Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

I don't know about you, but as the NFL gets more scrutinized and better analyzed every season, one thing I've discovered is that I am less surprised than ever. That's not to come from a place of know-it-all-ism, but a place of just being so tired of certain things that are protected by the NFL cocoon and won't change. There are a number of teams with a longstanding tradition of having some success, and where that longstanding tradition just won't progress in any meaningful way. Last week we wrote about the Packers and Mike McCarthy doing what it would take to finally get Mike McCarthy fired. This week, we're back on the team that I'd wager we've written more of these columns about than any other in my tenure: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This was not your classic Steelers meltdown for a couple of reasons. One of those is that Ben Roethlisberger played only 68 percent of the snaps after taking a hit in the second quarter, and Joshua Dobbs played some small role in the proceedings here. For the curious, here's how Roethlisberger's and Dobbs' passing splits look from a DVOA/DYAR perspective:

Name Attempts Avg. First Downs Turnovers DVOA
Roethlisberger 30 9.20 17 0 71.0%
Dobbs 11 3.55 3 1 -104.3%

I'm beginning to understand that Joshua Dobbs is not a franchise savior. Mason Rudolph is the long-term prospect Steelers fans should want to see more of, but for now, we got Dobbs.

The Raiders didn't have a whole lot going for them offensively for most of the game. Derek Carr's final stats look pretty, but 141 of his 322 passing yards came on the last two drives. Yes, you're not going to believe this, but the Steelers gave up some big plays on defense in the second half of a game they were winning at halftime. The surprising thing to me was, tossing out the typical Carr underneath throws, he actually hit a couple of nice deep passes:

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Out of a bunch on second-and-6, the Raiders get Steelers defender L.J. Fort matched up against outside receiver Marcell Ateman. Fort is a linebacker, and he's playing inside leverage with a single-high safety against an outside route. It still required a pretty drop in the bucket, which Carr provided.

via Gfycat

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Here's the throw to Seth Roberts that got the Raiders in goal-to-go in the closing minutes of the game. This ball was dropped right in the bucket. You can argue that the safety on the right side (Terrell Edmunds) should have read this earlier and gotten more depth, but otherwise, it's just a real pretty throw and a great look-off of the first safety by Carr. Nothing Morgan Burnett could really do about it.

The Raiders got their go-ahead touchdown on a pick play to Derek Carrier. Of course they did:

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Poor communication by the secondary.

But you knew that was coming, right? There's no need to belabor this at this point. The Mike Tomlin Steelers are what they are: a team that is always a risk to play down to their competition and that doesn't correct mistakes on the back end. Come January, they'll be dangerous again because of their top-end talent, and if they exit, it will be because they don't have a good secondary and don't make real investments in fixing it.

And none of this should be surprising.

Where the Game Swung

Quarter Time Down To Go YdLine Play GWC Pre GWC After Swing
4 4:32 1 10 OAK 44 (4:32) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short right to 38-J.Samuels to OAK 21 for 23 yards (25-E.Harris). 43.4% 32.2% -11.2%
4 1:59 1 10 PIT 46 (1:59) (Shotgun) 4-D.Carr pass deep middle to 10-S.Roberts to PIT 7 for 39 yards (34-Te.Edmunds). 34.4% 61.8% +27.4%
4 0:34 2 6 PIT 6 (:34) (Shotgun) 4-D.Carr pass incomplete short right [28-M.Hilton]. 62.6% 50.8% -11.8%
4 0:30 3 6 PIT 6 (:30) (Shotgun) 4-D.Carr pass incomplete short left to 87-J.Cook (42-M.Burnett). 50.8% 34.5% -16.3%
4 0:25 4 6 PIT 6 (:25) (Shotgun) 4-D.Carr pass short left to 85-D.Carrier for 6 yards, TOUCHDOWN. OAK-76-J.Feliciano was injured during the play. His return is Questionable. 34.5% 97.6% +63.1%
4 0:15 1 10 PIT 30 (:15) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short left to 13-J.Washington to PIT 35 for 5 yards. Lateral to 19-J.Smith-Schuster ran ob at OAK 22 for 43 yards (42-K.Joseph). 98.3% 48.5% -49.8%
4 0:05 1 10 OAK 22 (:05) 9-C.Boswell 40 yard field goal is No Good, Center-57-K.Canaday, Holder-4-J.Berry. 48.5% 100.0% +51.5%

Well, clearly the answer is "late." It got lost in Chris Boswell's big miss at the end of the game (as well as the big finish in Miami), but the play to lateral from James Washington to JuJu Smith-Schuster was absolutely awesome:

via Gfycat

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That's the kind of well-designed play that should keep you out of this column, but alas...

