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?
03 Feb 2011
by Bill Barnwell and Aaron Schatz
The Packers and Steelers are about as similar as two Super Bowl teams can be. They run something close to the same 3-4 defense, with Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau helping to introduce the zone blitz to the NFL. Each runs a pass-first offense, effective both at moving the ball with short completions and making big throws downfield. Their quarterbacks are big and tough and can make plays on what look to be sure sacks. Their offensive lines are iffy, and their running games can come and go. Pittsburgh has a slight edge of about seven percentage points of weighted DVOA, but Green Bay is a one-point favorite in our Premium game projection system, which uses other factors besides just total weighted DVOA to pick winners in individual matchups.
So, with such a close game predicted, we're left to look at the injuries, micro-matchups, and strategies employed in previous games between the two teams. In 2009, these two teams played a thrilling game that came down to the very final play, a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass that gave the Steelers a 37-36 win. That game was played with similar schemes to what you'll see on Sunday, but a few of the players are different. The Packers will be without several linebackers and three offensive starters (Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, and right tackle Mark Tauscher), while the Steelers will enter with a much worse offensive line, but enjoy the benefits of Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu.
Anyone can tell you that it's going to be a close game. We're going to do that at the end of this preview. Between now and then, though, we'll take a look at how each side will attack the other, identify trends that should affect how the two teams execute on Sunday, and poke a couple holes in conventional wisdom along the way.
The Super Bowl preview includes two "week-to-week" charts for each team: one for offense, one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down -- the higher dots still represent better games.
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Just as we all predicted back in September, this year's Super Bowl may come down to the health of one team's center. Maurkice Pouncey's severely sprained ankle will have had two weeks to heal by the time Sunday rolls around, but his ability to play in the game will be almost entirely dependent upon how his body responds to a particular form of platelet rich plasma (PRP) therapy. For a variety of reasons, PRP therapy is controversial: The World Anti-Doping Agency once banned intramuscular injections of PRP, while there are arguments about the efficacy of the procedure altogether. One team that's enjoyed success in employing PRP therapy in the past, though, is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In January 2009, Hines Ward suffered a Grade II tear of his MCL during the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. You may recognize that injury as the same one suffered by Jay Cutler during the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago. Ward suffered his injury midway through the first quarter, and like Cutler, he came back for a drive (catching a pass for a 1-yard loss early in the second quarter) before again removing himself from the game. I've been told that Ward was on the field for a drive late in the fourth quarter as a decoy, but I don't have film of the game and haven't been able to confirm that myself. A Grade II MCL tear, according to our injury database, has kept most players out for about four weeks.
Ward received two treatments of Autologous Condition Plasma (ACP), a form of PRP, during the two-week gap between the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, one on the Tuesday following the Ravens game and the other on the following Monday. He was on an exercise bike immediately following the first ACP treatment. Pouncey's comments on Monday, meanwhile, suggested that Monday would be his first day on an exercise bike since the injury. By that time in his recovery (admittedly from a different injury), Ward had advanced to weight-bearing machines like the elliptical and StairMaster.
We know so much about Ward's recovery because Steelers athletic trainer Ariko Iso wrote a paper detailing the process for the website of the Big East Conference Sports Medicine Society. The article details how the Steelers use ACP therapy, its potential benefits and applications, and gives case studies detailing the recovery rates of Ward and several other players. It is exceedingly likely that Pouncey is in the middle of a similar recovery process.
In the end, Ward was able to play in the Super Bowl, but he wasn't 100 percent and didn't produce a meaningful contribution, with just two catches for 43 yards in a 27-23 shootout. A decline in Pouncey's production will be more difficult to identify, but if the Packers get a significantly reduced Pouncey (or no Pouncey at all, if he can't practice on Friday), it will create opportunities for Capers and his defense to exploit.
The Packers' defensive line is coming off of a very good performance against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game. Cullen Jenkins spent most of that game living in the Bears' backfield, producing several hurries of assorted Bears quarterbacks. B.J. Raji scored a touchdown when he dropped back into a passing lane on a zone blitz. Even with a healthy Pouncey in the lineup, they could be expected to have the upper hand over the interior of the Steelers' offensive line. Instead, they will get to face a line anchored by either a gimpy Pouncey or backup guard Doug Legursky. (Ben Muth has already written that he's a fan of Legursky's work, so that might not be the worst thing in the world.)
