Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
08 Aug 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: Well, Mike, it's time for another season of Scramble for the Ball. And, in the grand tradition of Scramble for the Ball, that means another season of over/unders to start off the year.
Mike: Our poor, poor readers. Although, considering the Olympics are on and water polo basically starts with a scramble for the ball, maybe we should do something ... you know, water polo-ish?
Tom: Our readers wouldn't be nearly as poor if they stopped subscribing to your lottery tout service that you base on fortune cookie numbers. Then again, maybe they wouldn't be. Also, the only things I know about water polo are (a) Blood in the Water and (b) Doc Emrick was doing the play-by-play this year.
Mike: What can I say? Sun Wah is really good. I have way, way too many fortune cookie slips. We need to do our part to transition our fans to water polo, because it is the only Earth sport that will survive the apocalyptic war.
Tom: Anyway. As we have in the past, we're using over/unders provided by Bovada, f/k/a Bodog. And while their over/unders come with wagering-related numbers, we are instead using their over/under lines as a sort of prediction for how many wins a team might end up with. We are then passing judgment on that team's fate, not wagering real or pretend money on the team.
Mike: Sometimes our numbers will agree with that hallowed tome, Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and sometimes they won't. Nothing we say here should be used against our fellow FO writers. They probably don't agree with us, either.
Tom: The FO hivemind at work! Okay, Mike, where shall we begin our season's journey?
Mike: 1d4 says ... 1. Which in alphabetical order is ... the Eastern divisions. Coin flip says ... tails. Which, again, in alphabetical order, means NFC. And the first team in the NFC East is ...
Tom: FOA 2012 says 7.5. Under. Next team.
Mike: Did you not read our own intro?!
Tom: I had to go get chicken off the grill. It was done.
Mike: We just said we would disagree with FOA to
stir up controversy express our independent football acumen! On a more serious note, it's interesting that Dallas' Pythagorean projection last year was 8.6 wins. Our line is set assuming Dallas performs at basically the same level from year to year. From last year to this year, at least.
Tom: Their right tackle is now their left tackle, even though he's never played left tackle in the NFL and didn't play it in college. Their left tackle is now their right tackle. They're pretending their interior offensive line was good even though it wasn't. They have two real receivers, one of whom got into a fight with his mother this summer. Brandon Carr was a big signing, and I like the drafting of Morris Claiborne. As we pointed out in FOA, however, cornerbacks, even ones who end up really good, are rarely really good as rookies. The offense is theoretically pretty good, but I see a lot of ways for it to have problems, and the pass defense, while better, still isn't that good.
Mike: I'm not entirely convinced that the line is going to be a tremendous problem this year, considering their schedule.
Tom: I'm not following you. I see the Giants and Eagles in the division, and a couple teams with potentially pretty potent pass rushes.
Mike: While they do have to face the likes of New York, Cincinnat i and Baltimore, the New York Football Giants are the only team in their division with overpowering pressure. The rest of their schedule is mostly the NFC South. I do not believe in the Eagles' defense this year, at least not in their ability to get to the quarterback.
Tom: We'll get to the Eagles in a bit.
Mike: Right. So, while I agree that they will have some issues with their line, I don't think it will be crippling to the offense, and I think the offense should be pretty good. My main problem with 8.5 is the fact that Dallas's schedule is pretty brutal. We have them with the second-most difficult schedule in the league next year.
Tom: The NFC East should be very competitive.
Mike: It's always difficult with marginal teams like this, but I just don't think they get past .500. Under.
Tom: There shouldn't be many pushovers in the NFC South, or the AFC North. I could easily see them passing it, especially with some good luck on offense, but I'm sticking with my initial Under call.
Tom: The Giants were, as you may recall, outscored over the course of the regular season last year. The defense was at times pretty lousy. Interestingly, though, the offense had five games where it was at least 10 percent worse than average, in DVOA terms (DVOA -10% or lower). The defense only had four such games (DVOA +10% or higher). As we note in the chapter, those poor defensive games, especially the worst of them, came when both Michael Boley and Osi Umenyiora were out of the lineup. Osi has a new contract and should be happy and healthy, and ditto for Boley, minus the new contract. Cover linebacker, beyond Boley, seems to be a particular weakness. They seem to recognize that with their propensity to play the Big Nickel 4-2-5, playing that over twice as often as base 4-3. Like the Cowboys, I question their receiver depth, especially their ability to employ Victor Cruz in the slot.
