Friday, October 18, 2013

Steelers Game 6 Preview - vs. Baltimore Ravens

To say that the Steelers season has been a pretty big disappointment would be pretty much in line with what most people would be thinking if they are Steelers fans. While I know the Steelers were probably a fringe playoff team at best there seem to be some sediment that they could possibly win the AFC North this season and that got some peoples hopes up.

Regardless of what you thought about the Steelers before the season or after the first five games it doesn't even matter know because the Ravens are in town. I will talk about it a few more times throughout the preview but Steelers/Ravens games are it in terms of rivalry football games in western PA and in Maryland. Just how it is. There might be some argument if it has been the rest rivalry over the last 10 years but for my money you haven't got a more evenly matched, tightly contested series in the NFL and that is what makes it so great.

While the Ravens are a .500 team this year they really haven't been that good. The offense outside of Torrey Smith has been bad and while the defense is getting a ton of pressure on the quarterback it can't really carry the offense like it used to.

On the other side the Steelers defense has been pretty good but without getting any pressure on the quarterback and not creating a turnover till their fifth game it really hasn't been able to make up for an offense that has struggled in a big way, especially in the running game.

What that means is that this game is going to be another good one. These teams might not be fighting for the AFC North this week, or for the season, but it is still going to be a prime time game. Heinz Field is going to be an exciting place despite the 1-4 record and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Lets get into the preview.

As it is every week here are some of the key terms I am going to use to break down the Ravens 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.

Ravens Offense

The Ravens offense is about what you expected it to be, average at best. For a long time the Ravens didn't really have to worry about this as they just relied on a studly defense to carry them, but as the defense has gotten older and players have moved on the offense needs to pick up the pace and while they are the defending Super Bowl champions they really just have about as average of an offense as you can get.

The Ravens rank 22nd in the league averaging just over 335 yards per contest and most of that is coming through the air (277 yards/game) despite the fact that they have one of the better, and most underrated running backs in the game in Ray Rice. The Ravens average only 72.7 yards on the ground per game. The Ravens aren't exactly lighting up the scoreboard either as they are averaging just over 22 points per game which is 18th best in the league. Not something that is overly scary.

A little different look to the preview this week as I try and get the information easier to read and follow so let me know if it is terrible.

Quarterback: Joe Flacco
Completion %: 57.9% (136-235)
Yards: 1,702
Touchdowns: 7
Interceptions: 8
QBR: 41.8 (25th in league)
DYAR: -113 (34th)
DVOA: -18.4% (30th)

I guess Flacco is finally elite. I have to give him props because he did ball out in the playoffs last year that led to a Super Bowl win but this season we are really seeing what we have always seen from Flacco. He's decent, not great, and would benefit greatly from a better defense that could take a little pressure off him. Certainly it doesn't help that the Ravens offensive line has been mud and his running backs have been a no-show but if you are going to be "elite" then you need to do something better through six weeks than completing 58% of your passes and tossing more picks than touchdowns.

Flacco is coming off a game against Green Bay where he might have played his best football of the season. He went 20-of-34 for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns while not throwing a single pick. Sure it wasn't great but it was passable. That game against the Packers was good for a 29.7 QBR which is well below average and it wasn't good enough to win despite a really strong 10.06 yard per attempt average.

Flacco has only completed more than 60% of his passes in two games this year which were the first two games of the season and since then it hasn't been that good. He's thrown four touchdowns and six interceptions in the next three games and while five of those picks came in one game (a loss to Buffalo) that isn't too inspiring.

Flacco has a crazy strong arm and that in itself always gives defenses the pause of his receivers being able to run under the ball. Another weapon that Flacco loves to use is to just throw the ball up to his receivers and get the defensive pass interference call. Flacoo, and the Ravens have used this a bunch of times over the year and it is no surprise that he is near the top of the league in drawing five pass interference calls so far which ranks in a tie for third in the league.

Over his career Flacco has 10 regular season starts against the Steelers where he has completed only 56% of his passes and thrown 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Do with that what you will, not sure it really means much but whatever. Last season Flacco was pretty awful against the Steelers as he threw for only 352 yards, one touchdown and one interception while completing only 55% of his passes in two games against the Steelers.

