Friday, November 8, 2013

Steelers Game 9 Preview - vs. Buffalo Bills

The Steelers and Bills. Before the season started this was one of those games where you checked it off as a win for the Steelers and was hoping this wouldn’t be a trap game before a big game against the Lions next week. Unfortunately this game has turned into a game where you think this might be one of the few games left that they have a good chance to win.

The Steelers got smoked last week up in New England and they are coming back to play at Heinz Field for the first time since the win over the Ravens so that should help the Steelers and maybe put them more into a comfort zone.

The Bills are in a bad way right now. They have one win in their last five games and have lost their last two games. They have played three quarterbacks so far this season and outside of their running game they have been pretty bad.

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 Bills 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.

Bills Offense

To be quite hones with you the Bills offense really isn’t that good at all. That isn’t to say that the Steelers are going to all of a sudden become a great defense or that the Bills are going to gain only a few yards here and there but the fact remains that the Bills offense isn’t good.

Buffalo is averaging 344.7 yards per game which mostly comes from a running game that features a couple of pretty good running backs. As a team they average 145.8 yards per game which is good for seventh in the league while they average 21 points per game which isn’t all that good.

Buffalo ranks 21st in the league with a total offensive DVOA of -8.6% which includes the 27th ranked pass offense (-6.5% DVOA) and the 18th-best rushing offense (-6.4%). As I said this isn’t a very good offense and while they do gain a nice chunk of yards on the ground that doesn’t automatically mea that the offense is good.

The Bills have used EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, and Jeff Tuel so far this season so that doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence

Here is a breakdown of the offense:

Quarterback: EJ Manuel
Completion %: 56.7% (85-150)
Yards: 985
Touchdowns: 5
Interceptions: 3
QBR: 42.2 (27th)
DYAR: 54 (22nd)
DVOA: -5.9% (21st)

Manuel has been hurt for a little bit of time now. The last game that he played in was a loss to the Browns on October 3 but he is slated to be back this week. Manuel is easily the best quarterback on the roster which doesn’t say much but he is going to give them the best chance to win.

Manuel was the 16th overall pick in the 2013 draft and so far hasn’t been great but as I said before hasn’t been as bad as some of the other guys that have attempted to throw passes for the Bills (Thad Lewis). He is only completing 56.7% of his passes and averaging 6.57 yards per attempt which are both below the league average, or what you would like your quarterback to do. Granted he hasn’t played in over a month but his last three games he did play he didn’t complete over 55% of his passes in any game and only threw two touchdowns and two interceptions in those games. Not really ideal.

He is a pretty athletic guy in the pocket as he will get out there and run for a first down if given the opportunity. In five games this season he has rushed 25 times for 91 yards and while that is only a 3.6 yard per carry average it still is something that you have to keep your eye on. He had one game where he ran 11 times for only one yard but outside of that he has been pretty productive when he takes off. I know you can’t cherry pick and erase stats like that but, well, I did.

Manuel gives the Bills the best chance to win and he could develop into a great quarterback but right now he is coming off an injury that sidelined him for a month and he hasn’t played overly well even when he was playing every week. The Steelers could take advantage of the rust and inexperience. Not sure if they will but this seems to be an ideal situation for that to happen.

Running Back: Fred Jackson
Attempts: 117
Yards: 502
Rushing Touchdowns: 6
DYAR: 101 (7th)
DVOA: 9.9% (10th)

Jackson is one half of a pretty good running back tandem in Buffalo. Jackson is going to be the short yardage and goal line back but not in the sense that you might think of a guy like Mike Tolbert where he is only going to get a handful of carries. Jackson had a down year in 2012 with the emergence of Spiller but this year he has teamed up with Spiller to cause some damage on the ground.

Against a pretty good Kansas City defense Jackson carried the ball 16 times for 77 yards and in every game but one Jackson has carried the ball double-digit times. He might not always have great games but with a 4.3 yard per carry average and six rushing touchdowns he can’t be ignored. While Spiller is the home run back you can’t sleep on Jackson because if he gets into the open field he is going to be tough to bring down plus he does have some burst he can show.

Jackson actually is ranked as a top-10 back according to Football Outsiders and actually score out better than backs like Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore. His success rate of 53% is second-best among qualified running backs so he might be the best back that Buffalo has.

Jackson has been really good in the passing game also. He has caught 28 passes this year for 245 yards and has four or more catches in six different games this season. As a pass catcher he has a 72% catch rate which is nothing to turn your nose at.

Running Back: C.J. Spiller
Attempts: 102
Yards: 478
Rushing Touchdowns: 1
DYAR: -37 (31st)
DVOA: -18.1% (32nd)

Spiller really has had a down year from what we saw from him last year. Last season Spiller ran for 1,244 yards on only 207 carries and six touchdowns while also catching 43 passes for 459 yards. This year things are down for Spiller but while he has been less productive he still has chances to be a big time back at any time.

