Friday, January 6, 2012

Steelers AFC Wildcard Game Day - @ Denver Broncos

The Steelers finished the season 12-4 and second in the AFC North but yet has to travel to Denver who finished only 8-8 on the season as they won the AFC West. A lot of people might not agree with the playoff system and how they reward home field advantage for the Wild Card round but I have no problem with it and now the Steelers will have to win a mile above sea level if they want a rematch with the Patriots or Ravens.

The storyline in this game is easy. It is Tim Tebow against the Steelers defense. It is Dick LeBeau, one of the best defensive minds in the game, against a guy who defies all the odds and wins despite below average, some might say terrible, quarterback play.

This has all the makings of a blowout with the way the Broncos backed into the playoffs and have looked like a bottom five team in the final three weeks of the season but you don’t play the game on paper, you play it on the field. The Steelers are without faults as they are really banged up and we are not only talking about Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle.

These are the playoffs and it is a one and done scenario. You lose and you aren’t playing until the 2012 regular season and you don’t want to be on that side of the field after this slate of games is done this weekend. This is what the players play for, a chance to win a Super Bowl championship and these are two of the 12 teams that are still in it.

Let’s get into the preview with the stats first:


Last Week:

Pittsburgh 13, Cleveland 9
Passing: Batch - 23/40, 221 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Redman - 19 carries, 92 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Brown - 6 rec, 90 yards, 0 TD

Kansas City 7, Denver 3
Passing: Tebow - 6/22, 60 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Hillis - 28 carries, 145 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Thomas - 3 rec, 34 yards, 0 TD

All-Time Record vs. Denver: 10-16-1 (3-3 Playoffs)

Nov. 9, 2009 - Pittsburgh 28, Denver 10
Oct. 21, 2007 - Denver 31, Pittsburgh 28
Nov 5, 2006 - Denver 31, Pittsburgh 20
Jan. 22, 2006 - Pittsburgh 34, Denver 17
Oct. 12, 2003 - Denver 17, Pittsburgh 14

Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 372.3 yards/game (12th)
Denver: 316.6 yards/game (23rd)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 253.4 yards/game (10th)
Denver: 152.1 yards/game (31st)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 118.9 yards/game (14th)
Denver: 164.5 yards/game (1st)

Points
Pittsburgh: 20.3 points/game (t-21st)
Denver: 19.3 points/game (25th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 271.8 yards/game (1st)
Denver: 357.8 yards/game (20th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 171.9 yards/game (1st)
Denver: 231.5 yards/game (18th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 99.8 yards/game (8th)
Denver: 126.3 yards/game (22nd)

Points
Pittsburgh: 14.2 points/game (1st)
Denver: 24.4 points/game (24th)

Hit the jump for a closer look at the Denver Broncos




Quarterback



If you were born yesterday, or haven’t watched SportsCenter in the past six months then I guess I should tell you who the quarterback is for the Denver Broncos. That man’s name is Tim Tebow and you will be seeing and hearing a lot of him leading up to the game. Tebow took over for Kyle Orton who was relieved of his duties when the Broncos were 1-4 in order to see what the Broncos had in Tebow and to please the fans. Orton was then traded to Kansas City and proceded to beat the Broncos in week 17. No idea.

OK, back to Tebow. Truth be told he is not good at the quarterback position but somehow he gets wins. Down the stretch Tebow went 7-4 despite completing over 50% of his passes only twice during those 11 games. On the season Tebow has thrown for 1,729 yards for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. He is only completing 46.5% of his passes for a mere 6.38 yards per attempt average. Not very good from the quarterback position.

Tebow is coming off a pretty bad game where he only completed six passes for 60 yards and was picked off one time and in his pass three games he is 30-for-73 for 439 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. Yikes.

Tebow is not your traditional quarterback and relies heavily on the Broncos top ranked running game while playing more of the college triple option offense. Tebow actually is more of a running back than a quarterback in the true sense of the world and has carried the ball 122 times for 660 yards and six touchdowns. That gives him a pretty healthy 5.4 yards per attempt and adds the the running attack. He has rushed 10 or more times in six games this season and three times in the last four weeks. He has one 100 yard game this season and has ran for 50 yards or more six times. If the Steelers are not careful he will break tackles as he is a big quarterback so they have to make sure to line him up and tackle well.

Tebow has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of -137 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -18.3% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. To put those numbers in some more context the DYAR number ranks 39th among the 47 qualified quarterbacks and his DVOA ranks 37th. The quarterbacks that most resemble Tebow in terms of those numbers are Tyler Palko, John Beck and Sam Bradford. Woof. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play.

