Why Steelers are the NFL's Meme Team
NFL Wild Card - The Pittsburgh Steelers are the team to fear in the playoffs.
They are playing with house money. They aren't supposed to be here. No one believes in them. They want Ben Roethlisberger to go out a winner. They're gritty, hard-nosed overachievers who play an old-school brand of slobberknocker…
Alright, alright, I'll stop.
The Steelers are a Meme Team: a self-parody with easy-to-exaggerate strengths and weaknesses and a storyline form-fit to both familiar franchise Steel Curtain tropes and playoff mythmaking genres. If they beat the Chiefs on Sunday night, brace yourself for comparisons to every Super Bowl winner with an ancient quarterback from the 2015 Broncos all the way back to the 1970 Baltimore Colts. They're not the team to fear, unless you fear talking yourself into a bad decision based on intangibles.
But let's look past the meme for a moment. What are the Steelers really good at? And do they have a shot on Sunday?
It's obvious what they are best at: generating sacks. The Steelers rank second in adjusted sack rate. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward are magnificent. Oddly enough, the Steelers' pressure rate (26.3%, seventh in the NFL) and hurry rate (11.1%, 12th) at Pro Football Reference aren't all that superlative. But Watt gets home, and 55 sacks can be a heck of an equalizer, especially against second-tier and/or injury-plagued competition.
The Steelers also rank fifth at stopping opponent's No. 1 receivers and eighth against No. 2 receivers. Ahkello Witherspoon and (when healthy) Joe Haden have played well, and of course the pass rush has made their lives easier. The Steelers also caught the Titans without A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, the Browns in full Baker Mayfield Meltdown mode, and the Ravens in the rain with Tyler Huntley to finish the season. The Steelers secondary did not look nearly as impressive against the Bengals, Chargers, or Chiefs, which does not bode well for their playoff fortunes.
After the pass rush and the cornerback metrics comes the deluge. The Steelers run defense is so feeble that it may be distorting their data about stopping No. 1 and No. 2 receivers: the Vikings, for example, didn't need to throw downfield very often to score 36 points in Week 14. As for the offense, it takes some serious data-mining to find any real positives.
The Steelers rank 13th in both red zone and goal-to-go offensive DVOA. That's not the most impressive split in playoff history, but it's a start. The Steelers have scored touchdowns in 75% of their goal-to-go opportunities. Roethlisberger has thrown 17 red zone touchdowns to go with five non-red zone touchdowns. He has not thrown a red zone interception and has taken just four red zone sacks for a loss of 23 total yards. Big Ben's stats inside the 20 suggest he's still providing some game-management value in a high-leverage situation where raw arm strength is not all that important.
The Steelers also rank a respectable 13th in third-down passing, which is remarkable because they rank 32nd, with a horrendous -25.2% DVOA, in first-down passing. The Steelers are worse than the Giants and Panthers when passing on first down but climb into the moderately respectable range of teams like the Bengals and, um, the Saints on third downs.
Roethlisberger led all quarterbacks with 193 dropbacks and 181 attempts on third downs this season, per Sports Info Solutions, the data source for the rest of this paragraph. He finished 25th in yards per attempt (6.4) but sixth in completion rate (64.6%) and sixth in sack rate (2.2%), with just four interceptions. One of the indelible images of the 2021 season is of Roethlisberger flinging passes into the flat to convert on fourth-and-medium, but that's the meme, not the full story. Roethlisberger was at least doing some wily-savvy stuff when the Steelers needed a conversion. His habit of waddling forward in the pocket and ejecting wobblers to nowhere on some third downs earned some melancholy chuckles (the dude used to be thrilling to watch), but the celebrated Joe Burrow took many more third-down sacks (20) on fewer attempts (160). Avoiding catastrophic plays counts for something, especially when trying to manufacture wins with sacks on defense.
