by Ned Macey
The defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-5. They just lost to the hapless Oakland Raiders, who thanks to Sunday's game had the same 2-5 record as Pittsburgh. Other 2-5 teams include Buffalo, Houston, Tennessee, and San Francisco. Can a team that keeps that sort of company really be a good team?
Football Outsiders DVOA rankings think so, ranking Pittsburgh as the 11th best team in football. (For a full explanation of DVOA, click here.) The Steelers have suffered through some terrible play by Ben Roethlisberger, but bad luck has also pushed them out of the playoff race.
Oakland, meanwhile, now has two wins in a row thanks to a defense that is developing into a very solid unit. The names may not be known to many around the country, but if the offense ever gets it together, wins and name recognition will not be far behind.
The Oakland offense is far from getting it together at this point. It is an undeniable fact that the better team did not win on Sunday. The Steelers outgained the Raiders 360-98. The Raiders won simply because they were fortunate enough to return two interceptions for touchdowns, including one from 100 yards out. Interceptions are a credit to the defense, but returning them for touchdowns is often a result of luck, not a repeatable skill.
Pittsburgh was only in a position to lose on those plays because the team made a mistake in starting Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger threw four interceptions one week after sustaining a concussion. All four were ill-advised throws, but the worst was a forced throw at the goal line into triple coverage that Chris Carr returned for a touchdown.
Whether it was lack of practice or lasting effects of the concussion, Roethlisberger was well below 100 percent. His successful plays consisted of hitting his first read or dumping off to a safety valve. If his first read was covered, he often stood in the pocket helplessly or forced an ill-advised throw. He was sacked five times by a team that had totaled nine sacks in the previous six games.
Pittsburgh should have won the game anyway, but it would be an injustice to ignore Oakland's fine defensive performance. The Oakland offense managed only 17 net passing yards -- and yet the Raiders would have been in this game even absent the touchdown returns. All four of Roethlisberger's interceptions came on third or fourth down. The Steelers would have only been in position for one additional field goal had those interceptions instead fallen harmlessly to the ground.
This performance was the best of the year for the Raiders defense, but it has quietly developed into a very solid unit. The Raiders now rank 10th in defensive DVOA. The defense has given up only 35 total points over the past three weeks.
This defensive improvement is a surprise to many, but it is based on consistent development and should not have been unexpected. The 2004 Raiders were a team with a terrible defense and an average offense. That off-season, they signed LaMont Jordan and traded for Randy Moss. All the preseason moves got their offense a great deal of attention, but for a variety of reasons, it never clicked. The defense quietly improved to mediocre, a fact lost during a 5-11 flameout.
Art Shell (or at least Al Davis) apparently noticed the improvement and kept Rob Ryan on staff as defensive coordinator. He may not be matching the success of his father's feared Bears units of the 80's, but his defense is becoming a quality unit. This mostly anonymous unit -- quick, name four Oakland defenders; I'll even spot you Warren Sapp and Derrick Burgess -- is extremely young. Sapp is the only starter over 28, and they start two rookies.
On Sunday, Burgess continued to be the best pass rusher in football. He added 2.5 sacks to his season total and now has 22.5 sacks in his past 20 games. He played some left defensive end and easily got around Max Starks on multiple occasions. Constant pressure up the middle from Tommy Kelly and, yes, even occasionally Sapp, made it a long day for Roethlisberger.
Sunday also highlighted the play of a pair of linebackers, Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard. Both players often sold out on the run and helped keep Willie Parker in check. Howard also made the pass deflection that led to Roethlisberger's second interception and the Raiders' first touchdown.
Even the secondary, a mostly inexperienced group, held their own. Safeties Stuart Schweigert and Michael Huff were often playing near the line of scrimmage, but young cornerbacks Fabian Washington and Nnamdi Asomugha managed without the support. Both came away with interceptions, and Washington in particular seemed to control his half of the field.
The Raiders continue to struggle because the offense is ill-prepared to help the defense. Andrew Walter remains an unknown quantity because he has no time in the pocket and no consistent receivers. The acquisition of Moss has to be counted as a bust. Pro Football Prospectus 2005 showed that Moss had performed much better on turf than grass over his career, but nobody could have foreseen such average production. Moss has averaged fewer than four catches and 60 yards per game as a Raider. With the trade of Doug Gabriel and the continuing Jerry Porter situation, Moss is on his own, and the results are ugly. Porter returned to the field on Sunday but was a definite non-factor.
The core problem is the offensive line. The Steelers pass rush just overwhelmed it from all directions, totaling six sacks. The offensive line did get a little push in the running game for Justin Fargas on a field goal drive in the second half. The development of Fargas bears watching, but a handful of successful plays in an otherwise desultory performance is not particularly encouraging.
The inept offense leaves the defense on the field a great deal. As a result, the defense is likely to give up more points going forward. Nonetheless, while nobody should confuse the Raiders defense with the Ravens, this improvement is legitimate and likely to be sustained. Oakland fans have something to enjoy for the first time since 2002.
