Friday, September 27, 2013

Steelers Game 4 Preview - vs. Minnesota Vikings

When the NFL set up the schedule for the games in London I was a little surprised to see the Steelers in a game. Granted it wasn't going to count as their home game and their international ties through the Rooney's made it a little better to swallow and understand but this game has taken a huge hit since then.

When the game was scheduled this was a game between a team that had a back that ran for 2,000 yards last year and was a playoff team and another team that just missed out on the playoffs and is the one of the traditional powers in the NFL over the last 10 years. Instead what they got are two really bad teams that are a combined 0-6 on the season.

Things are bad for both teams. To put things in a little bit of perspective the Steelers defense is probably the best unit that will step on the field Sunday. That is the same defense that only has three sacks and has yet for force a turnover. That is the best unit on the field.

Hope you have fun London!

As it was last week here are some of the key terms I am going to use to break down the Bengals for your reference. All information came from Football Outsiders :

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.

Catch Rate - Catch Rate represents the percentage of passes to this receiver completed. This is a reference to incomplete passes, not dropped passes.

Success Rate - This number 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. A player with higher DVOA and a low success rate mixes long runs with downs getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. A player with lower DVOA and a high success rate generally gets the yards needed, but doesn't often get more.

Effective Yards - translate DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. This provides an easy comparison: in general, players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate, while players with fewer Effective Yards than standard yards played worse than standard stats would otherwise indicate. Effective Yards are not the best way to measure total value because they are more dependent on usage than DYAR.

QBR - Total QBR (listed as just QBR) is a metric created by the ESPN Stats & Information group. Total QBR is based on the expected points added by the quarterback on each play, then adjusts the numbers to a scale of 0-100. League average is 50. There are five main differences between Total QBR and Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (with further explanation here):

-Total QBR incorporates information from game charting, such as passes dropped or thrown away on purpose.
-Total QBR splits responsibility on plays between the quarterback, his receivers, and his blockers. Drops, for example, are more on the receiver, as are yards after the catch, and some sacks are more on the offensive line than others.
-Total QBR has a clutch factor which adds (or subtracts) value for quarterbacks who perform best (or worst) in high-leverage situations.
-Total QBR combines passing and rushing value into one number and differentiates between scrambles and planned runs.
-Total QBR is not adjusted for strength of opponent.

Vikings Offense

Offensively the Vikings haven't been very good. I mean I might as well come out and say it but when you are 0-3 and are coming off a loss to the Cleveland Browns you probably aren't going to have a great offense. Minnesota ranks 19th in the league averaging only 336 yards per game but despite that they are seventh in the league in points per game scoring 27 points per game.

Overall the Vikings offense ranks out about as good as the Steelers offense does. They are 25th in the league with an offensive DVOA of -14.3% while their offensive DAVE is 27th with a -11.8% value. The Steelers rank 27th and 28th in both of those areas. Furthermore the Vikings pass offense ranks 30th in the league with a DVOA of -22.1% while their rushing attack is near the break even point with a DVOA of -3.2% which ranks 14th.

The quarterback position is probably the one that gets Vikings fans most worked up these days. While the Vikings don't have an overly great defense and have struggled to run the football they have struggled pretty badly from the quarterback position which is headlined by Christian Ponder. Ponder was the 2011 first round pick of the Vikings and has still yet to really grow into the position.

Last season Ponder had his best year as he threw for 2,935 yards and 18 touchdowns which improved on his 12 touchdown, 1,853 yard campaign he had in 11 games in his rookie season. So far this year Ponder has been better at throwing the ball down the field as he has a yard per attempt average of 6.91 and while that is not very good compared to his peers, it is much better than the 6.08 yard average he had last season. So far this season Ponder has thrown for 691 yards and two touchdowns while completing 59% of his passes, which is his career average.

Ponder has been pretty consistent this season as he has thrown for 236, 227, and 228 yards in his three starts this season and threw a touchdown in each of his first two starts. Last week against Cleveland he completed 25-of-42 passes for 228 yards and a pick in the Vikings third loss of the season.

While the numbers are perfectly, um, below average, Ponder ranks near last in DYAR and DVOA this season among the 34 qualified quarterbacks. His DYAR of -119 ranks 31st in the league and his DVOA of -27.7% was good enough for 29th in the league. I mean those just aren't very good numbers and puts Ponder as a pretty significant downgrade to a replacement level player. Needless to say the Vikings fans are not having a great time with him under center and are actually calling for Matt Cassel to play.

