Friday, November 1, 2013

Steelers Game 8 Preview - @ New England Patriots

How many times have you got super pumped up for a Steelers/Patriots game? Too many times it seems as every time these two teams play something huge is on the line. This game is not really like that. The Patriots are playing some pretty average at best football and the Steelers are 2-5 on the season and looking more like a team that is just bad and not going through a slump to start the season.

I know you probably know this already but if the Steelers want to make any noise they have to win this game. They have five losses already and while they are probably already out of the playoff picture the players probably don’t think that. The Bengals are starting to run away with the division yet the AFC has been so bad that you never know what is going to happen.

The stadium will most likely be full of good spirits as the Red Sox just won the World Series and with the Patiots getting wins despite a pretty bad offense and run defense there really isn’t a reason not to be happy. Hey, the Penguins beat the Bruins on Wednesday though, so, yay.

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 Patriots 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.



Patriots Offense

The Patriots offense has made a living of taking some below average players and plugging them into the offense along with a couple of above average players and had Tom Brady make them better. That has worked so well for the Patriots that they have been the best team in the AFC for much of the last 10 years. Over the past few years they haven’t been so lucky as it turns out that not being able to draft talent and hoping that you can sign below average players will really catch up with you.

So far this season the Patriots have an offense that ranks 20th in the league according to Football Outsiders with a DVOA of -6.4% which is actually worse than what the Steelers throw out there weekly which as we know can be way less than ideal. The Pats rank 24th in passing offense with a DVOA of -5.5% while their rushing game is just about at league average with a -0.9% DVOA.

I am sure we will here the “Patriot way” much the same you hear the “Cardinal way” in baseball and all that means is that there are two things that are full of shit in this sentence.

Here is a breakdown of the offense:


Quarterback: Tom Brady
Completion %: 55.7% (171-307)
Yards: 1,824
Touchdowns: 9
Interceptions: 6
QBR: 48.6 (17th)
DYAR: -117 (32nd)
DVOA: -16.6% (29th)

Lets get this out of the way, Brady is one of, if not the best, quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. I know it is hard to read that and it is hard for me to say as he has brought more heartache to the fans of the Steelers but Brady has done a lot over his career with very little help. I know he’s had guys like Wes Welker and Randy Moss but for the most part he’s had bush-league targets to throw to, especially over the past few seasons, and yet the Patriots continue to win.

Like I said above that is really starting to slow down this year. So far this season Brady’s completion percentage is the lowest of his career at just under 56% which is way lower than his previous low of 60.2% which he did way back in 2003. Since he came back from missing the 2008 season with a knee injury Brady has completed no less than 63% of his passes in any one season and this year it’s been bad.

Couple the completion percentage with Brady’s 5.94 yard per attempt average and you are looking at one of the worst seasons of his professional career. HIs career YPA is 7.44 and i.e. hasn’t been under 7.00 since 2006 as he has been one of the best in the league in this category over his career.

Some of this has to do with the inefficiency of his receivers to catch the ball but the fact remains that Brady ranking in the 20’s in the advanced stats really stands true and it’s just an abnormality.

After throwing seven touchdowns in the first four games of the season Brady has thrown only two in the last four games including getting shut out twice. After throwing a touchdown pass in 52 straight games he’s now on a streak of one as he threw a touchdown pass against Miami.

Against Miami Brady went only 13-of-22 for 116 yards while he threw a touchdown and a pick. In his last four games he hasn’t completed more than 60% of his passes and had a YPA under 6.00 in three of those games with the other going for only 6.26. I am guessing this is un-Patriot like.

As I said before Brady is one of the best ever. The patchwork receiving core he has doesn’t really do him any favors and he has been hit more often than he usually does but the fact remains that he hasn’t been as good as he has in the past.


Running Back: Stevan Ridley
Attempts: 92
Yards: 399
Rushing Touchdowns: 4
DYAR: 93 (6th)
DVOA: 17.3% (4th)

For as much as the offense has struggled the bright spot so far has been Ridley. Last season Ridley burst onto the scene in his second year as he ran for 1,263 yards on 290 carries (4.4 ypc) with 12 touchdowns. Coming into the season I think most had high hopes for Ridley but the way that the Patriots treat the backfield it really was never set in stone.

Ridley hasn’t been overly good this season but that didn’t help because of a slow start to the season thanks to putting the ball on the turf a couple of times which really got him in the doghouse and benched for stretches of games. Over the last three games Ridley has really turned it on and began to run a little bit like he did last season.