Steelers fans are in no mood to enjoy this season of lost opportunity. The defending Super Bowl Champions are poised to be the third team this decade to follow up a Super Bowl win by missing the playoffs, largely due to the poor play of Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger's life the last four months is worthy of a bad soap opera. In June, he got in a major motorcycle accident. He recovered amazingly, but just before the start of the regular season he had to undergo an appendectomy. After struggling early, he finally started playing well only to suffer a concussion. Fans in Cincinnati probably think this is karmic justice, but I think we can all agree it is a terrible run of luck.
Roethlisberger has played through the injuries for the most part, missing only the season opener and the end of the Week 7 affair against Atlanta. His play has been dreadful at times. The resulting struggles of the Steelers are not surprising, but they highlight his importance to the team.
Pittsburgh's identity under Bill Cowher has always been defense and running the ball. Over the past two years, while this mindset has not changed, the Steelers have actually put points on the board through the air. Their strong commitment to the run, and the resulting ability to consistently gain positive yardage, forces other teams to commit extra players to defend it. When that happens, Roethlisberger has been destroying opposing defenses. In both 2004 and 2005, Roethlisberger ranked third among quarterbacks in DVOA, which measures success on a per-play basis.
This year, he ranks 19th despite most of the same offensive personnel as a year ago. He played incredibly well against Kansas City and Atlanta, two teams that are a combined 9-5. In his other four games, he has one touchdown, 11 interceptions, and 15 sacks. That level of play makes Steelers fans yearn for the days of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox.
What makes the situation even more sad is that the Steelers have a more-than-competent backup in Charlie Batch. In Batch's very limited time this year (37 pass attempts) he has a higher DVOA than Peyton Manning. He roughly matched Roethlisberger's production during his opportunity a season ago. Batch is an inferior player to a fully-healthy Roethlisberger, but he should be playing when Roethlisberger is struggling with his injuries.
Roethlisberger has been bad, but Football Outsiders DVOA rankings still have Pittsburgh as the 11th best team in football. The reasons for this are manifold. The ranking is somewhat skewed by the Kansas City game. The great play there only earned them one win, but those plays count across the season for DVOA. A team capable of that kind of performance almost always is a good team.
Second, the 2-5 record is the result of bad luck on a game-to-game basis. They outplayed the Raiders last Sunday. Against Atlanta, they played the Falcons to a draw on the road but lost the coin-flip in overtime. Against Cincinnati, they outgained the Bengals by over 100 yards, but Cincinnati fell on five of the six fumbles in the game. Quite simply, the Steelers should be at least 4-3 despite Roethlisberger's struggles. (Also note that the Steelers are 0-4 on the road, but 2-1 at home.)
One more hidden reason for the bad record is poor luck on special teams. The Steelers special teams have struggled in general this year, but their already suspect units have not been helped by happenstance. A team cannot, absent blocked kicks, control an opposing team's field goal attempts and punting yards. No team can control the opposition's kickoff yards.
Sometimes this is obvious, such as Philadelphia's loss on an incredible field goal by Matt Bryant. But most of these meaningful yards end up hidden from view. At Football Outsiders, we convert special teams plays into points. Based solely on things outside of Pittsburgh's control, opposing special teams have cost the Steelers 11 points. That ranks third in the NFL.
For perspective, despite their record the Steelers have outscored their opponents on the season 157-145. If you increased this 12-point advantage to 23 (adding in the 11 points of special teams bad luck), they would have the 11th largest point differential in football -- the same ranking as DVOA. On Sunday, Shane Lechler averaged over 48 yards per punt. Sebastian Janikowski hit both his field goals and had two touchbacks among his four kickoffs. Those little details matter in the result of a given game but tell us nothing about the ability of the opponent.
None of this means the Steelers do not have problems that extend beyond Roethlisberger. The special teams that the Steelers do control are among the worst in football. They have not adequately replaced Jerome Bettis, who provided real value on the field a year ago. The offensive line has struggled at times and almost never been dominant.
This is still a good team, and if Roethlisberger gets everything working, they are a very good team, but the schedule is too daunting for them to return to the playoffs. Six of their nine remaining games are against teams with winning records. For now, Cowher needs to evaluate which quarterback gives them the best chance to win each week. If the right quarterback is playing, they will quietly climb toward a respectable record. Playing spoiler is not a satisfactory role a year after being champions, but letting a banged-up Roethlisberger cost them several games leaves them no other choice.
The Raiders are likely basking in the glow of having played spoiler. Two straight wins are encouraging heading into a Monday Night affair next week. Take the chance in an otherwise ho-hum affair between the Raiders and Seahawks to get a peek at one of the game's up-and-coming defenses. Just don't forget to cover your eyes when the Raiders offense is on the field.
|Best and Worst Luck in "Hidden" Special Teams|
|FG vs.||Spec Tms
|These numbers are not weather-adjusted.
Each team's own field goals, punts, and kickoffs are not listed, but are included in totals.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.