by Cian Fahey
Only three teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs after 13 weeks of the regular season. Each of those three teams plays in the NFC, meaning that every single AFC team still has a chance to make the playoffs. Of course, some teams who are still mathematically alive don't have a realistic chance to sneak into the wild card round. Even when you exclude those teams there is still a logjam for the final post-season berths.
The 6-6 Baltimore Ravens precariously sit in the sixth AFC seed. They are ahead of the Miami Dolphins because they defeated them earlier in the season, while there are four teams who are just one game behind and three more teams who are just two games back with 4-8 records. The playoff picture is very muddled and it could easily change as the final quarter of the season unfolds.
One of our favorites to land the sixth seed is the Pittsburgh Steelers. After a close loss to the Ravens in Baltimore on Thanksgiving, the 5-7 Steelers are one game back of the Ravens. They have the highest DVOA of any team competing for a wild card spot and their remaining schedule is easier than the Ravens' schedule, particularly since they have three of their final four games at home. To be in this position is a remarkable achievement for a team that started 0-4.
Defensively, the Steelers have continued to be inconsistent throughout the whole season. Where their real improvement has come is on the offensive side of the ball. One major reason for this is the adjustments made by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley has been a whipping boy for the media since his arrival in Pittsburgh. That is largely a result of his tumultuous time as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and his tense arrival in Pittsburgh, which was somewhat related to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's compassion for the departed Bruce Arians.
Haley's first season in Pittsburgh saw him watch over a disjointed offense. Roethlisberger appeared reluctant to adapt to Haley's offense. Mike Wallace, his number one receiver at the time, didn't report to training camp before showing some questionable effort on plays throughout the season. Starting running back Rashard Mendenhall was sidelined entering the season as he recovered from a torn ACL. He played one impressive game before head coach Mike Tomlin seemingly decided to bench him for fumbling. That started a carousel of comedy at the running back position that would have ruined any rushing attack. Haley also didn't have a fully healthy or effective group of offensive linemen to work with.
Because of his perceived character, nobody really cared to give Haley any pass for the train wreck he was trying to manage in his first season. The Steelers didn't rush to judgment on Haley and kept him for a second season. Early in the season, it appeared like it was going to be another rocky year for the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh entered the season without their starting running back, rookie Le'veon Bell, or their best tight end, Heath Miller, along with more offensive line issues and an underperforming quarterback.
The Steelers have invested high draft picks in their offensive line in recent years, and are expecting these investments to begin to pay off. Unfortunately, both Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert struggled early on as the offensive tackles. Adams was eventually benched for Kelvin Beachum, but not before Maurkice Pouncey was sidelined for the season with a major knee injury. Pouncey was injured by right guard David DeCastro. DeCastro initially struggled badly for the Steelers this season. DeCastro's struggles were partially of his own creation, but also a result of playing in an offense that simply didn't work.
Because they couldn't run the ball without Bell, the Steelers put their offense on the shoulders of Roethlisberger. At this point in his career he couldn't extend plays, especially not behind an offensive line that couldn't protect him consistently, and his downfield accuracy was leaving a lot to be desired. During the Steelers' four losses to begin the season, Roethlisberger was playing as a typical drop back passer looking to push the ball down the field to his receivers.
Not coincidentally, the Steelers' first victory of the season came when Haley adjusted the approach of his offense coming out of their Week 5 bye.
Le'veon Bell's arrival gave the Steelers a consistent running threat, so Haley shifted the focus of his offense from his quarterback onto his young running back. Instead of asking Roethlisberger to take deep drops to find receivers down the field, the offense was now built on running the ball and quick passes to wide receivers. DeCastro in particular began to flourish, while Beachum was enough of an improvement over Adams at left tackle to allow this more conservative, but much more efficient approach to work.
