Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting Draft Ready: More Mock Drafts

Mock drafts are, arguably, the best part of the NFL draft -- how can any player measure up to the hype? So, for your pleasure, here are more mock drafts:
  • NFL Draft Blitz: This is a bare-bones list -- player names, positions, and schools -- that has the Steelers choosing offensive tackle Michael Oher out of the University of Mississippi. It's a shame that there's no information about Mr. Oher on this page because, if his Wikipedia page is to be believed, his is an amazing story of survival and perseverance.

  • My NFL Draft: This site goes out on a bit of limb by projecting that the Steelers will choose Derrick Harvey, an outside linebacker from Florida who projects to defensive end in the NFL, with their first round pick. According to the folks at NFL Draft Scout, Mr. Harvey is the #2 defensive end in the 2008 draft.

  • Draft Daddy: This site presents a "best case" scenario for the Steelers, projecting that Sam Baker, offensive tackle from the University of Southern California, will fall to #23. That scenario is indirectly supported by Pat Kirwan, at NFL.com, who states that "opinions vary on where Baker will be drafted between first and early second round at this point, but it is still too early to tell."

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Getting Draft Ready: The Mock Drafts

We are, and have always been, firm believers in the drafting of offensive linemen early and often. So if there is a criticism that we have made regarding Kevin Colbert's draft strategies is how infrequently he selects players at those positions (i.e. offensive guard and/or offensive tackle) in the early rounds. In fact, from 2000 to 2007 the Steelers have chosen a grand total of four offensive linemen in the first three rounds of those drafts -- four offensive linemen in 24 total picks (i.e. eight drafts multiplied by three rounds each).

However we believe that the 2008 is going to reverse that trend. So we went in search of information to support our view, and came up with mixed results. In the first of many such postings, and in no particular order, here's a look at some of what we discovered:
  • Scott Wright's NFL Draft Countdown: Mr. Wright has identified Boston College offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus as the man for the Steelers, saying that "Pittsburgh could be in the market for the best offensive lineman here and Gosder Cherilus is a prototypical NFL right tackle."

  • Todd McShay, Scouts Inc. (via ESPN -- subscription required): Mr. McShay also has the Steelers selecting an offensive lineman, but his pick for Pittsburgh is someone with whom the Steelers are already familiar -- Pitt OT Jeffrey Otah. According to Mr. McShay the Steelers "have bigger holes to fill inside at center and guard, but with his combination of size and skills Otah is far and away the best lineman available in this scenario."

  • NFL Draft Dog: This resource offers us a 2008 mock draft and a 2009 mock draft. This particular mock draft (the 2008 edition, that is) is interesting insomuch as it projects Oregon running Jonathan Stewart falling to the Steelers. If such a thing should occur -- and the opinion here is that it won't -- it would present an interesting dilemma. Of course, if this scenario should come to pass Mr. Stewart would become the first running back taken by the Steelers in the first round of the draft since Tim Worley (Georgia) was chosen.

  • FF Toolbox: Another non-offesnive lineman pick is suggested here. Instead, the suggestion is that the quality offensive linemen will be gone, and that the Steelers will choose Aqib Talib, a cornerback out of Kansas.

The NFL Draft will begin at 3:00 PM (EST), and features a revamped format designed to make watching the proceedings a bit more palatable.

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On This Date . . .

January 28, 1996 the Steelers . . . lost . . . a . . . Super Bowl . . . at Sun Devils Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

Given little chance to beat the Dallas Cowboys (Pittsburgh was a 13 1/2 point underdog), the Steelers outplayed them for most of the contest; but the outcome of the game turned on two Neil O'Donnell interceptions. To this day no explanation has been provided as to just who made the mistakes -- the quarterback or the receiver -- on virtually the same play call, but they were killers.

For the Wikipedia page on the game click here, and for the NFL's official page click here.

You can watch

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Roster Change Today?

According to a report in the Idaho Statesman, former Boise State quarterback Jared Zabransky -- he of the "Statue of Liberty" play versus Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl -- is expected to sign a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers some time today.

According to the article, the Steelers expect Brian St. Pierre to leave the team via free agency.

Clearly Brian St. Pierre is never going to be anything more than a holder of clipboards for the Steelers. If there's a chance that Mr. Zabransky could actually challenge Charlie Batch for the backup position at quarterback -- and we love Charlie Batch, but still -- that would be a huge upgrade.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Season in Review: Fourth Down

We've looked at down one through three, and instead of checking out how the Steelers did on offensive plays run on fourth downs during the 2000 to 2008 seasons (they have had 121 such plays in eight seasons) we've opted to take a look at punting performance over the course of those seasons.

In the interest of full disclosure we looked at some of this information in our posting regarding special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, but we've added a bit of information here and filled things out just a bit. So, here's a look at the numbers:

SeasonPunter(s)Avg. Gross Yds. per KickAvg. Net Yds. per KickInside the 20
2000J. Miller43.837.534
2001J. Miller &
K. Brown
41.434.623
2002J. Miller &
T. Rouen
4133.215
2003J. Miller41.93627
2004C. Gardocki4337.424
2005C. Gardocki &
B. Roethlisberger
41.734.523
2006C. Gardocki41.336.711
2007D. Sepulveda42.437.928


In 2006 we were very vocal in our criticism of Chris Gardocki, and while we stand by that criticism the numbers -- in a historical context -- do not support us.

We can live that.

What we cannot understand, based upon the numbers, is why Bill Cowher was always so angry at Josh Miller! After an amazing first season Mr. Miller fell off somewhat, and suffered injuries as well (Kris brown punting? We vaguely remember that), and that bounced back in his final season in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Chris Gardocki had a solid first season, and lousy second season, and then a bit of a comeback in season three. Of course the problem with Mr. Gardocki's kicks was that they were always low, line-drives thereby making the job of the coverage until that much more difficult.

Now we have Daniel Sepulveda. Like his two predecessors he had a very good first season -- his gross average was the third highest in the last eight seasons, his net average was the best of any Steelers punter during that period, and his kicks inside the twenty yard line was second best -- but of course the question is will he (like those predecessors) see a decline in his performance next season?

Just one of many questions to be answered beginning next September.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Getting Draft Ready: Salary Cap, 2008

We received an email from our friends in the Yahoo! amateur capologists interest group, AmCapNFL, alerting us to information posted in the message boards at KFFL.com by one "AdamJT13." The information provided purports to show 2008 salary commitments for each NFL team, at this point. We can make no claims as to the accuracy of the data listed below, but we offer it up with the knowledge that each day we can post something is another day closer to training camp.

Additionally, according to one trusted individual the 2008 salary cap will be approximately $116,000,000.

