by Andrew Healy
On Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger had the third-best single-game DYAR for a quarterback in the last 25 years. He completed 40 of 49 passes for 522 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. According to our measure of the value he added to the offense, only two playoff games (Kurt Warner against the Packers in 2009 and Drew Brees against the Lions in 2011) beat Roethlisberger's game against the Colts.
Here are the four main potential explanations I can think of for Roethlisberger's historic day by the numbers:
A) Big Ben played out of his mind, even by his usual high standards.
B) The rest of the Pittsburgh offense, particularly the line, stood on their collective head.
C) The Indianapolis defense, dominant just the week before, threw up a stink bomb.
D) The Steelers' bumblebee uniforms understandably confused and frightened the Colts.
Breaking down the tape, I actually think two choices are better than A (and, while it's plausible, I'm putting D fourth). Roethlisberger was undoubtedly very good, but his circumstances were amazingly favorable. In past years, the Pittsburgh offense has relied upon Roethlisberger to create plays after protection breakdowns. On Sunday, the Colts barely breathed on Big Ben all day.
In my charting notes, I have pass after pass listed as "no pressure," including throws where the Colts blitzed (the Film Room segment below highlights one notable example of the Steelers' success in blocking the Colts' pass rush). Across the game, I have the Colts getting clear pressure on just four plays. They hit Roethlisberger only once in the entire game. Even in the rare case where Roethlisberger needed to move at all, as on the 47-yard touchdown to Antonio Brown in the second quarter, the line generally held up well. On that play, Roethlisberger had a clean pocket for five seconds before scrambling right and throwing deep. By that time, Brown was uncovered down the field.
Roethlisberger found many wide-open receivers sooner after the snap, as well. Given his gaudy stats, he made remarkably few difficult throws. Roethlisberger made only a couple of poor throws and took advantage of the favorable situation, but he did not play out of his mind. He didn't need to.
Given the defense they were facing, it is surprising that the Steelers found the going so easy. The Colts came into the game ranked ninth in defensive DVOA and second against the pass. In shutting out the Bengals the previous week, the Colts gave up two first downs on their first 12 drives of the game, surrendering a total of 42 yards in the process. A week after being completely dominant, the Colts gave up 639 yards to the Steelers. Last week against the Bengals, the Colts gave up the fewest yards (135) that any team has given up all season, and most of that came long after the game was decided. This week, that same defense gave up the most yards any team has allowed this year.
The Colts' defensive crash came close to making history. Originally, I was thinking that the increase in points allowed from 0 to 51 would make history, but the amazing 1985 Buccaneers may have put that record forever out of reach, following up a 16-0 win with a 62-28 loss. The 504-yard increase in yardage allowed from the Bengals game to the Steelers game, though, is within a yard of the biggest one-game increase since 1960.
|1966||9-Oct||Philadelphia Eagles||Dallas Cowboys||L 51-7||652||St. Louis Cardinals||L 41-10||147||505|
|2014||26-Oct||Indianapolis Colts||Pittsburgh Steelers||L 51-34||639||Cincinnati Bengals||W 27-0||135||504|
|1982||20-Dec||Cincinnati Bengals||San Diego Chargers||L 50-34||661||Cleveland Browns||W 23-10||210||451|
|2008||9-Nov||New Orleans Saints||Atlanta Falcons||W 34-20||521||Oakland Raiders||W 24-0||77||444|
|1972||24-Sep||Baltimore Colts||New York Jets||L 44-34||573||St. Louis Cardinals||L 10-3||134||439|
|1971||12-Dec||Denver Broncos||San Diego Chargers||L 45-17||498||Chicago Bears||W 6-3||66||432|
|1972||8-Oct||San Francisco 49ers||Los Angeles Rams||L 31-7||513||New Orleans Saints||W 37-2||84||429|
|1967||1-Oct||San Francisco 49ers||Baltimore Colts||L 41-7||524||Atlanta Falcons||W 38-7||97||427|
|1990||4-Nov||Detroit Lions||Washington Redskins||L 41-38||676||New Orleans Saints||W 27-10||269||407|
|1970||11-Oct||Denver Broncos||Oakland Raiders||L 35-23||522||Kansas City Chiefs||W 26-13||121||401|
The NFL can be awfully random from one week to the next, but this kind of swing is pretty hard to fathom. How can a defensive line that sacked Andy Dalton four times and hit him nine more, with pressure on many other dropbacks, generate almost no pressure the next week? Coming into the game, Pittsburgh ranked 29th in adjusted sack rate, so it's not like the Colts were going up against Erik Williams, Larry Allen, and the rest of the mid-1990s Cowboys on the offensive line. Moreover, starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed the game with a concussion, leaving Mike Adams to man that position.
