Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

by Andrew Healy and Scott Kacsmar

Saturday's wild card games bring us something new and something old. The NFC game gives us the first-ever playoff broadcast on ESPN, featuring only the second playoff appearance by a team with a losing record in a non-strike season and only the fourth playoff appearance by the Arizona Cardinals since they moved to the desert in 1988. The AFC game gives us Baltimore and Pittsburgh for what seems like the nine zillionth time, switched up for the new year with a special "no pass defense" allowed edition.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 80 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for anything specifically noted.

Arizona at Carolina

by Andrew Healy



Cardinals on Offense
ARI OFF CAR DEF
DVOA -9.3% (23) -1.6% (15)
WEI DVOA -10.6% (24) -8.7% (9)
PASS 8.3% (18) 0.2% (9)
RUSH -19.4% (30) -4.0% (22)
RED ZONE -35.0% (30) 21.2% (31)


Panthers on Offense
CAR OFF ARI DEF
DVOA -5.0% (20) -5.5% (7)
WEI DVOA -7.4% (20) -5.9% (14)
PASS 4.1% (23) 3.2% (14)
RUSH -6.0% (17) 17.5% (7)
RED ZONE -14.2% (20) -9.6% (12)


Special Teams
ARI CAR
DVOA -2.2% (21) -5.5% (30)
ARI kickoff +2.0 (13) +2.3 (9)
CAR kickoff -6.2 (30) -2.2 (20)
ARI punts -9.6 (30) -4.1 (22)
CAR punts +3.0 (11) -23.1 (32)
FG/XP 0.0 (16) -0.3 (18)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Monday Night Football used to open with Frank Gifford waxing all poetic about the teams before two giant helmets got static electricity and smashed into each other. Since there weren't actual human heads in those helmets facing concussion risk, it was fun. It was awesome when it was an important matchup between two great teams. But it was kind of even better when both teams sucked. Here's how the intro for Saturday's wild card game between the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers -- perhaps the worst pair of teams to face each other in NFL playoff history -- would go if ESPN was still using that old Monday Night Football open, although we will need to imagine an improved, analytics-aware version of Gifford to make this work.

ANALYTICS-AWARE GIFFORD: For the first time in NFL history, two teams in the bottom third of the league meet up in the playoffs. Going back to the day Chuck Bednarik almost killed me, no teams this lousy have ever met in the playoffs.

(Musical transition No. 1)

ANALYTICS-AWARE GIFFORD: The Carolina Panthers started the year 3-8-1. For the year, they went 3-6-1 outside the NFC South. Since 1989, the Panthers are just the fifth team ranked 25th or worse in DVOA to make the playoffs. But don't count the Panthers out. Three of those other four teams won their first playoff game.

(Musical transition No. 2)

ANALYTICS-AWARE GIFFORD: The Arizona Cardinals might be even worse than the Panthers. They rank 22nd in DVOA for the season, but most of that was with at least competent quarterback play. This week, Ryan Lindley leads the Cardinals into Carolina. But the last time a quarterback this bad started a playoff game he won, so the Cardinals have to like their chances.

(Helmets go electric and rear back)

ANALYTICS-AWARE GIFFORD: NFC non-powers collide in Carolina on wild-card weekend!

(Boom!)

Playoff Matchups Featuring Two Teams Outside the Top 40% of the League by DVOA, 1960-2013
Year Team 1 Total DVOA Rk Team 2 Total DVOA Rk Result Comb Rk
2004 Atlanta Falcons -4.9% 17 St. Louis Rams -27.3% 31 ATL 47-17 48
2014 Carolina Panthers -8.9% 25 Arizona Cardinals -6.0% 22 -- 47
2004 St. Louis Rams -27.3% 31 Seattle Seahawks -2.9% 15 STL 27-20 46
2010 Chicago Bears 2.5% 14 Seattle Seahawks -22.9% 30 CHI 35-24 44
2000 Minnesota Vikings -6.3% 22 New Orleans Saints -0.9% 19 MIN 34-16 41
1989 Pittsburgh Steelers -8.7% 18 Houston Oilers -11.8% 20 PIT 26-23 38
2008 Arizona Cardinals -5.1% 21 Atlanta Falcons 4.8% 16 ARI 30-24 37
1995 Indianapolis Colts -9.8% 23 San Diego Chargers 4.8% 12 IND 35-20 35
1990 Cincinnati Bengals -12.3% 21 Houston Oilers 10.1% 12 CIN 41-14 33
1996 Jacksonville Jaguars -0.2% 17 Buffalo Bills 2.4% 15 JAC 30-27 32
1997 Minnesota Vikings -4.5% 19 New York Giants 3.1% 13 MIN 23-22 32
2003 Carolina Panthers 0.7% 16 St. Louis Rams 1.3% 14 CAR 29-23 30
1999 Miami Dolphins 6.7% 16 Seattle Seahawks 8.6% 13 MIA 20-17 29
2002 Pittsburgh Steelers 6.8% 13 Cleveland Browns 1.6% 15 PIT 36-33 28
1995 Buffalo Bills 0.2% 14 Miami Dolphins 1.0% 13 BUF 37-22 27
1982 Green Bay Packers 0.9% 13 St. Louis Cardinals -7.4% 20 GB 41-16 33
1986 New York Jets 0.9% 14 Kansas City Chiefs -6.8% 18 NYJ 35-15 32
1979 Los Angeles Rams 0.7% 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5.0% 19 LARM 9-0 32
1970 Baltimore Colts -3.3% 15 Cincinnati Bengals 4.6% 11 BALC 17-0 26
(Note: 1960-1988 DVOA courtesy of historical DVOA estimates by Andreas Shepard.)

