Friday, September 6, 2013

Steelers Game 1 Preview - vs. Tennessee Titans

The Steelers season is in full swing now. Done are the meaning preseason games where key members of the team get hurt. Done is training camp where all we can do is listen to people complain about how soft Mike Tomlin is on the plays. Done are all the cuts to get down to the 53 guys that are going to be on the opening day roster. Done is everything that doesn’t matter. Not done is the stuff that truly matters.

As I am caught up in a ton of stuff that has to do with my real life job and stuff that has to do with this certain baseball team in Pittsburgh that had me forgetting that football was even starting this weekend. Because of those things, and other, this is going to be a pretty abbreviated preview. This might go for a few weeks thanks to a pretty brutal travel schedule I have but I will try and get as much as possible in here. I am not sure if many of you actually read the stuff I put in the previews but they are usually lengthy, and time consuming, so this might either be a good or bad for you so, whatever.

I will break this down into four different sections. I will look at the Tennessee Titans offense, their defense, their special teams and then I will go through some general notes about the game. So, I guess I could sit here and talk more about how different this might be than you are used to but instead I am just going to get into the preview.

Before we get to the preview there are a few terms that I am going to be using throughout the preview that some of you might not be used to. These are more advanced stats and they come from Football Outsiders which is a great site for advanced statistics and tells you a little more about the team and individual players do than the standard counting stats (yards, completions, receptions, carries, etc.) might give you. If you follow my baseball coverage here you know that I am big on the advanced metrics so this is the football version of that. Hopefully you will give them a chance because it is some good stuff. Anyways here are the terms I will be using:

DVOA - DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.

DYAR - Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the player’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.

ALY - Adjusted Line Yards. Based on regression analysis , the Adjusted Line Yards 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. 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.

Power Success - 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. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.

Stuffed - 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).

Adjusted Sack Rate -  Gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.

Tennessee Offense:

Last season the Tennessee offense struggled in a big way. Behind quarterback Jake Locker and a running game that wasn’t very good the Tennessee offense ranked 29th in the NFL with a -20.5% DVOA which was 14 shots worse than they were in the 2011 season. They really didn’t do anything well as their running game checked in 29th in the league with a -17.1% DVOA and the passing game was just slightly better with a -14% DVOA that ranked 26th in the league. A statistic that really shows the consistency in the teams week-to-week performance is variance that measures the teams consistency and the Titans ranked 22nd among all teams. Needless to say the Titans were not very good at anything offensively and was showcased by scoring only 20.6 points per game (23rd) and gaining only 313.1 yards per game (26th).

Locker was the main signal caller for the Titans and he was not very good. He ranked 24th among qualified quarterbacks with a 48.1 QBR and finished the season 32nd with a DVOA of -23.7%. That DVOA number ranked him in line with Blaine Gabbert , Caleb Henne, and Brandon Weeden. Actually among qualified quarterbacks there were only seven worse than him in terms of DVOA.

Locker ranked 31st the league in DYAR at -287 and was not able to complete even 60% of his passes (58.3%). It must be noted that Locker only played in 11 games last season due to an injury but even when he was in the game he wasn’t very good. His 6.93 yard per attempt average is really bad and he tossed less than a touchdown per game (10 TD passes) while throwing more interceptions (11) than touchdowns.

While the offensive production wasn’t there in the passing game it really wasn’t from a lack of talent among the receivers. Nate Washington led the team with 746 yards and was one of four players with four touchdown catches. He collected the team’s most receiving yards on only 46 catches for a healthy 16.2 yard per catch average and had 14 catches of 20 yards or more which was only one fewer than the next two receivers combined in that category. Washington ranked tops on the team with a +70 DYAR which was only 49th best in the league among qualified receivers. He ranked 52nd with a -2.5% DVOA which was also the best on the team. Washington is a former Steelers product and has been effective for the Titans but not the guy you want to be your top guy.

Kendall Wright led the team in receptions with 64 but only carried a 9.8 yard per catch average and was one of the players to score four touchdowns. He only had six catches of 20 yards or more and had a long catch of only 38 yards. This isn’t a guy who is going to stretch the field like Washington or Kenny Britt but if you get this guy matched up with your nickel back, especially against who the Steelers might throw out there, he could become a matchup problem. He is a good athlete and has some wiggle to him so I wouldn’t look past him just because of the low yard per catch average. He was targeted 104 times last season which was 14 more times than anyone else so he seems to be a quarterback favorite.

