Friday, November 15, 2013

Steelers Game 10 Preview - vs. Detroit Lions

The Steelers are coming off a big win over the Bills. Now, the Bills are not a good football team but a win is a win. This week is a little different. The Lions are a much better team than the Bills and present different challenges to the Steelers than the Bills could ever dream of doing this season.

The Lions are one of those teams the Steelers never get to see. The Steelers are 15-14-1 all-time in the series but the Steelers and Lions have only played three games since 2001 and the Steelers are running a 3-0 record in those games. The last meeting was a 28-20 win in 2009.

Anyways there isn’t much more to say in the intro. There isn’t any hate here and there is no rivalry to speak of. This is just a game that pits a team that is on their way to a division title and one on their way to a potential top-10 pick. 10 years ago you could name which team was which but I think it would be a little different this year.

Off to the preview.

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


Lions Offense

The Lions have a really good offense. There really isn’t two ways about it but if the Steelers thought they had a tough time with Tom Brady and his no name receivers then I think they are going to be a taller task to stop Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. My God, typing that out just made me scared and nothing bad will happen to me if the Steelers lose.

The Lions rank sixth in the league gaining better than 410 yards of total offense which include 306.9 yards through the air which makes them one of only three teams to average more than 300 yards passing. The run game isn’t great but they are still averaging more than 103 yards per game while scoring better than 26 points per game.

Four times this season the Lions have scored more than 30 points in a game and only twice were they held under 21 points. The Steelers average 19.9 points per game. Yikes.

In terms of the advanced stats the Lions rank seventh in the league with a DVOA of 13.6% which is driven largely by the fifth ranked passing attack (29.3%). The running game isn’t a top-10 unit but is not drag as it ranks 16th in the league with a DVOA of -4.8%. What is probably most impressive about the Lions offense is that it is wildly consistent. They rank first in the league with a variance of 2.1% and when you look over the number you see why. They put up a lot of points (as I talked about before) and a lot of yards (as I talked about before).


Here is a breakdown of the offense:


Quarterback: Matthew Stafford
Completion %: 61.4% (229-373)
Yards: 2,836
Touchdowns: 19
Interceptions: 7
QBR: 66.7 (7th)
DYAR: 812 (5th)
DVOA: 20.7% (9th)

Stafford is an underrated quarterback. I am not sure if it is the fact that he doesn’t look the part of a big time quarterback or that his team has had zero playoff success since like 1970 but this dude can sling the ball. Stafford threw for 5,038 yards in 2011 and followed that up with 4,967 yards last season. Dude is no joke.

His career completion percentage is around 60% which is pretty decent but he has really fluctuated the last three seasons with the high coming in 2011 (63.5%) and low coming in 2012 (59.8%) with this year kinda coming right in the middle. He was a little down last year with a yard per attempt average of 6.83 but this year he is on pace to tie a career high with a 7.60 YPA.

So far this season Stafford has one less touchdown pass this year than he did all of last season and with his next touchdown throw he will have 100 career touchdown passes. Earlier this year he became the youngest quarterback to throw for 10,000 yards. I guess what I am trying to say is that he is going to throw the football. A lot.

He has thrown for 300 yards or more four times this year with a 488 yard passing day two weeks ago against Dallas in a 31-30 victory and came back down to earth a bit with a 219 yard performance last week against the Bears where he completed only 51% of his passes and averaged 6.26 yards per attempt. He hasn’t turned the ball over a lot as he only has more than one pick in a single game this year (Dallas game) and has multiple touchdowns in six different games.

Football Outsiders has Stafford as a fringe top five quarterback and that has a lot to do with the guy he has throwing to him (Calvin Johnson) but I think that is a luxury that most top quarterbacks have, they have a really good (maybe not THAT good) target to throw to. Still, the 3,150 effective yards are fifth in the league and his QBR of 66.7 is very good and while you can’t rank quarterbacks by one statistic I think the overall sum of his stats shows that the Steelers are going to have a really hard time dealing with him and the passing attack.



Running Back: Reggie Bush
Attempts: 133
Yards: 623
Rushing Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: 77 (14th)
DVOA: 5.7% (15th)

Bush came over to the Lions after a pretty successful year with Miami in 2012 where he gained 986 yards on 227 carries and 1,086 yards on only 216 carries in 2011. This season he is having another really solid year averaging 4.7 yards per carry and really finding success for a team that is making defenses respect the pass and giving Bush some more lanes to run through.

Bush is also doing a nice job making defenses choose if they want to stop the run or pass. If they sell out and try to stop the pass he is able to gash them. Last week against the Bears Bush ran for over 100 yards for the second time this season as he had 105 yards on only 14 carries. While he only has two rushing touchdowns on the year it’s not because he isn’t effective.