It's nearly impossible to stack the Steelers' relative strengths high enough to build an argument for an upset. To push them past the Chiefs, we must resort to either:
- Old Coughlin Giants-versus-Brady Patriots reasoning (pass rush FTW);
- The Chiefs Will Beat Themselves argument (which is a notch above pure contrarianism); or
The cliches may have a touch of merit—sacks can truly be an X-factor and the Chiefs do self-destruct now and then (so do the Cowboys, Bengals, Bills, and even the Buccaneers whenever they see a fleur-de-lis). But overall, the Steelers offense is only a little more capable than the memes suggest, their defense is considerably weaker than its reputation, and that Chiefs -12.5 line feels just about right.
Leaderboard of the Week: Defensive Pass Interference Penalty Yardage Gained
If the only Las Vegas Raiders games you watched live this year were their Thanksgiving victory over the Cowboys and the Week 18 Fit To Be Tied season finale against the Chargers, you might think that the Raiders can only beat a quality opponent if they draw gobs and gobs of yardage on defensive pass interference penalties.
Those probably are the only Raiders games you watched live, at least in the second half of the season. And you would not be totally wrong.
Here are the top five teams in drawing pass interference yardage this season:
(All penalty data comes from the incomparable NFLPenalties.com.)
The declined penalties are interesting because DPI is often called on completed passes, which therefore are more likely to be accurate throws, not chuck 'n' luck efforts to bait the ref. None of Derek Carr's 13 passes which drew DPI were completed. His DPIs against the Chargers were of a type that most fans hate: the underthrown or otherwise off-target heave-ho. His Cowboys DPIs were of another type that most fans hate: isolate a defender one-on-one, throw in that general direction, hope the officials feel like over-officiating.
Of course, fans hate nearly every DPI call except "receiver tackled two seconds before ball arrives." But too many fouls across the league this season looked like video game exploits, which is why the NFL needs to open up the definition of the foul and take another look under the hood.
The Raiders averaged 24.9 yards per DPI drawn, which just reinforced the impression that Carr was just tossing Powerball tickets downfield and hoping to get lucky. The league average is high, as you might expect: 16.1 yards per foul. The Raiders' average was almost 50% higher. The Raiders' DPI rates don't meet the formal definition of an outlier, but they clearly had a larger impact on individual game results than can be reasonably expected from even the sport's most game-changing penalty.
Moving down the board, good ol' Carson Wentz likes to hurl lotto balls down the field as much as Carr does. But to Wentz's credit, his receivers caught a few of them. Our savvy pal Big Ben also cracks the leaderboard, with an assist from Mason Rudolph. If you've watched much Steelers football, you know how much of their deep passing game consists of catapult launches up the sideline in search of either a highlight-reel catch or a flag. The Jets and Bears offenses relied on similar tactics to generate big plays, but neither team had Mike Tomlin coaching, T.J. Watt on defense, or Roethlisberger's creaky sensei vibes.
If we sort by total DPI penalties instead of total yardage, the leaderboard looks significantly different:
The Giants somehow averaged just 8.3 yards per DPI drawn. Only the staggering combined genius of Joe Judge, Jason Garrett and Freddie Kitchens made such wonders possible. The Patriots averaged just 10.8 yards per DPI, but they weren't ostensibly trying to run a vertical offense this year. (The Giants failed to run such an offense, of course: they averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, 29th in the NFL, with the Steelers dead last.)
If you are curious—I know I was—Patriots opponents were flagged eight times at home and five times on the road: a home-field advantage roughly on par with the league average, where home teams drew 163 DPI this year and road teams 137. The Patriots defense was flagged for nine DPIs, right around the league average. No Foxborough home cookin' in this category, at least this season.
The most interesting home-road split belonged to the Packers, who benefited from just four DPI in Lambeau but 10 on the road. This is almost certainly an officiating crew split or a quality-of-opponent split, not an "Aaron Rodgers scowls too much at home" split, though it's entertaining to pretend otherwise.
