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?
21 Jan 2011
by Aaron Schatz
Hey, it feels like we were just here! Just like the Divisional Round, this year's Championship games bring us matchups we've already seen this year. In this case, we saw the Jets go to Pittsburgh just five weeks ago, where they narrowly defeated the Steelers 22-17. Sunday, they'll try to repeat that win. In order to be the first AFC champion since 2002 other than the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers, the Jets will have to go through the Colts, the Patriots... and now the Steelers.
Watch early to see if the Jets can show up with the same energy they had last week. The Jets were one of the most inconsistent teams in the league this year -- 27th in variance on offense, and dead last in variance on defense.
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. All stats are regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA and anywhere else it is specifically noted.
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The Steelers defense is very good. Very, very good. The best in the league this year, in fact. But the Steelers did not dominate on defense to the extent that the Patriots dominated on offense, and their second-worst defensive DVOA of the season came in the Week 15 game against the Jets. The Steelers do have a bit of an excuse for that game. They were playing without the injured Troy Polamalu, perhaps the best defensive player in the game. Now Polamalu is back, although he doesn't seem to be 100 percent -- witness his two blown tackles against Baltimore last week.
The Jets offense isn't built around the run to quite the same extent as it was a year ago, but this is still a team that likes to keep the ball on the ground. The Jets ran the ball on first down 64 percent of the time, four percentage points higher than any other offense. This is a bit of a problem against a Steelers defense with one of the best run defense DVOA ratings in our database. On first down, the Steelers allowed just 2.7 yards per carry. (The Jets averaged 4.47 yards per carry on first down, exactly the NFL average.) When these teams played in Week 15, the Jets managed a grand total of 22 yards on 12 first-down carries.
The biggest weakness for the Steelers defense came on second down, in particular second-and-medium, when every possible option is open to the offense. DVOA ranks the Steelers first in the NFL on first down and second in the NFL on third down, but 15th on second down. If we break that down to just second-and-medium (4-6 yards to go), they ranked 30th. It's going to be hard for the Jets to get into those second-and-medium situations, what with the Steelers not even allowing three yards per carry on first down, but when they do get into those situations, that's where they are most likely to find big plays.
And what play should the Jets call when they get there? How about some play action? The Steelers allowed 1.8 yards per play more when opponents started a pass play with a play fake, a little bit more than the NFL average (1.1 yards per play). The Steelers were also susceptible to running back screen passes (8.3 average yards, 27th) but this was definitely not a strength for the Jets offense (2.5 average yards, 30th).
The Steelers have a definite pattern in how they use their cornerbacks: Ike Taylor tends to play tight coverage at the line, while Bryant McFadden is giving his guy more space. On that snap, this will either break into man coverage or a Cover-3 that has McFadden and the two safeties in the deep zones while Taylor and a linebacker or two are short. Our charting numbers show a distinct difference between the cornerbacks, and that favors throwing to whichever receiver is being covered by McFadden. (We try not to penalize McFadden for playing zone coverage, and we'll mark "hole in zone" when someone simply finds a soft spot in the zone.)
|Pittsburgh Cornerback Charting Stats |
(Games Charted as of 1/14/11)
|Player|| Targets per |
The Steelers usually line up Taylor to the offensive left and McFadden to the offensive right, but they actually moved the two around more than usual when they played the Jets. I don't know if this was a response to how the Jets moved Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards around, or an attempt to make up for the absence of Troy Polamalu, or something else entirely. When the Steelers do play Cover-3 instead of man, watch for Holmes; he did very well in the kind of mid-range outside routes that attack the soft part of Cover-3 -- 8-to-12 yard routes to the left or right -- catching 13 of 17 passes with 15.3 yards per reception.
The best advice we could give the Steelers is not to be afraid to blitz Sanchez. Based on our regular-season charting data, Sanchez is terrible if you send a big blitz after him. Sanchez gained 6.3 yards per pass against three or four pass rushers, 5.8 yards per pass against five pass rushers, and a horrific 3.9 yards per pass against a big blitz of six or more. The issue seems to be more about the amount of pressure, not where the pressure is coming from. Sanchez's numbers against plays marked as zone blitzes weren't much different from his numbers overall.