Bush ranks right around 15th in the league in the advanced metrics in terms of DYAR, DVOA and success rate (47%, 14th) and despite his effective yards (592) coming below his actual yards that doesn’t mean he can’t kill you on the ground. I think the nice part for Bush is that he doesn’t have to be “the guy” like he was trying to be earlier in his career.

Not only has he had success on the ground this year but he can kill you with his athleticism in catching passes out of the backfield. Bush has a catch rate of 69% and while that isn’t overly good he does have at least three catches in every game he’s played in and had 100 yards receiving in one game this year. He is actually second on the team in pass catching with 34 catches (49 targets) for 343 yards.

He has two additional touchdowns on the year through the air and has been pretty consistent with around 30-40 yards through the air. I have no idea who from the Steelers is going to have responsibility for him through the air but that is going to be an unreal tall task.



Receiver: Calvin Johnson
Catches: 53
Yards: 904
Rec. Touchdowns: 9
DYAR: 247 (2nd)
DVOA: 19.3% (15th)

The team starts and stops with Johnson. For my money he is the best player at any position in the NFL. When you need a big play Johnson is there to make the play and while the play looks easy it is nothing of the sort.

Johnson has been targeted a ridiculous 96 times which is fourth in the league. He is averaging better than 17 yards per catch and 42 of his 53 catches have gone for first downs. That means that in only 11 of his catches this year he didn’t get a first down. I assume a few of those were goal line touchdowns so that is freakishly good.

This isn’t just a one time thing for CJ. In 2011 he caught 96 balls for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns while he caught 122 (!!!) passes for 1,964 yards and five touchdowns (no idea how only five) so this is just another ho-hum year for the best receiver in the game.

Johnson has been held in check at times this year. In week one against the Vikings he was held to 37 yards on only four catches and in back-to-back games against the Bears and Browns he combined for only seven catches for 69 yards and a score. On the other hand he followed up those consecutive bad games with a nine catch, 155 yard, two touchdown game and a mind boggling 14 catch, 329, one touchdown game. Like, what?

Last week against the Bears he caught six passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns but he was targeted 17 times. That marks the fifth time in the last six games where he was targeted 10 or more times.

I have to assume that Ike Taylor is going to watch him thanks to him being the most physical defensive back that the Steelers have but if he doesn’t get some kind of help the Steelers could get run out of the building by Johnson himself no matter how good Taylor is.

The one downside in his season line is that his catch rate is only 56% on the year and among the receivers in the top-20 in DYAR that is the second lowest catch rate. I have to believe that this comes from him getting force fed the ball and that is going to happen when you do that. Despite the really low catch rate there is more good you can do by throwing to Johnson a billion times than bad it can do.


Receiver: Kris Durham
Catches: 26
Yards: 315
Rec. Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: 63 (46th)
DVOA: 3.9% (39th)

Durham is the second leading wide receiver on the team. When you have a guy like Johnson you don’t really need anyone else but I guess you have to line someone else by him to at least appear like you might throw to him.

I shouldn’t say that he doesn’t get thrown to but he clearly isn’t the top option (duh). His top game this year came against Cleveland when he caught eight passes (on 13 targets) for 83 yards but was shutdown last week against Chicago with one catch for five yards. He might give you 40 yards on three catches but not someone I would really worry about.

He has a catch rate of 55% which is pretty low and while I can assume they aren’t force feeding him the ball I would assume that he isn’t the most coveted target. He does have 405 effective yards which shows that he is out performing his stats by a bit but like I said I wouldn’t think the Lions will be targeting him a ton with the Steelers secondary struggling with Johnson also on the team.



Tight End: Brandon Pettigrew
Catches: 31
Yards: 295
Rec. Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: -54
DVOA: -26.0%

Pettigrew has had some pretty decent season in the NFL. He posted 700+ yard season in 2010 and 2011 with a lot of targets (over 100 from 10-12) but has really fallen off. Last season he made 59 catches for 567 yards and only three touchdowns and this season he is only averaging 9.5 yards per catch and only has one score.

He is coming off his best game of the season when he caught all of the passes in the five times he was targeted for 70 yards but outside of that it has been slim rewards for the Lions. Three times this year Pettigrew was held under 10 yards and in all but three games he was held under 50 yards.

Among the 46 qualified tight ends Pettigrew ranks 45th in DYAR and 43rd in DVOA so they aren’t getting much production at all. He has only 125 effective yards which is significantly less than his nearly 300 receiving yards. His catch rate of 67% is the best for him in the last three season and is much better than his 58% catch rate last season.