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Ryan Lindley. Ryan Lindley. Ryan Lindley

It's tempting to think that nothing else matters. Yes, he is bad. But dismissing the Cardinals offense just because of that misses how interesting their philosophy is. The Cardinals attack with super-deep, long-bomb passes much more than any other team in football. Over the course of the year, the Cardinals were a little more than twice as likely to throw passes more than 35 yards downfield than the rest of the league. Arizona took deep shots on 6.4 percent of their pass plays, relative to a league average of 3.1 percent. The second-ranked team (Washington) was closer to 16th than to Arizona. And the Cardinals' offense depends on those deep passes. Wins against the Eagles and Rams turned on successful deep throws. Without those deep passes, the Cardinals have little chance of moving the ball. With a quarterback who is particularly unlikely to move the ball slowly downfield with precision passing, the Cardinals' high-variance deep-passing strategy would usually make even more sense with Lindley than it did with Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton.

But if the Cardinals stick with their deep-passing ways, it may be against the wrong defense. That strategy would also be a big departure from what the Panthers saw this season. Opponents threw more than 35 yards downfield on just 1.8 percent of their pass plays against the Panthers. Only Chicago faced a smaller share of deep passes. This propensity to force short throws comes from the Panthers' defensive strength. Despite a coalescing secondary that has improved through personnel changes over the course of the season, the Panthers' defensive strength is still in their front seven, even without the exiled Greg Hardy. Teams have succeeded by throwing short passes against the Panthers that negate the impact of their pass rush. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, teams have fared worse against the Panthers with the deep pass.

Turnovers are the key difference for Carolina's defense on short versus long passes. The Panthers allow similar yardage per attempt as the rest of the league on both short and deep throws. But while they have intercepted passes at a lower rate (0.93 percent) than other teams (1.57 percent) on throws traveling 15 yards through the air or less, the Panthers have intercepted throws longer than that at a higher rate (12.5 percent) than any other team in the NFL. With Carolina's secondary improved and their pass rush potentially reinvigorated, the Cardinals' deep-throwing tendency matches up particularly poorly against the Panthers.

Arizona’s chances of moving the ball on the ground don’t look particularly good, either, at first glance. The Cardinals ranked 30th in rushing DVOA for the season. Even before Andre Ellington got hurt, he was averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Stepfan Taylor has stepped in and changed nothing; he also averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Things have been a little different with the introduction of Kerwynn Williams, the all-time leader in rushing yards from the WAC who was activated from the practice squad less than a month ago. In the last four games of the year, Kerwynn Williams stepped in and averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 53 attempts. Williams’ explosiveness makes him closer to Ellington in style than Taylor. The Cardinals’ two best days of the year running the ball came in Williams’ first two games against the Chiefs and Rams in Weeks 14 and 15. The latter of those games was against the fourth-best rushing defense in football by DVOA.

But in the last two games when Ryan Lindley has gotten the start, the running game has failed to gain 100 yards. Those games were against two top-ten rushing defenses, though, and while the Cardinals gained just 29 yards on the ground against the Seahawks in Week 16, they did get 98 and 67 from Williams against the 49ers. The Panthers’ run defense is just 21st, so if Lindley can provide enough of a distraction that the Panthers cannot crowd the line of scrimmage, Williams could give the Cardinals a way to consistently move the ball. That is, however, a pretty big if.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

The Panthers' offense has a brighter outlook than the Cardinals' offense, but it's still not particularly rosy. Arizona's good defense is stronger against the run (seventh by DVOA) than the pass (14th). Carolina is not well positioned to take advantage of Arizona's average passing defense. The Panthers' below-average offense is ranked higher at running (17th) than at passing (23rd).