In the win over Miami he rushed for 79 yards on only 14 carries and a score a week after rushing for 50 yards on 11 carries and a score. his best game of the season came three weeks ago against New Orleans when hr had a season-high 20 carries for 96 yards and two scores.

Ridley doesn’t have overly flashy numbers but he does rank fairly high according to Football Outsiders as he is a top five back according to them. His success rate of 52% is the fourth-best mark among running backs which represents the players consistency and couple that with his high DVOA and DYAR and you have a pretty lethal back that the Patriots will rely on.



Running Back: LaGarrette Blount
Attempts: 65
Yards: 265
Rushing Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: -22 (28th)
DVOA: -16.5% (32nd)

Blount has been a troubled guy in the backfield. He is another player that had some problems with another team (Tampa Bay) that the Pats think they can turn around to be the next Moss but so far it hasn’t really been all that great. At the same time it hasn’t been a total disaster so it really isn’t all that bad.

Blount rushed for 1,007 yards in 2010 but since then has gone downhill and so far this season he has a 4.1 yard per carry average and has scored a lone touchdown. His usage this season has been a roller coaster ride. He carried the ball 11 times for 46 yards against Miami but in the two games before that he carried the ball a combined eight times for 13 yards. So, yea. He has three double-digit carry games with the most coming in week three when he had 14 carries for 65 yards but other than that he’s been pretty average to bad.

His success rate is 46% on the season which is 17th among backs while he ranks in the high 20’s and low 30’s in other advanced metrics so I wouldn’t really worry a whole ton about him.


Receiver: Julian Edelman
Catches: 48
Yards: 462
Rec. Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: -4 (66th)
DVOA: -13.3% (66th)

Edelman is the best that the Patriots got in terms of receivers that aren’t tight ends. Seriously. Sure the 48 catches and 462 yards are alright on the surface but among the 85 qualified receivers he ranks 66th in both DYAR and DVOA. That is not good. He does have a catch rate of 69% which actually is good for where he ranks overall and on par with some of the better receivers in the league but the fact remains that he is not what you should want when you are looking for a number one receiver.

Edelman has been with the Patriots for his entire career (since 2009) and has already set a career high in catches and yards. His best season came in his rookie campaign where he caught 37 passes for 359 yards while he caught a career-high three touchdowns last season in only nine games.

So far this season he is averaging less than 10 yards per catch and just really isn’t doing a lot. He started off the season strong with at least 75 yards receiving in three of his first four games but in the last four games he’s only been over 50 yards one time which was a five catch, 57 yard day three weeks ago. He caught both of his touchdowns the first game of the season.

Last week Edelman caught only two passes for seven yards while he caught five passes for 44 yards the week before. This isn’t a number one guy and he is being thrust into that role with Danny Amendola being hurt/ineffective for much of the season.


Receiver: Kenbrell Thompkins
Catches: 23
Yards: 334
Rec. Touchdowns: 4
DYAR: -53 (76th)
DVOA: -24.6% (77th)

Edelman really hasn’t been good and Thompkins hasn’t been much better. He ranks nearly dead last among qualified receivers while having a catch rate of only 41% which is more of a team-wide thing among the many young receivers that the Patriots have.

Thompkins has shown flashes as a first-year player as he made six catches for 127 yards and a score in a wild 30-23 victory over Atlanta in week four. since that day it hasn’t been good for Thompkins. He followed that up with a three catch, 16 yard performance and had another 16 yard catch day two weeks ago against the Jets. Last week against Miami he didn’t have a catch and wasn’t even targeted. So, yea.


Tight End: Rob Gronkowski
Catches: 10
Yards: 141
Rec. Touchdowns: 0
DYAR: -30 (43rd)
DVOA: -29.1% (43rd)

Gronk is a freak on the football field. He has been banged up with a pretty serious forearm injury and only got back into playing two weeks ago and he is still trying to get back into the groove.

He got back into the swing of things quickly as he caught eight passes for 114 yards in his first game back against the Jets but followed that up with a two catch, 27 yard outing against the Dolphins with one of those catches going for 23 yards.

Gronk has been pretty effective on the field. In 2011 he caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns and followed that up by catching 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 11 games last season. He was the top rank tight end in terms of DYAR and DVOA last season and was also ranked number one in those categories in 2011. His numbers don’t look all that impressive so far this season but remember this is only two weeks of play for him and with a yard per catch rate right around 14 over his career the good is coming. Hopefully it holds off another week.

Offensive Line
Left to Right: Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Will Svitek

The New Englad offensive line has actually done a nice job in the running game. The Patriots backs have done a pretty nice job with a 4.52 running back yard per carry average but the New England offensive line is posting a adjusted line yards of 4.30 which is third best in the league.

