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21 Oct 2006

Game Previews: PIT-ATL, WAS-IND

by Aaron Schatz

In the 2006 NFL preseason, only two teams were winless: Pittsburgh and Washington. It was a bit of a surprise since both were considered top Super Bowl contenders, but most observers wrote it off -- after all, preseason doesn't count.

Six weeks into the regular season, however, both teams are disappointments with more losses than wins. Tampa Bay is the only other 2005 playoff team with a losing record in 2006. If the Steelers and Redskins can't head out on the road and win Sunday, they won't be left with much time to turn things around.


(Sunday, 1pm)

The Steelers actually started the process of turning things around last week. Pittsburgh entered its game against Kansas City with a struggling offense. Ben Roethlisberger, one of the top quarterbacks in the league his first two years, had turned into the worst passer east of Oakland.

One 45-7 annihilation of Kansas City later, the Steelers offense looks a lot less troubled. Roethlisberger threw only three incomplete passes all day, and running backs Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport combined for 187 yards and three touchdowns on just 33 carries. In truth, the Pittsburgh offense is not as powerful as it looked last week, but it is also not as impotent as it looked during the first four games of the season.

Even while Pittsburgh fans worried about their offense and their quarterback, they had no reason to be worried about their defense, which has remained one of the league's best throughout the team's poor start. The Steelers have completely shut down three of the league's best running backs in three consecutive weeks, holding Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, and Kansas City's Larry Johnson all under 50 yards.

That defense presents a significant obstacle for an Atlanta offense based around the running game. Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings (DVOA) – which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent – rank the Falcons second in the league in rushing and 31st in passing. It's hard to foresee Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick doing a good job of deciphering Pittsburgh's complicated zone-blitz defenses. He does have one thing in his favor for this game: when he rolls out left to pass or run, he will probably be facing backups Arnold Harrison and Chad Brown instead of Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury.

Atlanta's defense is the opposite of the offense: very strong against the pass (second in DVOA) but porous against the run (24th). That pass defense is primarily based on a strong pass rush and good coverage of tight ends and running backs, but the Falcons are below-average against number one receivers. Parker and Davenport will slice through the Falcons like butter, Hines Ward will make the highlight reel, and as long as the pass pressure doesn't turn into Roethlisberger turnovers, everybody will walk out of the game at .500.


(Sunday, 4:15pm)

The subject of running backs slicing through defenses like butter brings us to the matchup of Washington and Indianapolis. This game promises to demonstrate what happens when an irresistible force meets an easily movable object.

Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings rank Washington fourth in rushing offense and Indianapolis tenth. These two successful ground attacks will meet up with two extremely week defensive fronts. Last year's defensive improvement has disintegrated in Indianapolis, and the Colts have given up 5.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs, the worst figure in the league. Washington's run defense has also disappeared in recent weeks, primarily because of injuries. Both starting defensive tackles, Cornelius Griffin and Joe Salave'a, missed last week's game, and mediocre Tennessee running back Travis Henry gashed the Redskins for 178 yards. Griffin and Salave'a are both listed as questionable on this week's injury report, and neither one is expected to play.

(Ed. note: The Washington Times is now reporting that Salave'a may play, but Griffin will not.)

Henry's big day was emblematic of the problem that has plagued Washington since the preseason: depth. The Redskins build their team with big money free agents and treat first-day draft picks as if they were a nuisance. (Before the season, they traded a third-round pick in next year's draft for a running back, T.J. Duckett, who has carried the ball a grand total of five times this season.) The result is a top-heavy lineup with nothing behind it, a Potemkin Super Bowl contender. Nearly everybody on the Washington bench was a late draft pick or undrafted. Starting in place of Griffin and Salave'a, for example, were two rookies, fifth-rounder Anthony Montgomery and sixth-rounder Kedric Golston.

The Redskins aren't just having injury issues in the front four; they're also getting torn apart in the secondary. Starting cornerback Shawn Springs had abdominal surgery, missed the first four games, and finally returned last week. He's still not at full strength, and now the other starting cornerback, Carlos Rogers, is out with a broken thumb. That means that Washington will continue to depend on second-string cornerbacks Kenny Wright and Mike Rumph, and Wright and Rumph are the main reason why Washington ranks 29th in defensive DVOA against the pass. Wright has a hard time keeping up with fast receivers one-on-one, while Rumph would be a better fit at safety because he has a hard time figuring out where the ball is. That's not exactly the secondary you want facing Peyton Manning and one of the greatest offenses in NFL history.