Here is the thing, Matt Cassel isn't very good. Last season when he was with Kansas City he played in only nine games and threw for 1,796 games where he threw for 12 touchdowns and completed only 58% of his passes. Furthermore his career yard per attempt average of 6.60 isn't very good. So I guess what I am saying Vikings fans is that you want to bench Christian Ponder for another Christian Ponder. So, um, yea.

UPDATE - I had this written out well before the Vikings announced that Ponder was going to miss the game because of broken ribs. I actually had the part already written about Cassel so I guess that is a good thing?

Anyways, Cassel isn't good. At all. He hasn't played this year but last year with Kansas City he was one of the worst in the league. Among the 39 qualified quarterbacks Cassel ranked 36th with a -353 DYAR and also 36th with a DVOA of -30.4%. His QBR was 36.5 and his effective yards only totaled 996 while he threw for over 1,600 yards. That is not good.

The Steelers had a pretty good chance facing Ponder and to be honest that doesn't really change facing Cassel. They both aren't good.

What the Vikings are more well-known for is their ground attack. When I say ground attack I mean Adrian Peterson. Last season Peterson came off reconstructive knee surgery and made the league his bitch. He ran for 2,097 yards on 348 carries and 12 touchdowns which was good for a 6.0 yard per carry average and he was just winning games by himself, despite his teams passing game. In his last five regular season games last season he ran for 150 yards or more and in nine of his last 10 games he ran for 100 yards or more.

There were huge expectations for Peterson this season, and rightfully so, and so far he hasn't really been able to live up to those. He has ran for 281 yards and three touchdowns this year and is only averaging 4.1 yards per carry. In his first carry of the year Peterson went for a 78 yard touchdown run and then followed that up with 17 carries for 25 yards and a touchdown. Last week against the Browns he rushed 25 times for 88 yards and a score but didn't have a run for further than nine yards.

This isn't uncommon since Peterson only gained 230 yards on 58 yards and he didn't have his first 100 yard game until a week four win over the Lions where he ran for 102 yards on 21 carries. The big difference here is that Peterson was coming off knee surgery like eight months prior and he isn't this year but at any moment he is able to just win a game by himself.

The advanced stats would go on to support the notion that Peterson has been struggling as he ranks 27th in the league with a -7 DYAR and 24th with a -10.6% DVOA. These numbers help set the reason that the Vikings are winless and if he isn't ripping off large chunks of yardage then it is going to be hard for them to win. His success rate sits at only 46% which is 17th in the league and his 234 effective yards really go a further describe that Peterson just hasn't been that good this season. That could all change in the blink of an eye, and here is hoping it doesn't this week.

The Vikings are a little light on the receiving depth and talent. While I am sure some of this has to do with the play at quarterback there really isn't all that much star power. The big get for the offense this offseason was signing former Packers receiver Greg Jennings but so far Jennings has been a little bit of a no-show offensively. On the season Jennings has only 11 catches for 160 yards and no scores. He had a pretty solid game against the Bears in week two but the production has been somewhat scarce since. Last week against the Browns he was targeted six times and caught three passes for 43 yards with his longest coming on a 27 yard reception.

Jennings currently ranks 47th among qualified receivers in terms of DYAR with a total of 20 and he also ranks 47th in DVOA at 0.7%. To put those in a little bit of perspective Jerricho Cotchery is ranked right behind Jennings in both off those categories. Jennis has been right around league average receiver and you will usually look for a little more production from a guy who signed a five-year deal worth as much as $47.5 million with $18M guaranteed.

The most valuable receiver on the team right now is Jerome Simpson who has 218 yard receiving on 12 catches. He also leads the team in catches and yards per catch (18.2). Simpson has been marginally effective as he ranks 34th in DYAR (39) and only 28th in DVOA (12.1%). For an offensive unit that is pretty bad at throwing the football he is their best option at the moment. Most of that value is coming off the first game of the season as he caught seven passes for 140 yards. That is all well and good but the following games showed him catching two passes for 49 yards in week two and three passes for 29 yards last week. Yikes.

The guy that is really interesting for me is Cordarrelle Patterson who was a first round pick of the Vikings this past year. He really hasn't got much to show for his skills outside of a 105 yard kickoff return for a touchdown and after catching two passes in each of the first two games he had one catch for 10 yards last week. I doubt he is very effective but he is a big, athletic body that can make a play when the ball is in his hands.

Kyle Rudolph is the main pass catching tight ends as he is fourth on the team with 10 catches but only has 97 yards. He has one of the team's two touchdown catches (Peterson has the other) so I am not really sure I would expect much from him.

The passing game has struggled and the Vikings offensive line really hasn't done much to help the situation. On the season they have given up 10 sacks and have an adjusted sack rate of 9.2% which ranks them 27th in the league. The league average for adjusted sack rate is 7.1%. The Vikings rank three spots below the Steelers in adjusted sack rate.