Spiller is coming off his biggest game of the season as he rushed 12 times for 116 yards which includes a 61 yard burst. He also caught a pair of passes for 39 yards which has been the highlight of a largely mundane season. This was the second time this season where he was over 100 yards with the other time coming in week two when he went for 103 yards on 16 carries against Carolina.

It’s not as if Spiller hasn’t been getting touches as he has double-digit touches in all games but two and even with that considered he has had at least 50 yards of rushing in five games this season. Last season he rushed for 6.0 yards per carry and this year that is down over a yard to 4.7. This would be a much different situation if they didn’t have a strong back to pair him with and in some aspects that might hurt him to not get much more than 13 or 14 carries per game.

Last season Spiller ranked as a top three back in the NFL with a DYAR of 301 that was third-best in the league while posing the best DVOA ranking among all running backs (27.6%). This season he has slipped way back as he ranks 31st in DYAR and 32nd in DVOA while seeing his success rate drop from 55% in 2012 (third in league) to only 36% (32nd). I don’t get to watch a lot of Spiller (not as much as last year) but despite his low grades he’s going to scare me to death every time he touches the ball.

Receiver: Steve Johnson
Catches: 38
Yards: 423
Rec. Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: 23 (56th)
DVOA: -8.6% (58th)

The Bills passing game is pretty bad. Johnson is the top guy of a pretty thin group and while it looked like he might be a really good receiver a few years ago he has dropped off pretty significantly so far this season.

Johnson has had three straight 1,000+ yard seasons and over the past three years as caught 23 touchdown passes. This season Johnson is averaging more than two more yards per catch and while he is on pace to catch as many touchdown passes as this year he really hasn’t had much stability from the quarterback position.

Last week Johnson had five catches on seven targets for 36 yards and only a long catch of 13 yards. Johnson has only one 100 yard game of the season that came in a week two win over Carolina when he caught eight catches for 111 yards and a score. A typical good day this season for Johnson is around six catches for 70-80 yards but he hasn’t been finding the end zone too often. In three of his last five games Johnson also hasn’t had a yard per catch average of over 10.0.

Johnson’s catch rate of 55% is pretty average while he ranks in the latter half of the 50’s in both DYAR and DVOA. While he isn’t terrible he certainly hasn’t been living up to the ideal number one receiver role that Buffalo would like him to.

Receiver: Robert Woods
Catches: 26
Yards: 349
Rec. Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: -29 (72nd)
DVOA: -19.1% (72nd)

Woods is in his rookie season and is currently third on the Bills in yardage and is only one of four players to have a touchdown catch for the Bills. Typically it takes receivers a little longer to get into the swing of things in the NFL but Woods has done a pretty nice job in his rookie year.

Woods has been up and down as you might expect from a rookie and is coming off a game against Kansas City where he made four catches for 44 yards. In the previous three games Woods caught six passes for 40 yards and zero touchdowns. Before that Woods had games where he had 68, 35, 80, and 64 yards of receiving. Seems to be a little streaky so hopefully this isn’t the start of one of those good streaks after three games where he was nearly invisible.

Woods has a catch rate of only 43% which is near the bottom of the 83 qualified receivers and couple that with the near rock-bottom DYAR and DVOA and you can see where being a rookie might be hurting him. Despite that he is going to be relied on since there is very little receiving depth on the squad so I guess there is not better way to learn.

Tight End: Scott Chandler
Catches: 32
Yards: 367
Rec. Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: -50 (43rd)
DVOA: -21.1% (39th)

Chandler ranks second on the Bills in both receiving yards and receptions on the season but he really hasn’t been overly good for Buffalo. Actually he has been really bad when you look at the advanced lines that are on him.

Among the 45 qualified tight ends Chandler ranks 43rd in terms of DYAR and 39th in DVOA. His catch rate of 59% is higher than only two other tight ends and his 192 effective yards is much lower than his actual yards of 367. Sure, he might be the second-best pass catcher on the team but that doesn’t mean he has been overly effective or good this season.

Chandler is coming of a game where she caught three passes for 26 yards and was targeted nine times. Outside of the Bills games against the Saints (week nine) and the Jets (week three) He hasn’t had a game of over 50 yards receiving and in two of the last three games he has a yard per catch average of less than 10.

The Steelers got torch by Gronk last week against the Patriots but the Bills don’t employ a tight end that is even in the same universe as Gronk.

Offensive Line
Left to Right: Cordy Glenn, Doug Legursky, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, Erik Pears

The Buffalo offensive line hasn’t been horrible but it certainly isn’t something that is going to bring up huge gaping holes. I mean look at the offensive line, it employs both Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik both of whom the Steelers didn’t want. Maybe that says more about the Steelers than the Bills but I really don’t think that means the Bills are one of the better offensive lines in the league.