Mike: New York's defense is an interesting case because it is, on paper, an extremely dangerous bunch with next to nothing backing up their starters. I'm not sure it really matters how happy Umenyiora is. He can still be injured, and so can any of the team's other quality lineman. I'm wondering what happens if, instead of Umenyiora, they lose Jason Pierre-Paul for an extended period of time, considering the post-Umenyiora injury collapse from last season.
Tom: Isn't that true of every team with a particularly good player? We'll have a sort of test case this year with the Ravens minus Terrell Suggs. But I posit that for every defense if you strike down their best player, they'll be worse.
Mike: That's a fair assessment. I just think that most good teams have a backup with some amount of upside waiting in the wings for that eventuality. The Giants have Rocky Bernard in the middle and .. some guys who to step into their rotation on the edges. That is a massive dropoff in quality.
Tom: They do get D-tackle Marvin Austin back after he missed his rookie season with an injury. Of course, he came from North Carolina and got caught up in their scandal, so it's now been a while since he's played football. They do have Justin Tuck, Pierre-Paul, and Osi at d-end, so I'm not too concerned about the fourth end. Instead of Dave Tollefson getting 20 snaps a game, Mathias Kiwanuka plays more at DE in rush packages and some player like Justin Trattou or Adrian Tracy gets 10 snaps a game or something.
Mike: The fourth end is going to get a lot of snaps. I'm not sure why you are so insistent that he isn't.
Tom: If we're talking about a fourth end, we're talking about a relatively minor concern.
Mike: It wasn't a minor concern last year.
Tom: I care more about Hakeem Nicks' foot, and the development of a guy like Rueben Randle. Prince Amukamara is healthy and entering his second season, when corners normally improve. They might have Terrell Thomas for some of the year instead of none of it, as we thought might be the case when he went down. Given the Giants' schedule is once-again backloaded, that's a good thing.
Mike: While Nicks is a concern, I think their offense can improve a little over last year. Most of the skill position players are going into their prime or still on the tail end of it, so while I don't think there will be any massive breakouts (running back is still going to be a mess), I think we'll see moderate improvements. Hopefully on first down, but I suppose mentioning that will draw the ire of a great many Giants fans exasperated with aforementioned running game.
Tom: Sure, but with a team that went 9-7 with 7.8 Pythagorean wins against our fourth-hardest schedule, what do moderate improvements result in? And I like David Wilson, too, but I don't think he fundamentally changes anything for their offense.
Mike: If the defense stays healthy? Another 9-7. If not? Someplace ugly. I think they get to 9, though. Over.
Tom reminds Mike the line is 9.0. Mike lets out several expletives.
Mike: Must ... resist ... picking ... push ... Under.
Tom: I was worried you were going to steal my thunder. I like the defense a little more. I like the offense a little less. Overall, I think they finish right where they do last year. Push.
Mike: Oh, man.
Tom: You have strong feels about this line, I take it?
Mike: I really do. This is the same freaking team.
Tom: They're a very similar team. To last year's version that finished with 9.8 Pythagorean Wins.
Mike: Same Juan "I Once Was an Offensive Line Coach" Castillo running the defense.
Tom: The Eagles' defense was better the second half of last season. Watching their defense the first half of last season was insanely frustrating, especially as a fan who had seen the wide-9 implemented successfully. They were playing the linebackers and back-seven defenders all wrong. That got better as the season went on, and they added DeMeco Ryans, who's sound, and Mychal Kendricks, who looks like a nice player.
Mike: The Eagles' defense in the second half of season featured: Chicago, Arizona, Seattle, Miami, the New York Football Jets, and Washington. I'm not sure it would have been possible to be as bad as the first half against that spread.