The Patriots are having the most success running the football up the middle and off their tackles. The Patriots run the ball up the middle or off their guards 43% of the time and when they run there their ALY of 4.73 ranks third in the league. They run 23% of the time off their left tackle which gets them an ALY of 4.25 that is sixth-best in the league. They don’t rank any worse than 16th when running to any of the five spots and when the passing offense is struggling as much as it is then this is pretty huge for the offense.

While the line and backs have done a really nice job of semi-carrying this offense they are not really doing a good job in short yardage situations. The Patriots power success rate of 41% is 29th in the league and they are getting stuffed 20% of the time where the backs are getting tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage which is only good for 15th in the league. While that is a small improvement from the power success rate it certainly isn’t a place where New England is strong.

In terms of protecting Brady the Pats are right around the middle of the pack. So far this season they have given up 22 sacks which turns into an adjusted sack rate of 6.6% which is 11th in the league. Last season the Patriots had an adjust sack rate of 4.5% with 27 sacks given up while in 2011 they were at 5.4% and 32. While they are not all that bad this year Brady is getting hit more and that could contribute to some of the trouble in the passing game.


Patriots Defense

For many years the Patriots defense has been pretty bad and bordering on awful. That is not how many would want you to make it seem but that was really the reality. They have played receivers at cornerback and have done a generally bad job at drafting and developing defensive players but this season they have actually been pretty good.

Overall the Patriots are giving up a little over 346 yards per game with 131 of those coming on the ground. Their rush defense actually is the weaker part of their defense and it didn’t help that Vince Wilfork, their cog in the middle, was lost for the season earlier this year. The defensive backfield has typically been bad but has actually been pretty strong but that will also be hurt by the loss of Aqib Talib who has missed the last two weeks. All told they have surrendered only 215.5 yards through the air per game and only 18 points per game (sixth in league).

Overall the Patriots rank sixth in the league with a defensive DVOA of -6.2% which includes the fourth-best pass defense (-10.0% DVOA) while having only the 25th best rush defense (-2.1%). What might be the most impressive part of the Patriots defense is their consistency. They hold the top variance in the league at 2.0% which basically means that from a week-to-week performance the Patriots are putting up a pretty similar DVOA game score. While that might not be a big deal if they were a middle of the road defense it certainly makes it much better (for them) that they rank near the top of the league.

As I said their pass defense is pretty legit. Against opposing teams top receivers they rank third in the league with a DVOA of -27.2% which is mostly compiled with Talib in the lineup who is one of the top corners in the league. If he is unable to go this week that is a huge boost for the Steelers and Antonio Brown because coming into the game they are allowing only 44 yards receiving to the opposition top receiver. They only really struggle in one area and that is when they are defending opposing teams number two receivers as their DVOA of 34.4% is 31st in the league. Outside of that though and it is all good as they are fourth in the league against tight ends and 10th in the league against running backs out of the backfield.

The Pats are doing a nice job against the pass and getting to the quarterback is a pretty big reason in that. It is a little of a double-edged sword. New England has 24 sacks on the season which is eighth in the league but in terms of how many times they have a chance to get a sack they rank only 22nd in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 7.1%. With the Steelers offensive line being pretty bad at protecting Ben Roethlisberger I would imagine that the Patriots are going to feel good about getting pressure on Roethlisberger.

Against the run New England is giving up 4.01 yards per carry to the running back and the front seven is getting beat up even more with an ALY of 4.31 which is 31st in the league. When teams are running the ball up the middle or off the guards they are gaining an ALY of 4.51 which is 29th in the league while when offenses run to their left tackle teams are having an ALY of 3.93 for 20th in the league. The Patriots are best at stopping the run when teams run to the offensive right tackle with an ALY of 3.52 (13th in league) but that is the only area of the line that they are under league average.

While the Patriots offensive line hasn’t been very good at converting short yardage plays the Patriots defensive line hasn’t been very good at that very same situation. In terms of power success the Patriots are stopping teams only 67% of the time which is 19th in the league while their stuffed rank is only 13% which is 31st in the league.

While the Steelers have struggled in a big way running the football this would seem like a great time to try and establish some of the running attack early against a pretty poor run defense and see if that can open up the play action game to pull up the safeties and soften up the pass defense.

One of the better draft picks in the recent past for New England is middle linebacker Jerod Mayo and he leads the team in tackles with 55 (35 solo) as he also has 1.5 sacks. Brandon Spikes (50 tackles) and Dont’a Hightower (47 tackles) are also strong linebacking options for the Patriots as they are second and third on the team in tackles while Hightower has a sack on his stat line.