In the game between these two teams last season, the Packers went with their 3-4 alignment as the base defense on most first downs. On virtually every second down with more than five yards to go, they went into their 2-4-5 Nickel set (erroneously described as their "Psycho" defense in the NFC championship preview), and on several third downs, they went into the actual Psycho alignment, a 1-5-5 look that creates confusion and overload possibilities while still retaining a strong base in coverage.
While we often think of overload blitzes as a lot of guys coming off the edge to attack one side of the field, there's nothing that says you can't overload a spot in the middle of the line. The Packers did just that with a blitz out of the Psycho that worked for a sack against Roethlisberger in last year's game. By overloading the A-gap between center Justin Hartwig and right guard Trai Essex, the Packers placed stress on the entire offensive line, especially Hartwig, to make the right decisions on who to block and where to go to find a rusher. They'll do the same thing to Pouncey and/or Legursky on Sunday.
|Figure 1: Psycho Blitz|
On the play in question (Figure 1), Jenkins (77) lines up as the lone down lineman, directly above Hartwig. Linebacker Desmond Bishop (55) is just off the line and to his right, while Brandon Chillar (54) lines up over right tackle. Nick Barnett (56) stands several yards behind Jenkins, while Clay Matthews (52) is a yard behind Barnett and over the A-gap, the space between the center and right guard. (Note that Chillar and Barnett are on injured reserve and won't play on Sunday.)
It's a tricky blitz to handle for the Steelers. Although they have six potential blockers in with the five offensive linemen and running back Rashard Mendenhall, they have to get everyone to the overloaded side without missing a rusher or blowing an assignment. It's Hartwig's job to set the initial protection at the line, while Roethlisberger can change the protection if he sees something. Roethlisberger's aided here by being in the shotgun, allowing him to see the field better than he otherwise would under center.
At the snap, the Steelers do a good job of accounting for the initial rushers. Left tackle Max Starks slides into the B-gap (between him and left guard Ramon Foster) to take on Jenkins, while Foster slides right and handles the stunting Bishop. That leaves four guys to block three on the right side, which shouldn't be a problem, right? Wrong. A moment of planned hesitation from Matthews is enough to throw everyone off. Chillar does a good job of getting underneath right tackle Willie Colon, and as he's the closest threat to the quarterback, Mendenhall goes to help out. Meanwhile, Barnett heads to the B-gap between Colon and right guard Trai Essex, forcing Essex to slide to his right and take care of him. That leaves the team's best pass rusher, Matthews, alone with Hartwig, who has to sift through all this trash and then find a way to block Matthews, who's coming in with a full head of steam through the vacated hole where Essex was. No chance. It's an easy sack.
It's impossible to assign all the blame here to one player, but there are ways the Steelers could have handled the rush more effectively. Mendenhall is key here; he was likely premature to step outside and help Colon on Chillar, which opened up the middle of the field for Matthews. Part of Chillar's role as a rusher there is to try and stay outside and prevent Mendenhall from releasing into a pass pattern, which would also have alleviated the pressure; with five defenders coming in from that side, it would have likely created a big gain on a checkoff. We don't know Matthews's responsibilities for sure on this play, but it's also possible that he was in coverage on Mendenhall as the green dog. That's a player who is in coverage if a running back releases out of the backfield into a pass pattern, but blitzes if he sees the running back engaged as a blocker. While the block the now-retired Hartwig was expected to make on Matthews was close to impossible for him to make, a more athletic center (like a healthy Pouncey, perhaps) would be able to disrupt Matthews' rush and partially redirect him away from the quarterback, allowing Roethlisberger to step up into the pocket to make a throw. Essex also allowed Barnett to ride him out of the play, creating the hole. Don't be surprised if the Packers run this exact sort of blitz concept on Sunday to try and take advantage of whoever the center is.
Of course, Matthews is a mismatch wherever he ends up. Capers is not shy about shifting Matthews around to line up wherever the opposition's weakest pass blocker is, and the most difficult thing might be identifying the weakest link. He should have a significant advantage over either left tackle Jonathan Scott or right tackle Flozell Adams, and is a good bet to pick up at least one sack and another forced holding penalty by the time the game is over. Although Capers has seemed loathe to bring a big blitz (six or more), he's been successful the few times he's done so. Although only Washington blitzes six or more less frequently than Green Bay's 3.2 percent rate, but the Packers allow the opposition a miserly 3.0 yards per attempt when they bring the house. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger averages 5.0 yards per attempt against the big blitz (six or more rushers), but 7.7 yards per attempt against all other rush combinations.
