Any Given Sunday: Jaguars Over Steelers
by Rivers McCown
There was a theme about the coverage of Monday Morning-type NFL columns this week, where the main course was "Ben Roethlisberger," the side was "five interceptions (lulz)," and the take was preheated to either 200 or 450 degrees depending on how you feel about him. It should not be surprising that we are here. Roethlisberger publicly waffled about retirement this offseason, and the best tool in his skill set, his ability to throw into the blitz, always made him a poor bet to age gracefully. I pictured his decline with more missed games than poor play, but this was squarely on the map.
Here are the concerning Roethlisberger splits over his last nine regular season games, along with the NFL average for deep passes (16+ yards in the air) vs. short passes:
|Ben Roethlisberger's Disappearing 2017 Deep Ball|
|NFL Average 2016||11.6%||29.4||53.3%||6.7|
|Big Ben 2016, Wk 1-16||3.4%||27.9||89.8%||8.8|
|Big Ben 2016, Wk 13-16||0.6%||25.8||91.9%||8.0|
|Big Ben 2017, Wk 1-4||22.7%||28.0||49.8%||8.0|
|Big Ben, Wk 5||12.8%||40.0||-142.3%||14.0|
Err wait... those seem pretty good, actually. Week 5 was obviously bad, but on the whole, the numbers on the deep ball are stellar and they didn't drop much in the first four weeks of this season.
That's an empirical evaluation rather than a comprehensive, tape-based one, yes. I can admit that. DVOA is the sum of all the parts, including a mostly well-regarded offensive line, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and so on.
I would argue that five interceptions and two pick-sixes tend to be numbers that bring the "he washed" crew out to play regardless of the actuality of the situation, though. Carson Palmer was thought to be washed after his first two bad games, but in actuality is just playing with a bad offensive line, a banged up receiving corps, and zero talent at running back with David Johnson out.
It's true that Roethlisberger's deep pass is not as good as it used to be. That he plays worse on the road. That he is not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But in and of itself, that doesn't matter most of the time. There isn't an NFL team (outside of perhaps Kansas City) that hasn't shown some sort of weakness that can be exploited by a defense. What matters is that, for the most part, the offense is still functional. Pittsburgh's offense, on an empirical level, is just fine as long as Roethlisberger stays healthy.
And yet Jacksonville destroyed them.
By the VOA
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It turns out that amassing a core of great young talent that you supplement via free agency can create a pretty amazing defense -- specifically if you happen to draft Jalen Ramsey. Who knew?
Questionable Coaching Decision of the Game
I hope there's a commenter who has something to say about Mike Tomlin.
Looking into the teeth of the No. 1 ranked pass defense by DVOA, a team that also happened to be ranked 32nd in rush defense DVOA through four weeks, Mike Tomlin called 55 passes and 20 runs. After the Steelers trailed 13-9 following the first pick-six of the game, Tomlin called 27 passes and six runs, three of which came as they were trying to end the game on purpose.
Pittsburgh's running game was hardly humming. But they also employ Bell, and small sample-size failures are no excuse for passing on two-thirds of plays against a bad run defense before the real passing began.
Jacksonville Jaguars Defense Porn
A little secret a birdie told me is that the Jaguars will rank No. 1 in defensive DVOA after this week's game. Here are some of the more NSFW statistics to bathe in from our premium charting, all through Week 4 (i.e., before they get even better):
- In 2016, the Jaguars allowed 6.1 yards per play-action pass, and were one of just three teams to allow fewer yards against play-action passes than on standard passes. Through Week 4, that number was down to 4.5 yards per play-action pass in 2017.
- After a middling 2016 pressure rate of 26.1 percent, the Jaguars lead the league in pressure rate through Week 4, at 40.4 percent. That number was 4.5 percent higher than second-place Washington. Washington was closer to 11th place than first place.
I was told we needed one more table (ranks among qualifying cornerbacks in parentheses):
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|Jalen Ramsey||7.1 (40)||56% (28)||2.7 (1)||71% (3)|
|A.J. Bouye (HOU 16)||5.4 (8)||67% (4)||8.3 (53)||52% (34)|
|Aaron Colvin||5.2 (NR)||55% (NR)||3.8 (NR)||62% (NR)|
Now the Jags are definitely benefiting empirically from being the only team lucky enough to get free rides at Tom Savage, but even considering that, it's incredible how good this defense has been. Through five weeks, they're better than the Broncos. We had guarded optimism for how good they would be in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, and we were higher on them as a team than most this offseason. I don't think anyone expected the breakout to be this big.
If this club had a real quarterback it would likely threaten the late '90s Jaguars as the best team in franchise history. Even without one, they're an AFC South threat and a unit that you never want to see a negative game script against. That's a big trump card if they make the playoffs, as the Broncos can tell you.