On both sides of the ball, Arizona is the more interesting team strategically in this matchup. I wrote earlier about their unusual, and effective, tendency to use the big blitz to protect leads. They blitzed Philip Rivers relentlessly at the end of the Week 1 matchup against the Chargers and repeated the strategy against Nick Foles in Week 8 against the Eagles. The strategy worked both times, albeit barely in the latter case. The Cardinals have consistently utilized big blitzes and the threat of big blitzes to protect leads, so the frequent failures of teams to be ready for those tactics are hard to understand.

Not only should the Panthers prepare for those late-game blitzes, they should be ready for the Cardinals to do what few teams do: generally blitz more often when ahead than when behind. The Cardinals send big blitzes (six or more pass rushers) on 16.9 percent of pass plays when they are ahead and on just 13.9 percent of pass plays when they are behind or tied.* That 3.0 percent gap in favor of big blitzing more when in the lead is the biggest in the NFL. Other teams, on average, are 1.6 percent less likely to big blitz when ahead than when behind. The Cardinals' surprising strategy of attacking when other teams usually sit back fits with the results that they have gotten from their blitzes. Arizona has given up 4.86 yards on pass plays when blitzing while ahead, and 9.53 yards on their blitzes while behind or tied.

Sunday's matchup may require Todd Bowles to innovate in different ways. Blitzing has not been particularly effective against Cam Newton. On passing plays, the Panthers have averaged 0.1 more yards when blitzed; they have given up sacks and interceptions at almost the same rate regardless of whether the opposing defense blitzes. Across the rest of the league, offenses gain about 0.2 fewer yards per play when blitzed and surrender substantially more sacks (7.7 percent versus the blitz and 5.7 percent otherwise).

Note that, at least in his division games, Bowles has not seemed to adjust to different quarterbacks and their ability against the blitz. Russell Wilson, for example, averaged a full yard more per pass play against the blitz. Despite the blitz's ineffectiveness against Wilson, Bowles was actually more likely to use it, blitzing 57 percent of the time. Given Carolina's difficulty moving the ball, Bowles might want to blitz a little less to reduce the chance of the big play, in addition to the blitz being less effective against Newton than other quarterbacks. Bowles' history against Wilson, however, suggests the Cardinals are not likely to make this kind of adjustment, instead continuing to bring the heat.

SPECIAL TEAMS

If Arizona is going to steal a touchdown to compensate for their offensive Lindleyness, they might be able to exploit Carolina in the punt return game. Carolina has the third-worst special teams overall, and they are even worse at punting. The Panthers rank next-to-last in net punting average and dead last in average punt return allowed, giving up three full yards more per return than any other team. While Arizona is slightly below-average (21st) on special teams, they are good on punt returns. Ted Ginn's chances of breaking a long return will never be higher than they are against Carolina.

OUTLOOK

The Panthers and Cardinals have traced very different paths to get to this game. Arizona started 9-1 and then lost four of its final six. Carolina started 3-8-1 and then won four straight.

Arizona’s finish brings back memories of the Joe Walton-led 1986 Jets, who finished 10-6 after a 10-1 start. Those Jets lost each of their last four games by at least 14 points and they lost the five games by an average of 24.4 points. Despite staggering into the playoffs like no team has before or since, the Jets promptly won their first game and came within a Mark Gastineau roughing-the-passer penalty of likely making the AFC Championship Game. If ever there was case study for momentum across games being garbage, the 1986 Jets would be it.

As I wrote about in Any Given Sunday earlier this week, for mediocre playoff teams, total DVOA does a significantly better job predicting their future success than does weighted DVOA, which puts higher weight on what happens later in the season. That suggests that the Cardinals should still be thought of as being the better team here. It is easy to forget that the Panthers were pretty bad over the course of the entire season when they looked so dominant against New Orleans and Atlanta in recent weeks. But in general, the bigger sample of the whole season is more informative.

On the other hand... Ryan Lindley, home-field advantage, and then for extra added emphasis, Ryan Lindley. The 6.5-point line is a little high for a team of Carolina’s caliber facing perhaps football’s best coaching staff, but the Panthers are rightly favored.

Baltimore at Pittsburgh

by Scott Kacsmar



Ravens on Offense
BAL OFF PIT DEF
DVOA 9.7% (9) 11.3% (30)
WEI DVOA 6.4% (8) 8.2% (27)
PASS 32.6% (6) 24.9% (30)
RUSH -6.0% (18) -7.4% (17)
RED ZONE -15.0% (22) 8.9% (27)


Steelers on Offense
PIT OFF BAL DEF
DVOA 22.5% (2) -4.6% (8)
WEI DVOA 21.9% (2) -6.1% (13)
PASS 47.9% (1) 5.9% (15)
RUSH -2.9% (12) -19.3% (5)
RED ZONE -3.6% (16) -42.4% (1)


Special Teams
BAL PIT
DVOA 8.0% (2) 0.9% (12)
BAL kickoff +8.3 (4) -4.6 (26)
PIT kickoff +10.2 (3) -2.6 (22)
BAL punts +17.9 (1) +5.8 (9)
PIT punts -1.9 (14) +3.3 (10)
FG/XP +5.3 (7) +2.5 (10)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game. The week-to-week graphs below highlight the first two 2014 meetings between these teams in a different color.