At any rate Pettigrew has to be a pretty big disappointment over the past few seasons after flashing some promise. I guess that is all I have to say about him.



Offensive Line
Left to Right: Riley Reiff, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, Jason Fox

As the Lions rely on the passing game a lot more than the running game you would hope (as a Lions fan) that they would be able to protect their quarterback and if that comes at the expense of a little bit of the running game then so be it. Luckily for the Lions that is exactly how it is working out.

The Lions rank first in the entire league with a 3.9% adjusted sack rate and have only given up 10 sacks on the season. The next closest is Denver with 13 and Detroit is only one of six teams that have given up under 20 sacks so protecting the quarterback is giving them some big returns when Stafford doesn’t have to worry about the rush and can go through his progressions.

In terms of the running game the Lions running backs average 4.37 yards per carry but rank 15th in the league with an adjusted line yards of only 3.89. A good portion of that comes from Detroit ranking fourth in the league with 1.37 second level yards which is the yards in which a team’s backs earn between 5-10 yards past the line divided by the total number of carries. They also rank 10th in the league with a 0.81 open field yard which is the same as second level yards but open field yards focus on carries that go past 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. As ALY states the offensive line get more credit for those yards at the line of scrimmage to five yards so that goes into a little of why the average is a little low but the backs need to get to that point to make it down field so the Lions line isn’t bad but then again it isn’t overly great.

In short yardage situations they are a little hit or miss. They rank sixth in the league with a power success rate of 75% while ranking 24th in the league in stuffed ranking getting dropped at or behind the line of scrimmage 21% of the time. When they need to get those tough yards they are able to get them but overall the Lions aren’t overly successful at keeping the backs clean past the line of scrimmage which absolutely contributes to the lower ALY.

Detroit spreads the run out along the line, but predominately runs up the middle or off their guards. They run to that area 42% of the time with an average ALY of 4.01. That is just a smudge over league average and is good for 13th in the league. The Lions are most successful running to their tackles. When they run to the right tackle they have an ALY of 4.55 which is fourth-best in the league. They take advantage of that by having 26% of their running back carries go to the right tackle while 9% of those carries go to the left tackle where their ALY of 4.35 is seventh-best in the league.


Lions Defense

The Lions have a high-powered offense but they need to have that as their defense isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. It is true that they play against the Packers a few times a year and their schedule hasn’t exactly been easy but they are 24th in the league giving up over 376 yards per games including 24 points per game. Not that great.

They rank 19th in the league with a DVOA of 2.6% and while that is right around replacement level though their rush defense (-15.6%, sixth) is carry the weight for a pretty bad pass defense (13.3%, 23rd).

Lets start on the pass game. The Lions rank 23rd in the league against opposing teams top receivers with a DVOA against of 12.5% giving up about 90 yards per game. They are a little bit better against opposing number two receivers with a -14.1% DVOA (ninth in league) but are pretty bad against other receivers (third, fourth, etc) with a DVOA of 12.0% which is good for 21st in the league.

The Lions are a little better against the backs and tight ends as they are seventh in the league against tight ends and 12th against running backs. The Steelers don’t use backs a lot in their passing game but Heath Miller is a huge part of the passing offense and if the Lions are able to take him out of the equation it might make it a little easier on their shoddy secondary.

I am sure it also doesn’t help that they do a pretty bad job of getting to the quarterback. So far this season they have only 15 sacks and post an adjusted sack rate of 5.6%. The Steelers this year have 16 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5% so basically the Lions defense is getting to the quarterback at the same rate as the Steelers which is not good at all. For anyone. The two teams in this game are 28th and 29th in the league in adjusted sack rate.

Anyways, against the run the Lions are one of the best in the league. They hold opposing running backs to only a 3.90 yard per carry average and are even better with a 3.31 adjusted line yards against which ranks fourth in the league. The big reason for this is the two big guys in the middle of the line named Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They are good at stopping the run and it shows. They are big and nasty and might eat a few Steelers lineman for lunch on Sunday.

Teams are only running up the middle 47% of the time against the Lions and when they do they are averaging only a 3.42 ALY which is the fourth-best in the league. Pretty good. Real good. The Lions are best in the league when teams try to run to the right tackle where they giving up only a 1.83 ALY and they also lead the league when teams run to their left end with an ALY of 1.68.

You can get to the Lions by running to the left tackle as they are giving up a 4.82 ALY and teams are running there 14% of their running back carries. Teams are running pretty evenly across the board as they also run to the offensive right end 14% of the time, to the right tackle 11% of the time and to the left end 15% of the time.