Minnesota has been below league average in running the football. They post an adjusted line yardage of 3.47 which is about a half yard shy of what the Vikings running backs are getting on their carries (4.09). The Vikings actually do a really nice job in the short yardage situations as their power success rate is 89% that ranks seventh in the league. It doesn't help that Peterson is build like a bull and can get a lot of yardage on his own but all it takes is an average offensive line to give Peterson some room. The Vikings are just about average as they have a stuffed percentage of 21% which is 18th in the league and like I said they just have to give Peterson a chance and he will make the yardage count.

The Vikings are best when they are running the ball in the interior of the line. That makes sense as Peterson is a bigger back that can take the punishment and is backed up by the 4.14 ALY they have when they run the ball up the middle or off the guards. That is their most successful spot as they rank 11th in the league and it is well above the league average of 3.80 ALY when teams run up the middle. They are right above league average when they run to the left tackle which results in an ALY of 3.67 (league average is 3.53) and ranks 13th in the league but they rank no better than 20th in the league in any of the other three spots (left end, right end, right tackle).

Vikings Defense

It might not come to a big shock to most people but Minnesota is just as an average defensive team as they are an offensive team. That is to say that they aren't necessarily good and they aren't necessarily bad. The Vikings are actually giving up yards by the boatload so far this season. They rank 29th in the league allowing teams to gain nearly 430 yards per game and those yards are turning into points as they have allowed 32 points per game over the first three games. Quarterbacks are having more success than running backs as the Vikings are allowing 316 yards through the air and "only" 114 on the ground per game. So far the Vikings have given up 34, 31, and 31 points. So, yea.

The Vikings fair a good bit better according to Football Outsiders. Overall the Vikings rank 19th in the league with a DVOA of 0.8% which means that they are just barely on the wrong side of being average. Against the pass they rank 14th in the league with a DVOA of -0.4% and against the run they rank 23rd with a DVOA of 3.2%. While the numbers against the run are the worst of the trio of numbers it isn't overly bad to where you can proclaim them easy to run on.

While the pass defense hasn't been that great they have had a wild amount of success against number one receivers. While it might be a little subjective how the guys over at Football Outsiders ranks receivers from other teams I am not sure I would really have a problem with how they rank players from team to team. Minnesota actually ranks third in the league against opposing top receivers with a -55.5% DVOA with those top receivers getting thrown at a little over nine times a game for just under 70 receiving yards.

The Vikings really slip back into the middle of the pack after that though as they rank 18th against number two receivers with a DVOA of 13.2% and 13th in the league against every other receiver with a DVOA of -11.8%. That is where the Steelers are going to have to hurt the VIkings. If last week was any indication then Antonio Brown is going to get a ton of targets and a bulk of the looks from Ben Roethlisberger. Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, and Markus Wheaton need to pick up the slack if Brown is taken out of the game. Are they able to do that? I guess we will see.

Minnesota doesn't do a great job at getting to the quarterback as they have registered only two more sacks than the Steelers through three games. If you are counting that means they have five sacks total and an adjusted sack rate of only 4.6% which is 29th in the league. The Steelers rank 31st in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 3.0%. Quarterbacks should feel decently good in this game. I guess.

The Vikings are giving up runs in bunches so far this season. Opposing running backs are averaging 4.57 yards per attempt while the defensive line for the Vikes has an adjusted line yards average of 4.08 which ranks 25th in the league. The league average for running back yards against is 3.96. Furthermore Minnesota has been less than successful in short yardage situations as opposing teams have an 83% power success rate which is 25th in the league. They are a little better in brining down backs at the line or behind it with a 22% stuffed percentage that ranks 12th in the league.

The best place to go after the Vikings on the ground is up the middle and off the tackles. When running up the middle or off the guards opposing offenses are running for an ALY of 4.09 yards that ranks 22nd while they also rank 22nd when rushing off the right tackle with an ALY of 4.31. The spot that has hurt the Vikings the most is when teams are rushing off the left tackle where offenses are getting an ALY of nearly 5.00 which is good for 28th in the league. It will be interesting to see who breaks because the Steelers have been pretty awful at running the football. They are coming off the best week of the season but overall they rank 32nd in the league running up the middle and off the guards with only a 2.40 ALY while having a 1.67 ALY off the left tackle. They do have some success off the right tackle with an ALY of 4.19 but lets not kid ourselves, the Steelers struggle. Which incompetent running/run stopping team is going to win? Man oh man.