The pass rush is led by Chandler Jones who already has 6.5 sacks on the season after having only six sacks all of last season. He has only gone without a sack in three games this season and has been a force from his defensive end position. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is also getting to the quarterback from his defensive tackle position with 4.5 sacks with three of those sacks coming in the last two games while in those two games he had 17 tackles.


Patriots Special Teams

With the Patriots offense struggling and having a hard time the special teams have really picked up the slack. They are renamed the number one special teams unit with a 7.4% DVOA which is the best among the 32 teams. They are exceptionally good in the field goal unit behind the leg of Stephen Gostkowski. Gostkowski has an NFL-high 20 field goals made this season and only has missed once so far this season. He is a perfect 2-for-2 outside of 50 yards and has only missed one time between 40-49 yards. The Patriots are 7.8 points better than average in the kicking field goals which is second-best in the league only behind the Jets according to Football Outsiders.

The Patriots are also good in the punting game off the leg of Ryan Allen. He averages 46.2 yards per punt which is 12th in the league and his net average is 40.4 yards on 47 punts. The coverage unit helped by Allen is holding oppositions to an average return of 8.4 yards per return which is about league average while Allen has pinned 16 punts inside the 20 yard line.

Blount is actually the main kickoff returner for the Patriots but hasn’t been overly successful. He has 12 returns on the season with an average return of 23.1 yards with a long of 30 yards. On the punt return portion the Patriots rely on Julian Edelman who is one of the best in terms of yard per return in NFL history. This season he has returned 24 punts for an average of 10.7 yards with a long of 38 and has fair caught 10 balls.



Game Notes


-This is actually the first time the Steelers have met the Patriots since the 2011 season when the Steelers took home a 25-17 win. Since 2001 the Pats have held a 6-3 advantage over the Steelers which includes a 1-2 record in Foxboro during that timespan. The Patriots have given the Steelers some brutal losses over the year and when one of those wins came against a team that Tom Brady didn’t play on it kinda gives Pats fans some more to gloat about.

-David DeCastro didn’t practice on Thursday and even though Mike Tomlin said that he is going to play but that still doesn’t make the situation ideal. The Steelers were down Ramon Foster and DeCastro for much of the game against the Raiders and it seems to be a common theme this season with multiple lineman going down. DeCastro has been playing some really good football this season despite the struggles of the line as a whole and missing him for any period of time is going to be bad for the Steelers. It is his ankle that is banged up and that is not something you want banged up as a lineman. I assume DeCastro is going to gut it out but not practicing again on Thursday isn’t good even if he does end up playing.

-The Steelers have to find a way to get to Brady. If you give Brady time in the pocket he is going to make you pay despite the fact that the Patriots think you me and your uncle are good receiving options. I would venture to guess that when the Patriots have struggled over the past 5-7 years that they do so because the opposing team was able to get pressure in Brady’s face and makes him uncomfortable. No quarterback likes to have a crushing pocket but Brady really seems to get bothered by it. The Steelers have done a pretty bad job of getting to the quarterback but this would be a great week to change that.

-This stat is from ESPN’s Stats & Information:

The Patriots defense has allowed more than 130 rush yards in all four games since losing run defense anchor Vince Wilfork, the longest active streak in the league. Only Jacksonville has allowed more rush yards than New England over the last four weeks, a weakness the Patriots addressed by trading for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on Tuesday. When Sopoaga was on the field, his team's 3.4 yards per rush average would have ranked as the best in the league from 2008-13 as a stand-alone total. Without Sopoaga, his defense's 4.1 yards per rush average would have ranked 10th in that span.

-If the Steelers are going to get anything done on the ground it would probably need to be this game. The Patriots are really bad at stopping the run. As it was stated above The Patriots are doing a really bad job at stopping the run as they have given up 129 yards or more on the ground six of the eight games they’ve played and have given up more than 150 yards in the last two games. The Steelers on the other hand have rushed for over 100 yards only one time this season and have rushed for 50 or less yards, as a team, three times. Which unit is going to win out? The unit that does I bet is going to be on the winning team.


PREDICTION - If the Steelers were playing at Heinz Field I would give them a much better chance. Don’t ask me why, but I would. I don’t know how the Patriots are 6-2 but somehow they are despite being a wildly average team. That being said the Steelers just haven’t been that good this year. I think this will be a low scoring game but in the end the Patriots just do enough to win. Patriots 20, Steelers 17.

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