At the end of the day though Flacco has been bad. His DYAR and DVOA are both near the bottom of the league and while he has thrown for over 1,700 yards his effective yards are only 1,100 which is not a good indication that Flacco has been anywhere close to good.

Running Back: Ray Rice
Attempts: 71
Yards: 197
Rushing Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: -47 (35th)
DVOA: -25.3% (34th)

For my money Rice is one of the best backs in the game. This season he has been banged up a bit and has been sharing some carries with Bernard Pierce but I am not sure there are too many backs that can give you dual threat like Rice can. He catches a lot of passes and can be deadly when he gets the ball in his hands.

So far this season things haven't gone very well. He came back from an injury and has been fighting that off but after only five carries in the loss to Buffalo he got 27 carries against Miami (for 74 yards) and 14 carries against Green Bay (for 34 yards). Two of his three touchdowns this year came against Miami but he has not rushed for better than a 3.4 yard per carry average in any game this year and that was the game against the Bills when he had five carries for 17 yards.

As I said Rice is deadly out of the backfield in the passing game as he caught 61 passes in 2012 for 478 yards and a score but this season he really hasn't been too much of a factor. Sure, he has 20 catches in four games (didn't make a catch in the game against Buffalo) but only has 87 yards on those catches for a 4.4 yard per catch average. His long catch on the year was for 11 yards last week.

Rice has a success rate of only 34% that ranks him 35th among the 36 qualified running backs according to Football Outsiders. Rice has neither been consistent or successful and is part of the reason the Ravens are only 3-3. Yes, that is 36 qualified running backs where Rice ranks 35th in DYAR and 34th in DVOA. It really has been that bad for Rice so far this season.

Running Back: Bernard Pierce
Attempts: 73
Yards: 206
Rushing Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: -63 (36th)
DVOA: -29.7 (36th)

Before the season Pierce was said to be in line to take some carries off Rice and take a little pressure off the former Rutgers back. So far he has done that this year and with the help of some injuries and ineffectiveness from Rice Pierce now leads the team in both carries and yards.

Last week he carried the ball only six times for nine yards which were his second-lowest totals of the season after getting 11 carries for 46 yards the week prior in Miami. His high water mark for the season came in a week three win over Houston when he carried the ball 24 times for 65 yards and a touchdown which was a week after he had a 19 carry, 58 yard performance against Cleveland.

Pierce is a nice backup addition for the Ravens but with Rice struggling and the offensive line being pretty bad that really doesn't help Pierce. He's averaging only 2.8 yards per carry and while he had a pair of really nice weeks in weeks two and three he has been pretty average in every other games, which is a majority of the season. Last season was much better for the second year back as he had 108 carries for 532 yards (4.9 ypc) and a score.

You could literally copy and paste the last paragraph from Rice's part and just change the name to Pierce. His success rate of 30% is dead last among running backs and so is his DYAR and DVOA.

Receiver: Torrey Smith
Catches: 28
Yards: 568
Rec. Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: 135 (8th)
DVOA: 18.9% (18th)

Smith is really the only guy that has been a positive for the Ravens in the passing attack. He is the guy on the roster that can get down the field and stretch the secondary but there really isn't much else in the cabinet for receiver depth.

Smith has had a really nice season outside of last week agaisnt the Packers. Against Green Bay Flacco was able to only target Smith four times and he made one catch for 12 yards. Outside of that game Smith has had at least 85 receiving yards and made at least five catches in four of those other five games.

His high watermark on the season came in the loss to the Bills when he caught five passes for 166 yards and a touchdown including a 74 yard bomb from Flacco. He followed that up with a six catch, 121 yard performance against Miami before the letdown against the Green Bay.

Should be interesting to see what the Steelers do with Ike Taylor as Smith is far and away the top talent for Baltimore. Last season the Steelers made Smith nearly nonexistent as he caught one pass for seven yards in the first meeting then only three passes for 33 yards in the second meeting. That was with Anquan Boldin on the team.