Will the Steelers take this advice and send big blitzes against Sanchez? They didn't do it in the Week 15 game. We didn't record one instance of the Steelers sending a big blitz in that game. Obviously, we may have missed one, but that doesn't change the basic fact that they didn't feel the need to sell out coverage to bring pressure on Sanchez. We'll have to see if they change that strategy on Sunday.
The red zone should also provide some interesting strategic decisions. Even though the Steelers are so strong against the run, Gang Green may want to run the ball near the goal line anyway. The Jets are second in rushing DVOA in the red zone, but 28th in passing DVOA.
Last week's defensive domination of the New England Patriots was the culmination of a gradual improvement by the Jets defense since midseason. For the first few weeks of the year, the Jets defense was far from the juggernaut that we saw in 2009. For the season as a whole, the Jets finished dead last in DVOA on third and fourth down, and had one of the league's worst defenses against offenses that spread out in the shotgun. The first Steelers-Jets game, just five weeks ago, gives us an example of how bad the Jets defense was on third down for most of the year. Pittsburgh had 17 third downs and averaged 9.8 yards, converting 11 times for a new set of downs. Five times they converted third down with 10 or more yards to go, including a third-and-24.
However, the Jets in recent weeks have been much improved in these situations. Gang Green allowed 6.4 net yards per play on third and fourth down through Week 16; over the past three games, they've allowed just 4.1 net yards per play. What's interesting is that the conversion rate of opponents has stayed the same. The Jets are letting their opponents into easier third-down opportunities, but allowing the same conversion rate instead of a higher conversion rate. (In general, of course, the fewer yards there are to go, the higher the conversion rate.) The Jets even sacked Tom Brady twice on third down -- after only having six sacks on third down during the entire regular season plus none against Indianapolis.
|New York Jets Defense on Third/Fourth Down|
Yards to Go
Even more impressive -- and more gradual -- has been the improvement of the Jets against the shotgun, which also comes out as an overall improvement in the Jets' pass defense. If we look at the change in Adjusted Sack Rate, this seems to be tied to an improvement in the Jets' pass rush. The Jets' run defense hasn't improved at all -- in fact, the Jets are giving up a half-yard more per run over the past six games.
|New York Jets Defense by Six-Game Splits|
|vs. Shotgun||All Plays|
|Yd/Play||DVOA||Pass Yd/Play||Pass DVOA||Run Yd/Play||Run DVOA||Adjusted Sack Rate|
Of course, the Steelers' improvement on offense nearly matches the improvement by New York's defense. Conventional wisdom said that the Steelers offense would get better when Ben Roethlisberger returned from his season-opening suspension, and that is exactly what happened. Then, after the first few weeks, the Steelers continued their improvement by cutting down on turnovers. ("Turnovers" in this next table includes fumbles recovered by the Steelers.)
|2010 Pittsburgh Steelers Offense by Week|
|Weeks||Yd/Play||DVOA||TO (incl. all fumbles)|
One thing that hasn't changed for Roethlisberger this season: He takes lots of sacks. In particular, he takes lots of sacks on third down, when he's running around desperately trying to make something happen. Sometimes, he succeeds. Other times, he gets sacked and gives up field position for his punter. The Steelers had an Adjusted Sack Rate of 12.9 percent on third down, second in the NFL behind Chicago and more than twice the size of their ASR on first and second down.
Given how much the Jets changed their defensive game plan to confuse the Patriots last week, we have to wonder how much this game will resemble the Jets-Steelers contest from five weeks ago. Still, the primary defensive coverage responsibilities will probably be the same. The Jets moved their corners from side to side so they could put the faster Antonio Cromartie on Mike Wallace. Wallace still had over 100 yards, but poor Hines Ward disappeared on Revis Island with just two catches for 34 yards. On the other hand, third receiver Emmanuel Sanders torched nickel corner Drew Coleman with seven catches for 78 yards.
