich Gannon threw for only 98 yards. A Pete Stoyanovich field goal from 54 yards out gave the Chiefs the win as time expired.
The third game was just as close as the second game, with the Broncos prevailing 14-10. Stoyanovich had a successful kick nullified by penalty, the Broncos snuffed out a fake field goal, and then the Chiefs couldn't convert fourth-and-2 from the Broncos 20-yard line with 19 seconds left. Former Chiefs end Neil Smith had two sacks for the Broncos.
Cut-and-paste the relevant names and teams into that paragraph and you could easily manufacture a likely preview of how Sunday's game will go. Although we "predicted" that the Ravens would beat the Titans last week, they won despite being outplayed by the Titans. The Ravens played well enough to stay in the game and picked up a couple of serendipitous breaks at the right time. The AFC's representative in the Super Bowl will be determined by who gets those breaks on Sunday.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. This year, we're going back to the old school for our in-game discussions. You can use these preview threads to discuss things before and then during each game. Just remember to switch over from NFC to AFC when the NFC game is over.
If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the DVOA splits for this matchup.
|Ravens on Offense|
|BAL OFF||PIT DEF|
|DVOA||5.6% (18)||-26.4% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||6.5% (16)||-27.6% (1)|
|PASS||5.3% (19)||-29.7% (1)|
|RUSH||5.9% (9)||-22.4% (2)|
|RED ZONE||3.6% (16)||-47.1% (3)|
The Ravens' biggest concern against Pittsburgh will be protecting Joe Flacco from the Steelers' pass rush. I mentioned last week how the Titans were a good matchup for Flacco because of their lack of blitzes, and while Flacco was rushed from the pocket a couple of times, he wasn't sacked once. The polar opposite matchup for Flacco would be his own defense, or perhaps Philadelphia's -- a team that uses big overload blitzes to confuse the quarterback and prevent him from accurately implementing the proper protection scheme. Pittsburgh is somewhere in-between, as a defense which will mix things up with zone blitzes (a Dick LeBeau trademark) and attack from all angles, but it primarily relies on the abilities of its playmakers, namely outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu.
In the first game between the two teams, Harrison was a force of nature. He sacked Flacco twice, knocked him down a third time after a pass, and hurried him twice. He abused tight end Todd Heap, left tackle Jared Gaither, and whoever else happened to get in his way.
When Week 15 rolled around, though, Harrison was invisible. Using the unbalanced line, the Ravens did a great job of neutralizing Harrison with a variety of players. At different points during the game, Harrison was blocked for stretches by Gaither as well as fellow tackles Adam Terry and Willie Anderson, and ocassionally Heap. Most of the plays were one-on-one, with occasional help from fullback Lorenzo Neal and hybrid back Le'Ron McClain. After the first couple of drives, the Steelers tried taking Harrison a yard or two off the line to try and give him a bit of steam when going around the mammoth Gaither and the relatively svelte Anderson and Terry, but it was with no luck. They used his aggressiveness against him, using their strength to get a drive on him on run plays to his direction and letting him run harmlessly past Flacco on pass plays. He also stayed primarily on the outside with straight rushes, never twisting or performing an inside stunt until the final drive of the game.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will often motion Neal and Heap around, getting them into the best position for what he wants to do with each specific play. Here's a typical sequence from late in the second quarter: On a third-and-7 play at midfield, the Ravens put Heap in the backfield for a split backs formation. Heap helped out against Harrison, and although Lawrence Timmons was able to get pressure, Flacco scrambled and found Mark Clayton for 17 yards. On the next play, Neal came out of the backfield and lined up as a tight end next to Gaither, with the pair doubling Harrison. Flacco's pass was incomplete, but that set up the next play. Gaither let Harrison go free, and with only Neal to beat, he used his supreme athleticism to get by and ... watch Flacco throw a screen to Neal that went for 12 yards and another first down. After that, the Steelers put Harrison in coverage for the rest of the half.
