Friday, October 5, 2012

Steelers Game Day 4 Preview - vs. Philadelphia Eagles

If there is one thing that too many people hang their hat on and overuse it is the “must win” game. In week five of the season there isn’t a must win game on the schedule and certainly isn’t one that is going to be played between the Steelers and Eagles. The Eagles are riding high and winning games despite some bad offense and the Steelers have been able to put up a bunch of points recently but haven’t been able to stop anyone. It will be interesting to see if the Eagles defense can step up or if the Steelers defense can find their way with a few of the walking wounded coming back.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is a rivalry but not really in football. Obviously the Steelers play in the AFC and the Eagles in the NFC and they only see each other every four years or so. You never get that feeling like you do when the Penguins play the Flyers or the Phillies play the Pirates. Would it be nice to take down the team from the other side of the state? Absolutely, but I think this rivalry thing is being played up a little too much for my liking.

There really isn't much else to say about this so let’s just get into the preview:


The stats:


Last Week:

Oakland 34, Pittsburgh 31 (Steelers Week 4 Bye)
Passing: Roethlisberger: 36-49, 384 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Redman: 9 car., 27 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wallace: 8 rec., 123 yards, 1 TD

Philadelphia 19, NY Giants 17
Passing: Vick: 19-30, 241 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: McCoy: 23 car., 123 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Jackson: 6 rec., 99 yards, 1 TD


Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 349.3 yards/game (18th)
Philadelphia: 417.8 yards/game (5th)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 284.3 yards/game (7th)
Philadelphia: 272.0 yards/game (10th)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 65.0 yards/game (31st)
Philadelphia: 145.8 yards/game (7th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 25.7 points/game (13th)
Philadelphia: 16.5 points/game (30th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 291.3 yards/game (5th)
Philadelphia: 298.3 yards/game (6th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 182.8 yards/game (3rd)
Philadelphia: 206.8 yards/game (7th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 101.0 yards/game (t14th)
Philadelphia: 91.5 yards/game (12th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 25.0 points/game (20th)
Philadelphia: 20.8 points/game (t10th)

All-Time Record vs. Philadelphia: 27-46-3 (0-1 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings
September 21, 2008 - Philadelphia 15, Pittsburgh 6
November 7, 2004 - Pittsburgh 27, Philadelphia 3
November 12, 2000 - Philadelphia 26, Pittsburgh 23
November 23, 1997 - Philadelphia 23, Pittsburgh 20
December 11, 1994 - Pittsburgh 14, Philadelphia 3

Hit the jump for the rest of the preview



Quarterback



When the name Michael Vick comes up a lot of people immediately think of the dynamic running quarterback that once make two Minnesota Vikings literally run into each other as he ran right between them for an overtime touchdown. There aren't too many players like Vick in the NFL and while there are players now coming into the league with the likes of Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III there really might not be another guy like Vick in terms of raw athletic ability and the way he can make you get up out of your seat.

While Vick is dynamic he isn't a spring chicken anymore. He is 32 years old and it wasn't that long ago that Vick was locked up behind bars for his involvement in the dog fighting ring while he was a member of the Atlanta Falcons. While he isn't young he is still more than enough of a threat to beat you with his legs and can make some plays with his arms if the Eagles don't let him sling the ball all over the field 100 times.

The Eagles are 3-1 so far and it is really hard to pinpoint why for the sheer fact that Vick, and the offense, has turned the ball over a lot so far. They are near dead last in the NFL in scoring and Vick has thrown six interceptions as opposed to only four touchdowns in four games. The first two weeks of the season Vick struggled in a pretty big way as he threw four picks in a season opener against the Browns and then threw a couple more against the Ravens, both in wins.

It seems that he has been wildly inconsistent playing a pretty good game after every bad game. In the week one win against the Browns Vick completed just 51.8% of his passes and averaged only 5.66 yards per attempt (YPA) while throwing the four picks. One week later he was much better throwing for 371 yards and a YPA of 11.59 (!) despite throwing a pair of interceptions. He then went into a tank again completing only 45.9% of his 37 pass attempts and didn't throw a single touchdown while averaging only a 5.87 YPA. He then followed that up with a really solid game agains the Giants. This inconsistency would tell you that he should be up for a downer against the Steelers but does anyone really know what he is going to do? I sure don't.

While Vick has a 3-1 record and has the Eagles winning despite some poor offensive play the advanced statistics really tell a story where Vick isn't even in the top-25 in the advanced metrics which probably give you a better idea of how a quarterback plays rather than just sheer passing yards and TD/INT ratio, which to be fair says that Vick hasn't been very good either. Vick has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of -88 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. That ranks him 28th among qualified quarterbacks which isn't good considering that only 32 quarterbacks qualify. Basically Vick is playing below a replacement level (average) quarterback right now. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -19.7% 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. 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. So in terms of value on a per play basis Vick is going to hurt you which is probably a testament to Vick's better games coming in the games where he has his two fewest pass attempts to date. Let him go out and sling it and you are going to see things probably not go his way and that is something the Steelers want to see.