Since Tebow is such a threat to run the football we can also look at his DYAR and DVOA as a runner since in the triple option he will be doing some of that also. To my surprise Tebow ranks very low among quarterbacks who qualify, which would be 41 of them. His DYAR of -29 is 39th and his DVOA is -16.8% which ranks 34th. Can someone explain to me again why I should worry about him? Nowhere can I find a “he just wins” stat and that is pretty meaningless since he has sucked and lost his last three games. His biggest wins this year are against either the Chargers or Jets. Um, OK, I am done with that.

Running Backs



Like I said in the Tebow piece, the Broncos are riding the running game and defense to winning these football games. The Broncos lead the league averaging just over 164 yards per game and they are averaging 4.8 yards per carry which is very impressive. Going into the season everyone (including myself) thought that this was going to be Knowshon Moreno’s team (I drafted him for my FF team) but turns out that didn’t work. Moreno has been hurt and only has 37 carries on the season. What was key was the offseason addition of Willis McGahee and he has carried this team on his back.

McGahee has 1,199 yards on the season on 249 carries which translates into a 4.8 yard per carry average. A really nice season while rushing for four touchdowns and 10 rushes of 20 yards or more. I am going to be 100% honest with you I thought he was too old and washed up to make it work, even in Denver, but I was wrong. He is coming off a monster game against the Chiefs where he carried the ball 28 times for 145 yards which was his seventh 100 yard performance of the season.

McGahee is no stranger to playing against the Steelers as he was a member of the Baltimore Ravens and has seen this team in the playoffs before. He hasn’t had much success against the Steelers in regular season games as he has a 3.5 yard per carry average in eight games with about 34 yards per game. He does have five touchdowns but he has never really been a threat to the Steelers. In the AFC Championship game a few years ago he did play one of his better games against the Steelers when he rushed for 60 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns.

McGahee ranks just outside being a top-10 back according to Football Outsiders so this confirms that he has been a pretty effective part of the Broncos success this y ear. He ranks 12th with a 159 DYAR which is right ahead of Ray Rice and Arian Foster and his has a 7.0% DVOA which is only two spots behind rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew. Not too shabby. Where McGahee struggles, however, is his success rate at 47% which puts him at 26th among qualified running backs. Success rate represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. What the success rate is good for is comparison with the DVOA. With McGahee’s higher DVOA and lower success rate that indicates that he mixes longer runs in with runs that he gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage. So it seems to be a crap shoot as to what you might expect from McGahee from carry to carry.

I talked about the rest of the run game with Tim Tebow above as he is the team’s second leading rusher. Not too much more to add. Lance Ball is the third leading rusher on the team with 96 carries for 402 yards and a touchdown and adds a little bit to the run game. Ball is a more between the tackle runner as he is a pretty thick player standing at only 5’9 but weighing 215 pounds. Ball has only carried the ball 10 times or more twice this season but you might expect to see him touch the rock anywhere between five and 10 times.

Wide Receivers



Tebow isn’t that great at throwing the football but, truth be told, he doesn’t have a lot of targets to throw to. Early in the season they traded his best target, Brandon Lloyd, to the St. Louis Rams which left the Broncos with very little in terms of skill on the outside.

Eric Decker is the leading receiver in terms of receptions (44), targets (95), yards (612) and touchdowns (eight). The problem with Decker is that he just hasn’t been that good, at all, down the stretch. Last week against the Chiefs he only made one catch for five yards and did not make a single catch the week before against Buffalo. He has one game where he has over 100 yards and that was in week two against the Bengals and hasn’t scored a touchdown in his last five games. Over those last five games he has seven catches for 85 yards and no scores. The last three games he has two catches for 27 yards. This is the Broncos leading receiver folks.

Decker doesn’t stack up well in advanced metrics and isn’t even the best receiver on the team in either DYAR or DVOA. Decker ranks 66th among qualified receivers in both metrics with a DYAR of 24 and a DVOA of -9.4%. He also has a catch rate of 46% even though his effective yards (646) outweigh his standard yards (612). Effective yards are basically translates DVOA into a yardage figure which basically means that Decker has played better than his yardage stats would indicate, but not by much.

Demaryius Thomas is the second best pass catcher for the Broncos even though the second year player from Georgia Tech only has 32 catches for 551 yards. While he doesn’t have a lot of substance in his numbers he is the receiver that can stretch the field, even if Tebow can’t get him the ball down the field. Thomas leads the team with a 17.2 yard per catch average and averages over 50 yards per game, which is also tops on the team. He has four touchdowns and is tied with Decker with nine catches of 20 yards or more.

Thomas grades out better than Decker, albeit not that much better, in most advanced metrics. Thomas is 62nd in the league with a DYAR of 42 and is also 62nd in DVOA at -4.9%. Unlike Decker, Thomas actually has a lower effective yards (506) than traditional yards (551) which probably means he is overachieving a little bit.