If the Jets go back to their normal defensive strategies rather than last week's coverage-heavy schemes, the Steelers may have trouble establishing their running game. The Jets stuffed runners for a loss or no gain on 21 percent of carries, seventh in the NFL, while the Steelers offense was 27th, getting stuffed on 23 percent of carries. The Steelers will also have trouble if they want to run on first down, where they ranked 23rd in DVOA while the Jets' defense was third.
When the Steelers went to run in the Week 15 game, they called a lot of Power run plays, which Ben Muth broke down in this article. Our Adjusted Line Yards numbers suggest they would be better off sending Rashard Mendenhall around to the outside. On runs left end, Pittsburgh was seventh in Adjusted Line Yards while the Jets defense was 29th. This was the only direction where the Steelers offense ranked higher than the Jets defense during the regular season. The Steelers called only three left end plays in the first game, and one of those was a Mike Wallace end around. They did better running around right end; the Steelers offense and Jets defense both ranked fifth in ALY for runs right end, but in this game the Steelers definitely won those matchups with 45 yards on four Mendenhall carries plus 25 yards on two Roethlisberger scrambles.
Mendenhall also may have trouble bringing it in for six. Although the Jets defense tended to struggle in the red zone, that was mostly against the pass. The Jets ranked seventh against red-zone runs, and 25th against red-zone passes.
The Steelers didn't use a lot of play action this year (14 percent of pass plays, 28th in the NFL), which is a good thing because no other defense read play-action quite as well as the Jets did. They gave up a league-best 4.2 net yards per pass against play-action, one of only five defenses that gave up fewer average yards against play fakes than they did overall.
Special teams was a big part of the Jets' Week 15 victory, as Brad Smith led off the game with a 97-yard kick return. Smith was sprung loose after Anthony Madison and Keyaron Fox, who tied for the Steelers' team lead with 16 special teams tackles apiece, were both completely pulverized by blockers. You might remember the horrible Steelers kick coverage from 2009 and think, "Well, of course Brad Smith took it to the house, special teams are a huge advantage for the Jets." But it isn't quite the advantage you might expect. The Smith touchdown was the only touchdown (or return over 50 yards) allowed by Pittsburgh all season. Actually, the bigger problem for Pittsburgh is punting. The Jets had the second-best punting value in the league, while both Antwaan Randle El and Antonio Brown were very poor on punt returns. (Brown was much better on kick returns.) When the Steelers themselves punt, they won't have the mighty leg of Daniel Sepulveda. Jeremy Kapinos was the worst punter in the league with Green Bay in 2009; he's been better in his short time with Pittsburgh this year, but still has just 32.3 net yards per attempt compared to Sepulveda's 39.1 net yards per attempt.
Although a change in punters is bad for the Steelers, a change in kickers has been good, at least on field goals. Jeff Reed was worth -8.3 points compared to average when he kicked for Pittsburgh; replacement Shaun Suisham has been very strong, with 7.7 points of value above average on field goals (14-of-15). Nick Folk has been inconsistent, and doesn't have the strongest leg. He was just 2-for-5 on field goals of 50 yards or more, and one of his two successes came in the thin air of Denver. Look for the Jets to choose punting over trying very long field goals.
If we look at regular season performance, the Pittsburgh Steelers are by far the best team in the NFL's final four. There was a big gap between Pittsburgh and the top-ranked Patriots, but the gap between the Steelers and the third-ranked Packers was twice as big. Then again, the Jets taught us last week that they are perfectly happy to knock Goliath off his perch. Both of these teams are great on defense, and each coaching staff could come out with a game plan that completely confuses the opposition. However, unless Rex Ryan can somehow come up with two groundbreaking and career-defining defensive game plans in consecutive weeks, we're left with the simple fact that the Steelers have the home-field advantage and the better quarterback. That's enough to make them good, but not prohibitive, favorites.
The Jets showed some really odd home-road splits this year. These things don't necessarily carry over long-term, but they're still interesting. The Jets had the best defense in the league at home but were 26th on the road. (Obviously, that's during the regular season -- the defense was pretty darn good on the road over the last two weeks.) At the same time, Gang Green's offense ranked 26th at home but was fifth among offenses on the road.
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.
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 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).
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."
19 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2011, 5:04pm by dmb