Is there any way the Redskins can keep up with the Indianapolis scoring machine? On the ground, the answer is clearly yes, but in the air there's a question mark. The Washington passing game has been inconsistent all year, in part because it is overly dependent on two passes: the quick hitch to Santana Moss, and the long bomb to Santana Moss. Colts cornerbacks Jason David and Nick Harper will have a lot of trouble covering Moss, but the Redskins don't seem to throw normal 10-20 yard passes to anyone else. Instead, new coordinator Al Saunders is outsmarting himself with players crossing from side to side on plays that don't gain yardage. (If it was possible to run a play with 12 players criss-crossing upfield, Saunders would run it.)

If the offense is clicking on all cylinders, Washington has a chance to win in a big offensive shootout. More likely, the Colts will enjoy a comfortable home win, and the Redskins will fly home wondering how a team filled with highly-paid stars can start the year 2-5.

This article originally appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun. You can also read Mike Tanier's take on Al Saunders at the Football Outsiders FOX blog.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 21 Oct 2006

27 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2006, 11:49am by Tim


by Richard (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 2:06pm

Hey man, I noticed you made the "Rumph should be a safety" comment in Audibles a few weeks ago as well.

I don't blame you for not watching the Niners last year, but we had Rumph as our starting FS coming out of the preseason, and he lasted there until week 3 (I think), when we decided that Mike Adams would do a better job. Mike Adams is an awful safety - can't tackle, can't cover. This hopefully gives you an idea of what Rumph was like.

by Pippin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 2:41pm

Just a minor note, but I'm starting to feel like the "irresistible force meets an easily movable object" bit is getting a little over-used.

Nice look at the games, otherwise. I find it hard to believe the Redskins even have a chance, but I guess you never know.

by Podge (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 3:00pm

Am I the only person who wishes you guys did more game previews? Would that be possible? Best previews for every game, every week, but only for 2 games. Is that simply because you only do 2 for the New York Sun, and don't want to *sniff* do any more for us *sniff* poor, neglected *sniff* website readers?

Or am I just a huge whiner.

by Sophandros (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 3:40pm

2: I haven't heard that too often. I've heard "resistable force meets movable object" used when both teams are horrible, but seldom do you hear your version that shows that one team's strength matches up with the other's weakness.

Still, I think that the most overused term is "it is what it is". Has to be the first time a tautology has jumped the shark.

by navin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 3:44pm

Agreed, Rumph is horrible. He was drafted out of Miami to be a big physical corner that could combat the taller receivers in the league, but became a penalty machine in his first season. Eventually he was moved to safety and was terrible there too. The poster above mentioned that Adams replaced Rumph last year--Adams is about to be benched for Keith Lewis.

One more interesting thought occurred to me. Besides Ed Reed in Baltimore, that vaunted Miami secondary has been a bust in the pros. Philip Buchanon just got cut, and Rumph has been a bust since he was drafted.

by David23 (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 4:48pm

Based on its context, most would probably reason that the word "Potemkin" is synonymous with the phrase "paper tiger", but I chose to check it out via Wikipedia.

According to this article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potemkin_village), it turns out that Potemkin (the Russian General) is being wronged! He was accused of constructing fake villages to impress Catherine II, but this article claims that those accusations were probably fake as well. Kind of ironic, no?

Aaron, as a token of respect to the late Potemkin, I believe you should lead the charge to retire this word so as to restore the legacy of a fine general who has been unjustly defamed.

(Yeah, I should probably go outside more)

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 4:59pm

ATL may not defend the #1 reciever well, but so far Hines Ward has played like a below average reciever (-11.4% DVOA), not even a below average #1 reciever.
And its a bit disingenuous to to say the Atlanta D is porous against the run. If their DVOA is at 2% but they rank 24th, it means a lot of teams are stuffing the run better than ATL, but opponents aren't gashing ATL for significant amounts of damage (except for Tiki the great, of course), putting their D in a lot of 3rd and short situations, etc.
I still think PIT will win, but only because Vick will do something stupid.

by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 5:01pm

Examining these two games is fine, but this lead in -

Find out which team has a better shot at win number three.

is pretty silly as the answer is trivial.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 5:01pm

woops, Hines Ward's VOA is -11.4%, his DVOA is at -3.9%. My point still stands (barely).

by blahblahfalcons (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 6:05pm

"(If it was possible to run a play with 12 players criss-crossing upfield, Saunders would run it.)"