Team2008 Salary CommitmentsEstimated Salary Cap Space
Tennessee$79,270,000$36,730,000
Cincinnati$84,790,000$31,210,000
San Francisco$85,370,000$30,630,000
Jacksonville$86,230,000$29,770,000
New Orleans$89,020,000$26,980,000
Buffalo$89,390,000$26,610,000
N.Y. Giants$92,500,000$23,500,000
Oakland$92,750,000$23,250,000
San Diego$93,390,000$22,610,000
Miami$95,290,000$207,100,000
Chicago$95,950,000$20,050,000
Houston$96,440,000$19,560,000
Tampa Bay$97,160,000$18,840,000
Detroit$98,160,000$17,840,000
N.Y. Jets$98,740,000$17,260,000
Kansas City$99,240,000$16,760,000
Steelers$99,370,000$16,630,000
Cleveland$99,440,000$16,560,000
Philadelphia$99,880,000$16,120,000
Green Bay$100,450,000$15,500,000
Minnesota$101,290,000$14,710,000
Arizona$101,510,000$14,490,000
Dallas$102,700,000$13,300,000
Seattle$103,130,000$12,870,000
Denver$107,710,000$8,290,000
New England$111,080,000$4,920,000
Baltimore$111,190,000$4,810,000
Atlanta$111,930,000$4,070,000
St. Louis$112,150,000$3,500,000
Carolina$116,940,000-$940,000
Indianapolis$121,640,000-$5,640,000
Washington$139,900,000-$23,900,000

If the cap figure for 2008 is even close to $116,000,000 then Indianapolis and Washington are going to have some serious work (e.g. re-negotiating) to do.

As for the Steelers, if the team and Ben Roethlisberger come to some sort of agreement on a contract extension, then the team's cap figure would improve even more.

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Season in Review: Third Down

In our reviews of first down plays and second down plays we've seen that while the mix of running plays v. passing plays has largely remained the same, the effectiveness of those plays (i.e. the average yardage gained per play) has steadily declined in recent seasons.

Now we turn our attention to third down plays, during the seasons 2000-2007, to determine whether the decline in yardage gained on first and second downs exhibited itself in play calling on third down, and whether or not the Steelers faced more third-and-long (i.e. 6 or more yards to go for a first down or a touchdown). As we've done with the downs one and two, here is a breakdown onn the numbers of running plays and passing plays called on third downs over the course of the last eight seasons:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Rushing Plays5673604864663649
Passing Plays174162163179155126181172
Total Plays230235223227219192217221

There's nothing especially revealing about these numbers. In 2007 the Steelers had the fourth lowest total number of third down plays, the third lowest number of rushing plays, and the fourth lowest/highest number of passing plays. Additionally, for what it's worth, the number of running plays in 2007 was distinctly below average (56.5) while the number of passing plays was distinctly above average (164).

But of course our reason for continuing on with this analysis is to examine whether or not the Steelers faced significantly more third-and-long situations in 2007 than in seasons past. Here's a graphical look at that:


So there were more third-and-long situations in 2007 than in 2006, but only five more; however the real difference occurred from 2005 to 2006 -- while 2007 represented a continuation of that disturbing trend.

Finally, in the interest of thoroughness, we offer a look at the average yards gained per play on third down:


Once again we see a very interesting trend in which yardage for rushing and passing plays consistently move in the same direction, indicating that the effectiveness of rushing and passing enjoys a much more symbiotic relationship than we would have previously believed.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Season in Review: Second Down

In our look at first down play calling and its effectiveness we noticed that while the mix of pass-to-run was similar over the last eight seasons, we saw a decline in yards gained on first down in 2007. As a result we surmised that second down play calling would be effected. Here's a look at those numbers:


20002001200220032004200520062007
Rushing Plays196182155151230178160174
Passing Plays144173209186112150177165
Total Off. Plays, First Down340355364337342328337339

The past season featured the fourth highest, and fourth lowest, percentage of running plays v. passing plays (51.33% v. 48.67%) over the last eight seasons. To say that 2007 was "average" is something of an understatement: From 2000-2007, on second down, the Steelers have averaged 178.25 rushing plays and 164.5 passing plays.

But the question we were really wondering about, based upon the first down yards gained in 2007, is whether or not the Steelers had more second-and-long situations that in seasons past. So we looked at how many second down plays the Steelers had on which they needed 5 or fewer yards, how many plays they had on which they needed between 6 and 10 yards, and how many plays on which they needed more than 10 yards. Here's a graphical look at the data:


As expected the 6-10 yard plays is overwhelmingly the #1 category in terms of total second down plays, and for only the second time in the last eight seasons the Steelers had more than 200 plays in that category. Also on the positive side, 2007 featured the fewest number of second-and-really long plays (44).

However, and this was to be expected, this past season also featured the fewest number of second-and-short -- i.e. five yards or fewer -- plays (88) of any season in the last eight. And while 2007 was the worst season in this regard, it was a continuation of a four year slide in the number of plays in which the Steelers offense had five or fewer yards to gain for a first down or touchdown.

Finally, as we move forward it is worthwhile to look at the average yardage gained on second down. Once again, here's a graphical look at the trends over the past eight seasons:


When we examined the Steelers' passing attack we saw that the effectiveness of the running and passing attacks have tended to expand and contract in the same direction, and we see something similar on second down. The average gain by running on second down has declined the past two seasons, and the same has occurred in the passing game as well.

We're beginning to see a trend here, and can only imagine what third down is going to look like.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Looking Ahead: 2008 Strength of Schedule -- Correction

Correction: We neglected to factor the Steelers' divisional opponents records in twice. The original winning percentage we calculated was .630, the corrected percentage is .607.

With the 2007 season now concluded it's time to look ahead -- and be afraid, very afraid. Here is the won-loss record (and winning percentage) of each of the Steelers' 2008 opponents:

WLPCT.
New England1601.000
Dallas133.813
Indianapolis133.813
Jacksonville115.688
San Diego115.688
N.Y. Giants106.625
Tennessee106.625
Cleveland106.625
Cleveland106.625
Washington97.563
Philadelphia88.500
Cincinnati79.438
Cincinnati79.438
Baltimore511.313
Baltimore511.313
14594.607

The Steelers won't have the toughest schedule (after all Cincinnati and Baltimore have to play the Steelers), but to provide some context, coming into the 2007 season the Steelers' opponents had a winning percentage of .512, and the Raiders and Bills had the NFL's toughest schedules -- their respective opponents had .539 winning percentages.