A pair of playoff teams made the bottom of the DPI yardage beneficiary list:
The Rams should have drawn lots of DPI fouls this season with Cooper Kupp and either Robert Woods or Odell Beckham constantly streaking downfield. Officiating crews may once again be playing their hand here—the Rams drew the flag-averse Bill Vinovich crew twice and the staid John Hussey, Ron Torbert, and Shawn Smith crews at other times. The Bills' low yardage total is at least explained by the four declined penalties, though they seem like another team that should have snagged about 200 DPI yards on Josh Allen moon launches.
But back to the Raiders. They did not reach the playoffs solely on DPI yards. They reached the playoffs because the Browns fielded a scout team against them, because the Broncos always settle for moral victories the moment Drew Lock enters the huddle, and because Carson is a Wentz, and also because of DPI yards. The Steelers may be the weaker playoff team according to DVOA, but it's possible to picture them sacking their way to a messy upset. The Raiders' heave-and-hope tactics are only sustainable if the referees play along.
The refs are unlikely to play along. Jerome Boger's crew will work the Raiders-Bengals game. They have called a middle-of-the-pack 18 total DPI penalties for 270 yards. Had Shawn Hochuli's Rock 'n' Roll Circus or Carl Cheffers gotten the assignment, sharp money would be on a Raiders cover/upset, while the Bengals could win by four touchdowns with Vinovich's flag in his pocket. Boger's crew has its moments of delirium, but they won't give the Raiders a DPI advantage. Which means that the Raiders will be at a severe disadvantage.
A quick programming note before we talk props and such: I won't be writing end-of-week previews during the playoffs, because they might clash and compete with Football Outsiders' official picks and previews. Instead, look for Walkthrough's preview-like material on Mondays.
I will, however, be rolling across the DraftKings board every Thursday looking for interesting wagers.
An Early Bird Special
The Raiders rank 23rd in first-quarter offensive DVOA because it takes time for the DPI machine to warm up. But the Bengals rank 29th, because it also takes a while for Joe Burrow to tune Zac Taylor out of his headset and start calling audibles. So Walkthrough is taking the first-quarter Under of 9.5 at +100. If we're lucky, we'll be ahead before we order that second Saturday late-afternoon beer!
Ice Station Under
The weather forecast for Buffalo on Saturday called for a HIGH of 10 degrees, as of Wednesday afternoon. The temperature will almost certainly be in the single digits around kickoff.
Also: Bills home games are just 3-6 at clearing the Over, while the Patriots and their opponents are just 3-5 at clearing the over on the road. So Walkthrough recommends the Under of 44.5. But of course we just lurve same-game parlays and making things harder on ourselves, so we are taking the Patriots moneyline and Under at a yummy +400. Let's go, Mac-Jones-only-throws-three-passes-and-Bills-never-adjust-their-game-plans victory!
Highest-Scoring Team of Wild-Card Weekend
The Chiefs are favorites at +350. But we like the Buccaneers at +400: their top-ranked offensive DVOA is facing the Eagles' 25th-ranked defensive DVOA. The Bucs' absences at the skill positions make this a risky play, but that's balanced here in greater Philly by the consolation value if the Eagles get whupped.
Walkthrough is traditionally a Wild-Card Weekend chalk monster: we favor almost exclusively favorites every year, give or take the occasional Patriots parlay. But there was little meat on the bone of a three-favorite moneyline parlay on Sunday: Buccaneers-Cowboys-Chiefs to all win came in at an unappetizing +135. So instead, we teased the daylights out of the dogs: Eagles, 49ers, and Steelers, all at +14.5, came in at +200. So we cash in on any Sunday upsets and/or a trio of competitive non-blowouts.
A D-gen bet? Perhaps. But most of Walkthrough's weekend action will probably come in the form of in-game wagers. Follow me on Twitter @MikeTanier if you want to watch me crow about victories or blame others for my failures. Otherwise, see you Monday morning!