Tom: Their defensive DVOA against the Jets was -48%. That's the sort of thing they were SUPPOSED to do. Last year's team, yes, it was a train wreck, but they worked on fixing the problems. This year's defensive issues will be subtler and/or of the non-obvious sort. You can have your generalized Castillo dislike for that, and I won't object too loudly, but they're now built in a much more theoretically sound manner.
Mike: I will give you that.
Tom: My bigger concern is of course Michael Vick, who's still too much of a week to week player.
Mike: I do wonder if the wear and tear of last year will cause him to change his game, which actually could be a positive, considering the way defenses focus on him and the weapons that offense (probably) has.
Tom: Change his game in that he stops sometimes throwing inaccurately on short passes for no apparent reason? I'm skeptical.
Mike: Hey, you're the one trying to make me be optimistic.
Tom: I'm debating whether talking myself into a zillion wins is a good idea. We both went over on the Eagles last year and got burned.
Mike: Indeed. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Under.
Tom: I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. Over.
Mike: You poor, poor sap.
Mike: Honestly? I have no idea what to think of Robert Griffin III.
Tom: I like his long-term future, and he seems like a great guy.
Mike: This O/U basically hinges on how well you think he'll perform.
Tom: There is a whole rest of the team out there, plus Mike Shanahan's occasional run-blocking wizardry. The bar for performance was set by your long-time nemesis, Rex Grossman, which means it's not that hard to be an upgrade.
Mike: I feel like Grossman and I should do a heartwarming cereal commercial like McEnroe and whatever that Gerry Anderson stand-in was supposed to be. And while you say the is a whole rest of the team, if you'll allow me to be a slight bit hyperbolic; is there? Really?
Tom: They're planning on fielding an entire team this season, as far as I know. I like Trent Wililiams' potential. Brian Orakpo is good outside of GEICO commercials. They signed Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather.
Mike: I mean, obviously they're fielding enough players, but what real talent is there? Their platoon of running backs is below 50 percent success and the entire team only managed to score 8 rushing touchdowns combined. Run-blocking wizardry can only get you so far, and the scary part is the Redskins were actually pretty dark good at run blocking, 10th in the league by ALY. Eight team touchdowns. Sub-50 percent success rate. Negative DVOA. Sorry, I just can't get past this.
Tom: We did do some research a while ago that suggested running quarterbacks like RG3 do tend to boost how effective running backs are.
Mike: That is true, but then that leads us back to Griffin.
Tom: They re-signed Adam Carriker, which was a good non-sexy signing. You're right, though, it's hard for me to really like this team's overall talent level. And while trading up to get Griffin was a much smarter move than trading draft picks for veterans, they'll still have to build around him. If he pans out the way most of us probably think he will, they can be Super Bowl contenders. That's 2017, though, not 2012. Under.
Mike: I don't think they're going to light the world on fire. I think their defense is ... respectable. I think their running game might, might go from very bad to merely bad with the Griffin boost. Like I said, I think the line is so low that it comes down to how you feel Griffin does, and I get the feeling that a dynamic quarterback like him will be able to pull some stuff on teams this season due to a lack of tape. I think that seven wins isn't an insurmountable goal, so I'll go with Over.
Tom: On to the American Football Conference!
Mike: The football gods really hate us, don't they?
Tom: Yes, they do. Though still not as much as they hate Buffalo. Or have you forgotten they last made the playoffs following the 1999 season?
Mike: How could anyone who has read anything about the Bills forget? Sorry, I'm a Pirates fan. We haven't had a winning season since 1992.
Tom: I think I once wrote about the Bills without mentioning it.
Mike: This would be a great new show: Myths of the Greater Midwestern Sportswriter. All of this is just dodging the fact that we have to, as with the Eagles, basically make the same call we did last year. How did we do last year, anyway?
Tom: We did awesome last year. You got 3 of the 4 AFC East teams right, and I got all four correct.
Mike: That is my favorite kind of doing!
Tom: The Easts were actually our best collective performance last year. 7-1 in the AFC and 5-3 in the NFC (you 2, me 3).
Mike: Wow. That is impressive. Unhelpful, but impressive.
Tom: Sadly, we counterbalanced that with some less impressive performances in other divisions. Unless I miscounted, we both went 16-16 overall.