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Strength of Schedule:
Expectations v. Reality

Each summer the National Football League releases a memo showing each team's strength of schedule based upon the aggregated won-loss record of their opponents from the previous season. The offseason in the NFL stretches out seemingly forever, so when that particular release comes out all media outlets, both traditional (e.g. newspapers and magazines) and otherwise (e.g. blogs) are quick to share it with football fans starved for news. But just how accurate a predictor is that information of how difficult, or easy, the next season's schedule will be? We decided to compare the preseason numbers and what actually came to pass during the regular season. We've ordered the teams by their current position in the NFL draft:

TeamPreseasonActual
Miami.469.539
St. Louis.508.512
Atlanta.508.512
Oakland.516.516
Kansas City.527.516
N.Y. Jets.465.523
San Francisco (pick to N.E.).477.465
Baltimore.523.516
Cincinnati.543.461
New Orleans.539.480
Buffalo.477.516
Denver.516.516
Carolina.504.523
Chicago.445.543
Detroit.473.543
Arizona.500.434
Minnesota.457.504
Houston.523.516
Philadelphia.520.563
Tampa Bay.539.469
Washington.516.555
Cleveland (pick to Dallas).512.430
Steelers.531.453
Tennessee.527.500
Seattle.457.414
Jacksonville.488.516
San Diego.488.500
Dallas.504.496
Indianapolis (pick to S.F.).484.516
Green Bay.449.469
N.Y. Giants.543.516

One need only look at the teams in the AFC South and North in order to see the impact of a good, or bad, season on the strength of schedule of other teams in a division. Houston had their best season ever, and the actual strength of schedule exceeded the preseason number. Meanwhile, Baltimore and Cincinnati go into the tank in 2007, and the Steelers strength of schedule plummets (despite the improvement by Cleveland).

Oh, and for those who are wondering about New England (not included on our list because they do not have a first round pick that is, technically speaking, their own), their preseason strength of schedule was .473, while their actual strength of season in 2007 was .469.

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Season in Review: First Down

We are going to continue our look at the 2007 season, and the seven seasons that came before it, by hopping back over to the offensive side of the football. Specifically we want to look at what, if anything, changed in Bruce Arians' first season as offensive coordinator. After all much was made of how Ben Roethlisberger's input was incorporated into the offensive playbook, so what imapact did it have? Here's a look at a breakdown on play calling (i.e. run v. pass) on first down over the last eight seasons:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Rushing Plays247295273235292286252256
Passing Plays182167214199147142214168
Total Off. Plays, First Down429462487434439428466427

So many numbers . . . what stands out to us is that the 2007 season featured the fewest number of first down offensive plays in any of the last eight seasons, despite having the fourth highest number of first downs (298 -- that information is not included here, just take our word for it!) in the last eight seasons.

What also is noteworthy is that, despite the changes in offensive coordinator over the years (granted, for the time period we're looking at Kevin Gilbride was the coordinator for the 2000 season, Ken Whisenhunt was the coordinator from 2001-2006, and the Bruce Arians era began in 2007), and a change at the head coach position the mix of run-to-pass in quite similar. Here's a look at the percentage of run-to-pass, on first down, over the last eight seasons:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Rushing Plays57.5863.8556.0654.1566.5166.8254.0860.66
Passing Plays42.4236.1543.9445.8533.4933.1845.9239.34

The final question we have is whether or not there are any differences, qualitatively, in the plays. In other words, how much yardage was gained, on average, by these running and passing plays. For that we offer this graph:


As the graph shows, other than 2001, the rushing yardage on first down has been fairly consistent (though the 2007 was the first decline after four consecutive seasons of improvement), and it is the passing yardage that has shown the most change; indeed the average yardage gained on first down passes has steadily declined over the last four seasons.

For all the talk at the beginning of the season about change, it seems that the Steelers' offense is still very much a run first attack. However, the downward trends in average yardage gained on first down -- in both rushing and passing -- is (no doubt) making things tougher on second and third down.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Season in Review:
Sacks & Yards Allowed per Catch

In a recent posting we wondered whether or not the rather precipitous drop in sacks (from 2006 to 2007) by the Steelers' defense might be connected to a change in offensive scheming. Specifically we wondered whether offenses were going to a short(er) passing game to offset the Steelers' ferocious pass rush. As in most things, the results of our query were interesting if not conclusive.

First, here are the raw numbers -- the average yardage allowed per pass attempt by the Steelers' defense versus the median for all NFL defenses:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Steelers5.405.105.605.905.405.306.004.90
NFL Median5.905.905.905.806.105.806.006.10

That the Steelers are doing better than most is underscored by this fact: the Steelers 4.90 yards allowed per catch in 2007 is the second lowest figure in the last eight years (Tennessee gave up 4.7 yards per catch in 2000, and three other teams have given up 4.9 yards per catch over the course of a season -- Baltimore 2003, New England 2003, and Chicago 2005).

But of course the question is whether or not there is a relationship between sacks and average yards per catch. For that we'll turn to a couple of graphical representations. First, here is a look at average yards per catch allowed by the Steelers:


And now, here's a graphical look at sacks:


Other than the 2006 season there's seems to be a positive relationship between these two variables. It must be pointed out however that using the miracle that is Microsoft Excel to calculate a correlation coefficient results in a weak (nearly non-existent), positive relationship (.00525).

So while it's hardly conclusive that drop in sacks this past season was the result of shorter passes by opponents, it's something approximating an explanation; and for us that's good enough.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Traumatic Brain Injury: The Military & Football

Concussions amongst athletes has been a topic of some discussion in the media, including here at Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic.

Now comes a report from Bob Woodruff of ABC News on attempts by the United States Army to utilize special helmets that will measure the force of explosions that injured soldiers have faced. The simultaneous goals of the program are improvements in treatment for injured soldiers as well as improvements in protective equipment.

Helping in this effort is the Virginia Tech football program which is incorporating in-helmet sensors for its players. According to Tom Goodwin, a Virginia Tech engineer who is quoted on the web site that accompanies the report, the in-helmet sensors have been installed in order to [measure] the force of the blow, [and] so we can see where most of the blows are occurring."

It seems like an effort that is more than worthwhile, and one in which the National Football League should actively participate.

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Steel Curtain Great, Ernie Holmes, Killed

On the anniversary of the Steelers' win in Super Bowl X, the organization and its fans are mourning the death of number 63, Ernie Holmes. He was 59 years old.

Mr. Holmes had a seven year career, six of which were in Pittsburgh. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1974 and 1975, and played on two of the Steelers four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s.

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On This Date . . .

January 18, 1976 the Pittsburgh Steelers won their second Super Bowl, Super Bowl X; and Lynn Swan made the single greatest play in Super Bowl history.

The greatest.

Bar none.