Smith has been good but has a catch rate of only 53% which is pretty poor among the top receivers in terms of DYAR and DVOA where Smith is ranked. In the top-20 of both DYAR and DVOA Smith has the lowest catch rate by a significant margin.

Smith is Flacco's favorite target as he has been targeted 56 times which is 21 more times than any other player and 26 times more than any other receiver.

Receiver: Marlon Brown
Catches: 17
Yards: 221
Rec. Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: 38 (50th)
DVOA: 3.4% (44th)

Brown has been thrust into a more prominent role with the team due to some injuries in his rookie season. Brown is the second-most targeted receiver on the team with 30 targets and was able to pick up the slack for Smith after he was shut down by Green Bay.

Brown had his best game as a professional in that game agisnt the Packers as he made three catches for 71 yards which included a long of 59 yards, which might say more about him on one play seeing that he was targeted seven times with only three catches.

Previously this season Brown has been what you would expect from a guy that ranks in the mid-40's in the advanced statistics. Previously Browns top game came in the season opener against the Broncos when he made four catches for 65 yards but was pretty low key since then. He does have three touchdown catches on the season because, well, someone has to catch them, right?

He has a catch rate of 57% which isn't good but it isn't horrible either. I mean I guess that is a good way to be described, right?

Tight End: Dallas Clark
Catches: 20
Yards: 256
Rec. Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: -6 (35th among TE)
DVOA: -10.1% (33rd among TE)

When Clark was with Peyton Manning he was the best pass catching tight ends in the game. He has now been around the block a little bit and has lost a lot of the luster he had while he was with the Colts but has found a home with Baltimore and has become a viable option in the passing game.

I guess the resurgence of Clark really speaks to the level of awfulness that Ed Dickson has become. I am not even going to talk about Dickson because he has been that bad. Only 11 targets this season and five catches.

Anyways, Clark was brought in before the season as currently has the second-most targets on the team while also catching the second-most yards on the team. Last week he had 81 yards on four catches that included a score but has really been more average this season.

After opening the year with a seven catch, 87 yard game against Denver he with without a catch in one game and had a single catch in another while not even going over 50 yards receiving before last week. That might not be terrible if Clark could help out in the blocking game but he brings none of that. He is a catch first tight end that hasn't been overly valuable in terms of what he brings to the table.

Just because he is second on the team in catches and yards doesn't mean he is being effective or is a great receiving tight end, he is just the best of a bad situation in terms of the passing game. He has a catch rate of 57% and in the advanced stats he ranks only a touch ahead of Dickson which really says a lot.

Offensive Line

Left to Right: Eugene Monroe, Kelechi Osemele, Gino Gradkowski, Marshal Yanda, Michael Oher

Overall the Baltimore offensive line has to take the brunt of the blame for what has been going on. Granted, I haven't watched all of their games and don't watch them as closely as I do with the Steelers but from what I gather they have been pretty bad. They don't do anything particularly well and it has been talked about how bad they have been in the running game which ranks 30th in the league with a -33.6% DVOA. Just bad.

In terms of the running game usually a team does a pretty decent job at running to one specific place of the line and the Ravens can stake their claim to not being totally awful everywhere. They have the most success running off the right end where they have a 4.47 ALY which is good for ninth in the league. The problem is that comes in a pretty small sample size as the Ravens only run 6% of their running plays to the right end. They are also fairly successful running off the left tackle (13% of runs go there) with an ALY of 4.23 which is better than the league average of 3.69 ALY.

Baltimore struggles in the other areas of running the football with an ALY of 3.06 when running up the middle/off the guard which is where they run 58% of their plays. That ALY is 29th in the league.

In terms of the "power" football and short yardage the Ravens aren't doing a whole lot better. They rank 29th in the league with a 43% power success rate and they are dead last in the league with a 27% stuffed ranking. The Ravens are bad at converting the short yardage situations but they are getting the running backs hit behind the line of scrimmage far too often and usually when that is the case it is more on the offensive line than it is on the running back. The running game is just not good whether you want to look at the offensive line or the backs.