Outside of those two there really isn’t too much to get excited about (I mean are those two players exciting) but I might as well mention tight end Daniel Fells who has 19 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He isn’t anything that is going to blow you away ranking 31st in DYAR and 26th in DVOA among 47 qualified tight ends.

Offensive Line



From left to right the Broncos read as Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Russ Hochstein and the fill in for Orlando Franklin which could be Tony Hills. This is a very young offensive line with Clady, Beadles, Walton and Hills all have between two and four years of experience while Hochstein has 11 years.

The Broncos rank 11th in the league with an adjusted line yards (ALY) of 4.19. Adjusted line yards (ALY) is a formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages: losses: 120% value, 0-4 Yards: 100% value, 5-10 Yards: 50% value, 11+ Yards: 0% value. These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. There are two main statistics that deal around the line of scrimmage which can tell you a lot about the line. The first is power success which is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. The Broncos ranks near bottom of the league with a 56% power success (26th) but they make up for that by ranking 9th in the league at a 17% stuffed percentage. Stuffed rank is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Broncos might not be converting a ton of the third and short situations but they are one of the most consistent in the league in at least gaining something, especially on early downs.

Denver might be pretty good at running the football but they are one of the worst in the league at protecting the quarterback. The offensive line gave up 41 sacks on the season which isn’t near the league leader (54, Arizona) but when you look at the Broncos’ adjusted sack rate this gives you a different look into their sack rating. Adjusted sack rate gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Denver ranks 29th in the league at 9.2% which is well above the NFL average of 6.7%. I am sure it is much harder for the Denver offensive line to know where Tebow is because he moves around in the pocket a lot but with Harrison and Woodley on the field you know they have to be licking their collective chops at the opportunities they could have.

Denver makes its living running the football to the right side of the offensive line as they post ALY’s that rank second off the right tackle (5.09) and fifth off the right end (4.51). This is going to be interesting to see how they do against the Steelers on this since they are missing its starting right tackle for the duration of the playoffs. Consequently the Broncos do run the ball to the right side more to the left side. They run a combined 14% off the left end/tackle while they run 12% of the plays off the right tackle and 6% off the right end.

Defense



During the six game winning streak that Denver had a lot of the praise was going to Tim Tebow during what was referred to as “Tebow Time.”That referred to Tebow playing like he was a high school JV quarterback for three and a half quarters and then making a drive or two in the fourth quarter. What didn’t get a lot of pub was that the Denver defense was giving him a chance by keeping games close. The defense was much more the reason this team is in the playoffs than Tebow is. They have a couple of pass rushers that can get to the quarterback and if they can create turnovers (which they haven’t done this year) they can give the Steelers a run for its money considering the Steelers are pretty banged up.

I know I talked up the Denver defense a good bit in that first paragraph but they have been nothing but average all year. Overall their defense ranks 19th with a 6.4% DVOA (remember negative is good for defense) and they have pretty much stayed true to that with a weighted defense of 6.2% which ranks them 18th. Weight defense is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important. It better reflects how the team was playing at the end of the season. This actually leads the Denver defense to have the best variance of any defense in the NFL of 1.6% so I should think we should know what to expect on Sunday.

The Broncos actually mimic its offense when it comes to defense where they struggle against the pass and do a pretty nice job against the run. The Denver pass defense ranks 24th against the pass with a DVOA of 15.8% while its run defense is a little better than average (13th in NFL) with a DVOA of -4.1% so the defense isn’t great in any one facet but they are definitely much better against the run than they are the pass.

Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is the team’s leading tackler with 97 total tackles (67 solo) from his linebacker position but doesn’t have a sack this year but has forced three fumbles. He has only made five tackles in the last two games and hasn’t had a double-digit tackle game since week two against the Bengals.

D.J. Williams is second on the team with 90 tackles (70 solo) and has been a mainstay in the Broncos defense for the last eight years. He has five sacks on the year but has been kept off the board the last three weeks after having a two sack game against the Bears on December 11.

The real heart of the defense for the Broncos are the two pass rushers in linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil. Miller has had a sensational rookie season with 11.5 sacks and 64 tackles but has been battling a busted up hand that requires him to have a cast on his right hand (I think). His play hasn’t been very strong the last three weeks with only two tackles and no sacks. Before the last three games (all Denver losses) Miller recorded at least half a sack in five straight games and 10 of 11 games in the middle of the season so needless to say he is dangerous. Max Starks is going to have to be on his A game with Dumervil as he has 9.5 sacks and at least a half sack in eight of the last nine games. These two players are going to give the Steelers fits and you can bet they are the key points in the defense.

Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman are the corners for Denver and both have over 10 years of experience, each. Each also have a team-high 10 passes defended and a pair of interceptions. The safties are a different story because the Broncos will likely be without veteran Brian Dawkins who has a neck injury. Rookie Quinton Carter could be joined by either David Bruton or Rafeal Bush who have a combined three years of experience so while the corners have a ton of experience you really can’t say the same about the safties so look for the Steelers to take advantage of that.