For general information about the game here's the page at Wikipedia; and you can get statistics from the game and a brief narrative at the
NFL's Super Bowl Site.

YouTube offers you an opportunity to watch some of the game, and if you click here you can watch the player introductions, national anthem, and -- amazingly enough -- the opening kickoff which the Steelers do a terrible job of covering.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Season in Review: Sacks by the Defense

For years the Steelers have been known for their aggressive, pressuring defenses. In fact, one word captures the essence of the franchise for both Steelers fans, and those that root against them.

Blitzburgh.

So, as we did with the Pittsburgh offense, we decided to look at how many sacks the Steelers defense has forced -- both as a raw number, and as a percentage of the total number of pass attempts by opponent's offenses. After all, it would stand to reason that the more that a team plays with the lead the more often their opponents would be forced to throw, and -- possibly -- the higher the number of sacks.

Let's see what happens when that kind of logic meets reality -- here's the sack totals for the Steelers for the seasons 2000-2007, and the average for all NFL teams during those same seasons:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Steelers3955503541474936
NFL Avg.39.8738.6136.7234.1337.3836.9436.6634.33

Well, for the Steelers 2007 represented the second worst season for sacks by the defense in the last eight, and a significant decline after three consecutive seasons of improving numbers. However, before becoming too alarmed let's look at the number of pass attempts by Steelers opponents during the same period:

20002001200220032004200520062007
520525573484484549529536

The first thing that jumps out here are the 2003 and 2004 seasons. In 2003 the Steelers were 6-10 (i.e. they didn't play with the lead too often) but faced the exact same number of pass attempts as the 15-1 Steelers did in 2004! So much for what passes for "logic" at Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic.

What also stands out, in a negative kind of way, is the fact that the opponent's pass attempts have remained essentially the same over the past three seasons (i.e. 2005-2007), but the number of sacks plummeted this past season. The final part of this equation is how it compares to what is occurring throughout the league -- i.e. has the percentage of sacks, relative to pass attempts, also declined league-wide? Here's a look (click on the image for a closer look):

We're Steelers fans, we don't like to think of our team as "average." However it seems that that is precisely what the Steelers pass rush -- at least as reflected in the number of sacks -- was this past season; and that does represent a precipitous drop compared to the recent past.

However, it also seems that the number of sacks by the Steelers, in relation to the number of pass attempts by their opponents, is moving in the same general direction as the league average (though the Steelers have been decidedly above average for most of the past eight seasons), so there may be something larger at work.

What could that something be? Well, we wonder if teams are throwing shorter, quicker passes in an effort to negate pass rushes?

We'll save that for tomorrow!

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

More than 30 Years Later, It Still Hurts

The Boston Globe ran a feature article Wednesday about the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, specifically that team's loss to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game, and we immediately began having flashbacks.

The article discusses just how decimated by injuries the Steelers were that day (Franco Harris out, Rocky Bleier out, Frenchy Fuqua out, Roy Gerala out) and we can remember watching that day . . . Franco and Rocky in their crisp, clean uniforms . . . in the fourth quarter . . . on the sideline. The Steelers had won the previous two Super Bowls, and to say that expectations were high -- and that the team seemed poised to meet, or exceed, them -- would be an understatement.

While te connection to this weekend's games (i.e. the Chargers are facing injuries and are not, and should not, complain about those) is tenuous at best, but for fans of the Black & Gold it makes for interesting reading.

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Season in Review: Rushing Yards Allowed

In the aftermath of the Fred Taylor's romp through the Steelers' defense on December 16, 2007 we examined just how significant Aaron Smith was to the performance of the defense against the run, and as our analysis showed he was pretty significant.

And as part of our post-season review we looked at the passing yards surrendered by the Steelers, and found that they actually improved quite a bit in that area compared to the previous season.

Those two facts led us to wonder just how the Steelers did against the run? That is, did the improvement against passing attacks come about because of an increased vulnerability to the ground game? Here are the numbers for the seasons 2000-2007:

20002001200220032004200520062007
1,6931,1951,3751,7411,2991,3761,4121,438

Though slightly worse than the 2006 season, the Steelers defense was still third best in the NFL against the run in 2007 (and the 224 yards by Jacksonville in the first meeting represented 15.58% of the total allowed this past season), and is second best over the entire eight year period (96 yards behind Baltimore) so there's little doubt that the Steelers' defense is playing great football, right? Well, look at this (click on the image for a larger picture):


The Steelers are performing amazingly well compared other defenses, but over the last four seasons the trend -- slightly, almost imperceptibly -- has been incrementally worse; and they have not come close to repeating their breath-taking performance of 2001.

When considering where the Steelers' most immediate problems lie, run defense is way down the list. However, the trend line bears watching, and underscores the need for improved depth along the defensive line (i.e. someone to replace Pro Bowl caliber Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton if/when they are injured -- no easy task).

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Getting Draft Ready: Underclassmen Set

January 15, 2008 was the deadline for collegiate players with eligibility remaining to officially make themselves available for the NFL draft. Our friends at College Football Talk have the updated list which includes running back Jonathan Stewart of Oregon.

Being on the West Coast we get to see Mr. Stewart with a certain amount of regularity, and have always been impressed by his ability to run both inside and outside -- much like my Maurice Jones-Drew. How good is he? Well, former Dallas Cowboys general manager Gil Brandt, appearing on Sirius radio's The Red Zone predicted that Jonathan Stewart will be chosen ahead of the more heralded Darren McFadden.

For those wondering what the first round of the draft might look like, Todd McShay of Scouts Inc. has posted his predictions on ESPN.com -- with Darren McFadden going #4 and Jonathan Stewart going #16.

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Season in Review: Passing Yards Allowed

In the January 20, 2008 issue of Pro Football Weekly (PFW) the editors begin the process of getting us all ready for the NFL draft by providing a brief look at what they perceive to be each team's biggest needs. According to PFW the Steelers require "a blue-chip cornerback, a factor that becomes apparent against top competition. Safety could also be a position that needs bolstering if [free safety] Anthony Smith can't bounce back from a forgettable second NFL season."

It's hard to argue with those assessments -- and it's one that we've heard and read from other sources -- so we thought we'd go ahead and take a look at the net passing yards (i.e. gross passing yards minus yards lost via sacks -- we believe it provides a more holistic perspective on pass defense, at least compared to gross passing yards allowed) allowed by the Steelers in period 2000-2007, and then compare that with the rest of the National Football League.