The Steelers have a variety of ways to beat the blitz and create problems for the coverage behind those blitzers. One classic way is play-action, with the plan of getting Roethlisberger out of the pocket and away from Matthews long enough to scan the field and potentially hit a big play. That happened on the opening play from scrimmage in the last game, when Roethlisberger successfully recognized a single high safety look and was able to wait for Mike Wallace to beat what was then the weak link of the secondary, Jarrett Bush, deep for an easy touchdown. That one may have some flaws, though: The Packers are great against play-action, allowing just 4.9 yards per attempt. That's the third-lowest rate in the league. Pittsburgh goes from averaging seven yards per attempt to 8.5 YPA with play-action, but that's about a league-average increase.
A second way would be to spread the field with multiple wideout sets and force the Packers to cover every inch of the field. They enjoyed some success against the Packers with the empty backfield approach last year, with Roethlisberger going 6-of-11 for 124 yards with four first downs and a touchdown, as well as a seven-yard scramble. The Packers were concerned enough about the empty set to rush five just twice on those 12 attempts; they sent five on 11 of Roethlisberger's other 42 dropbacks. During the 2010 regular season, Pittsburgh went with an empty backfield 69 times, producing 6.5 yards per attempt with a 45 percent Success Rate. The average team only went empty 44 times, producing 5.7 yards per attempt and succeeding 42 percent of the time.
Going to an empty backfield creates obvious problems for the offensive line, though: It means that Scott and Adams will have to hold their own in pass protection in one-on-one situations, which could allow the Packers to get pressure without having to rush more than four defenders. The absence of Pouncey might also convince Capers that he can stop the run and generate interior pass pressure with just two down linemen, which could allow the Packers to use the Nickel 2-4-5 as their base defense (which they do against teams without effective rushing attacks anyway).
A safer solution for the Steelers might to be employ an overload of their own: On the offensive side of the ball, where they can line up multiple receivers on one side of the field while still retaining a tight end and running back for pass protection. Pittsburgh had a lot of success in the first game with their Trips Bunch sets, lining up a circle of three players in the slot and running umpteen combinations of picks and crossing routes, which present problems regardless of the coverage being employed to stop it. Against zone, it's easy for the players to clear out an area and create an opportunity for an underneath throw. It's arguably worse in man coverage, where it's so easy to get picked off by another receiver's route and give up a big play, with plenty of yards after catch for whichever receiver gets open.
The Steelers should be able to exploit mismatches either way. If the Packers go with zones, their linebackers are likely to struggle with the intricacies of the Steelers' complex route combinations. Although Bishop has been very effective as an inside linebacker in coverage this year (allowing 4.1 yards per attempt with a 67 percent Success Rate), fellow inside linebacker A.J. Hawk is stretched in coverage, while the team will start either rookie Frank Zombo or journeyman Erik Walden (with a sprained ankle) across from Matthews at outside linebacker.
In man coverage, the Steelers will undoubtedly try and attack safety Charlie Peprah. In the first game between these two teams, they recognized Atari Bigby (who Peprah is replacing as a starter, through Morgan Burnett) as a weakness in coverage and used both pre-snap motion and empty backfields to isolate him against a superior threat. In fact, the Steelers were able to get a touchdown pass to Mewelde Moore in exactly this way. Moore saw a lot more playing time after that Matthews sack mentioned earlier, and his touchdown was actually really easy. With second-and-goal from the 10-yard line, the Steelers lined up with an empty backfield and Moore in the slot behind Santonio Holmes. Tramon Williams was playing soft coverage on Holmes, five yards off the line of scrimmage, while Bigby started the play at the goal line. The safety on the play was actually Woodson, who was in the center of the field with no obvious assignment. The play couldn't have been much simpler: The Packers rushed five (with a sixth linebacker taking a step towards the line of scrimmage before hooking back into a zone), so Roethlisberger hit his hot read, Moore, on a short throw just past the line of scrimmage. With Holmes out in front, it amounted to a wide receiver screen. Holmes blocked Williams, and Moore had an easy move to make on Bigby at the goal line for a touchdown. With the playcall and Roethlisberger successfully recognizing the coverage, the Steelers made the blitz irrelevant and turned the play into a 2-on-2 drill.