The Steelers will use Polamalu in a variety of ways. Most commonly against the Ravens, they'll put him right on the strong side of the line of scrimmage and force teams to account for him, regardless of what his actual responsibilities are on the play. Unlike Ed Reed, who often starts deep and moves closer to the play as it goes on, Polamalu will actually often move away from the play as it goes along. The Ravens will counter this in a couple of ways. They like to get Heap against Polamalu in man coverage when they can, which is a mismatch in the tight end's favor. Baltimore also uses a lot of "Twin WR" sets; unlike the Tennessee game, where they motioned Mark Clayton out for end-arounds to force the backside pursuit to honor their responsibilities, they'll motion Clayton or Derrick Mason over before the snap to get a wide receiver on Polamalu's side. That often forces him off the line and into a deeper support role.
The Steelers are also a tougher defensive matchup for the Ravens because the Ravens' tendencies on offense match up with what the Steelers do best. The Ravens run play action on 28 percent of their passing plays, the most of any team; unfortunately for them, the Steelers give up 3.2 yards per play with play action, as opposed to 4.6 yards per play without. (Both numbers are the best in the league, but the gap between the Steelers and the rest of the NFL is much larger on play-action passes.) On the 21 play action passes the Ravens ran against the Steelers this year, Joe Flacco was sacked four times, hurried four more times, and was successful only four times.
There's no obvious target among the Steelers' top three corners. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, and DeShea Townsend all had success rates between 54 and 57 percent while allowing 6.5, 5.5, and 5.6 yards per attempt, respectively. The Ravens love to use Flacco's arm strength on the deep out, both to pick up yardage and set up Mason and Clayton on future plays for the hitch-and-go and sluggo routes they love to employ for deeper plays. Flacco's been inconsistent on deeper throws, though, and while the league-wide completion percentage for throws of 30 yards or more this season was 27 percent, Flacco was only 6-of-28 on throws of 30 yards or more (21 percent).
One final suggestion for the Ravens: Draw play. Teams running draws against the Steelers averaged eight yards per attempt with a 48 percent success rate (compared to league averages of 5.5 yards and 41 percent success). It's a suggestion the Ravens probably won't take, as they ran only run one draw in their two games against the black and gold.
|Steelers on Offense|
|PIT OFF||BAL DEF|
|DVOA||1.7% (20)||-24.5% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||7.0% (15)||-24.2% (3)|
|PASS||2.6% (20)||-23.3% (2)|
|RUSH||0.7% (15)||-26.0% (1)|
|RED ZONE||5.4% (15)||-50.3% (1)|
We already know that the Ravens will be able to stop the Steelers' rushing attack. Pittsburgh ran for a combined 160 yards in their two games against the Ravens this year, and over the past three seasons, Baltimore has allowed their rivals a measly 2.6 yards per carry. It would be dramatically out of character for the Steelers to field a successful ground game against the Ravens, particularly if center Justin Hartwig misses the game due to injury.
When the Steelers do try and run the ball, they'll try and flood the second level with as many players as possible -- offensive linemen, tight ends, wide receivers, whoever can get there -- and get as many of the linebackers as they can, while hoping that the defensive linemen are moved to safety by whatever linemen or blocking backs stuck around to help out.
What's much more interesting to analyze and variable is how the Steelers' passing game will function. Last week, the Titans were able to do two things successfully against the Ravens because they did a good job of protecting Kerry Collins. First, they successfully isolated Chris Johnson against Bart Scott outside the hashmarks, giving them a very winnable matchup. Halfback Mewelde Moore is no Johnson, but he's fast enough to get away from Scott in space on a swing pass or a quick out.
The other thing they did was target cornerback Fabian Washington seemingly ad nauseum. Washington had respectable game charting numbers this year, with a 60 percent success rate, but he allowed 7.3 yards per attempt, significantly higher than Samari Rolle (4.1) or even backup cornerback/human target Frank Walker (a shockingly good 5.3). Washington's not as good of a cover corner as Rolle is, and if the pass rush doesn't get home, he's often the one left standing downfield. If Washington gets hurt, as he did in both the Titans-Ravens games, Walker will immediately be targeted, whether or not it's successful. The Ravens will use Corey Ivy in the slot, which is a bad matchup across from where Hines Ward usually operates. Ivy allowed three first downs and 55 yards on five attempts against the Steelers this year, including two big plays from Ward.