Fact of the matter is that Vick can be really good and take over a game or he can be really bad and just cripple the team as he tries to make up for past mistakes and just makes more. He has never been a quarterback that can complete a lot of passes as he as only eclipsed the 60% completion mark one time in his career and that came in the 2010 season. Vick is also vulnerable because the dude takes a ton of hits. Like, a lot. He is a true competitor and doesn't want to give and inch and that coupled with him holding on to the ball a little long he is going to take shots which results in him having to wear a Kevlar vest this season just to stay healthy. Not exactly idea for your starting quarterback.

The Steelers should hit him early and often and sell out on the run and force Vick to throw the ball 35+ times. If they do that then the Steelers are going to be a in a good position to win the game.

Running Back



The Eagles might employ the best running back in the entire league. Now, I am not saying this because LeSean "Shady" McCoy is a Pitt product but if you watch this kid play you come away from the game saying "wow." McCoy was only a second round draft pick but in my opinion he comes out of the Ray Rice mold in the fact that he can run the ball anywhere on the field, make people miss and catch it out of the backfield. He is a true three down back and boy is he fun to watch.

So far this season McCoy has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and has 384 yards on 81 carries with a score and four rushes of 20 yards or more. Those numbers are pretty damn good and when you watch him run you should be in awe by his football and his quickness. Just when you think you have him lined up he gives you one juke and he's gone.

Shady is coming off his best game where he went for 123 yards on 23 carries against the Giants but maybe the biggest problem with the Eagles running game is that they just don't give McCoy enough touches. He has averaged over five yards an attempt in three of the four games but hasn't yet touched the ball more than 25 times. I know 25 times is probably a good number but he only had 20 carries against the Browns in week one and then a mere 13 carries in a week three loss to Arizona. The less times that McCoy touches the ball, the better.

The advanced statistics aren't too friendly to McCoy but that can probably be somewhat attributed to only being through four games and McCoy basically getting real carries in only three games so far. I am sure the fact that he only has scored one touchdown hasn't helped either. McCoy ranks 15th in the league with a 38 DYAR and ranks 21st with only a 2.1% DVOA. Those numbers probably should be a little higher but when you factor in that he has put the ball on the ground three times.

I don't care what anyone says, McCoy is far and away the most dangerous player on this football team and I am not very excited to have the Steelers defense have to go against him.

I didn't talk about Vick in the running game above but he has been pretty good with his feet so far this season. In 27 carries he has 130 yards and a touchdown. If you get him on the outside or drop a ton into coverage and he finds a lane he can make something happen. One of the downfalls, as I have talked before, is that he tends to take some brutal shots from not wanting to get down, so, yea.

Receivers



The Eagles really have an interesting group of receivers in the fact that they are extremely talented and athletic but seem to lose track of their focus and when playing with Michael Vick they just don't have someone that can consistently get them the football in positions to make plays.

Far and away the most dynamic player that the Eagles have on the outside is DeSean Jackson. Jackson is a head case and a few years ago made a big stink about his contract but he has been really good so far this year as he leads the team in catches (20), targets (26) and yards (333). He's been pretty consisted this year aside from a down game against Arizona where he only caught three passes for 43 yards but in the three other games he has at least one catch for 30 yards or more so he is someone that can get down the field.

Jackson ranks 42nd in the league with a 31 DYAR and ranks a little worse in DVOA at -1.8% so things aren't all good for Jackson as he really has one big play a game and then doesn't really do a whole ton. What kills Jackson is that he posts a 53% catch rate which represents the percentage of passes to this receiver completed. While Jackson does make the splash play he is only getting his hands on about half the passes that come his way which will negatively impact his production.

The Eagles second leading receiver is someone that fantasy players probably have cursed a few times over the past couple of years and that is tight end Brent Celek. Celek has been one of the best tight ends in the game, pass catching wise, so far this season and he ranks second on the team with 315 yards and 18 catches. What might be most impressive about Celek is that he has eight catches of 20 or more yards. For a tight end to be able to stretch the field like that it can create some big match up problems and if the Steelers have anyone else but Lawrence Timmons following him on pass patterns then it could be problematic for them. Celek has been pretty quiet since a HUGE eight catch 157 yard day against the Ravens but so far this season Celek has yet to find the end zone. He currently ranks fourth among tight ends with a 71 DYAR and fifth with a DVOA of 33.2%. He has a catch rate of 62% which isn't great but is passable for a tight end and with the production you really can't be too upset with it.