Pittsburgh also went after a safety in the AFC Championship Game, rightly recognizing Eric Smith as a potential target in man coverage. The only problem was that when they got their chance for a big play by splitting out Heath Miller and having him run a deep corner route, Roethlisberger missed the throw. They'll try and do the same thing to Peprah.
|Green Bay Cornerbacks in FO Game Charting Stats as of 1/28/11|
|Minimum 36 charted passes to be ranked (81 corners ranked).|
It will actually be interesting to see how the Packers employ Woodson on Sunday when they're not in their Nickel package. Truthfully, the player who ended up winning Defensive Player of the Year had a pretty poor game that night. On his worst drive, Woodson gave up a first down to Hines Ward on a third-down crossing route, committed pass interference against Santonio Holmes for another, was called for a holding penalty on the subsequent third down (declined after the Steelers converted on a throw to a different receiver), and then was unable to keep Rashard Mendenhall out of the end zone with a tackle on the 1-yard line. He didn't have a set role during the game, as he spent some plays (even within the same defensive alignment) in man coverage on Ward as part of a double-team, others in intermediate zone coverage, and then a few plays where he was in man coverage on the outside against Holmes. Of course, the challenges are different today; Holmes is gone, and while Mike Wallace has matured into a devastating option, Ward has slipped some from his level of play in 2009. Meanwhile, Tramon Williams has improved dramatically, and Sam Shields gives the team a superior third cornerback. Woodson will undoubtedly be in the slot when the team goes into their Nickel or Psycho alignments, but his responsibilities may change in the 3-4. As Ron Jaworski noted in his NFC Championship Game review, the Packers played some 3-4 with Peprah on the bench and Woodson in at safety, with Shields and Williams on the outside.
Miller's role in this game could be dramatically important, more so than any other receiver. If the Steelers' offensive line can consistently slow down the pass rush, Miller will get opportunities to make plays as a receiver. During the regular season, Green Bay ranked in the top-five in pass defense DVOA against all receiver roles except for tight end, where they were 22nd. Now, things have changed in the postseason; the Packers have done an excellent job of containing tight ends, limiting Brent Celek, Tony Gonzalez, and Greg Olsen to a combined 62 yards. But Miller had seven catches for 118 yards against the Packers last year, and they came in a variety of ways. One was with play-action, with Miller running right by Hawk up the seam for a big play. Another one came against the same zone blitz that flummoxed Caleb Hanie, with the pass protection holding up and Miller ending up isolated against B.J. Raji alone in the middle of the field. 10 of Miller's 11 targets came in the "11" personnel grouping, with one running back, three wide receivers, and Miller as the lone tight end. In that alignment, the Packers really can't blanket Miller with Woodson, and they don't have anyone besides Williams (likely to be on Wallace) who can cover him. Unless he's needed to help out constantly as a blocker, Miller should have a big role as a receiver in this game.
It would also help if the Steelers could keep the Packers honest by running the ball effectively. Rashard Mendenhall had his best game of the playoffs against the Jets, and while the Steelers would likely struggle running the ball on the interior against Green Bay, they could enjoy some success on the edges. The Steelers were seventh in the league on runs to left end, while the Packers were 19th against them; meanwhile, Pittsburgh was fifth on runs to right end, where Green Bay was 16th.
The absence of Troy Polamalu in last year's Packers-Steelers game makes it extremely difficult to translate that tape into estimates of how the Packers offense will attack the Steelers defense on Sunday. In fact, the Packers went out of their way to specifically target Polamalu's replacement, Tyrone Carter. The Packers' first touchdown was an 80-yard bomb to Greg Jennings that saw Green Bay line up in trips left with Jennings basically standing up where Jermichael Finley would normally be in a three-point stance as a tight end. While slot receiver Donald Driver ran a deep corner route and flanker James Jones ran a slant, Jennings ran right through the zone of overmatched linebacker James Harrison and caught a long lob from Aaron Rodgers. Carter clearly thought the ball was overthrown, as replays showed him putting his arms out to catch the ball, only for Jennings to catch it himself and bounce off of Carter en route to an easy score. Would the Packers be willing to make that throw with a healthy Polamalu lurking in centerfield?