These two teams in prime time again? This is the fourth playoff meeting between the division rivals since 2001, making this the most common NFL matchup of the 21st century. Incredibly, Saturday night will be the 10th prime-time meeting between John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin since 2008 and the fourth since Thanksgiving 2013. The NFL cannot seem to get enough of this rivalry, which from 2008-2013 saw 10 of the 14 contests decided by no more than three points.

But this year the teams split, with the home team winning by 20 points in games that were largely decided before the fourth quarter. Ben Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh offense to six points on a Thursday night in Baltimore in Week 2 before throwing six touchdown passes in Week 9. We should get something more competitive this time around even though Le'veon Bell will not play after hyperextending his knee on Sunday night.

Since 1990, the No. 3 seed is 30-18 (.625) against the No. 6 seed, with both of the lower seeds advancing last season (New Orleans and San Diego). This is the 64th time since 1970 that division rivals meet for a third game in the postseason. The team with home-field advantage is 40-23 (.635).

Harbaugh has never gone one-and-done in the playoffs (5-0 in opening games), while Tomlin has twice lost in the first round (2007 and 2011 seasons). However, Baltimore's success was built on dominant defensive performances, allowing just 52 points in those five games. The year, the Steelers pose a far bigger threat offensively after setting a franchise record with 436 points scored. Not to get stuck in a #QBWINZ rabbit hole, but Roethlisberger is 8-4 against Joe Flacco. This is noteworthy because of how often Roethlisberger has missed games against Baltimore in his career. Flacco is 3-1 against the Steelers when Pittsburgh is forced to start a backup. Despite the defensive reputations these teams have had, this year both offenses rank in the top eight in yards per drive and points per drive, so this could be a very offensive matchup.

Baltimore has been consistent this year, ranking fourth in DVOA variance, but they can lay claim to being one of the most perplexing top-five teams in DVOA in years. While some of the numbers look very nice, everyone knows that a schedule loaded with both South divisions significantly helped the AFC North get three teams in the playoffs. Baltimore played the 30th-ranked schedule, compared to 29th for Pittsburgh. What exactly was Baltimore's signature win this year? Well, it was probably the 26-6 win over Pittsburgh way back in Week 2. The Ravens were swept by the Bengals, blown out in Pittsburgh, lost an ugly game in Indianapolis, blew multiple leads at home to San Diego, and despite playing for their playoff lives, sort of went through the motions the last three weeks against Jacksonville, Houston and Cleveland. Baltimore's 1-6 record against teams with a winning record is the worst among this year's playoff field.

Pittsburgh flipped the script this year with its best offense (No. 2) and worst defense (No. 30) in the DVOA era. Roethlisberger made MVP headlines at the midpoint of the season by becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw six touchdowns in consecutive games, doing so against the Colts and Ravens. He also led the league in DYAR and tied with Drew Brees for the most passing yards (4,952). The Steelers swept the Bengals as part of a four-game winning streak to clinch the AFC North. Yes, they still played down to the competition with losses to Tampa Bay and the Jets, but Pittsburgh's 6-1 record against teams with a winning record was the best in 2014. The Steelers were also a league-best 7-1 in close games involving a game-winning drive opportunity.

One of my favorite obscure NFL records: the Steelers have scored at least 20 points in 16 consecutive playoff games, the longest streak in history. That includes all 14 starts in the Roethlisberger era. The next best streak is 12 games by Dallas (1992-96).

These teams have so much history that finding new wrinkles could be difficult. Bell's health is the dominant story, and his absence makes it even more important for the Steelers to take advantage of this week's crucial matchup: Roethlisberger's receivers against a suspect Baltimore secondary.

WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL

While both teams bring a multi-dimensional attack, only the Ravens have a healthy workhorse back after Justin Forsett's breakout season under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Some may be surprised to see Baltimore only rank 18th in rushing DVOA, but that's partly because Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro (now on injured reserve) were not as effective as Forsett, who averaged 5.39 yards per carry. That kind of high average can be the product of a boom-or-bust attack, for which Baltimore fits the statistical profile. The Ravens are 26th in Stuff Rate and first in Open Field Yards. Forsett ranked 12th in DVOA and 30th in Success Rate. Only Jerick McKinnon (34th) and Ronnie Hillman (31st) had a lower Success Rate among the top 30 backs in rushing DYAR this season. Baltimore ranks first in Adjusted Line Yards when rushing off right tackle, which it does 24 percent of the time compared to a league average of 13 percent. Pittsburgh's defense is most vulnerable to runs off right tackle, ranking 29th.