The other receiving threat to keep an eye on is Britt. Britt has battled some injuries and hasn’t been able to stay on the field but when he is on the field he can be a dangerous threat. He has yet to turn 25 years old and is already through four seasons in the league. After playing only three games in 2011 he was in 14 last season and caught 45 passes for 589 yards and four touchdowns. He had a modest 13.1 yard per catch average and really didn’t grade out very well in the advanced statistics. He ranked 82nd (out of 86) with a -81 DYAR and was also 83rd with a -24.3% DVOA. Just not good. His catch rate was only 50% and while there is an immense amount of talent there (he was very good in 2009 and 2010) it just hasn’t showed back up.

Where you might expect the Titans to excel is in the running game, and while they weren’t great in this aspect last season they actually did a pretty nice job. As a team they rushed for a 4.5 yard per carry average which was good for 10th in the league. Chris Johnson had somewhat of a resurgence season where he rushed for 1,243 yards on 276 carries and scored six touchdowns. He only ran for eight rushes of 20 or more yards but even know the rushing yards were there he still did not grade out very highly. He finished the year 33rd in the league with a -30 DYAR and was 32nd with a -11.3% DVOA. Those numbers ranked right in line with the Steelers’ Isaac Redman just to put that in a little perspective.

Last season the Titans didn’t get much else. Their second leading rusher was Locker who had 291 yards on 31 carries and who was third on the team in rushing? Matt Hasselbeck. Yea. He had 38 yards on 13 carries. That was it for the Titans. They rely heavily on Johnson and when he doesn’t perform the team isn’t going to rush for many yards. Five different times last season Johnson went for over 100 yards and in those games the Titans won three of them. Six games Johnson went for less than 50 yards and in those games the Titans only won once. Take that as you will.

Obviously the running game isn’t all with the running backs. The line is just as big of a part of the running game as anyone else, and probably actually means more. The Tennessee offensive line ranked 31st in the league with an ALY of 3.35 which was well below the actual running back average of 4.21 yards per carry. Tennessee actually had a nice power success rate of 67% which was the percentage of runs on third or fourth down that were two yards or less that resulted in a first down or touchdown. Other than that strong power success rate they struggled. They ranked 28th in the league in stuffed percentage (24th) and ranked 19th with an adjusted sack rate of 7.1% as they allowed 39 sacks.

In terms of running tendencies the Titans didn’t rank above 22nd in the league in any are of the offensive line. They ranked 22nd when they ran off the left tackle with an ALY of 3.84 but even though that was their strongest area of run success it was below the league average in that area which was 4.00.

It can be really difficult to differentiate between the running back and the offensive line but I think we can all agree by looking over these numbers that if the offensive line doesn’t get better it is really going to be difficult for the Titans to win football games.

Tennessee Defense

Last season the Titans were about as good defensively as they were offensively. To put that in simple terms that means they weren’t very good. Overall on team defense the ranked 25th in the league with a 7.4% DVOA after they were ranked 15th in 2011. They were much better in pass defense despite ranking below league average (19th with a 10.6%) than they were in the run defense department where they racked up a DVOA of 3.8% which was nearly dead last in the league (29th).

In terms of pass defense the Titans ranked 29th against opponents top receivers with a 24.3% DVOA that was 29th in the league giving up almost eight passes and 76 yards per game to them. They were much better against teams second receivers with a DVOA of -13.5% (8th) and against all over receivers outside of the top two (-5.4% DVOA, 11th). Where you can really gash the Titans is utilizing your running backs out of the backfield. They ranked 30th in the league with a 23.5% DVOA against running backs catching passes with backs catching over six passes per game for almost 45 yards a game.

Against the run the Titans ranked 29th in the league giving up an ALY of 4.40 and an actual running back average yard per carry of 4.35. They rank 24th in the league with a 67% power success rate so they are not very good in the short yardage situations which will really match up against the inability of the Steelers running backs to really do, um, anything. They do get closer to league average with a 20% stuffed ranking that put them 12th in the league.

Tennessee was beaten in nearly every aspect of the defensive line. They were 31st in the league against runs up the middle and off the guards with an ALY against of 4.51 while they ranked 30th when opposing teams ran off the offensive left tackle with an ALY of 4.68. The only spot of the line where the Titans were better than league average was when teams ran off the offensive right end giving up an ALY of 3.72 which was 13th in the league.

In terms of defensive players Akeem Ayers returns after leading the team in tackles with 104 total. He also was tied for second on the team with six sacks and contributed four tackles for loss. Derrick Morgan also returns on the defensive line after leading the team with 6.5 sacks and also had five tackles for loss and six passes defended from his left defensive end spots. Kamerion Wimbley had six sacks and Zach Brown had 5.5 to help a fairly good pass rush that finished 13th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 6.5% with 39 sacks.