Thoughts:

-Both of these teams are not very good at creating turnovers. The Steelers are ranked dead last in the AFC with a -13 turnover differential and the Broncos are right on their tails with a -12 turnover differential. One of the only ways I see the Steelers losing this football game is by turning the ball over multiple times and having Denver score a touchdown off either a turnover or special teams play. Tebow has put the ball on the ground each of his last five games and he has throw a good number of picks down the stretch so this would be a prime opportunity for the Steelers defense to play takeaway and if that happens there is virtually no chance of the Broncos winning the football game.

-Could the injury situation get any worse for the Steelers? Maukice Pouncey and Mewelde Moore have been ruled out for the game after both were thought to be in while Ryan Clark was ruled out because of his sickle cell trait. Ben Roethlisberger came out and said that he tweaked his ankle against the Browns and on Wednesday told the Denver media he was only a five (on a scale of 10) but I think that was a lot of gamesmanship. All things told the Steelers are not in good shape health wise. Add to that list that Rashard Mendenhall has his torn ACL so the Steelers are relying on a practice squad signing to be the third running back this weekend. Yikes. If the Steelers can overcome this and get a few of the guys healthier for next week (pending a win) then it will be a huge week.

-Selling out on the run early and forcing the Broncos into third and long situations is going to be huge for the Steelers early success. For Denver if they are in a third and five or six they will still run the football for first downs and with how good their running game h as been they can make that work. However, the Broncos rank 30th in the league converting only 31% of their third down opportunities. If the Steelers can consistently stop the run they are going to make Tim Tebow throw the ball on third and medium and third and longs and with a 46% completion percentage they are going to be able to get off the field. The Steelers defense is letting opponents convert at just over a 38% rate so this should be a big part of the game.

-With the injury to Ben Roethlisberger it has raised an interesting question on how far the Steelers can go into the playoffs. I found it interesting that I was watching NFL32 while I was in the gym the other day and they were talking about if they should have sat Ben against Cleveland to get him healthy for the playoffs and the two NFL players that were guests on the show (I can’t remember off hand who they were) but they agreed with Ben playing. The reason was that they thought Ben was going to need to learn how to play with the injury and how he can compensate for things he can’t do with a bummed ankle. They one said they had the same injury and had to play thought it in the playoffs and said sitting one week wasn’t going to make a big difference for Ben because the first time he tweaks it that week will go out the window. I have had a high ankle sprain before as part of my football career and I can tell you a week or two doesn’t really make a difference, it takes the offseason to get right and that won’t happen until after the playoffs for Ben. He was high on his throws and his balance looked off but if you watched the game you could see that the second half of the Browns game was much better than the first half and that is due to shaking off the rust and getting an idea of how he has to compensate for the injury.

-Word on the street is that the Broncos might be working on getting Brady Quinn some snaps in the game for a few packages. I personally have no idea how having Brady Quinn in the game is going to help the Broncos get better but I guess they could try and do that. Sure, Quinn is a better option throwing the football but he is not nearly mobile, at all, so while you improve one part of the quarterback position you really hurt the other. Let’s also not act like Quinn was ever a good quarterback so really I think the Broncos might be trying to throw shit on the wall and just seeing if something is going to stick. That or they are just trying to confuse the Steelers to make them prepare for something else.

-Speaking of preparation the Steelers are going to have to do a lot of that for this game. Now I know you are probably thinking that the Steelers are going to mainly have to prepare for Tebow’s style of play but I am thinking of preparation that is a little deeper than that. It is no secret that the Broncos are the heavy underdog in this game and nobody is really giving them any kind of chance to win this game. What does that mean exactly? That means that the Broncos are playing with house money and with nothing to lose. They are going to pull out all the stops because they are supposed to lose this game. The Steelers are going to have to be on the lookout and expect all the trick plays and reverses as well as special teams tricks such as fake punts and reverses on the kickoff returns. While the Steelers might not see this or even give up a big play to one of them it will still open up other parts of the field if the Broncos decide they want to try this a few times. We all see the times that receivers come around for fake reverses on inside handoffs well if the outside contain has to stay and extra half second respecting that reverse every time then they might be a half step slow getting to the inside ball carrier who bounces it outside and that can be the difference in a touchdown and a two yard gain.

PREDICTION – I just don’t see the Broncos having enough to win this game. I think for them to come out of the game with a win they will have to finish +3 in the turnover department and they have proved this year that they don’t play takeaway too often. If the Steelers can jump out to a 10 point lead after the first quarter then they should roll. I actually have a feeling that Ben is going to light it up and that he isn’t as hurt as he made it seem earlier in the week but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a lower scoring game. Steelers win this 20-10.

Hit it.




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