So this running game has big-play ability and understands its strengths well, but the Ravens are unlikely to dominate Pittsburgh on the ground. Forsett can ease Joe Flacco's job on Saturday night, but the best way to attack Pittsburgh is still through the air against the 30th-ranked pass defense. The Steelers rank 29th against deep passes (ones that travel 16-plus yards), which have often been a tool in Flacco's arsenal. Flacco is almost never in a position to have a big game against Pittsburgh like he is this week. This season he set career-highs in passing yards (3,986) and touchdowns (27) with a career-low 3.3 percent sack rate.

For this offense, seeing the Pittsburgh defense in person is like taking a tour through Jurassic Park. You might even see attractions like Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu this week after the two have missed several weeks with injuries. But nothing symbolizes prehistoric dinosaur in the NFL better than defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers even brought James Harrison and Brett Keisel back from the dead this year. Both actually played well, though Keisel is on now injured reserve. Harrison sacked Flacco twice in Week 9 as part of Pittsburgh's four sacks, tying a season worst for Baltimore, which better hope left tackle Eugene Monroe (foot injury) can play this week. The other time Baltimore allowed four sacks came on the road in Indianapolis, and Monroe was out that day. Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds are Pittsburgh's best younger players in the front seven, and both need to put pressure on Flacco.

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We can give you plenty of statistics that make this particular Pittsburgh defense look bad, but Flacco still has to expose this scheme, which he has rarely done in his career. Even in both games this season, the Steelers forced him to throw short passes. His average pass traveled 6.0 yards against Pittsburgh as opposed to 8.8 yards in the other 14 games. He went deep (more than 15 yards) just 8.1 percent of the time against Pittsburgh. He was only 1-of-6 on deep passes, hitting a 35-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith against Brice McCain. For the season Flacco has completed 36.9 percent of his deep passes, while the Steelers are allowing 53.5 percent completions on such plays. The Steelers could be in trouble if they are not getting pressure on Flacco and he is able to find a Smith downfield.

Success for the Pittsburgh defense in this game will be measured by pressures that lead to sacks and bad throws more than by takeaways. Forcing Flacco into those mistakes has become very difficult for the Steelers now that he's no longer a young quarterback. Since so many of their earlier games were in prime time, Flacco built up a bit of a reputation as a turnover machine because he had some bad moments in big games against Pittsburgh, such as a Polamalu pick-six in the 2008 AFC Championship game and a Harrison strip-sack in 2010. Flacco also sparked Pittsburgh's comeback in the 2010 AFC Divisional game with some bad turnovers.

The reality is that outside of 2013, Flacco has always been a quarterback who only throws 10 or 12 interceptions per season despite being a somewhat inaccurate passer with an affinity for launching bombs. Combine Flacco's experience against LeBeau's defense with the overall talent decline on Pittsburgh's defense, and you have a quarterback likely to play much more error-free football.


Joe Flacco vs. Steelers: A Learning Experience
Seasons Games Record Att Cmp Pct. YPA TD TD% INT INT% AY/A Sack% FUM Lost TO% QBR
2008-2010 8 2-6 249 133 53.4% 6.22 7 2.8% 8 3.2% 5.34 10.4% 9 5 5.8% 32.2
2011-2014 8 5-3 285 180 63.2% 6.35 11 3.9% 2 0.7% 6.81 5.3% 4 2 1.9% 64.6

So Flacco may limit his mistakes again, but will he be able to outscore a great Pittsburgh offense on the road? Neither of these units is particularly good in the red zone, but in Week 2, the Ravens settled for four field goals despite some great field position. The Week 9 rematch was the Pittsburgh defense's best game of the season according to DVOA (-25.1%). Baltimore's offense only scored 16 points on 13 drives, including two touchdown drives that started inside the 35-yard line. The next two best games for Pittsburgh's defense in DVOA just came at home in Weeks 16 and 17 against the Chiefs (-5.6%) and Bengals (-12.0%), so recent performance has been a little better.

This is a Pittsburgh defense that relies on getting turnovers and holding teams to field goals as big stops now, even though they are not overly proficient at accomplishing either: 23rd in takeaways per drive and 18th in touchdowns per red-zone trip. However, the Steelers did finish ninth in forcing three-and-out drives. Baltimore is mediocre on third down on both sides of the ball. William Gay has three interceptions returned for touchdowns and cornerback Antwon Blake has shown good skills at tackling and ripping at the ball. He may not be good in coverage, but Blake fits LeBeau's "tackle the catch" strategy to a tee.