First, as always, here are the number of passing yards the Steelers have surrendered the last eight seasons:

20002001200220032004200520062007
3,0192,9423,4603,0422,8353,1683,3932,824

The lowest total in the past eight seasons? That isn't at all what we expected. Moreover, the Steelers surrendered the third fewest passing yards in the NFL this season (only Tampa Bay and Indianapolis gave up fewer) -- that after a 2006 season in which twenty teams gave up fewer net passing yards. Indeed, other than being torched by Tom Brady (399 yards) the Steelers did not give up 250 net passing yards in any single game this past season. So despite the lack of a blue-chip cornerback, and Anthony Smith's struggles, the Steelers' pass defense showed marked improvement this past season.

As for how the Steelers most recent eight seasons measure up to the competition, here's a look (click on the image for a closer look):


Relative to the other teams in the NFL it appears that pass defense is something of a Steelers strength -- no matter what any of us fans, or the experts, might think.

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Coaching Moves Afoot

ESPN is reporting that the Cincinnati Bengals have hired former Cowboys' and Falcons' defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been hired for the same position with the Bengals. After thirteen years in Dallas Mr. Zimmer moved on to Atlanta, only to have his stay there short-circuited by Bobby Petrino's abrupt departure mid-season. Now Mr. Zimmer joins Marvin Lewis -- a coach who certainly must be considered "on the hot seat" in 2008.

Nice career move.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Atlanta and Baltimore are in a tug-of-war over this year's golden child assistant coach, Jason Garrett. And to add just a little more intrigue an ESPN report indicates that Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones isn't resigned to losing Mr. Garrett to either of those opportunities.

From our perspective, Mr. Garrett may well end up being a terrific head coach in the National Football League but don't forget this year's top candidate can sometimes be next year's forgotten man -- just ask Russ Grimm. The Steelers created something of a modern precedent for elevating a coordinator to a head coaching position after a single season; but for all of the talk about Mr. Garrett's pedigree just remember this: the Dallas offense gained 79 more total yards in 2007 than it did in 2006, and scored thirty more points. So, while he may become a great head coach some day, we're not sure that he's worth fighting over like the last Wii on Christmas Eve.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Season in Review: Points Allowed

We took an extended look at the offense last week, and now it's time to turn our laser-like gaze on a defensive unit that took some knocks on the field in the final month of the season, and has absorbed some proverbial knocks from fans and media since the season concluded.

Inasmuch as the game, at its most basic level, is about scoring points let's start off with a couple of simple questions: How many points did the Steelers allow in 2007? And how does that compare with the rest of the National Football League?

Here's a look at the five best teams in average points allowed for the period 2000-2007:

TeamAverage Points Allowed
Tampa Bay276.25
Baltimore277.13
Steelers279.00
Philadelphia282.13
New England287.88
Jacksonville298.25

Having established that that the Steelers have one of the finest scoring defenses in the NFL (something which we all knew, at least intuitively) here's a look at the Steelers' points against relative to the average number of points allowed by all the NFL's teams (click on the image for a better look):


As can be clearly seen the NFL average for points allowed has consistently hovered just below the 350 point mark, and other than a couple of seasons (i.e. 2002 and 2003 -- the final seasons that Tim Lewis served as defensive coordinator before Dik LeBeau returned in 2004) the Steelers have been much better than average. Further, 2007 represented a significant improvement over 2006 (315 points v. 269 points).

Additionally, the Steelers are one of 11 teams not to give up 400 points in any of the eight seasons at which we looked (the others are Baltimore, Chicago, Green Bay, Jacksonville, New England, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Washington)

Finally, and just for fun, here are the five (ok, six) teams who are the worst at allowing points during this same time period:

TeamAverage Points Allowed
Cincinnati & Atlanta368.25
Houston376.00
San Francisco381.00
Detroit387.25
St. Louis390.75
Arizona394.00

So it seems that Clancy Pendergast -- the defensive coordiantor for Ken Whisenhunt's Arizona Cardinals -- has his work cut out for himself, doesn't it? And how did the Cardinals do this first season under Mr. Pendergast, you ask?

They gave up 399 points.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Referees: Our Opinion --
Our Final Word

Update: 1/14/08 1:00AM EST
The entire discussion -- both amongst fans and Pittsburgh media -- as to the quality of the officiating in the Jacksonville v. Steelers game has, for the most part, concluded. But like any powerful entity the National Football League has insisted on having the final word.

Officials are chosen to work the playoffs based on merit -- i.e. those who performed most capably during the regular season were selected for the Wild Card weekend, and those who were judged to have performed most capably that weekend moved on to the Divisional round -- and as it turns out every one of the officials who worked playoff game between the Jaguars and Steelers moved up to the Divisional Round. In fact, the entire crew for that game, except for Back Judge Bill Schmitz, stayed together and officiated the game between San Diego and Indianapolis (Mr. Schmitz worked the game between Seattle and Green Bay).

We're sure it's just a coincidence that in both games that Gerry Austin was the referee the visiting teams were victorious.

Update: 2:00AM EST
It seems as though some of the Steelers' players are not as willing as we were to look beyond some missed calls. The following is an excerpt from an item in Monday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"Penalties were kept to a relative few Saturday night, but apparently that's what bothered some Steelers the most -- too few penalties.

The Jaguars had six penalties for 40 yards and the Steelers five for 50.

Linebacker Larry Foote intimated that a huge hole in the Steelers' defense that quarterback David Garrard ran through for 32 yards on fourth down to set up Jacksonville's winning field goal came about for reasons other than good blocking.

Foote complained to officials on the field and it was the only topic he broached briefly in the locker room before leaving.

'You'll see a big old hole open up, and you'll see the reason why. That's all I've got to say. Thank you.'

Steelers linebackers were upset by what they felt were non-calls, particularly holding by the Jaguars.

'I'm the wrong person to interview,' Clark Haggans said. 'You might want to interview the referees. Plain and simple, that's it. I don't have anything else to say besides that.'

Said James Harrison, 'I have nothing to say about that. I ain't got no fine money to give away for talking about them blind refs, so I got nothing to say'
."


Original Post
We've encountered some Steelers fans who have complained bitterly about the officiating in the Jacksonville game; and we must admit to having been tempted to including a discussion about this issue in our post-game wrap.

Sean Mahan holding on the two point conversion attempt? It really didn't look that way. However, James Harrison was held on very nearly every passing play, and on David Garrard's 32-yard, fourth quarter run both Mr. Harrison and Troy Polamalu were held.

Frankly, Hines Ward did have his hands in the face mask of Brian Williams -- illustrating the point that penalties are in the eyes of the beholder.

However, the referees had nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger throwing three interceptions.

The referees had nothing to do with the Steelers not getting a first down with less than three minutes to play in the game, and in the lead.