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The quick screens to his receivers and the shorter passes over the middle to Miller and Jerricho Cotchery have made Roethlisberger's role on gameday much simpler, even though his inaccurate passes have persisted. Because it's so tough for teams to be aggressive against this quick pass, run-heavy offense, Roethlisberger is getting hit less and is more efficient when extending plays behind the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who reportedly had big issues with how Haley was setting up the offense early in the season, has prospered to the point that he should be an All-Pro candidate.
Like many coaches or coordinators, Haley only really gets mentioned when something is going wrong, but there's no doubting that his imprint is all over the Steelers' turnaround this season. Even if they don't make the playoffs this year, there should be no question as to who will coordinate the offense next year.
In Haley's second year in Pittsburgh his offense finally has the resources to take shape. In Jacksonville, Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is in his first season with the team and has been limited in what he can do. The Jaguars offense has improved in recent weeks as they have won three of their last four games.
Fisch is a big reason for the Jaguars' late-season success. He entered the year with many issues to deal with. Although the addition of Luke Joeckel was supposed to give the offensive line two star tackles to build their offense around, the interior of the line was so bad that the unit as a whole quickly became one of the worst in the league. Blaine Gabbert missed time in the preseason before proving to be completely ineffective. Chad Henne eventually replaced him for good after Week 5 and even though Henne has his moments, he has repeatedly proven why he was a backup in the first place. Furthermore, running back Maurice Jones-Drew was still working his way back to 100 percent effectiveness and star wide receiver Justin Blackmon was suspended at the beginning of the season.
With all of those issues to overcome while installing a new offense, it's no surprise that the Jaguars had the worst offense in the NFL. However, Fisch was showing off his creativity in little ways throughout the earlier parts of the season. The design of his offense really came into focus when Blackmon returned. The young receiver only played four games before being suspended again, but during those four games with Fisch he had 415 yards and 29 receptions with one touchdown. Fisch's scheme played perfectly to Blackmon's strengths, especially during the Week 6 game against the Denver Broncos when he had 14 receptions for 190 yards.
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Even without Blackmon, Fisch has been getting the most out of his wide receivers throughout the year. Cecil Shorts has thrived regardless of his role, while Mike Brown has showed a lot of potential when he was fully healthy and being featured in the offense. Ace Sanders was shifted into the spotlight against the Cleveland Browns last weekend. He was forced into the spotlight because of Blackmon's suspension and Brown's lingering injury issues. Although he only finished the game with eight receptions for 67 yards, six of the receptions were for first downs. Sanders was regularly used in motion, once when he was motioned into the backfield on third-and-1 for a toss outside that went for a first down. He also lined up in the backfield next to the quarterback in the shotgun, as an offset fullback, as a receiver running an end-around or as a tight end behind another tight end.
Fisch's ability to create yardage through scheme has really helped his receivers and his quarterback, but maybe the most striking development has been the improvement on the offensive line. Former starting left tackle Eugene Monroe was traded earlier in the season. Joeckel was supposed to take his spot, but he was injured almost immediately thereafter. That left Fisch working with two second-choice offensive tackles and an interior that had consistently underwhelmed. Not only did the line not worsen, it has begun to improve and give much better support to Jones-Drew in the running game.
Like Haley, the Jaguars as a franchise are often misconstrued by outsiders looking in. While they lack the quarterback to elevate the offense to the next level, there is not a lack of talent in the supporting cast. If a quality quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater lands in Jacksonville, Fisch could very quickly turn the Jaguars into one of the better offenses in the NFL.
The Sean Lee Legend
Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee has become an analyst unicorn in recent years. It's hard to find an analyst who doesn't think Lee is one of the most talented players in the NFL and an elite linebacker when he is on the field. However, fans don't get to see it all that often because he has missed a lot of time during his short career so far.
Lee didn't start as a rookie in 2010, he played 14 games and registered 32 tackles. In 2011 he started 15 games and built his reputation with 105 tackles, seven pass deflections and four interceptions. After six impressive games of the 2012 season, he landed on IR because of a toe injury. Lee appeared to finally be fully healthy this year, starting the first ten games of the season, but he was sidelined by a hamstring injury during a Week 10 demolishing by the New Orleans Saints.