Torrey Smith and Steve Smith are by far the biggest threats in Baltimore's passing game. It's amazing the way Steve came in this year at age 35 and immediately had an impact. The 2013 Ravens were all about Torrey Smith. He had 604 more receiving yards than Baltimore's second-leading receiver, the largest gap in team history. This year, Steve had 42 more targets and 30 more catches than Torrey for 298 more yards. Everyone knows Torrey is the deep threat, but no one imagined Steve would be so productive and favored in terms of targets. Torrey does not usually have huge games against Pittsburgh -- he averages 42.3 yards per game in eight meetings -- but he's the receiver most likely to haul in a 45-yard bomb this week. He has exceled in recent weeks with five touchdown catches in the red zone and has career-best numbers in DYAR (309) and DVOA (26.5%). Simply put, Steve Smith has had one of the best postseason careers ever by a wide receiver, but most of that success came in 2003 and 2005 with Carolina. He might be able to provide an Anquan Boldin-level of play for Flacco this postseason, but I would not expect vintage Smith.

With a secondary struggling to field quality starters, let alone nickel and dime corners, it comes as no surprise the Steelers rank 31st in DVOA vs. "Other WR," so someone like Kamar Aiken could show up in the red zone for his fourth touchdown of the season. Pittsburgh also ranks 28th against tight ends, and Owen Daniels scored twice in the Week 2 meeting. He is the main weapon at tight end after another injury-plagued season for Dennis Pitta. The Ravens do not get great production when throwing to running backs. Forsett ranks 55th out of 57 backs in receiving DYAR.

Success for the Ravens offense really comes down to hitting big plays instead of relying on a ball-control approach.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

We now know that Le'veon Bell will not play on Saturday night. That makes this matchup rather simplistic: can the Steelers protect Roethlisberger against a great front seven so he can shred a weak secondary that has placed five cornerbacks on injured reserve this season?

Against far more talented Baltimore defenses in past years, Roethlisberger succeeded with rushing outputs like 26 carries for 54 yards in the 2008 AFC Championship Game and 25 carries for 60 yards in the last playoff meeting. The Steelers can win this week with that kind of output again. They just have to stick with the run enough to keep Baltimore honest, but that could be hard with the inexperience at the position.

This is a spot where the Steelers really miss LeGarrette Blount. Rookie Dri Archer has only played 50 offensive snaps and has 10 carries for 40 yards. He is not a between-the-tackles runner. Josh Harris has nine carries for 16 yards in his career. He had a 59-yard run called back for holding against the Bengals on Sunday night. At least we know Harris' limbs are intact and he can run. Otherwise, he's an unknown. The Steelers signed veteran Ben Tate on Tuesday, but what can he possibly give them this weekend? This is his fourth team in the last year. He would be more helpful to Baltimore since he knows Kubiak's offense. I think Harris should get the majority of snaps on Saturday night and Pittsburgh will hope he can do OK in pass protection.

Maybe that protection is the problem without Bell, but he is such a good receiver that the Steelers often have him go out for pass routes, even lining him up out wide or in the slot at times. Receiving is really where he will be missed the most this week. He has 83 catches for 854 yards and three scores this year. You never see that kind of production from a back in Pittsburgh. The Steelers telegraphed some screens for Archer in the preseason that he turned into huge plays, but they have never shown he can do that in the games that count. Bell's ability to turn a simple checkdown into a big gain is irreplaceable.

The Steelers cannot expect to throw short on every down, because the best way to attack Baltimore is with a vertical attack. We talked about the deep ball for Flacco, but Roethlisberger should exploit an even bigger mismatch. The Ravens rank 31st against deep passes (51.7 percent complete), and Roethlisberger has completed 45.2 percent of his passes thrown more than 15 yards downfield this season. In the two games against Baltimore, Roethlisberger was 7-of-13 on deep passes for 307 yards and five touchdowns. Pittsburgh will need the big plays, because this is an average red-zone offense and Baltimore ranks first in DVOA in the red zone.

Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb is not the player he used to be, and no cornerback has been able to shut down Antonio Brown the last two years. Brown walks into the stadium with five catches for 50 yards in the bank. Martavis Bryant has great size and speed to match up with anyone on Baltimore. Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore round out a solid core that's as talented as any the Ravens have faced this season. Tight end Heath Miller is someone the Steelers can keep in for blocking purposes this week, but he's still a reliable target. The weapons are there to throw often against a defense that has not been seriously challenged since Philip Rivers shredded the Ravens in Week 13 with three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

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Roethlisberger can get this done without Bell and a running game, but that could open him up to some mistakes, on which Baltimore must capitalize. However, much like the way Flacco has cut down his turnovers in this series, Roethlisberger has been hard to pick off. Both of these teams are about the same in the turnover department this season: Baltimore has 20 giveaways and 22 takeaways; Pittsburgh has 21 giveaways and 21 takeaways.