I lol'd.

when the season started I thought the Falcons would be able to play competetively with Pitt, but now I have no idea what to think. if the Giants game was indeed a case of a small, fast unit being worn down by size, then the not-exactly-petite Steelers promise to be no easier.

by Theo (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 8:13pm

Rumph would be a better fit at safety because he has a hard time figuring out where the ball is.
Safeties know EXACTLY where the ball is.

by admin :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 8:13pm

Yes, but frontwards, not backwards.

by Pat (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 8:28pm

Henry’s big day was emblematic of the problem that has plagued Washington since the preseason: depth.

Man. At the start of the season, this comment would've started about a dozen comments from Redskins fans saying how unfair and untrue this comment is. Now? Not so much.

Part of the reason that I think I'm so bitter about the Redskins is that last year the Redskins were starting to look like the Gibbs teams of old, which I always loved watching when I was a kid. Now? Not so much. I just can't believe the Redskins keep trying to build a team like this. It's just such a glaringly obvious flaw.

by BillWallace (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 9:59pm

Pat: I dont know about other redskins fans, but I never argued that we lacked depth. Where I take issue is with the citicism of trading away draft picks.

The assumption is that lots of draft picks are the only way to get depth, and by almost completely foregoing the draft, the skins were guaranteeing themselves no depth.

I contend that these are independent decisions. That a team can elect the strategy of not caring about draft picks, and still maintain a relatively deep team by signing more low to mid level FAs and fewer high priced FAs.

I still back the no draft strategy, because I think draft picks are overvalued... I tentatively backed the no-depth strategy because I thought it was a decent gamble to get a potential super bowl team. But it was always a gamble, and I think skins fans knew that. The no-depth strategy has exploded in our faces, so you can be happy about that.

Also, while I defended the no-depth and signing high priced FAs strategy, a few of the FAs have been obviously not worth it, which is a scouting issue rather than a strategical issue.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 10:06pm


Given these three factors, I think that Ward's numbers thus far can be taken with a little bit of a grain of salt:

1. Ward was not 100% to start the year, as he was slowed by a hamstring injury

2. That guy throwing him the football in the majority of the Steelers' games was also not 100%

3. The other receivers on the field, with the exception of Cedrick Wilson(who simply sucks), had very little experience, and certainly aren't at a point yet where they command respect from opponents.

So, while Ward so far has not been very good, I expect his numbers to keep improving with each week as the aforementioned factors become less and less significant.

by Pat (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 10:17pm

The assumption is that lots of draft picks are the only way to get depth, and by almost completely foregoing the draft, the skins were guaranteeing themselves no depth.

Draft picks are the best way to get cheap depth for multiple years. In order to get a free agent for roughly the same amount of money, you can only sign them for one year. The Redskins roster is absolutely full of salary cap relief veterans: there's like 7-8 guys on there who are like that. Then, if one of them performs well, another team will snatch them up in free agency.

I really think the Redskins would be doing a lot better if they were a fair amount more savvy with draft picks - if the Redskins ended up with, say, 6 or 7 draft picks on the second day, I think they'd be doing much better. Montgomery and Golston are doing rather well for rookies, for instance, which is a good thing. But next year they'll be even better, and they'll still be free.

High round draft picks are definitely overvalued, but late round draft picks are absolutely worth it.

Also, while I defended the no-depth and signing high priced FAs strategy, a few of the FAs have been obviously not worth it, which is a scouting issue rather than a strategical issue.

What amazes me about that is it's not like the Redskins have historically been bad at scouting. I mean, Springs was a great signing, Portis was a great signing, Moss was a fantastic signing, and even Brunell was a better signing than most people thought. Cooley was a great draft, and I still think Rogers was a good draft as well. Just two years ago we were talking about how Gregg Williams was doing such a great job putting together a defense with guys no one had ever heard of. But it's almost like the scouting team just flat out took a holiday after the draft two years ago. Did something change in Washington that I didn't hear about?

by Just Another Falcon Fan (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 11:06pm

Re: The Falcons vs. #1 receivers

It should be noted that the Falcons are not flipping their two corners to matchup with the opposing offense's receivers. Since DeAngelo Hall is beginning to live up to his reputation, offenses are going after Jason Webster and, if given time to throw the ball, succeeding.

Re: The Falcons DL/LBs

3 of the 4 starting DLs are banged up. Kerney will play despite a hamstring problem, and Abraham will probably play a limited amount as he recovers from his week 1 groin pull. Rod Coleman is listed as questionable, but is probably out. Against an OL like Pittsburgh's, that's not a good sign.

Ed Hartwell is back at MLB, with Brooking back at WLB and Demorrio Willams demoted to nickel packages. Since Demorrio was blown up a lot during the Giants game, this could improve the outside run defense. OTOH, Hartwell has essentially been out for a year and didn't look too good early last year.