By the DVOA

PIT -4.7% 7.2% -15.2% -27.1%
OAK 7.0% 0.0% -0.2% 6.8%
PIT 13.4% 5.0% -15.2% -6.8%
OAK 4.2% 4.6% -0.2% -0.6%

You know, one way to have a -15.2% special teams DVOA is to miss two field goals. Literally the difference in the game and it turns out that this is a big idea in DVOA's eyes as well. Go figure.

It really says a lot about how DVOA works that it crushes Pittsburgh so bad for their offensive performance here. Keep in mind that the Raiders had only kept two other opponents under 100 rushing yards all season. Between Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley, Pittsburgh couldn't even get to 50 with a favorable game script.

Let's Begrudgingly Talk About What Jon Gruden has Done

It's very easy to turn Jon Gruden into a punchline. The Raiders are 3-10. Khalil Mack is having an All-Pro season in Chicago. Amari Cooper is having an All-Pro month in Dallas, having turned that entire division around for the Cowboys. General Manager Reggie McKenzie got sacked after this win. The Jack Del Rio Raiders that went 12-4 and seemed like they'd have a long-term chance to be a part of the playoff picture were redistributed around the rest of the NFL for draft picks. Well, the offensive line wasn't, but it would've been if the picks were available.

Here's the part of the bit where you're supposed to say something like "But Gruden actually..." and I'm going to be honest, I'm struggling to tell you what Gruden has done that's been good for Oakland. But, that's also partially because nothing he has done so far has yielded much in the way of short-term returns.

In the fifth round of the draft, Gruden found Michigan's Maurice Hurst, who led our Midseason Top Prospects list. That was a pick that most teams should have made, since Hurst looked awesome in college and was only dinged because of a heart condition, but that Gruden gets credit for. Hurst could be a force for the Raiders in the middle, and he's having a nice little rookie season. That's about all of the new youth that's been worth talking about.

The Raiders are 10th in pressure rate allowed (subscription required), but Carr has taken 39 sacks and the Raiders are 27th in adjusted sack rate allowed. That speaks to the tutelage that Tom Cable has been providing first-round pick Kolton Miller and third-round pick Brandon Parker, who have both had disastrous rookie seasons. It also speaks to Gruden's offensive mindset that he can't figure out how to fix Carr to better utilize the cannon arm that was supposed to be his calling card. The Raiders run an incredibly easy offense for Carr. His time to throw averages are one of the five fastest in the NFL, and he has the lowest intended air yards of any qualifying NFL quarterback on the NFL's Next Gen Stats page. Ateman's speed might give him more of an excuse to dial up the deep ball, at least until defenses realize they have to play him honest, in which case he will cease to exist in this offense just like Cooper did. But, for the balance of the season, Carr has become rookie-year Carr: a checkdown artist in search of a real offense.

In the end, what is happening in Oakland is interesting to me because it's a rebuild that will never be called a rebuild out loud. It's all about the positioning. You get too close to Sashi Brown and start trading for draft picks and all of the sudden you're the analytics franchise that anonymous scouts have hilarious quotes for. Gruden pulls moves that even the Browns would never do -- nobody traded Joe Thomas -- and the Raiders can't be accused of tanking because they employ Lee Smith and Carrier, and they genuinely want wins like this, and start some scrapheap veterans rather than rookies in a lost season.

I don't know what the plan is for Carr -- I would imagine in Gruden's head it goes something like "run the ball a lot and the throws will be easier" -- but these Raiders have declined in offensive DVOA, defensive DVOA, and special teams DVOA under Gruden. All the hope is in the future. The defense that was never much more than Mack to begin with is going to need help at edge rusher, at cornerback, and at linebacker. None of what we've seen from the Raiders institutionally should give us much hope that they can help develop younger players, so they're going to need to be pure hits on talent.