Mike: All right. So, what has changed about the Bills? There's no real reason to assume Ryan Fitzpatrick will be injured again.
Tom: They added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. They may keep a second viable receiver healthy. They re-signed Stevie Johnson. Kyle Williams is healthy. Marcel Dareus is entering his second season. They drafted Stephon Gilmore, which should pay off in the future more than this year.
Mike: While David Nelson didn't impress last year (I believe he was featured in the Loser League a few times), I think he's in a good position, with a salaried and happy Johnson and probably a healthy Fitzpatrick, to turn into an actual useful No. 2 receiver going into this third year in the league.
Tom: I ended up watching a fair amount of the Bills last year, and found them a frustrating team, offensively.
Mike: Flashes of brilliance mired in a morass of ineptitude?
Tom: It was a horizontal stretch offense, like the Patriots', only not as good and less versatile. I was selfishly hoping Stevie Johnson would leave and go to a team with a quarterback that could complete a pass 25 yards downfield once in a while.
Mike: I suppose the question is whether Chan Gailey can learn from last year and play more to his offense's strengths. He has a decent amount of talent and a serviceable quarterback with a glaring deficiency, so as you said, trying to be a crappier version of the Patriots isn't a great plan for the encore.
Tom: Of course, to win games in the NFL you don't have to be a great team. You just have to outscore your opponents.
Mike: I'm willing to just wash my hands at this point, say that he does and go with an offense that is "pretty good but not great."
Tom: The Bills and the rest of the AFC East get eight games against the AFC South and NFC West, two divisions with teams FOA 2012 mostly projects to be not that good.
Mike: The addition of Williams should immensely help improve the Bills' abysmal pass rush from 2011.
Tom: 2009 was the last year the Bills had a decent pass rush, and a decent defense. Williams (Mario) and Anderson, plus the return of Williams (Kyle), should help.
Mike: Which should take a bit of pressure off a somewhat sketchy secondary. Maybe I just like Fitzpatrick too much, but I have a good feeling about this team. Over.
Tom: I wouldn't expect the same tipped passes interception luck they had early in 2011, but I like them against the schedule just enough to go Over.
Tom: Die whole number lines, die!
Mike: I think what we're seeing is that the bookie has absolutely no idea what is going to happen this season.
Tom: I'm not sure anybody knows who's going to start at quarterback for the Dolphins this year. David Garrard is currently the top quarterback on the unofficial depth chart. Matt Moore has played semi-competently at times in the NFL, which is mostly where Garrad's been. Ryan Tannehill was of course the eighth pick in the draft, so he'll start sooner or later.
Mike: Miami's problems go well beyond quarterback, though. Like the Redskins, this is just a team devoid of talent.
Tom: Are you saying you have no interest in playing wide receiver for the Dolphins this year? Might your daughter have any interest?
Mike: One of her favorite words is "water," and as LeBron reminded us, Miami does have nice beaches. She is a natural fit!
Tom: Wonderful. We should let Jeff Ireland know.
Mike: I guess Miami at least has its draft picks going forward? But probably no weapon of nearly the same calibre as Griffin. I hate to be so superficial, but this team is just bad.
Tom: Well, there is that. The Dolphins' big weakness by DVOA last year was the running game on offense. That despite the good year by Reggie Bush. Daniel Thomas, of course, struggled, but seemed to come on some later in the season, I thought.
Mike: That is surprising, considering Bush had a good year and the team has a genuine rock star in Jake Long. Well, "good." "Good for the Dolphins."
Tom: Honestly, this may be the team in the league I know least.
Mike: Part of the problem is that, despite having little recognizable talent, the Dolphins are actually basically average by almost every metric.
Tom: They had this weird mid-season stretch where they won three straight games by a combined score of 76-20 after starting 0-8 with a number of close losses. Often that kind of Pythagorean wins-real wins gap (8.5 v 6 real wins) results in a jump the following season, but I'm having a hard time justifying that to myself mentally.
Mike: They're going to be starting a very marginal rookie quarterback, and they no longer have even a passable running back, so their biggest weakness is going to just get worse. I think the AFC East is soft this year, but not that soft. Under.