Chad Greenway leads the team in tackles from his linebacker position with 25 total tackles (18 solo) and an interception. Last season Greenway led the team with 148 tackles while also picking up three sacks. Jared Allen is a force to be recon with on the defensive line and can carry a defense on his own. Last season he had 12 sacks a year after having 22 sacks in 2011. Allen has racked up double-digit sacks in each of the last six season and so far this year he has one. Given the chance he can rack up three or four at one time so this actually scares the daylights out of me for Roethlisberger.

Erin Henderson is the Vikings middle linebacker and right now has been the most successful player on the field for them. He leads the team with a pair of interceptions and also had two of the Vikings five sacks on the season.

Free safety Harrison Smith leads the secondary with a pair of interceptions and three passes defended while making 23 tackles (20 total) while corner Josh Robinson has 17 tackles (16 solo) but has only one pass defended.

Vikings Special Teams

The Vikings special teams actually have some game breakers on it and can win some games if you let them. Overall the special teams isn't that great with a DVOA of -1.6% which is good for 21st in the league but they are tops in the league in kickoff returns with a DVOA of 4.9%.

Minnesota has been really good on kickoff returns as they have an average of 31.3 yards per return which is good for second in the entire league with rookie Cordarrelle Patterson returning seven kickoffs for an average of 37.4 yards including a 105 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Pretty impressive if you ask me.

In terms of punt returning the Vikings have only returned three punts this season for a total of eight yards so that hasn't really been overly successful. Last season the Vikings were 20th in the league on punt returns with a nine yard per return average and returned one punt for a touchdown. I wouldn't expect much in the punt return game from Minnesota.

In terms of field goal kicking the Vikings have one of the better young kickers in the league in Blair Walsh. Now you might think that because Mr. Walsh is on my fantasy team and you might be right, but on the real he is pretty damn good. So far this season he is a perfect 6-for-6 in field goal tries with two coming from 40 yards or further. Last season Walsh was nearly perfect connecting on 35-of-38 attempts which included a perfect 10-for-10 on field goals 50 yards or more. While he gets a good bit of chances from the Vikings offense being incapable of moving the ball at times if the game is close late then I would be pretty scared if the Vikings got within range of Walsh which is around 55-60 yards.

The Vikings punter's name is Jeff Locke. Yup, for real. For those of you that aren't Pirates fans Jeff Locke is also a Pirates pitcher that was an All-Star in the first half of the season before completely falling apart in the second half and probably being left off the playoff roster. So, yea. Anyways, Locke the punter. He is 12th in the league this season with an average of 47 yards per punt and his net average is nearly 42 yards per punt. His punts are being returned for an average of 7.1 yards and has pinned opponents inside the 20 on four of his 15 punts while forcing a fair catch on four punts. So, take that for what it's worth.

Game Notes:

- The Steelers and Vikings do not meet much. They have only three meetings since 2001 and the Steelers have won all three of those meetings with the last meeting coming in October 2009 when the Steelers won 27-17. In that matchup the Steelers held Adrian Peterson to only 69 yards on 18 carries.

- Speaking of the running game the Steelers are going to be getting back Le'Veon Bell back. This stands to be a huge upgrade over what the Steelers have, that is if he lives up to some of the hype. As a team the Steelers are only averaging just under 52 yards per game on the ground and they are 30th in the league with an ALY of only 2.74. Bell was the Steelers second round pick this past year and was slated to start the season as the starter before he went down with a foot injury. Should be fun to watch.

- This stands as the obvious statement but neither team wants to be 0-4 and one is going to be 1-3. That has to happen. Both of these teams have played some truly awful football this season and it might not take a great performance to win. Which ever team wins the game is going to probably just have to make a couple plays and that could be enough.

- Where the Steelers have a pretty significant advantage is in the special teams game. Overall they rank seventh in the league over at Football Outsiders with a DVOA of 3.2%. Kicker Shaun Suisham has hit each of his four field goal opportunities with two of those coming between 40-49 yards. While the Steelers have been a little below average in the kickoff return they rank eighth in the league in punt returns with an 8.4 yard per return average. The return units are doing a pretty good job as the Steelers rank tops in the league allowing only a 12.7 yard per return average and are allowing an 8.5 punt return average which is 21st in the league. In a game of pretty evenly matched teams.

PREDICTION - This game just has boring written all over it. I mean I am a huge Steelers fan but lets not pretend like this is some big five star matchup. This game is being played in London and there are going to be about a billion Big Ben references, so, yay. Anyways, I talked about it before but the Steelers have the best unit in the game in their defense despite not getting any turnovers and if the offense can look anything like last week then they will stand a good chance of getting the win. Steelers 31, Vikings 24

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