In terms of pass blocking the Ravens are once again about league average. They ranked ninth in the league before last week in adjusted sack rate where they gave up only 14 sacks for a 6.1% adjusted sack rate but it isn't getting better. Flacco was sacked five times to the hands of Green Bay which jumped the Ravens sack rate to 7.2% which is 18th in the league. Right now the Ravens and Steelers have given up the same number of sacks.

Ravens Defense

Traditionally when you think of the Baltimore Ravens you think of defense. Not only do you think of defense but you think of the years when the Ravens just would be able to get 10 points and the defense would get them another touchdown and barely allow the opposing team to threaten.

That really isn't how the Baltimore defense is anymore but they still can make some plays if you take them lightly. So far this season the Baltimore defense is giving up nearly 22 points per game while giving up 352.5 yards per game which ranks them 17th in the league. Raw numbers really aren't the way you want to judge a defense but it can be useful to give a rough gauge on how too they are at preventing teams from moving up and down the field.

Overall the Baltimore defense ranks eighth in the league according to Football Outsiders with a DVOA of -9.0% while ranking four against the run (-21.1% DVOA) and 13th against the pass (-0.1%). The Ravens have been pretty consistent over the season with a variance of 2.7% which ranks ninth in the league while going up against opponents that have the fifth-highest DVOA collectively. While they might not have the flash of previous years they are still playing some pretty good football.

The Ravens secondary has never been something that has been really good but they have been about league average overall. Baltimore really doesn't shut any one receiving group down but they aren't really awful at any group of them either. Against number one receivers the Ravens have a DVOA of -10.2% which is the 12th best rating in the league. This is going to fall right on the shoulders of Antonio Brown who has been the Steelers best receiving target and has averaged about 10 receptions and over 100 yards over the last three games.

Against number two receivers they slack a little bit as they rank 19th in the league with a DVOA of 9.0% while ranking 16th in the league against all over receivers. Overall the Ravens pass defense ranks anywhere from 12th to 19th against any pass catching option which includes tight ends and running backs.

What really helps the Ravens secondary is the pass rush from the defensive line and linebackers. Through six games Baltimore has 22 sacks which is the second-most in the league and posts an adjusted sack rate of 9.3% which is good for third in the league. They are led by the man that you probably have no love loss for, Terrelle Suggs. Suggs has been a monster in the pass rushing department with seven sacks already this season and had a sack in each of the first five games of the season highlighted by a three sack performance in week five against the Dolphins. Suggs also is second on the team with 46 tackles.

In terms of run stuffing they are still really good as I stated earlier. While the Baltimore offensive line has had trouble getting short yardage conversions the Ravens are doing the same thing to opposing running backs. Baltimore ranks sixth in the league with a 50% power success rate, so for the Steelers this is going to be a problem. Offensively the Steelers have a power success rate of only 50% of the time which is only 25th in the league. This is going to be a place where the Steelers might have to get a little creative in the short yardage situations rather than just being stubborn and banging their heads against the wall.

While the Ravens have done nice job of stopping short yardage situations they are not all that great at dropping backs behind the line of scrimmage. They rank 27th in the league with a stuffed percentage of 16% which means that while they are bearing down on short yardage situations they are not translating that on a play-by-play basis.

Baltimore can be had a few places along the defensive line, mainly running to the offensive left tackle where they are giving up an ALY of 5.28 which is 31st in the league and nearly two full yards above the league average ALY for that spot. The Ravens also struggle when teams are running over the center and off the guards where they give up an ALY of 4.25 which is 23rd in the league. It is a little surprising with Haloti Ngata in the middle of that defense but if the Steelers can control the middle of the line that might give them more of a chance of getting some pressure off Ben Roethlisberger since I am sure he feels like he is going to have to win this game himself.

Linebacker Daryl Smith leads the team with 53 total tackles and also leads the team with two of their four interceptions. He has 1.5 sacks and has eight passes defended. Offseason signing Elvis Dumervil has five sacks to compliment Suggs' seven while Arthur Jones also has three sacks.

Ravens Special Teams

Baltimore ranks out as a pretty decent special teams unit. While they are carried by strong kick return games that is sometimes all it will take in turning a game from a close one into a win for any given team. The Ravens rank ninth overall in the league with a DVOA of 3.5% while being projected as one of the better special teams units the rest of the season.