In the defensive backfield Jason McCourty and Michael Griffin both return after leading the team with four interceptions each while Brown headlined the linebackers with three interceptions. McCourty also led the team with 15 passes defended while starting right corner Alterraun Verner had nine passes defended with a pair of interceptions.

Tennessee Special Teams

Rob Bironas is the kicker for the Titans. He is a veteran guy from Georgia Southern and has been pretty good throughout his career. He has a career 86% success rate making 214-of-250 field goals including making all but two of his 276 extra point attempts. Last season Bironas made 25-of-31 attempts with 19 of those field goals going under 40 yards. One of his field goals went over 50 yards which was a 53 yard attempt.

Brett Kern is punting for the Titans and to be perfectly honest with you I have never heard of this guy in my life. It was a great surprise to me that he was a six year pro with the last four season as the Titans punter after he spent his first two season with the Denver Broncos. Last season Kern averaged nearly 47 yards per punt which was a career-high and knocked 30 of his 81 punts inside the 20 yard line. Kern finished seventh in the league in average yardage and 14th with a net average of 40.4 yards. While Kern had a nice average he might have outkicked his coverage a bit (or his coverage was terrible) as opposing teams averaged 10.4 yards per return on his punts that was 11th highest in the league.

Darius Reynaud will return kicks for the Titans after averaging 23.4 yards per return last season which including a 105 yard return for a touchdown. That served as his only return touchdown of the season as he returned 53 kicks and ranked 20th in the league in return average. Reynaud will also handle most of the punt return duties after finishing third in the league with a 13.2 yard per return average which included two touchdowns and a long of 81 yards.

Notes:

-With the Titans struggling so much last season against the run it will be interesting to see how the Steelers attack with the run. Last season the Steelers ranked 31st in the league with a -18.1% DVOA when running the football and they ranked 28th in the league with a 3.7 yard per carry average. Let’s not forget the Steelers cut their top rusher from last season, Jonathan Dwyer, and lost their starter for the past few years in Rashard Mendenhall while seeing the guy they wanted to tote the rock to an injury in Le’Veon Bell. Needless to say going into the season with only Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling (and Felix Jones) is less than inspiring. The Steelers offensive line hasn’t been healthy in the last 10 years but this season they are fairly healthy. It will be interesting to see if they can improve on their 3.72 ALY. Man, nothing was good last season about the Steelers run game.

-I talked about the defensive pass covered being pretty bad against number one receivers for the Titans but the problem for the Steelers is that they really don’t have a number one receiver. Antonio Brown will be considered the number one guy but in my eyes he isn’t a number one. Last season he caught 66 passes for 787 yards and five touchdowns but was not nearly as productive as he was the year prior. He ranked only 45th in the league with an 84 DYAR and was 51st with a -2.3% DVOA so it isn’t like he was lighting the world on fire. It would be nice if he could be considered a true top guy but I really don’t think the Steelers have one. With the way Todd Haley runs the offense that might be OK, but there will be a noticeable difference without Mike Wallace on the field.

-The Steelers defense was pretty good last season. I don’t think they were the best defense in the league but they did finish the season allowing the fewest amount of yards while finishing sixth in points allowed per game. Their -2.9% DVOA was good for 13th in the league and in terms of DVOA they were 15th against the pass and eighth against the run. I think they were a probably a top-10 defense but you have to wonder how things are going to be this year. They are really young up front while still being really old in the backend. Willie Gay is going to be a significant contributor at corner and while I like Gay a little more than most I think with the injuries and free agent losses over the offseason this could become more of a problem than it was in prior years. A strength will be Ike Taylor, again, as he helped a Steelers pass defense that ranked third in the league against opponents number one targets with a -30.1% DVOA but outside of that it is really a bunch of unknowns.

-Not getting pressure on the quarterback killed the Steelers last year. They only recorded 37 sacks and while they ranked 11th in adjusted sack rate it really didn’t seem like they were all that effective. The Steelers cut ties with James Harrison and drafted Jarvis Jones who will almost assuredly get a ton of playing time. Jason Worilds will probably start ahead of Jones and be across from LaMarr Woodley who is another person that is a wild card. Woodley was pretty bad last season so I guess it can’t really be that bad this year, can it? Well, it has to get better with a weaker secondary and if they can get after Locker it will make the day that much easier.

PREDICTION: Well, who knows. I mean I thought that the Titans could be a pretty decent team and give the Steelers a hard time but as I got together on the preview it started to become evident that the Titans were really bad last year and I don’t really see that improving much this year. I don’t think the Steelers are much better than an 8-8 team this season but that obviously could change as we go through the season. Steelers 24, Titans 13

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