Tom: Their quarterback play wasn't great last year, and we've noted the soft schedule. I hate this line, but the schedule is only soft in comparison to good teams. That doesn't include the Dolphins in my book. A reluctant Under.
Tom: From FOA, 2012 Mean Projection: 12.0.
Mike: Never have we seen a team emulate so well a rival against whom it had such great success. I understand that Belichick isn't actually trying to recreate the Colts teams from the mid-00s, but he's managed to put on a very good show.
Tom: I guess it wasn't that Peyton Manning was a complete choker, but that the quarterback for that kind of team must be a postseason choker.
Mike: Oh, we're getting hate mail over that one. The strange part is that those Colts defenses were never actually this bad. They were just run of the mill, ordinary, Diet Coke bad. This Patriots defense was comic book villain bad.
Tom: I would defend Diet Coke, my beverage of choice, except that I started drinking Diet Coke because I didn't like it. Anyway, the Colts' defense the year they won the Super Bowl was almost this bad. DVOA of 8.5%, 25th, compared to 13.2%, 30th, for New England last season.
Mike: That's over half again as bad!
Tom: And the run defense was even worse than the Patriots' defense was last year at 14.9%.
Mike: Anyway, we can both agree that the Patriots' defense last year was really bad. We can also both agree that they will probably field another top-five offense.
Tom: Given general defensive inconsistency, and the picks the Patriots have thrown at the defensive side of the ball, shouldn't they be better defensively? No great shakeout, just more talent and a bit better luck. Or is Bill Belichick no longer good at evaluating defensive players?
Mike: Well, that's the real question.
Tom: Exactly. It's just fascinating to me that you have probably the most written-about team in the NFL the last decade, probably the best team in the league over that span. And they've fallen apart in this way on the side of the ball that was their strength and their head coach's forte. And I haven't seen a good explanation of just what the heck has gone on. This past season, I saw things like, "Well, Ras-I Dowling got hurt." Yeah, sure, and he got hurt all the time in college. That's why he was drafted where he was. Dowling getting hurt wasn't a big surprise. Plus he's a second-round pick. An early second-rounder, but still.
Mike: Right, when you find yourself saying "Just wait until Patrick Chung comes back," you're not in a happy place.
Tom: Rookie second-round picks aren't really the difference between a great defense and an awful one. Maybe they just got lucky in 2003 when Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson turned out to be key contributors as rookies.
Mike: That is definitely part of it, but the rest of the defense was solid. Constant average- or above-average rushing defense DVOA paired with elite pass defense DVOA, helped by a solid pass rush. It wasn't a great defense, but it was a very good defense that worked largely because of Belichick's ability and an overall level of talent.
Mike: Considering this site was founded in part to grapple with the Patriots' 2001 aberration, that shouldn't be surprising at all. The team became dominant when a lot of foundational work came to fruition those years. The problem is that we really don't know, and can't know. We can't gaze into Belichick's mind and see if the bits that provide insight into talented but underrated defensive players are cobwebbed over, but looking at what the Patriots have, they look on defense very much like a well that has run dry.
Tom: Maybe it's as simple as the proliferation of 3-4 defenses, increasing the price for the veterans supplementing the existing players.
Mike: But we're seeing a contraction on the 3-4 front.
Tom: That wouldn't get at why the draft picks per se haven't been better, but it would indicate a harder time covering up for losses. So should that indicate that the Pats should improve? Then again, looking at the defensive personnel groupings in FOA 2012, 4-3 was their most common defensive look, followed closely by 3-3-5 and 4-2-5.
Mike: I think all we can do is look at the players they have, be extremely unimpressed, look at their offense, be very impressed but wary of their tight ends now that the cat is out of the bag, and then move on to their projected schedule. Which is the fourth-easiest in the league.
Tom: And FOA sees that, and still projects 12.0 wins. To pick over means they can only lose three games.
Mike: 13 is a lot of wins. I would take the under if it was at 12.5. I'm not going to call for a push. I'll bite the bullet. Over
Tom: Even really good teams can lose four games pretty easily, through some combination of off weeks and bad luck in close games. Still, I like the defense just enough and the offense will still be great. Over. Shoot me as well.