In short, it is likely that the pass rush will be weaker that usual against the Steelers and the outside run defense is unlikely to be any better this week than last week, which does not bode well for the Falcons this week. Unless Big Ben goes Grossman this week, I'm probably watching a pretty ugly game.

And I didn't even say one word so far about the complaints aired this week by both Vick and Dunn about the offensive scheme, or the debut of Tyson Clabo at OG. We'll get to see what value a NFLE All-Pro has, or at least whether he can be any worse than Matt Lehr.

by Mike (not verified) :: Sat, 10/21/2006 - 11:33pm

Oh my god, why is there a rednecks shaving sheep ad on the side of this article?!

by SOW (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 4:07am

RE: 17
So, I just send my offense up to the line with Hines Ward on Webster, right? If they don't flip, I'm in business.

by hwc (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 5:34am

I tentatively backed the no-depth strategy because I thought it was a decent gamble to get a potential super bowl team.

I don't see how a no-depth strategy is ever a viable way to build a potential Super Bowl team. Not in a 16 game season when injuries are a fact of life.

The other problem with the Redskins approach is that they guarantee a roster full of players who only care about the big contract...and who may or may not give much effort once they have gotten it.

I've almost reached the point where I believe that signing marquee free agents is almost always a bad move in the NFL. Play 'em on their first contract. Sign 'em after they've been cut for cap room during their second contract. But, stay away from the bidding on "big contract" players like the plague.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 6:22am

Since Fox Sports isn't covering this, when ESPN and SI are, Pat Tillman's brother Kevin wrote an excellent piece for truthdig.


by johnnyxel (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 7:47am

19: Exactly. Until Mora is comfortable with Jimmie Williams, Webster is the weak point, and they don't move the CBs around. Last week, Eli threw at DeAngelo Hall just twice, for one pass defenced and one interception, both in the first quarter. He never threw deep to the right side of the field, and Webster was being abused all day on the left.

17: As far as the complaints from Vick and Dunn (and a ton of Falcons fans), until Mora and Knapp decide whether they want to spread the field vertically or horizontally, the offense will continue to stall out with sacks and interceptions.
Based on the official pbp, this season, Vick is 53/87 with 486 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT and an 82.8 passer rating when passing short, and 5/29, 166 yds, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, and 22.2 rating when passing deep. He's been sacked 18 times for a loss of 106 yards, which erases almost all of the deep passing yards this year, and if only half of the sacks came on 'deep' plays, then the deep passing game has had 9 sacks and 3 interceptions to 5 completions (one of which was promptly fumbled for a turnover). That is just unacceptable, and probably has little to do with talent, O-line, and receivers and a lot to do with how much time Vick stays in the pocket on those deep plays, and his steadfast refusal to throw it away to avoid the sack.
Note to Knapp: Abandon the deep pass, and let your speed get the yards after the catch. Spread the field left to right so you can run up the gut. Vick may have actually figured out this West Coast thing, and your new wrinkles this year have set him back.

by Ilanin (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 8:35am

Amidst the resurrection of the Pittsburgh offense against Kansas City something I feel being mostly overlooked is Troy Polamalu's return to something approaching form in that game, as well. In the 0-3 period the secondary had frequently looked like Ike Taylor and a bunch of scrubs, especially on intermediate routes which the safties seemed not to latch on to. That didn't happen so much against Kansas City, and I think Troy had a large part of that. He also kept popping up in the KC backfield on running plays, which is likely to prove highly useful against the Falcons.

I see both teams at .500 after this game. Is *anybody* predicting a Falcons win?

by Jim Haug (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 9:55am

Anyone from Pittsburgh can tell you that Heinz Field iS WEST of Oakland, not East. [joke for the yinzers]

Also, Polamalu's return to form is directly related to a slowly healing shoulder. Until the KC game, he was literally a one armed player, affecting both tackling and catching.

I'm not sure if this will affect the game today much, but the Steeler multi DB packages will feature extra S rather than CB, due to multiple CB injuries.

by Nathan (not verified) :: Sun, 10/22/2006 - 8:31pm

McFarland looked pretty good. Especially with Reagor out.

by turbohapy (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 11:38am

Re: 25

Definitely. He blew up quite a few plays in there. He didn't make a ton of tackles, but he got a lot of push and kept holes from opening up. Hopefully Reagor will recover quickly from his rollover and be back.

by Tim (not verified) :: Mon, 10/23/2006 - 11:49am

RE: Steelers v. Falcons