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30 Sep 2014

Any Given Sunday: Bucs Over Steelers

by Rivers McCown

When I'm trying to figure out my direction for an Any Given Sunday column, one of the first things I do is look at the box score. Most weeks, there's a fairly easy thing to investigate. One team winning because it bludgeoned the other in the ground game. An incredible turnover differential. A special teams or defensive score that swung the game.

If you scout the box score of this game, you don't come away with readily apparent reasons why Pittsburgh lost right away. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger took five sacks, but that's not out of the ordinary. The Bucs outgained the Steelers by just 0.2 yards per play. The turnover differential was even. There were no scores on special teams.

But special teams did play a big role in this one. The other main culprit: penalties.

We often say that penalties don't really have much predictive value going forward, but bunching 125 yards of them in one game can swing it. (And five of Pittsburgh's penalties were either declined or offsetting, so it could have been worse.) A few of the penalties were forgivable. Others, like Arthur Moats jumping offside to give Tampa Bay a free first down on their penultimate drive, were baffling.

The penalties and poor special teams play merged to kill Pittsburgh. On three separate occasions, the Steelers gifted 15 yards of field position to the Bucs. Only four of Pittsburgh's 11 drives started outside their own 20, and none of those beyond their 40. Tampa Bay, by contrast, started one possession on the Pittsburgh 9, and another on the Tampa 45, scoring 10 points on those two drives. Then, for their game-winning drive, Tampa Bay started at the Pittsburgh 46 thanks to a brutal 29-yard shank by Brad Wing. That punt was so bad that it raised Tampa Bay's chances of winning by five percent all on its own.

But the story here isn't that the Steelers had some breaks go against them, it was that they played down to what seemed to be a pretty terrible Tampa Bay team. The one area that stood out as a weakness for Pittsburgh is an area we circled as problematic in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (still available!): the secondary.

Ike Taylor had a disastrous year in 2014 any way you cut it, but Pittsburgh again devoted little draft value to the position and added only Houston castoff Brice McCain, the patron saint of Cornerback Charting Stats Regression, to the table. With Taylor out indefinitely due to a fractured forearm, things got even more dire for the Steelers. The injury bumped up journeyman William Gay a rung and, worse yet, put McCain on the field because none of their younger projects had panned out yet.

There are games where cornerback depth can be hidden a bit. A game where Mike Glennon tries to throw imposing physical threats like Mike Evans, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, and Vincent Jackson open doesn't seem to be one of them. Sure enough, the Steelers were able to keep Glennon to a 50 percent completion percentage because they were getting pressure. But he managed to find 14.4 yards per completion. It helped that Michael Mitchell, despite his career year in Carolina, covers the middle of the field like a lost child.

It's hard to say what we've seen from any team for sure based on a four-game sample, when things are just beginning to come into focus. But the lack of talent in the back four is the weakness that stands out the most for Pittsburgh to me.

By the VOA

The Steelers lost on the scoreboard. They lost in VOA. They lost in DVOA. At least FOX still believes they won, though.

PIT 0.4% 19.1% -6.8% -25.5%
TB 1.2% 5.5% 4.5% 0.2%

PIT 6.3% 7.1% -6.8% -7.6%
TB 6.5% 8.3% 4.5% 2.7%

There's the special teams problem we talked about last section.

If It's Not Lovie, Then It's the Bomb, It's the Bomb That'll Bring Us Together

It's hard to be optimistic about Tampa Bay right now. I've seen a number of writers call this more of a Steelers loss than a Tampa Bay win -- a comment that probably has some hangover from the Thursday night drubbing in Atlanta.

Mike Tanier had a very thorough column on Lovie Smith's early shortcomings. I don't think there's much more that needs to be added to it, but numbers can give a little extra color on the criticism that Smith's offense was playing things too conservatively.

  • Josh McCown, through Week 3, on balls 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or longer: 4-of-12, 108 yards, 24.1% DVOA, 27 DYAR
  • Mike Glennon, Week 4, on those same deep balls: 6-of-11, 167 yards, 63.9% DVOA, 51 DYAR

It turns out that a jump ball offense works better when you have a quarterback with one of the best deep balls in the NFL rather than a journeyman who had magic interception-free dust sprinkled on his 2013 season. Who knew?

But yes, Glennon's entrance will tilt the game plan back to the way it should've been all along. Another encouraging sign was the sacks. Tampa Bay finished last season with the 25th-ranked Adjusted Sack Rate in the NFL.

Even if Roethlisberger isn't a hard target to bring down, finding five sacks is a nice boost for a defense that struggled with it in 2013 and hadn't looked much better in 2014. Tampa Bay had notched just four sacks in the three previous games.

Gerald McCoy will be playing with a club due to a broken hand suffered against the Rams in the first quarter of Week 2. Ditto Michael Johnson, who struggled with an ankle injury, missing Week 2 and most of Week 3. The pair combined for three sacks, though they didn't necessarily provide much additional pass rush beyond that.

Tampa Bay's defense was very good last year despite the poor pass rush. This year, with Lovie prone to getting a little conservative with the play calls, the defensive line will need to step up and prove they can generate pressure with a four-man rush. Keeping their two defensive line stars in the lineup was the cure for what ailed them.

And Finally...

We'll be turning this column over to Andrew Healy, who has written several great pieces for Chase Stuart's Football Perspective site, starting next week.

I look forward to his takes on the upsets. I've heard .gifs may be in play again. Long story short, he's a good writer and I hope you commenters treat him with the same mix of respect and general pedantry I've come to expect from you.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 30 Sep 2014

6 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2014, 6:17pm by young curmudgeon


by Ryan :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:12pm

Dear Lovie Smith:

McCown is nice, but McCown can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:18pm

"It turns out that a jump ball offense works better when you have a quarterback with one of the best deep balls in the NFL rather than a journeyman who had magic interception-free dust sprinkled on his 2013 season. Who knew?"

I feel like perhaps firing up a Kickstarter to raise enough funds to print this quote on billboards all over the Tampa area might be a prudent move.

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 12:29pm

The Smiths references in the article and comments at least provide a little enjoyment in what would otherwise be a painful exercise in being reminded of the hours I wasted on Sunday.

The defense that they constantly play says nothing to me about winning.

by atrento :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 2:30pm

Agree. That joke isn't funny anymore.

by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 3:21pm

Someday I'll work a "Girlfriend in a Coma" reference into a Ray Rice conversation.

It will be right up there with the enjoyment I got from saying "I don't have a dog in that fight." every time anyone brought up Michael Vick in 2008.

by young curmudgeon :: Tue, 09/30/2014 - 6:17pm

Both comments suggest that you are not a good person...and that I'd enjoy your company if I knew you personally!