The Lions are pretty good in short yardage situations. Teams are having a pretty decent power success rate (57%) against the Lions but they are doing a really good job stuffing running back at or behind the line of scrimmage. They rank sixth in the league with a stuffed percentage of 24% so running the football in any situation is going to be tough.

Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch leads the team with 72 total tackles that includes a pick and a pair of sacks on the season. 54 of those tackles are solo so he has been doing some work. I mean it isn’t Lawrence Timmons level dominating but for a defense that is good against the run he is the cog in the middle.

Along with stopping the run Suh leads the team with 4.5 sacks while Ezekiel Ansah has three sacks and Fairley has 2.5 sacks.

Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy is second on the team with 69 tackles (52 solo) and also leads the team with five interceptions and also has the lone touchdown for the Lions defense. Defensive back Rashean Mathis has 10 passes defended while Glover Quin and Louis Delmas each had a pair of picks in the secondary.


Lions Special Teams

While the offense is good and the run defense is great the special teams isn’t really all that great. They rank 24th in the league with a -2.5% DVOA on special teams with only the punt unit being above league average and when that is the only portion of the special teams unit you excel at.

Sam Martin is the leader of the punt team as he ranks fifth in the NFL with an average of 48.1 yards per punt. His net average is 42.3 yards per punt which is ranked fourth in the league so he isn’t messing around. 11 of his 41 punts have landed inside the 20 yard line and forced seven fair catches. The coverage unit has been pretty outstanding as they are holding returners to a 5.1 yard per return average, also good for fourth in the league. This gives the punt unit a 2.6 ranking accruing to Football Outsiders which means they are 2.6 points above average in terms of their punt coverage.

The field goal unit has been pretty awful. They sit at a -7.7 ranking which is third-worst in all of football. Former Eagles kicker David Akers is kicking for Detroit and on the season he’s hit only 12-of-16 attempts that ranks 27th in the league and has made only half of his six opportunities between 40-49 yards and missed one from 30-39 yards. All-in-all not that good.

The Lions return units are pretty league average. In terms of punt returns Micheal Spurlock has returned 18 punts for a 7.1 yard per return average that ranks 19th in the NFL. He has also fair caught 11 punts. The kickoff return game is also Spurlock’s territory as he has 11 of the 12 returns for the Lions with a 22.4 yard per return average with a long of 35. Yawn.


Game Notes

-I seriously have no idea how the Steelers are going to shut down Calvin Johnson. Ike Tayor is going to follow him around and while Taylor has shut down a somewhat similar guy like A.J. Green I don’t really think that Green is as good as Johnson. The Steelers as a whole haven’t done a great job against opposing top receivers as they rank 20th in the league with a 5.5% DVOA against number one targets so it might be a long day. Here is to hoping that Stafford completely forgets that Johnson is on the field.

-The Steelers have had a hell of a time running the football and going against the Lions is going to be a huge mismatch. The Steelers are coming off a game where they rushed for 136 yards and are on back-to-back games of rushing for more than 100 yards and have done so in three of their last four games. That being said I would be really shocked if they were able to get 100 yards on the ground.

-The Steelers struggling on the ground means that Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to win it through the air. Six times this year Roethlisberger has thrown more than 30 passes and in all six of those games the Steelers have lost. He has throw exactly 30 passes in two different games and the Steelers are 2-0 in those games. The other game was the win over Baltimore when he threw 23 times. He is more than capable of putting the ball in the air but as we see this year that doesn’t turn into wins often.

-The Steelers have to take care of the football. The Steelers have turned the ball over 18 times and have at least one turnover in every game but one, the win over the Jets. In games where the Steelers have turned the ball over more than one time they are 0-6. When they turn the ball over less than two times they are 3-0. Seems pretty simple.

-In the same respect the defense has to come up big and create some turnovers and get to the quarterback. They have been good at neither thing this season but have forced a turnover in three straight games and twice this year they have forced multiple turnovers. They must win the turnover margin this game against one of the better defenses in the league.

-The Steelers are at a crossroads. At 3-6 they are, in reality, out of the playoff picture but there is still somewhat of an outside shot that they could make a run at it. The Bengals are 6-4 in the division and the Steelers have four division games left. In all honesty they need to win six of the last seven games to have a chance but the AFC North is bad this year and the sixth playoff spot is just as bad in the AFC. The Steelers really have no business in this type of conversation but it still needs to be talked about, I guess.



PREDICTION - The Lions are the best team in the AFC North and the Steelers are the worst team in the AFC North. This game is a mismatch in nearly every aspect of the game and while it is easy to see the Lions running away with it we have seen many times the Lions gifting games away. There are reasons that I can see the Steelers winning this game but I think the Lions advantage on offense over this Steelers defense is just too much. Lions 31, Steelers 20.

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