Because he is so regularly celebrated with all kinds of superlatives by analysts, there is a fairytale element to his reputation. Fans hear about Lee more than they see him, outside of Cowboys fans who watch every single one of his games, so he is essentially the same as what a unicorn is to small children.
Of course, the difference is that Lee exists. His existence will come to light Monday night as Lee is expected to return to action for the Cowboys against the Bears.
Lee is officially listed at 6-foot-2, 234-pounds. He has outstanding range in coverage, and has the ability to diagnose running plays quickly before aggressively perusing the ball carrier. In a sense, he is the perfect type of linebacker to have in today's pass-inclined NFL. Much like a Daryl Washington, Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman, Lee has no notable weaknesses and is an intimidating defender.
Lee has four interceptions on the season and two of those came against the Detroit Lions. One showed off great awareness and effort, but this one showed off his intelligence and quickness.
The Cowboys come out in a 4-3 base look with Lee as the furthest left-side linebacker. The Lions are in the shotgun with two receivers split wide to the right, a tight end to the left and another receiver wide to that side.
Before the snap, Matthew Stafford sends a signal to his wide receiver to motion in behind the other receiver to that side of the field. Lee looks directly at the signal that Stafford makes while he is looking into the flat, before looking to the receiver to check his positioning. Before Stafford turns his eyes back to his center, Lee has looked back towards the quarterback so he never saw Lee react to his signal.
Because of the nature of the position, all of the best inside linebackers need to be heavy tape watchers. It appears that Lee picks up the signal from Stafford and understands what the play is going to be before the ball is even snapped. The Cowboys were playing man coverage underneath with a single deep safety. Lee didn't have a receiver to cover, so he immediately looked to jump the pass to the receiver that Stafford signaled to.
Stafford never looks at Lee after the snap. In spite of that, Lee drops deeper at the snap so as to not expose the middle of the field if Stafford was trying to bait him. At the point Stafford lets the ball go, Lee is in a good position to break on the ball in front of the receiver running the slant route.
Lee gets there in plenty of time, so that he is able to comfortably catch the ball in front of his face instead of stretching out for it while falling to the ground. Lee catches the ball on the move and runs into the open space down the sideline to set his offense up at the two-yard line.
Having the ability to drop into coverage in this era is very valuable, but being quick to come up and play the run or quick passes is also vital. Lee is strong enough to get off blocks when he needs to, but primarily he reads plays quickly and uses his speed and aggression to beat blockers to their spots. This allows him to put up huge tackle numbers even when teams are putting their best weapons in space.
On this play, the Chargers have no running threat with five players lined up wide. Lee is the only linebacker lined up between the offensive tackles however, in general he must be wary of any scrambles or a quick screen to either slot. (In this situation, since Philip Rivers is a very immobile quarterback, he doesn't really have to account for a quarterback scramble.)
Rivers looks downfield at the snap, but the Chargers are running a screen to the right side of the field where Danny Woodhead is lined up in the slot. Lee isn't distracted by what Rivers or Woodhead is doing, he is reading the offensive linemen who are looking to set up the blocking for the screen play. Specifically, Lee sees the Chargers' right guard leak out into the flat very quickly. This immediately tells him that the Chargers are running a screen play to Woodhead in the slot.
Because the right guard isn't responsible for Lee, but rather the linebacker who was lined up over Woodhead in the slot initially, Lee has to beat the center who is coming from further infield. Lee gets a head start because he quickly diagnoses the play. That combined with his physical speed advantage and lack of hesitation allows him to hit Woodhead cleanly as the ball arrives for a two yard loss.
Lee's impact on the Cowboys' defense is often overblown. He won't turn the unit into an elite group simply with his presence and leadership on the field. However, he is the type of linebacker who will make those around him better and clean up for any mistakes that others make. His sheer physical talent can be overwhelming and his intelligence reading the game is on the same level as the best linebackers in the NFL.