The referees had nothing to do with a 16-yard punt return by Dennis Northcutt, thereby allowing the Jaguars to begin their winning drive from their own 49-yard line.

There isn't a game in the NFL where penalties couldn't be called more often, and while it can be argued that the failure to make certain calls had an impact on a particular play the reason the Steelers lost has to do with the plays that they made (Ben Roethlisberger's interceptions) and didn't make (not covering a kickoff well enough to keep Maurice Jones-Drew from breaking off a 96-yard return).

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fun Fact: Wins & Losses Edition

If there is one thing that we strive to do is bring some historical context to the love we feel for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and professional football. To that end we offer up a look at the won-loss records for all 32 NFL franchises, by conference, for the period 1997-2007 (inclusive). First the AFC:

TeamWLTPCT.
New England118580.670
Denver109670.619
Indianapolis108680.614
Steelers106691.602
Jacksonville100760.568
Tennessee99770.563
Kansas City93830.528
Baltimore92831.523
N.Y. Jets91850.517
Miami89870.506
Buffalo80960.455
San Diego81950.460
Oakland721040.409
Cincinnati681080.386
Cleveland50940.284
Houston32640.182

We don't know about you, but we were surprised to find out that, despite all of the talk about how the AFC North is changing (much of which came from members of teams other than the Steelers), the Bengals have really been worse than we remember -- but upon further review we see that this time frame includes the Bruce Coslet/Dick LeBeau era (sorry Coach LeBeau!). We were also surprised to see that after eleven seasons there are ten teams (out of 16) with a winning record, and five teams with 100+ wins (and Tennessee with 99).

Now, here's the NFC:

TeamWLTPCT.
Green Bay110660.625
Seattle98780.557
Philadelphia97781.551
Minnesota96800.545
Tampa Bay96800.545
N.Y. Giants93821.528
St. Louis90860.511
Dallas86900.489
Washington82931.466
San Francisco82940.466
Atlanta81941.460
Chicago72880.449
Carolina78980.443
New Orleans77990.438
Arizona621140.352
Detroit621140.352

While there are seven teams with winning records, only Green Bay has crested the century mark no doubt supporting those who claim that AFC plays a better brand of football than the NFC.

And who are we to disagree?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

A New Player on the North Shore?

According to a report from KDKA the Steelers have entered into a partnership with AEG Worldwide "to build another type of venue described as a theater-nightclub to bring top flight music acts to the North Shore."

According to the report the venue will be designed by the architects at HOK, the same folks who designed both PNC Park and Heinz Field (I suppose the dearly departed Hi-Tops, and some businesses that are still open might become victims of Eminent Domain?).

But what caught our eye was the partnership with AEG, whose principle owner is Philip Anschutz. Among other things, Mr. Anschutz owns the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, the Home Depot Center (Carson, California) the Los Angeles Galaxy (David Beckham's home in the MLS) who play at the Home Depot Center, the Anaheim (CA) Convention Center, the Hartford Civic Center, and the recently christened O2 Arena in London.

He also owns hockey teams in Europe, and according to the AEG website "[e]vents such as the Amgen Tour of California cycling road race, the ING Bay to Breakers foot race and the East West Bank Classic WTA tennis tournament as well as an ongoing schedule of soccer exhibitions in the United States featuring the most popular international teams are part of the portfolio of AEG Sports."

That Mr. Anschutz is a sportsman (and one of the world's richest people) is undeniable (his amazingly low-profile, reclusive style makes the Rooney family look flamboyant), and one wonders if this partnership with one of the NFL's founding families isn't an attempt to create connections that will provide an entree into one of the world's biggest games, and most exclusive clubs.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Season in Review: Sacks Allowed

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin appeared on Sirius radio's Movin' the Chains The Red Zone show Thursday morning, and when asked about pass protection for Ben Roethlisberger the coach had this to say: "We've got to get better in that area . . . it's a glaring issue . . . it's about getting the ball out of [the quarterback's] hand . . . and receivers recognizing hot [reads]."

We appreciate the coach pointing out that it isn't always about the offensive line, though that certainly is a big part of the equation. So we've decided to take a look at this issue a couple of different ways -- the number of sacks per season from 2000-2007, the number of pass attempts in each of those seasons, and the ratio of sacks to pass attempts.

The number of sacks each season, compared to the NFL average per season looks like this:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Sacks - NFL Avg.39.8738.6136.7234.1337.3836.9436.3434.44
Sacks - Steelers43.0031.0034.0042.0036.0032.0049.0047.00

The Steelers have given up fewer sacks than the average NFL team in four of the seasons, and more in four seasons. What's interesting about that is that the 2007 season was the only one in which the Steelers gave up more than the average number of sacks and still managed to make the playoffs.

Of course the number of sacks can be -- almost certainly is -- effected by the number of times a quarterback drops back to throw. Here are the number of pass attempts -- both the NFL average and the Steelers' -- for the same period:

20002001200220032004200520062007
Pass Attempts
- NFL Avg.
526.58521.97540.38515.41511.06514.50512.16532.66
Pass Attempts -
Steelers
440.00454.00551.00532.00358.00379.00523.00442.00

What stands out of course is that despite the fact that the Steelers threw the football less in 2007 than in 2006 the number of sacks remained essentially the same. Here is what the ratio of sacks to pass attempts looks like graphically:


To say that the Steelers are, and have been, moving in the wrong direction is an understatement; and it appears that 2007 represented an acceleration of a bad trend.

In his interview on Sirius radio, Coach Tomlin described himself as being "more energized than I've ever been" about the work that needs to be done during the offseason. That's a good thing -- because there's obviously a great deal of work to do.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Season in Review:
The Bob Ligashesky Edition

Added Note: Here is an excerpt of a report from the Associated Press/Yahoo! Sports on Mike Tomlin's final press conference of the 2007 season:

"As he watched film after being hired nearly a year ago, Tomlin said he realized losing special teams players such as Sean Morey, Mike Logan and Chidi Iwuoma would be a major setback. Also, linebacker James Harrison became a starter and didn't play as much on special teams.

"I wasn't interested in throwing up a red flag and saying, `Hey, I am worried about special teams,' but obviously I was," Tomlin said. "A special teams unit is comprised of four or five core guys. ... It would be the equivalent of losing seven, eight, nine starters on an offensive or defensive unit."

Kick coverage must improve next season, he said, but there "are not enough dynamic playmakers that you can build a core unit around
."


Original Post
People are looking for Bob Ligashesky.

Whether it's to simply find out more about the life and career of the Steelers' special teams coach, or something . . . less wholesome . . . we do not know. But given this recent spate of interest in the special teams and their coach we decided to jump them to the front of our "Season in Review" line. In this installment we are going to look at four phases of special teams -- average yards per punt return (i.e. by the Steelers), average yards allowed per punt return (i.e. against the Steelers), average yards per kick return, and average yards allowed per kick return.