For special teams rankings the numbers that are given by Football Outsiders is a representation of how many points above the league average each of the rankings are. The Ravens lead the NFL in punt return with an 8.8 rating which is an area where only seven teams (including Baltimore) are above 1.0.

Leading the punt returns is Tandon Doss who is averaging 18.2 yards per punt return and has taken one back for a touchdown. That return average puts him at second in the NFL in punt retiring and first among returners with at least 10 returns.

Jacoby Jones has been a great special teams addition to the Ravens but suffered a knee injury early in the year that has set him back. Despite the injury Jones is averaging 25.5 yards per return on kickoffs while Deonte Thompson has taken a bulk of the returns with a 28.7 yard average in seven returns which would rank fourth in the league if he had enough returns to qualify.

This really wouldn't be a game unless Billy Cundiff was involved. Not for any huge reason, just for the fact that I could laugh at him for partially costing the Ravens a few years ago in the playoffs against the Patriots. While I hate the Patriots it is still pretty fun to laugh at the Ravens. Anyways, the Ravens went away from Cundiff and have been trotting Justin Tucker out there. Tucker is one of the better young kicker and has a a huge leg to boot.

On the year Tucker is 12-of-14 and his only misses have come from outside of 40 yards including one of the misses coming from outside 50 yards. If it came down to it I wouldn't have a ton of confidence in Tucker missing a field goal so hopefully it doesn't come to that.

The Ravens are meh on the punting aspect of the game. The punt game is the Ravens worse potion of the special teams aspects with a -3.4 ranking. Sam Koch does the punting for Baltimore and in 40 punts this year he averages 45.5 yards per punt (18th in NFL) and has a net average of 38.7 yards (24th).

Game Notes

-As I said before, Steelers/Ravens is bigger than both of these teams. Earlier this week the Penguins and Flyers played and in that preview I said that it didn't matter that the Penguins were 5-1-0 (at the time) and the Flyers were 1-6-0 (at the time). It didn't matter that both teams were missing pretty big pieces of their lineup and nobody was going to feel bad about it. It is about a rivalry and sometimes you will hear the "if we only win one game all year I hope it's against…" and that is exactly what the Steelers/Ravens games are like. Now this season both teams aren't very that good but in this game I can bet that they will both treat it like this is for a trip to the Super Bowl. That is what makes these games awesome.

-While some rivalries can be one sided and not really rivalries this is not one of those. Since 2001 the Steelers lead the series 15-12. In the last 10 contests they are 5-5. In the Ravens existence the Steelers are 19-15 against the Ravens in the regular season and they have outscored the Ravens by only 23 points (659-636). The Steelers are 3-0 against the Ravens in the playoffs but this isn't the playoffs. This is as close of a series as you could ask for and while it would be nice for this to be a Steelers/Browns one-sided rivalry I think the even nature of it really makes it outstanding.

-The Steelers might be without Jarvis Jones for the game. It turns out that Jones suffered a concussion late in the game against the Jets and while he was listed as participating in practice but that was only due to his participation in some concussion physical testing. He still hasn't practiced and won't be able to practice or play until all his symptoms are gone. I highly doubt that he is going to be able to play but I guess I have been surprised before.

-The Ravens haven't been overly good offensively but they have been great at getting after the passer. The Steelers offensive line has been pretty awful this season. Against the pass they rank 28th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 9.7% and the Ravens are outstanding at getting to the quarterback. The Steelers aren't very good at running the football as they have an ALY of only 3.19 which is 29th in the league. The line is going to need to be huge against the Ravens if Roethlisberger wants to stay alive. Here is hoping they are good.

PREDICTION - This is a tough one. The Ravens aren't very good offensively but I can see where the defense might be able to shut down the run and force Roethlisberger into some passes that he might like to have back. Ben played his best game of the season last week and didn't turn the ball over and it will take a performance like that to win again. This is a rivalry game and the Steelers are playing at home. I like them in a close one. Steelers 23, Ravens 20.

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