Under Tomlin, Roethlisberger has played the Ravens 13 times and only thrown multiple interceptions in one game, a disastrous season opener in 2011. That 35-7 rout looks like such an outlier in this series, as it's also the only time in 16 games that Flacco threw more than two touchdowns against Pittsburgh. In 2012, the Steelers hired Todd Haley as offensive coordinator, while Dean Pees took over as defensive coordinator in Baltimore. Since then, Roethlisberger has been intercepted just once on his last 141 passes, and that was Haloti Ngata tipping the ball at the line and coming down with the pick in Week 2.

Ngata needs to provide a push up front, but the interior line is Pittsburgh's strength. The vulnerability is at tackle, with Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert trying to block Terrell Suggs (always a terror against Pittsburgh) and Elvis Dumervil, a duo that has combined for 29 sacks this year. However, most of the sacks allowed by Beachum and Gilbert came in the first four games. Roethlisberger's sack rate is a career-low 5.1 percent, but it is always important to put big hits on him. When the teams met in Week 2, Roethlisberger took a huge shot from Courtney Upshaw on the third play of the game. While he stayed in, Roethlisberger was uncharacteristically inaccurate on many easy throws that night, citing pain from the hit days after the game. In Week 9, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger on three consecutive plays, but struggled to generate pressure the rest of the game.

Roethlisberger must trust his protection and that his receivers will get open against this secondary. If he starts forcing bad passes because he thinks the running back cannot pick up the blitz, then the Steelers are in serious trouble. We saw a hint of this on Sunday when Roethlisberger, with Bell out after the injury, threw a bad pass in scoring territory that was intercepted. Then again, we later saw him throw a dagger to Brown against Dre Kirkpatrick to end the game, which is exactly the kind of play that should be available to Pittsburgh this week.

Bell may have been voted the team MVP for 2014, but this game is all on Roethlisberger to play great when the team expects nothing less of him.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Baltimore ranks in the top three in special teams for the third year in a row and is actually first in weighted DVOA this year. The Steelers are used to being at a disadvantage here, ranking 30th in starting field position on offense, but they also rank first in yards per drive (39.38) and first in time of possession per drive (3:03). The more troublesome part is when Pittsburgh kicks off and Tomlin fails to get in Jacoby Jones' way on the sideline. In Week 9 Jones returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown at Heinz Field. Baltimore has had a great year punting, but Antonio Brown is a dangerous return man.

This game could definitely come down to a field goal in a stadium known for kicking difficulties. The current forecast is calling for "a 100 percent chance of rain," though we know how reliable that can be. Shaun Suisham is 29-of-32 this season, but missed a 23-yard field goal against the Jets that brought back memories of his past failures that cost him a job. That is why you have to trust Justin Tucker more here. He has made 89.8 percent of his field goals in his career. All five of his misses this season were from at least 54 yards, but for his career he is 14-of-20 from 50-plus yards.

OUTLOOK

This should be the one-score game we expected twice already this year. Baltimore comes into this game as a more consistent team with better balance on offense, and is the team more likely to get contributions from all three units. In other words, the Ravens have more ways to win this game than the Steelers, who will largely rely on a strong quarterback performance. However, in today's NFL having home-field advantage and the better quarterback can go a long way. Pittsburgh may not have the horses for a deep playoff run, but there is enough to take care of a Baltimore team that really has not done anything exceptional against better competition in 2014.


STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

20 comments, Last at 03 Jan 2015, 10:52pm

1 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

Can't wait for the Ravens-Steelers game. Seems like it'll come down to which team is able to hit deep passes down the field, as the Ravens pass D is actually excellent vs. passes under 15 yards (ranked 3rd in DVOA). But if the wind and freezing rain stymies downfield passes, I'd say the Ravens are in better position to exploit the Steelers weaknesses. The Ravens don't have too many weaknesses outside of defending deep passes.

Although without both starting offensive tackles, maybe the Ravens offensive line will struggle.

2 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

I see that you've blocked the Joe Webb playoff experience from memory, probably a good idea. And I suppose that even if Joe Webb is somehow in a tier above Lindley and TJ Yates, Yate's last start was still a loss, albeit after a win, but that's just semantics.

13 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

Good call. I would have had Joe Webb in even a lower tier, but maybe he actually belongs in the same tier as Lindley. Higher rating for his career in his small sample and even a higher rating in that awful playoff game than Lindley's career number. Hard to get past those visuals of Webb's throws in the playoffs, but maybe only Yates is in a higher tier.