Key to the Ravens' pass rush is the presence of Terrell Suggs, who missed the second half of the Titans game with what's being called a sprained shoulder. Suggs led the team with eight sacks and a whopping 21 quarterback hurries, throwing in seven hits for good measure. He also had the team's only sack last week, in a game where the Titans kept Kerry Collins upright virtually all day. When the Ravens can't get pressure on the quarterback, that exposes their cornerbacks and allows receivers to run deeper routes, which is why you saw Justin Gage making a living on the 12-yard in last week. If the Ravens are in Collins' face, Gage doesn't have the time to run that route.
The Ravens can get pressure without him, but it'll require more blitzing by safety Jim Leonhard and Ivy out of the slot, which opens up opportunities for Ben Roethlisberger both short and deep. Roethlisberger's struggled all year with identifying blitzes out of the slot, with both the Ravens and the Eagles enjoying success sneaking guys into their blitzes without Roethlisberger recognizing the open receiver in their absence; expect defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to see if that's still the case.
The Steelers will continue to use their Trips Bunch sets to alleviate the pressure on Roethlisberger. Ideally, the formation should present a hot read for Roethlisberger to throw to in the case of a blitz, but the Ravens are great at identifying the obvious hot read and making sure a linebacker or a safety is at that spot. The Steelers will also run out of this formation, which usually allows Ward to do his thing against an unsuspecting outside linebacker, but they're not particularly effective using it; their success rate on run plays in trips sets is only 36 percent.
Unlike the Ravens, the Steelers should be able to use the play fake to their advantage if they choose to. The Ravens allow 9.1 yards per pass on play action and 4.6 yards per pass otherwise, yielding the third-biggest difference of any team in the league. Pittsburgh is just about average on play action, but curiously enough, our game charters (including myself) did not mark a single Steelers pass against the Ravens as a play-action pass. They ran the play action in 12 of the other 15 games they played.
|DVOA||0.2% (17)||-1.1% (23)|
|BAL kickoff||-7.0 (25)||-10.3 (30)|
|PIT kickoff||-7.4 (27)||8.2 (5)|
|BAL punts||20.7 (1)||-9.4 (31)|
|PIT punts||-2.8 (23)||4.4 (13)|
|FG/XP||-2.2 (22)||0.9 (17)|
The Ravens will have the advantage on special teams, primarily when punting; although the Steelers had Santonio Holmes return a punt for a touchdown last week, they've had the worst return play of any team in football this year, while the Ravens have had the best punting in the league. They've also improved to league average on kickoffs with the arrival of kickoff specialist Steven Hauschka. However, if Suggs does play, Hauschka's spot on the active roster would likely be sacrificed for an extra defensive player.
Pittsburgh's advantage will be on kickoffs, where they were the only team to not allow a kickoff return of 40 yards or more this year. The Ravens, ironically, were the only team who didn't have a kickoff return of 40 yards or more themselves this year. Punt returner Jim Leonhard had a fluky return against the Steelers in Week 15, picking up a bouncing ball that he'd called a fair catch on and running through three Steelers defenders en route to a huge gain.
Our prediction on this one isn't "The Ravens win" or "The Steelers win", but that the team which has the majority of the fumbles and field goals go their way wins in a squeaker. You'll read stories about Flacco being the more turnover-prone quarterback because of his fumbles against the Steelers this year, but Roethlisberger had 25 interceptions and fumbles (both kept and lost) to Flacco's 18, so that doesn't fly.
The only ways that the game ends up a blowout are if one quarterback does his Jake Delhomme impersonation or, alternately, if the Ravens' pass rush fails to show up. Unlike the Titans without Chris Johnson, the Steelers have the downfield weapons to take advantage of the average cornerbacks Baltimore runs out there. Missing Suggs would be a huge loss, and even if he gets some of Derrick Mason's shoulder painkillers, he probably will only be on the field for 15-20 snaps. That injury, concerns about where the pass rush went last week, and home field advantage combine to give the slightest edge to Pittsburgh.
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 DVOA 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, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is 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). These numbers are all regular season only, except for WEIGHTED DVOA which includes the playoffs.
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. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive 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."
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