I think what annoys me the most about the Jon Gruden era is that I've been looking for reasons to go against my first instinct for 14 weeks and haven't seen many of them. There's the occasional hopeful bit about how a good power running scheme can be a boon against the right team. But otherwise, it's all a blank check to a front row seat to watch one man's hubris interact with something that evolved past him a long time ago.

Sometimes there's a reason to want change -- as I'm sure Steelers fans can empathize with -- but sometimes when you oust the adequate, you wind up with whatever this Raiders team is. Somehow you wind up rebuilding and also starting 30-year-old Marcus Gilchrist. It is a team designed to create "what if?" scenarios about the 2016 Raiders for the foreseeable future, because that's a lot more fun than talking about the actual product that's on the field.


13 comments, Last at 13 Dec 2018, 10:58am

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

" Come January, they'll be dangerous again because of their top-end talent, and if they exit, it will be because they don't have a good secondary and don't make real investments in fixing it. "

How will they be dangerous while they're out playing golf?

They're going into week 17 at 7-7-1 and needing lots of help.

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

"Amari Cooper is having an All-Pro month in Dallas, having turned that entire division around for the Cowboys."

It's as much the defense that has done that.

Anyway, when discussing this game it should be mentioned that Roethlisberger could've gone into the game before he did, but Tomlin declined to insert for reasons that are mysterious. I think this loss is on Tomlin and leaving keeping Dobbs in over Roethlisberger is one of the worst coaching decisions I can remember. It's not like the Steelers are in a safe playoff position and didn't need this win. It was a critical game, especially since they are significant underdogs in their next two games.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

I would love to know more as to why Tomlin left Dobbs in, but it's easy to envision solid logic for leaving him out.

Roethlisberger was hurt, but clearly could play. You could look at the opponent and figure, "Well, the Raiders are bad enough to where a not-100% Roethlisberger doesn't increase our odds enough to offset the chance of him getting injured even worse if we bring him in." Then, when Dobbs was clearly so bad in a sample that got large enough, the calculation changed; it was now more beneficial to play Roethilsberger than to keep him from getting hurt more.

The worst part of the decision is that Tomlin thought Dobbs gave them a good enough chance to win, but that's hardly one of the worst decisions ever. Several teams have totally misjudged the quality of their quarterbacks this year alone (Bills, Jaguars, arguably the Ravens, Giants, Dolphins, Buccaneers...).

You saw Matt Nagy do this with Trubisky recently. There were some reports that Trubisky could have played at the Lions and Giants, but Nagy decided that risk of further injury / his injury not healing didn't offset the improved chances of them winning those games. And ultimately, it paid off once (they beat the Lions) and bit them in the ass once (lost to the Giants). Trubisky might still not be at 100%, but he played against the Rams, because the benefits from playing him outweighed the risks.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

in the post game presser Tomlin said he didn't want to disrupt the rhythm and flow of the game or something along those lines - whatever it may mean. Dobbs sucked, but Tomlin chose to keep Ben out. Ben said he was just waiting for Tomlin to put him back in... which happened too late. Ben probably played injured with some pain medication, but even then, Ben is a veteran and always plays through the pain - let him decide to go in or not. He is plan A. Not Dobbs. This was not the game to give Dobbs a workout.
Boneheaded decisions like these, that along with running the wheels off of your runningbacks don't make Tomlin popular among Pittsburgh fans. But I guess we're spoiled. And being spoiled means you have to endure this.

Tomlin also didn't call time out at the end when the Raiders were about to score, and were bleeding the clock. It's too bad Rivers McCown doesn't comment on this, because it's another game-deciding factor that Tomlin is oblivious is about. He just doesn't understand the concept of time management and it's not so much that he doesn't want to learn or doesn't want to change - it's that he's oblivious to the fact that it is costing them games. Without knowing it's broken, you're not going to fix it.

If you watch his post-game and monday press conferences you will see that the man has seriously no idea of in-game management. For the record, I don't sit through them anymore, as they are always the same word salads.

If Tomlin's windshield is broken and he can't see through it, he will get a bucket with soap to wash it. Because that's what he has always done when he couldn't see through it.

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

"This was not your classic Steelers meltdown for a couple of reasons. "

The meltdown as such may not have been classic, but the 'play down to the level of the opposition' part is as classic as a '56 Chevy.