And will the Steelers even have a healthy Polamalu in the lineup on Sunday? Polamalu's impact during the playoffs has been limited at best, thanks to an Achilles injury that forced him to take time off during the regular season in the hopes that rest would allow him to be close to 100 percent during the playoffs. Instead, while he had an interception after returning from the injury in Week 17, he really hasn't had much of an impact during the Steelers' playoff run. He notably missed two tackles during the Ravens game; Polamalu had just six broken tackles during the regular season. "Invisible" isn't the word you associate with Troy Polamalu, but if you had to pick one word to describe his postseason so far, invisible is the one.
But has his injury impacted the team's performance? No matter how the data gets split, it doesn't appear to be the case. The first reports of Polamalu missing practice came on November 17, following the team's Week 10 loss to the Patriots. Polamalu played in Weeks 11-14 before sitting out in Week 15 and Week 16. Whether you look at how the team has performed since Polamalu came back in Week 17 or consider him to be injured during Weeks 11-14, the only time the Steelers defense noticeably dipped was when Polamalu was out of the lineup:
|Weeks 11-14 (Injured, active)||-30.8%||-30.5%||-31.6%|
|Weeks 15-16 (Inactive)||-2.6%||-2.3%||-2.9%|
|Weeks 17-20 (Active post-absence)||-28.4%||-19.0%||-44.6%|
|Weeks 11-14, 17-20 (All "injured" weeks)||-29.8%||-25.6%||-37.9%|
Amazingly, the defense has been much better while Polamalu has been limited by injury, especially against the pass. Correlation obviously isn't causation here, but it's certainly impressive that the Steelers haven't dropped off any with Polamalu operating at less than 100 percent. Another week of rest has likely pushed Polamalu closer to full capacity, but there's nothing to be worried about here for Pittsburgh fans: The Steelers' defense has only gotten better as the season went along.
In that first encounter, the Steelers spent the bulk of first and second downs in their base 3-4 scheme, even as the Packers came out with three-wideout sets and enjoyed the presence of Jermichael Finley at tight end. (That's not to say LeBeau didn't bust out anything out of the ordinary; I saw a front with one down lineman on second-and-3 at one point.) The move encouraged Mike McCarthy to toss the ball around and mostly limited the impact that the Packers running game could have. Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson combined for just nine carries, although Grant was able to take advantage of the Steelers expecting the pass by running virtually untouched for a 24-yard score early in the fourth quarter. Grant is on injured reserve, of course, but if the Steelers do the same thing on first and second down that they did in the previous contest, don't expect to see very much of James Starks. Brandon Jackson's the superior pass blocker, and when you consider the effectiveness of the Steelers' rushing defense -- number one in DVOA, allowing just 3.0 yards per carry -- Starks' role in this game is likely going to be limited at best.
As for how the Steelers will try and stop Rodgers out of that 3-4 front? This is a Dick LeBeau defense. They're going to come after Aaron Rodgers with the latest and greatest exotic blitz concepts LeBeau can think of, likely mixing in a few looks that LeBeau put together when he was on the same staff with Capers years ago. As Tim Layden noted in his book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk, LeBeau's attack revolves around the idea of "safe pressure": Getting heat on the quarterback without sacrificing much in the way of coverage. One way LeBeau did that in the game last year was with a classic tactic: The Fire X blitz.
The concept for the Fire X blitz is really simple. Both inside linebackers in the 3-4 rush through the A-gaps between the center and either guard at the snap. They place immense pressure on the players who are usually the worst pass blockers in a unit: The center, running back(s), and guards. The immediate threat of the rush forces running backs to commit to stopping the linebackers, which places them in the quarterback's throwing lanes, removes the possibility of them heading out into the flat as receivers, and doesn't allow for them to help out if another rusher comes free. Considering most of the blitzing in the 3-4 comes from the two outside linebackers, it can throw off a protection scheme that expects them to drop back into coverage. The three defensive linemen in front of them can stunt a particular way or occupy a particular set of blockers to allow them to run free, or a zone blitz can place the linemen or either outside linebacker into a throwing lane that is likely to interfere with the quarterback's hot read. (An obvious example would be James Harrison's pick-six against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, covered in Layden's excerpt.) The linebackers can get up on the line of scrimmage before the snap to threaten with the blitz, even if they don't intend to rush the passer, or they can stay at their standard depth and follow each other through the same gap to get to the passer.