The Eagles have some other playmakers but they haven't made all that many plays this year in the form of Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant. Avant only has 11 catches for 128 yards while Maclin has nine cathcces for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns to lead the team. Avant actually has been pretty good with a DYAR of 48 and a DVOA of 36.6% but due to limited catches there isn't much to go off of. He has been the best in terms of catch rate at 85% which is very good for receivers. On the other hand Maclin hasn't been as good this year with only a 50% catch rate and a DVOA of -4.6%. Yikes.

Overall the Eagles receivers are dynamic and can make plays but whether it is them not getting their hands on the ball or Vick not being able to put them in the right place they just aren't making enough catches. They can stretch the field with the best of them but there really isn't a whole lot else to look at when you just do the preliminary breakdown of the receivers. Celek is going to be a tough cover but I would expect them to pay special attention to him and I would assume that Ike Taylor will get the duty on Jackson. Hopefully the other DB's can make some plays on Avant and Maclin.

Offensive Line



From left to right on the Eagles offensive line they go King Dunlap, Evan Mathis, Dallas Reynolds, Danny Watkins and Todd Herremans. The line overall is pretty balanced with nobody that has more than eight years of experience. The youth is up in the middle right side of the line where Reynolds only has one year of experience and Watkins has only been in the league for two years. They surround themselves with veterans as Herremans and Mathis each have eight years under their belts while Dulap has five years.
Philadelphia is right around league average in terms of running the football with their offensive line. When you go to Football Outsiders and look at how the Eagles have run the ball we see that their running backs are outperforming the offensive line. The Eagles backs are averaging 4.51 yards per attempt while the offensive line adjusted line yards (ALY) is only 3.99.

ALY 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. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.

As you might expect with the athleticism that McCoy and Vick have the Eagles are one of the best teams in the league in terms of getting to the second level. They rank second in the league with 1.54 second level yards which are yards which this team's running backs earn between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries. In the same respect the Eagles rank 10th in the league in open field yards which is basically the same stat as second level yards only open field yards deal with runs where the back gets ten yards past the line of scrimmage. As I said they are eighth in the league in open field yards with 0.89.

Where the Eagles struggle is with power running. The Eagles don't really have a back that can do that kind of "heavy lifting" as McCoy is more of a shifty back that can make you miss but at the point of attack the Eagles just aren't getting the job done. The Eagles have a power success rate of only 56% 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. That number ranks the Eagles 19th in the league while they rank 30th in stuffed percentage at 29%. Stuffed rating is the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).
As you can see this is pretty much the gist of the Eagles running game. I talked about McCoy and Vick being able to get people to miss and get to the second level but when you get to the nitty gritty the Eagles are really "below the line" as Mike Tomlin might say.

Philadelphia hasn't kept Vick very clean as they hold an adjusted sack rate of 6.9% with 11 sacks and that ranks them 18th in the league. While the Eagles have two more sacks than the Steelers but have a better adjusted sack rate which gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. Granted the Eagles have played one more game than the Steelers and Vick has been just chucking the ball all over the field so that can explain the better sack rate despite having more sacks taken than the Steelers.

Where the Eagles succeed running the football is far and away the right side. They rank eight in the league both running off the right tackle and off the right end. They ALY running to those two spots are 4.68 and 5.05, respectively, so the Steelers are going to have to do a pretty good job of holding their positions and just not running wildly into the backfield or they are going to get smoked. They are also very good running off the left tackle where they rank third in the league with a 5.55 ALY but really struggle running the ball up the middle. They are only 28th in the league running up the middle or off the guard with a 3.04 ALY which should help explain their struggle in short yardage situations where running off the guards is a must.

Philadelphia actually does a nice job at keeping things balanced in the run game. They run the ball the most off the right end which takes up 28% of their carries but when they go off the tackles they run 16% to the left tackle and then 14% to the right tackle while running up the middle just 27% of the time. While they are wildly successful running to the right side of the line it isn't the only place they run. They keep you honest so while it might be easy to tell the Steelers to sell out on stopping runs to the right side (defenses left side) that could leave wide gashes on the opposite side of the field for the Eagles to take advantage of.

Defense



I talked about the offense struggling to score points in the onset so naturally the defense would have to step up and win this team some football games. They have done that and been one of the best in the league during the first four week. The Eagles rank third in the league in defensive DVOA at -22.3% which ranks them better than stout defense such as Seattle and San Francisco and just behind Chicago and Houston.

The Eagles rank in the top-10 against both the run and the pass so it is going to be a hard time coming going against the Eagles. Against the run they have a DVOA of -19% which ranks fifth in the league. They are giving up a mere 2.94 ALY on opponents this year which ranks third. They are very good across the board against the run as they are tops in power success, third in stuffed rank and fourth in second level yards. Pretty impressive against the run for the Eagles.