Additionally, rather than comparing the Steelers' averages to the NFL averages -- thereby averaging an average -- we are comparing the Steelers' averages to the league's median performance in those same categories. As with our other season reviews we are also putting the numbers into a historical context by looking at eight years of performance (2000-2007). So, without further adieu, here's how average yards per punt return looks:


Clearly 2007 continued a discouraging trend that has been arrested only twice -- 2003 and 2005 -- by Antwaan Randle-El. But while the general performance of the punt return unit has been poor over the last eight seasons we see that the unit now finds itself decidedly in the lower half of punt return units in the league. Indeed, 2007 was the worst season if the eight we examined.

And while punt returns by the Steelers continued its long slide into mediocrity, punt coverage had its worst season since 2005:


Coming out of the 2006 season -- the Steelers' finest during this eight season period -- it may be said that there was no place to go but down (which, in our graph, is up), and that is precisely what happened. Indeed, while still better than the median, the difference was minimal.

Given the poor performance of the punt teams an "average" performance by the kicking teams would probably be welcome -- and it's exactly what the Steelers delivered. Here's a look at the kick return unit:


Other than a horrible 2001 season the performance of the Steelers' kick return team has almost exactly mirrored the overall trend within the league itself, though almost always performing slightly below the median.

And finally we have the kick coverage team -- the bane of every Steelers fan:


Since the 2003 season the Steelers' kick coverage unit has gotten progressively worse, allowing more yardage on each return every season -- and almost exactly mirroring what has occurred throughout the league.

These graphs pretty much confirm what all Steelers fans know -- that even on a good day, the Steelers' kick/punt return/coverage units have been no better than average for quite awhile. It's a phase of the game that, as we were witness to last Saturday (and as we've seen in games against New England and Cincinnati and, seemingly, countless others), can be a difference maker. There is little doubt that the coaches and players are trying to make plays on special teams. However, unless the team is prepared to use its starters on those units, Kevin Colbert has to do a better job of choosing players in the later rounds who, while they may not be every down players, can become contributors on special teams (in other words, no more Fred Gibson's in the fourth rounds of drafts).

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Clark Haggans Moving On?

"He had a good run, won a Super Bowl, enjoyed the people, the fans. He loved being a part of the old Steelers."

"[O]ld Steelers"?

So says Jeff Sperbeck, the agent for linebacker Clark Haggans, in an article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

This item underscores just what a tumultuous offseason the Steelers face. Because while much of the free agency hand-wringing attention has focused on Alan Faneca but the Steelers' also have to be concerned about re-signing unrestricted free agents Max Starks and Travis Kirschke as well as restricted free agents Nate Washington (who had five touchdown receptions, three behind leader Santonio Holmes, and two behind Hines Ward and Heath Miller), Chris Kemoeatu and Trai Essex (at least one of whom is likely to replace a starting offensive lineman).

So not only are the Steelers almost certainly going to lose a Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman (please, enjoy Arizona) but they will also be losing a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker, and lots of depth in the trenches.

And of course next season they play seven playoff teams -- sounds like fun, doesn't it?

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A Quick & Dirty Preview of
Games We Don't Care About

Oddly enough there are still teams playing NFL games.

For those who want to know who will win those games -- and why would you -- here's a look at the yards per catch and giveaway/takeaway ratios (a "system" Pat Kirwan mentioned on Sirus radio's Movin' the Chains Inside the Red Zone) for the teams still in the NFL playoffs.

Seattle @ Green Bay
Giveaway/Takeaway: Seattle +10, Green Bay +4
Yards per Catch: Seattle 7.1, Green Bay 7.7

Looks like a nail-biter

Jacksonville @ New England
Giveaway/Takeaway: Jacksonville +9, New England +16
Yards per Catch: Jacksonville 7.5, New England 8.3

New England for the win, but by 13?

San Diego @ Indianapolis
Giveaway/Takeaway: San Diego +24, Indianapolis +18
Yards per Catch: San Diego 6.7, Indianapolis 7.6

These two teams are #1 (Chargers) & #2 (Colts) in takeaways. Looks like a close one as well.

N.Y. Giants @ Dallas
Giveaway/Takeaway: N.Y. Giants -9, Dallas +5
Yards per Catch: N.Y. Giants 6.2, Dallas 8.1

Looks like a blowout in the making

One final comment. One motivation for watching these games is this: Except for Green Bay and Seattle the Steelers will be playing all of these teams next season.

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Season in Review: Passing Yards

We continue to assess the 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers within a historical context (both in comparison to previous Steelers teams, and compared with NFL averages), and turn our attention to the passing attack. As we saw in our assessment of the running game that facet of the offense has declined slightly in net total yards. Given that we expected a slight upward trend in passing yardage. Here's what the numbers look like:

Season20002001200220032004200520062007
Net Passing Yards2,5433,1133,8323,3042,7202,9263,7333,071

The idea that winning teams run more (i.e. they run because the are winning) and losing teams throw is challenged somewhat by the numbers we see here. The 2002 Steelers -- which threw for the more yards than any other during the last eight seasons -- had a record of 10-5-1, and went on to reach the divisional playoff round before losing a close game (can anyone forget the roughing the kicker call against Dewayne Washington?). However, the drop of nearly 18% in passing yards from 2006 to 2007 that coincides with an improved recordis in line with expectations.

We now turn our attention to how the Steelers measure up to the NFL averages, and here's how that looks:


The Steelers have been, more-or-less, slightly below average in passing yards compared to the competition -- as expected.

We also want to take a look, side-by-side, at the trends in the rushing and passing games:


What is surprising about this graphic is that the two lines do not routinely move in opposite directions. Our expectation was that as one facet of the offensive attack increased, the other would decrease. Instead, we see that both facets have trended (with some exceptions -- see 2004-2006) in the same direction (see 2000-2003, and 2007) leading us to conclude that overall offensive output, rather than remaining fairly consistent, expands and contracts.