This blitz doesn't need to get a sack to create problematic pressure. The Steelers ran the Fire X blitz on three of the Packers' first five plays, producing three quarterback hurries and four incompletions. The pass Rodgers completed went for 14 yards on second-and-15, but it was a dangerous throw over the middle to Finley that was nearly intercepted, and he took one of the hardest hits I've ever seen laid on a quarterback from Lawrence Timmons as he threw it. (Timmons got away with a helmet-to-helmet hit on the play that left Rodgers woozy, but his sheer velocity heading into the hit was terrifying to watch.) After giving the Packers lots of trouble with the package, though, the Steelers mostly went away from it the rest of the way.
Of course, the Fire X has its weaknesses. The inside linebackers used in 3-4 schemes aren't usually great pass rushers, so they don't make plays against blockers the same way that the Harrison's of the world do. On the other hand, it forces the outside linebackers and/or defensive linemen into coverage, where they're inferior to players like Timmons. And as Greg Cosell noted earlier in the year, the Steelers almost always play Cover-3 behind those Fire X blitzes. If a team can protect against those rushing inside linebackers, they can hit deep ins and skinny posts against Cover-3 over and over again. That is exactly the sort of stuff that Aaron Rodgers had so much success with against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
Rodgers will be able to see the field better in the shotgun, where he takes the snap 48 percent of the time, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Unfortunately, the Steelers have the league's best defense on the shotgun. They're not exactly chopped liver when the quarterback is under center, either, where they're third in DVOA.
Much like the Steelers will when they have the ball, the Packers will try and spread the Steelers out with multiple-wideout sets and get one of their four top wideouts -- Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver, and Jordy Nelson -- matched up against either a linebacker or one of the Steelers' lesser cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. In the last game, they surprised exactly nobody in going after William Gay, then a starter. The return of Bryant McFadden has sent Gay back into the slot, but McFadden's numbers haven't been fantastic, either. Expect Rodgers's work to be heavily weighted to the right side of the field, where McFadden will be waiting at left cornerback. That could mean more James Jones than some are expecting, as Jones actually has the highest percentage of the Packers' targets on throws to the right side of the field, at 22.0 percent. Jennings is directly behind him at 19.9 percent, but he also has 30.6 percent of the team's targets on throws to the left. That's twice as much as any other receiver, and even further ahead of Jones's 13.4 percent.
|Pittsburgh Steelers Cornerbacks in FO Game Charting Stats as of 1/28/11|
|Minimum 36 charted passes to be ranked (81 corners ranked).|
Finally, if you believe that something about an offense innately changes in the fourth quarter, the Packers have exhibited a decline in DVOA on offense in the fourth quarter this season. They have a 21.4% DVOA through the first three quarters, good for the third-best figure in the league. In the fourth quarter, though, they fall to 22nd and put up a DVOA of -5.5%. Those are regular season figures and they've continued onto the playoffs, as Green Bay had a 38.1% DVOA in quarters 1-3 and a -38.7% DVOA in the fourth quarter of their three playoff games.
As with every other matchup the Packers have been a part of this postseason, they can expect to be outplayed on special teams. Against the Bears, they got a nice performance from punter Tim Masthay, but not much else. The place where the Steelers will be able to exploit the Packers best is when the Packers kickoff. Green Bay's 27th in the league in kickoffs, costing themselves 5.8 points of field position on their kicks. Meanwhile, the Steelers had the league's 12th-best kickoff returns, producing 3.6 points. That should give the Pittsburgh offense even better field position than they normally enjoy. Thanks to that kick coverage and their excellent defense, Pittsburgh's offense takes over with an average of 68.7 yards to go for a touchdown, the seventh-shortest average field position in the league.
Pittsburgh's best asset has been their punting, which ranks fifth in the league, but that's not quite as much of an asset since Daniel Sepulveda was injured. 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. Green Bay's 19th-place ranking on punt returns is pretty good for their below-average special teams unit.
The last game between these two teams could not have been closer; a one-point win earned on the final play of regulation is about as exciting as it gets. Although we're unlikely to get that dramatic of an ending again, this should be a close game to the very end. Games this close get decided by mismatches, even if it's just one play -- think about Brian Orakpo versus Alex Barron all those weeks ago. This game's biggest mismatch is similar to that one, Matthews versus those mediocre Pittsburgh tackles in pass protection. Without a healthy Pouncey to hold things together in the middle, the Steelers offensive line finally collapses, and the Packers end up winning by 3-7 points.
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 (red) line shows the team's trend for the season. This week, we're trying something new -- the trend is based on the weighted average of the team's last five games, rather than being a polynomial trendline based on a regression of the week-to-week results.
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