Mike: Why is the AFC East so difficult?
Tom: Football gods trying to smite us after going 7-1 last year?
Tom: I feel like just completely omitting the Jets from the column would have been a merciful act. I'm tired of hearing about this team already, and it's August 6 as I write this. Their best pass-rusher was Aaron Maybin, and I'm having a hard time believing he's now a very useful player. Their right tackle is still Wayne Hunter. I like Santonio Holmes as a receiver on the field in the abstract, but there's a whole other package that goes with that skillset that's much less attractive. They have a quarterback controversy because neither one is particularly proficient at throwing the football. Shonn Greene's absence helped cost them the AFC Championship Game against the Colts, but he's been mediocre at best most of the time since then despite an offensive line that, Hunter excepted, is pretty good. Eric Smith is still on the team, and Jim Leonhard is not.
Mike: The Jets are a maddeningly frustrating team.
Tom: And, yes, they signed Yeremiah Bell. He's still Yeremiah Bell. We just dealt with what I found a very frustrating subject. This column is reminding me why I don't pay as close attention the AFC East as I do to most other divisions.
Mike: More than perhaps any other team in the league, they have strong foundations. The offensive line is definitely above average. The defensive secondary is superb and the front seven, which not amazing, is devastating against runners. This seems like an amazing team, until you get to the skill positions and do a double-take.
Tom: Don't disrespect Dustin Keller, man! Keller had a worse DVOA but wasn't nearly as big a distraction. As Keller's player comment notes, he shouldn't be thrown the ball 115 times (more than Holmes!). That's not his fault.
Mike: Keller was worse than Holmes! Actually, this is insane. But their receivers and running backs are awful, but they have a very good line, 8th by ALY last year. Mark Sanchez is awful. Tim Tebow is awful-er, but he can at least run. They should really just go with Tebow from the start and shove the ball down everyone's throats. Use the passing game as a way to loosen up the defense for the running game. Now, this won't win them a Super Bowl, because most teams that aren't the Patriots can completely shut down a one-dimensional team with little difficulty.
Tom: At this point I have to remind everyone the Jets fully guaranteed Sanchez's salary this year and next year.
Mike: Oh good lord, they did, didn't they.
Tom: As Sanchez was a high first-round pick under the old CBA, that's over $20 million combined. I will also note Chris Brown of Smart Football and Grantland has noted Tebow is actually a surprisingly mediocre decision-maker on option plays, despite running a boatload of them over the years.
Mike: I have occasionally considered that the importance of quarterbacks in the NFL is greatly overstated. I really should slap myself next time I have that thought, or at least hire a tenor to remind me of my foolishness.
Tom: The Jets maybe should put him at quarterback, and just run run run, but that dooms them short of the ultimate prize barring a heaping helping of horseshoes.
Mike: I have never seen a team so talented and so complete but so utterly incompetent at positions where they could almost certainly fish out replacement-level talent. While, due to institutional incompetence, they are in no position to do so.
Tom: This isn't new. As the saying goes, you are what you repeatedly do. This is the New York Jets of the Rex Ryan era.
Mike: No, but it has finally come to a head, here. This is probably simultaneously the best and worst version of the New York Jets we have seen to date.
Tom: The Jets versions don't seem all that different to me, though I suppose that's part of who they are as well. I feel like this may be the version of the Jets with the best chance at a complete implosion.
Mike: I agree, but I wouldn't bet on it. I'd bet, instead, on a very good defense propping up an offense that manages to come up for air just enough to make them dangerous. With this schedule, I think the Over is easy, but I don't like their chances against anyone with any real championship designs.
Tom: I actually concur with you, though. This is a largely similar team to last year's 8-8 team. They play a relatively easy schedule. They should be slightly better. At 8.5 wins, that's Over. And tune in next week as we tackle another cardinal direction.
Mike: Likely a less insane one.
Tom: Fortunately, Charm and Strange aren't NFL divisions. Yet.
Mike: Unfortunately, the NFL's voracious apetite for expansion will probably lead to the Shinobuden division sometime soon. We can only sit and wait in horror.
Tom: The horror, the horror.
101 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2012, 11:45am by Prosolution