To find out whether this is found throughout the league we offer one last chart showing the Steelers rushing and passing yardage along with the NFL averages for rushing and passing:


Averages flatten out the lines, we get that. But there just something . . . different about the Steelers offensive output; and honestly, we're not sure what to think.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Final Grades Have Been Posted

The great folks at Pro Football Weekly have released their grades for the respective performances of each of the NFL head coaches. In giving first year head man Mike Tomlin a B+ here's what they said:

"Tomlin is intelligent and well-organized; were he not coaching in the NFL, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were making a fortune on Wall Street. He had the unenviable task of taking over a veteran club that was accustomed to Bill Cowher and Cowher’s coaching staff. But Tomlin has fared well, for the most part. The Steelers reached the playoffs in spite of some late-season struggles, but they were eliminated in the wild-card round by Jacksonville — at Heinz Field. The defense allowed fewer yards than any other in the league. Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have meshed their philosophies relatively well, though you would have to expect some defensive personnel changes in the offseason now that the patient Tomlin has had a season to observe the “D.” The offense wasn’t overly impressive statistically but was still potent, thanks to a remarkable season by QB Ben Roethlisberger, who took a beating behind an offensive line that needs to be revamped. Overall, Tomlin’s first regular season in Pittsburgh went relatively well."

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Hines Ward Needs Surgery

According to a from the WTAE website Steelers' wide receiver is going to have surgery on his knee later this week.

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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Jacksonville V. Steelers: The Good, the Bad
& The Ugly -- the Wild Card Edition

Wow.

We are e-x-h-a-u-s-t-e-d.

Imagine how the players must feel.

It was an amazing game, and our knee-jerk reaction following the game was to be disappointed at the final score while simultaneously being quite proud of how the Pittsburgh Steelers fought back from as much adversity as a team can encounter on the field of play.

But upon further reflection we must, as we believe the Steelers' players, coaches, and fans must, reject moral victories. The franchise is a great one because of the championships it has won not because the teams have played horribly in one half and played splendidly in the next. The National Football League -- and in particular the playoffs -- is a zero sum game. The Steelers lost, and looking for something to feel good about only delays (and possibly detracts from) the critical self-analysis that must now begin if the team hopes to get back to being a legitimate championship contender.

After a crazy, mixed up game, like the one we witnessed Saturday night there is no way to categorize the game into "Good," "Bad," and "Ugly." The Steelers were all of those things -- sometimes at the same time. Here's some of what we mean:

Ben Roethlisberger : During the first half, just for a moment, we thought we were watching Super Bowl XL. A quarterback rating of 47.8? Three interceptions? Even if the first one is credited to aggressive play by Rashean Mathis (it was a high risk, high reward play which worked out for him and the Jaguars) the two that followed were . . . mind-boggling in their carelessness (and the final one cost the Steelers an opportunity to kick a field goal).

But then there was the second half. Two touchdowns, 188 yards, 17/23 and a 126.72 quarterback rating. He led his team, he willed his team down the field -- taking advantage of the turnovers forced by the defense -- and brought them back to the brink of victory.

The Offensive Line : With 3:43 left in the game the Steelers had the football and a one point lead. Frankly, they were twenty yards -- two first downs -- away from sealing the win. There was a time, a season or two ago, the Steelers could have run out the clock by keeping the ball on the ground, and getting the necessary yardage. The 2007 edition of the Steelers' offensive line managed to lead the team down the field -- for five yards. From that point, the rest is history. Moreover, the 43 yards of rushing that the Steelers accumulated (13 of which came from Ben Roethlisberger) Saturday is their lowest total in the playoffs since rushing for 58 yards in the AFC Championship game against new England on January 27, 2002 in that game Kordell Stewart was the Steelers' leading rusher).

We do want to send some praise the way of Trai Essex. We watched him intently all evening (and then watched the game again via the miracle of Tivo), and must say that he exceeded our expectations by a considerable margin. Additionally, it did not appear that the Steelers modified their playbook appreciably to "protect" Mr. Essex. There were runs to the left, there were QB roll-outs to the left, and until the Steelers' final offensive play of the evening Mr. Essex hadn't been beaten on a pass rush (it should be pointed out that there was almost always a running back helping Mr. Essex in pass protection, but that probably should have been the case when these two teams played the first time this season), and on that play Najeh Davenport didn't exactly do much to lend a hand (i.e. he whiffed on the block). Overall Mr. Essex did well, better than anyone had a right to expect from a third string tackle.

The Defense : Faced with bad field position throughout much of the first half -- Jacksonville's average drive began at their 46-yard line -- the defense limited Jacksonville to 14 points (and let's be fair -- the kick return by Maurice Jones-Drew left them in an impossible position). In the second half the Steelers' defense forced turnovers, and played the physical brand of football that their fans have come to love and expect. They limited the Jaguars to 239 net yards, and held Fred Taylor and Mr. Jones-Drew to a combined 77 yards. But at the end of the game, when they needed to make a play in order to secure victory, David Garrard rumbled for 32 yards thereby ensuring that the Jaguars would have an opportunity to kick a makeable field goal.

No one can question the effort or the intensity of the Steelers' defense. But in the end all that can be said is that they almost played like champions.

[Note added 1/6/08, 5:20 PM: It should be noted how thrilled we were to see LaMarr Woodley making impact plays. The solid performances of Mr. Woodley, Matt Spaeth, and Daniel Sepulveda is making the 2007 draft look solid]

Special Teams : Following the final Steelers win of the season (i.e. the game in St. Louis), in discussing the kick coverage team here is what we said: "If the Steelers are fortunate enough to make the playoffs this glaring weakness will cost them points -- count on it."

Did you doubt us?

And yet the special teams responded. Following the 96-yard return by Maurice Jones-Drew the Jaguars had five more kick returns, and they managed to rack-up a total of 44 yards (i.e. 8.8 yards per kick return). The pooch kick is an amazing thing. On those five kicks we saw speed -- something sorely lacking in games,and years past, on Pittsburgh's special teams.

The punt coverage team was similarly up-and-down. Dennis Northcutt returned three punts Saturday evening. On the first two he managed to get 15 total yards. Again, the speed of the Steelers' coverage unit was terrific. But then, with the offense having failed to get a first down late in the game, deep in their own territory, Mr. Northcutt broke loose for a 16-yard return, enabling the Jaguars' offense to begin their winning drive near midfield.


Conclusion : If we were to identify the turning point in what was a see-saw affair it would have to be the Steelers' fourth quarter possession that began with 3:43 left in the game. With momentum on the Steelers' side, and a one point lead, here's what happened:
  • The Jaguars' defense beat the Steelers' offense, forcing a punt.

  • The Jaguars' punt return team beat the Steelers' punt coverage team, setting up the Jags' offense at their 49-yard line.

  • The Jaguars' offense made enough plays -- including the 31-yard run by David Garrard on fourth-and-two -- to kick the field goal that put them ahead.

  • The Jaguars' defense stomped out any hope of a miraculous Steelers' comeback by beating the left offensive tackle and stripping the ball away from the quarterback.
Late in the game, with a chance to win, the Steelers were dominated in every phase of the game. It's hard to find anything to feel good about in that.

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