If there is one place that the Eagles can be hurt it would be against the left side of their defense, specifically over the offensive right tackle. When teams run off that tackle they are churning out a 4.92 ALY which ranks the Eagles defense 27th in the league. This isn't really a result of small sample side as 14% of the 88 runs against the Eagles are to the offensive right tackle which is a vast majority of the runs to the defensive left side of the Eagles. The Eagles really have played well in other areas as they rank in the top-10 in every other run spots according to ALY including ranking in the top-5 when teams try to run off the offensive left end and left tackle.

Against the pass they ranks eight in the league with a DVOA of -27.2% but they haven't really been able to get after the passer a whole lot. They have recorded only seven sacks this season in four games which turns into a 5.1% adjusted sack rate that ranks 24th in the league.

What is interesting about the defensive numbers is that they are one of the worst in the league in terms of variance. Variance basically tells you how consistent the defense is based on the statistical variances of the week-to-week defensive DVOA of the team. Philadelphia only ranks 31st in terms of variance while their opponents have been just about average as they rank against other teams. The schedule DVOA of 0.3% means that they are playing just about league average offense so it isn't like Eagles are throwing consistent defense out there against top competition.

Kurt Coleman leads the team coming into the game with 27 total tackles from his secondary position and also has a pair of interceptions. Coleman is joined in the secondary by big free agent signee recently which is Nnamdi Asomugha who doesn't yet have an interception but has four passes defended as is excellent in his job. Asomugha has been beat before, namely by Larry Fitzgerald in week three where Fitz went for nine catches for 114 yards and a score and was being shadowed by Nnamdi so that does bode well for whoever he will be matched up on this week that he can be beat.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been the best in terms of statistical value for the Eagles in the secondary with three interceptions and seven passes defended.

While the Eagles aren't getting to the quarterback much they still have a pair of guys that are going to make plays in linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive end Jason Babin. Babin has a team-best 2.5 sacks and 11 total tackles while Ryans has four tackles for loss which is tops on the team.

Game Thoughts:

-For the first time this season we are able to talk about some good injury news as it relates to the Steelers. As of writing this James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall are all probable for the game and are most likely, barring setback, going to be in big time plays for the Steelers on Sunday. Now, it must be said that the Steelers are going to monitor all of those guys and said that Harrison will start and be spelled by Chris Carter in order to keep him for the fourth quarter and they also said they would do the same for LaMarr Woodley. You shouldn’t have expected to see them on the field for the full game and not get gassed but it really will be a shot to have Harrison back on the field to give the defense another dimension and having Troy in the defensive backfield to finally get a game in with his partner Ryan Clark.

-The Steelers are coming into a huge game. Right now they are 1-2 and the thought of going 1-3 is a bad one. Now, the season isn’t over if the Steelers lose. Sure, they will be 1-3 but they have yet to play a single division game and there is still a ton of season left. That being said they shouldn’t hold that card and not go after this win like it is a must win. Getting back to 2-2 would be huge because the Eagles are a good team. After losing to the Raiders the way they did and then having a bye week they had some time to stew over this one and the Steelers have expressed their unhappiness. They have done that before but I think the defense really knows it screwed the pooch in Oakland and they are going to want to make a statement when they come back home to Heinz Field.

-One thing the Steelers need to improve on if they want to win is to limit the Eagles red zone scoring, specifically when you talk about touchdowns. When opponents get inside the red zone and scoring the Steelers are giving up touchdowns at a 60% clip and that ranks 23rd in the NFL. Last year this wasn’t something the Steelers did well and they gave up 51% of scores were touchdowns so this year has started off much worse. Luckily for the Steelers the Eagles are one of the worst teams in the NFL in terms of touchdown percentage in the red zone so that will be good. Saving four points when you hold teams to field goals instead of touchdowns is going to be huge in a close game which is what I think the Steelers are going to be in.

- I talked about it a bunch earlier but the key to this game comes down to stopping McCoy from beating you and making Vick throw the football, a lot. The Steelers haven’t been that good at running the football and if they let Darren McFadden go off for a 60+ yard run then imagine what McCoy can do to them. The return of Harrison will help but making this Eagles team one dimensional is uber important. The more Vick throws the better chance the Steelers have of causing a turnover and when the Eagles turn the football over they are an average team. They didn’t turn the ball over against the Giants last week and they played some really good offense. That is the key. Stop the run and make Vick beat you with his arm. He can beat you with his arm but that is a primary way he can do it. Force him to throw and see what happens. The Steelers have a great chance then.

PREDICTION – I think the Steelers can match up well against the Eagles. Philadelphia is very talented and very athletic but they are majorly inconsistent. The Steelers are a very good team at home and Ben Roethlisberger is playing some of the best football of his career. It will be a close game but I think the Steelers come out with the three point win. Steelers 24, Eagles 21.

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