3 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

I'd love to see another close Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup, but I don't see how Baltimore gets the 31 points they'll need to win. The Steelers' offense took a big jump after the first month, once the new line gelled.

11 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

That's an impressive number. But I'm just thinking that given the absence of Bell, the probability of cold rain and wind, and the Ravens great red zone D (easily best in the league at -42%), 30 points would be a lot. Unless there's a big play on special teams (unlikely given the Ravens coverage units) or a turnover.

6 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

"They just have to stick with the run enough to keep Baltimore honest....."

Really, if you are Pittsburgh and the matchup is so obviously favourable to passing, why run the ball at all? Unless Baltimore sells out completely, or until killing the clock becomes a serious consideration, just keep passing. It doesn't matter if Roethlisberger gets sacked 7 or 8 times; he's shown himself to be phenomenally durable throughout his career and he's good/experienced enough to take the workload. And it's a playoff game; preserving his health takes a back seat to adopting an optimal strategy for winning the game.

I don't for a moment expect this to happen, but I will probably watch the game wondering why it doesn't.

8 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

Rational playcalling achieves equilibrium, where a small change to strategy does not improve the playcaller's expected utility. In particular, you expect any of your viable options (plays that you have a nonzero chance of calling) to produce equal game-winning value (on average). If your running plays are producing less value on average (including hidden effects like tiring out the defense or avoiding injuries), you are calling plays wrong. You don't run unless you expect it to produce just as good a result (on average) as passing.

That said, I long ago gave up trying to rationalize PIT playcalling. I particularly wince at how often they

1) run on second and 10
2) go empty shotgun on obvious running downs
3) run slow-developing runs plays on first and goal inside the 2

Has anybody studied whether fans of above-average teams typically consider their home team's playcalling to be below average?

17 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

"Has anybody studied whether fans of above-average teams typically consider their home team's playcalling to be below average?"

Yes, everybody thinks their own favourite team's play calling sucks. Everybody also thinks their offensive line is terrible (unless they're actually great, in which case it becomes "average").

9 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

"Really, if you are Pittsburgh and the matchup is so obviously favourable to passing, why run the ball at all? Unless Baltimore sells out completely, or until killing the clock becomes a serious consideration, just keep passing."

Baltimore can counter by putting Suggs, Dumervil, and McPhee in the game at the same time, who are all excellent pass rushers. Dumervil and McPhee usually play about 50% of the snaps, but would likely get many sacks (and possibly strip sacks) if Pitt never bothered running the ball.

7 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

Is there any reasonable way to estimate the effect of Bell's absence in terms of some team measure?

We could try to get an upper bound estimate by just using DYAR, assuming (due to small sample sizes) that the backups are replacement-level, and that PIT doesn't change playcalling strategy. This would give us an upper bound of about 32 yards per game, or about 3 points. To this we would have to add the value that Bell brings to pass plays on which he's not targetted (I don't know how to estimate this). Is this a correct use of DYAR?

If so, the next question is, is there a way to get a tighter upper bound? In particular, is there a way to use situation-specific DVOA data to estimate how the offense would perform were they to use a different playcalling strategy?

10 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

Always interesting to see the 2000 Vikings on a list of bad playoff teams. Not only did they have a terrible defense for a playoff teams, they had one of the worst defenses of any team ever, playoffs or no playoffs. Their defensive DVOA was a stunning 26%-plus, when the normal worst defense in the league is, what, high teens? I think a bad Lions defense in the DVOA era came within shouting defense once,at about 22% or so, but that Vikings crew was crazy bad on defense. Especially on the road, when their good passing attack was less likely to jump put to a lead, and the home field noise couldn't give a boost to a pathetic pass rush. It's stunning to think how close they came to getting HFA in the playoffs.

15 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

They had no talent on defense, and made up for it by being poorly coached. Denny Green never could get a decent d-coordinator after Dungy left, possibly because by then Denny insisted on control of drafting, and couldn't draft for defense to save his life. I didn't even bother to watch the Conference Championship game, just recording it for a very brief and accelerated viewing of the 1st half, because I knew there was no way that they were going to compete. It was unbelievable that they were only a 1 point dog, and that I was too much of a Vikings homer to try to make money off it.

12 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

"But in general, the bigger sample of the whole season is more informative."

I would be interested if there was anyway, besides anecdotal information, to see how this generality holds up with mass personnel changes. Remember, the Panthers have turned over nearly their entire secondary from the beginning of the season. The only starter from Week 1 who still starts is Roman Harper (who was below replacement level early on but has steadily improved his play since the Week 12 bye). Would be interesting to see if there was anyway to look into that.

16 Re: Saturday Wild Card Playoff Preview 2015

It's funny that a site that claims to be all about stats posts such "facts" like they have to like their chances because x team did y in the past. Obviously none of that has any effect on the upcoming games.