Nevertheless, the Colts found little room to operate against a Steelers' line that dominated them physically and played very well as a unit. While the line is unlikely to continue that level of play, such a performance could indicate that Mike Munchak is starting to make a difference as the offensive line coach. Munchak was known more for run blocking in the same role in Tennessee, but he is known as a detail-oriented coach. His emphasis on technique could particularly help a player such as Mike Adams who has generally failed to play up to his physical talent, but dominated on Sunday. Altogether, the line showed on Sunday an ability to work together and communicate switches that Steelers' lines have rarely demonstrated in recent years. That was more than enough against a Colts front that lacks great individual talent with Robert Mathis out for the season.
Sunday was thus a very unusual day for the Steelers. Despite his huge numbers and very solid play, Ben Roethlisberger did not carry the Pittsburgh offense on his back. Sunday's win was more about Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Mike Adams than it was about No. 7.
By the DVOA
The Steelers on Sunday had the second-best offensive performance of the season, topped only by the Broncos' demolition of the 49ers last week. Opponent adjustments end up having little impact on the Steelers' DVOA for the game (increasing it from 67.4% to 67.9%), since the Colts' defense dropped to 21st from 9th before Sunday.
The Colts followed up the second-best defensive performance of the season against the Bengals with the sixth-worst against the Steelers. On the other hand, the Indianapolis offense performed close to its season-average level. The Colts' offensive line struggled, though, so their solid DVOA mostly owes to their quarterback making great throws under heavy pressure.
Andrew Luck All Alone
Let's start with the bad from Andrew Luck. His first-quarter pick-six was a terrible throw, one that Luck has shown some propensity for making, particularly in his first two years. That was one of only three poor throws Luck made in the game, though, when he was not under heavy duress. One of the others was a ball thrown high to Hakeem Nicks on the Colts' opening drive. The last was a fourth-quarter interception that Luck forced with the Colts needing to score quickly.
Those three poor throws do very little justice to Luck's excellent, and often outstanding, play otherwise. Charting the game, I described a quarterback's play as "great" or something stronger than that eight times. On Roethlisberger's big day, Andrew Luck was actually responsible for seven of those plays.
|Roethlisberger||1||2:54||Second-and-17||PIT 44||Gain of 26||Great protection, steps up, excellent throw finds Lance Moore between defenders.|
|Luck||2||11:43||Second-and-8||PIT 21||Gain of 21 (TD)||Pressure up the middle, stays calm, Manningesque throw to Dwayne Allen.|
|Luck||2||3:48||Third-and-11||IND 19||Gain of 27||Pressure up middle, hit as he throws, incredible throw to a blanketed Hakeem Nicks.|
|Luck||2||2:15||Third-and-15||PIT 47||Gain of 14||Pressure forces him left, great run barely caught by Worilds (defensive holding call).|
|Luck||2||0:28||Second-and-6||IND 39||Gain of 39||Good protection, great throw on deep skinny post to T.Y. Hilton.|
|Luck||3||5:52||First-and-10||PIT 43||Gain of 16||Nailed as he throws, delivers a bullet to Hilton over the middle. Wow.|
|Luck||3||2:42||Third-and-5||PIT 31||Gain of 31 (TD)||Great throw between defenders down the right sideline to Donte Moncrief.|
|Luck||4||4:06||Second-and-3||PIT 45||Gain of 17||Gorgeous throw to Griff Whalen over the defender who's hitting him (holding call).|
Here is a look at the third play on the list, where the bottom part shows what Luck was facing as he threw and the top part shows the receiver and cornerback as the ball approached. Hit as he threw, Luck somehow got his throw to Nicks' outside shoulder, the only place there was room for a ball to be caught.