Was wr

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

Mack is a great player. The defense sucked with him last year. Taking an additional $20M +/- off the cap annually to pay him would not be likely to make the defense any better. I personally think the single biggest problem is there is a huge chunk of the cap invested in the Oline which (because of injuries/bad play/bad coaching) has not come close to having positive ROI. The two rookie tackles look promising, though.
I hated the Gruden signing because he never impressed me as having anything but a big mouth. But to me he is far and away from being the reason they are where they other.
Now Tomlin on the other hand...

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

The Mack trade I can never be reconciled with. The defense could afford Reggie Nelson, Derek Johnson and Marcus Gilchrist but not Mack? With a $10m bump in the Cap coming through each year? You just don't make that trade and it will never provide value unless we get Mack + CWood with the picks. Also - given all the young talent that is flashing signs (if not consistently, and certainly some of them need to get bigger this offseason) - Hurst, Hall, Key, Conley, Worley, Lee (and none of the other defensive players are likely to be here next year) we haven't actually got a lot of expensive players - Ellis maybe, - and look at the impact he made in his first game this yr vs the Steelers Running game. So you can easily allocate a large chunk of your defense budget to a Hall of Famer. He just makes everyone around him that much better and all the D would have got better quicker this year.

Agree on the O-line - we have a lot of money invested in guards (thats on Reggie, not Gruden) - they are good guards, but they are beaten up (as is Feliciano) and this wasn't the rookie tackle plan (start Parker AND a hobbled Miller). Marshawn of course was out by midseason. With Carr running for his life again, he couldnt get confident in the new offense and by the time he did, his starting RB & most of the WR corps were gone/injured. His top WR targets in recent weeks included LaFell and Ateman. Its a shame Coop wasn't clicking in Oakland any more, but something wasn't right and he seems a different person in Dallas - as shown by his new off-the-field personality. So a 1st for that is fine given he'd have held out next year.

Now what Gruden has done is put together a team that hasn't quit despite everything. The thing about all the old players is they are on short deals that cost us little, but we had a look and they helped out while we coached the youngsters up so that we could actually be competitive with 2 of the AFC division leaders in the past fortnight. We didnt just lose 52-0 to the Chiefs like we did to the Rams in 2014 & we just beat the Steelers. That means something. There is plenty that needs to be put right, but I don't think its hopeless right now. Carr is looking more like his old self and I can see a healthy Miller being a decent LT next year (as he looks in his more healthier games this season). Parker needs more work but perhaps Penn or some other RT can be rented for competition. We'll have to hit on DE at pick #3 or thereabouts, bulk the rookies up and address LB/S in free agency/draft. I see at least one first going on WR, and the other on the back 7 defense. Conley/Worley are fine as a pair of young CBs. Sign LeVeon Bell - there's a ton of cap room. They aren't a million miles away. They competed well in the first month and the last fortnight. They'll beat the Bengals on Sunday. None of that makes up for Mack going in the HoF in a Bears jersey but just got to look ahead.

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

Again, I am not familiar with their cap situation, but to read your post, that they have tons of cap room, and can thus sign Bell next year, while Mack now creates match-up nightmares for the Bears, well, that pretty much sums up what kind of mushrooms they are eating in their omelettes at Raiders Headquarters.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

excellent win. shows Raiders have what ti takes to beat good temas. just need to add a few pieces here and there ./ R. McKenzie made soem good moves btu team will be fine without him. wil read this article later. could only just skim ti right now

11 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

Always a risk of having to eat my words later, but at this point, as a Broncos fan and proud Raider hater of several decades standing I smile every time I see Gruden these days.

12 Re: Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Steelers

maybe Tomlin is fed up with Ben's "i'm going out with injuries but i'm coming back into the game later" routine and decided to let him know that he needs to actually stay tough and play through injuries if he wants to be in the game. this is not the first time Roethlisberger has left with an injury and come back later just fine, and honestly i can't think of another QB who leaves the game and comes back as much as he does. not that his actual injuries aren't injuries, it's just a little strange how much he leaves and comes back seemingly unaffected. i seem to recall him leaving and coming back twice in one game before. might've even been three times, cause i seem to remember being particularly annoyed at how much he was hamming it up.