Equally impressive was the sixth play on the list. The right panel shows Lawrence Timmons planting Andrew Luck as he throws. Despite the hit, Luck gets his throw to Hilton in stride 15 yards downfield.
Luck certainly had more opportunities than Roethlisberger to make incredible plays, given the pressure he was under for much of the game. But few quarterbacks in the history of the game could have made all the plays Luck made in a losing cause on a day when his stats were mixed. When you factor in the running, my list has just Luck and Aaron Rodgers among current players, with not many earlier guys qualifying either. If we had a good way to correct a quarterback's numbers for teammate performances, I think the gap between Roethlisberger's and Luck's performances on Sunday is actually pretty small, even accounting for Luck's mistakes.
This Week in Passive Coaching
Last week in this space, I argued that when coaches fail to maximize their chances of winning by making wimpy decisions, we should call that strategy "passive" rather than "conservative." Passive decisions are almost always bad, from poker to diplomacy to football. Conservative decisions can be good or bad, depending on the situation. In cards/football, folding/punting is conservative and sometimes the right thing to do. Not exploiting your advantage because you're scared of the downside is passive and a good way to lose money (at cards) and games (of football).
Mike Tomlin knows passive fourth-down decision-making. Against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII on the first drive of the game, Tomlin kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the half-yard line. Ay de mi! Tomlin has actually been only a little below average in aggressiveness as a head coach, but that just makes him one passive decision-maker amongst many.
On Sunday against the Colts, Tomlin made several passive decisions that hurt his team. First, he tried to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Colts 11 halfway through the second quarter. He got bailed out by an offsides penalty in a situation where that should never happen, so the field goal came off the board and the Steelers got another touchdown.
The worst call of the day came at the end of the first half. The Steelers lined up to go for it on fourth-and-4 from the Colts' 34. Going for it would have been fine there. Kicking a field goal would have been fine there. Even a normal punt would have been better than what the Steelers did. As they love to do in that situation, the Steelers had Roethlisberger line up deeper in a shotgun intending for him to punt. The deeper drop, though, signaled the punt was coming and the film shows a Colts' coach instructing his players about that as Roethlisberger retreated. The punt block that followed helped the Colts get three extra points just before halftime.
Making the cute passive decision there was even worse than making a regular passive decision. There was little to gain by an even better punt. If Tomlin was going to go passive, he might as well have just used his punter and put the Colts on their 10, which almost surely would have ended the half. In poker lingo, Tomlin went for the loose passive decision (unexpected, weird punt) over the tight passive decision (regular, boring punt). But passive strategy is a loser even when it's unorthodox.
Film Room: Pittsburgh's Offensive Line Dominance
With a little more than 11 minutes left in the third quarter and the Steelers leading 35-20, the Steelers lined up for a third-and-8 near midfield. The play that followed exemplified the absolute control that the Pittsburgh offensive line exerted over the Indianapolis front all day.
Ben Roethlisberger has made his career on escaping trouble, creating plays when there seems to be nothing there. He has needed to do that with often indifferent line play in front of him. Sunday's game showed that Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense can take their game to an entirely different level when they make it easier on Big Ben. Roethlisberger may have more fun when he gets to leave the pocket, but keeping him safe back there only leads to better throws in the short term for the Steelers. It also increases the chances their oft-injured quarterback is at full speed when the playoffs approach.