In terms of running the football the Bills rank 18th in the league with an adjusted line yards of 3.76 which is a good bit lower than the yard per carry of their running backs who average 4.41 yards. In terms of short yardage football the Bills rank around the middle of the pack as their power success rate of 64% ranks 13th in the league while their power rank is 19th in the NFL at 20%. This isn’t really either good or bad but from what we are seeing here the Bills are relying a little more on their running backs to get these conversions and yards and a little less on their offensive line judging by the low ALY and the significantly higher running back yards.

A little more to suggest that is that the Bills rank 11th in the league with 1.18 second level yards and are fifth in the league with 1.04 open field yards. Baiscally the second level yards represent the yards which the back earns between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage while open field yards represents past 10 yards on the line of scrimmage. Both of those are divided by the running back carries. In any context the Bills rely on a little more on their backs to make guys miss and get past the line of scrimmage but around the line of scrimmage things get a little dicey.

The Bills lead the league in running the ball up the middle or off their guards at 73% of their 255 running back carries. The league average up the middle is 53% and the next closest team is running the ball 69% of the time. Pretty significant. Fortunately for the Bills that is where they are the most successful as they rank 10th in the NFL with an ALY of 4.07 up the middle. They rank 17th when they run to the left tackle with an ALY of 3.67 which is lower than the league average of 3.84.

The Bills rank 24th or lower in every other running lane on the offensive line while ranking dead last with an ALY of -1.91 when rushing to the right end. That is negative yardage when running to the right end. They also have an ALY of under 3.00 when running to the right tackle (2.93) and left end (2.87).

In terms of pass blocking the Bills are nearly dead in the middle of the league. They have surrendered 28 sacks which is the fifth-most in the NFL but when that is adjusted for drop backs they rank 17th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 7.3%.

Bills Defense

Defensively the Bills are giving up a lot of yards and a good bit of points but they still can be a dangerous defense. They allow over 360 yards of offense per game and 26.2 points. While the raw numbers aren’t very flattering to the Bills they are ranked seventh in the NFL with a defensive DVOA of -6.4%. They are ninth-best against the pass with a DVOA of -4.3% while ranking 14th against the run with a -9.2% DVOA. What really kills the Bills is that they are a wildly inconsistent defensive unit. Their variance of 8.0% is only 26th in the league and goes to tell you that from a week-to-week defensive DVOA perspective you never know if you are going to get the good Bills defense or the bad one.

The Bills are a little all over the board in their pass defense. Against opposing top receivers the Bills rank 24th in the league with a 13.8% DVOA as they give up over 96 yards to those top receivers. Antonio Brown could be in for a big game.

The Bills secondary bounces back as they are best in the league against teams number two receivers with a -37% DVOA while also ranking third against tight ends (-35.6%) and four against running backs (23.7%). They don’t rank nearly as well against third and fourth receivers (10%, 21st) so it might be another big game for Jerricho Cotchery. He didm play pretty well against a below average Patriots secondary so here is to hoping he continues that.

The Bills get some help in the secondary thanks to a really good pass rush. While the Bills only rank 17th in terms of adjusted sack rate (7.3%) they have 29 sacks which ranks tied for second in the entire NFL. Just think of that, the Steelers offensive line and a defense that gets after the passer. Yikes.

The Bills defense employs six players that have multiple sacks and four players that have four or more sacks. Mario Williams headlines the pack with 11 sacks this season to go along with 22 total tackles. Williams was held off the board against Kansas City but has recorded at least a half a sack in six games this season including a 4.5 sack performance against Carolina in week two. In this last six games Williams has 6.5 sacks. Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes all have four sacks each so that should be fun to watch on Sunday.

The Bills aren’t overly good against the run as they give up 4.08 yards per carry to running backs while having an ALY of 4.10 to show that offensive lineman are able to get ahold of the Bills front seven and they can be gashed. The Bills have held their past two opponents under 100 yards of rushing but in five games this season they have given up 120 yards or more including three games of 150 rushing yards or more.

Teams are running up the middle or off the guards 64% of the time and teams are having a tough time stopping the run. The defense ranks 25th in the league giving up an ALY of 4.23 on such runs which is better than the league average of 3.91. Teams are also having amazing success running to the edge as teams are posting an ALY of 6.15 running to the left end while having an ALY of 4.90 to the right end. I don’t think the Steelers have the horses to do that but it wouldn’t hurt to challenge the edges of the Buffalo defense to try and gash them and relieve some of that pass rush.

Linebacker Kiko Alonso leads the team in tackles with 89 while picking up a pair of sacks and intercepting four passes. The four interceptions is the most on the team which is rather, um, odd, from the linebacker position. Safety Da’Norris Searcy and Jim Leonhard each have three interceptions while Leodis McKelvin leads the team with 10 passes defended despite not intercepting a pass. Searcy also had 2.5 sacks.

Bills Special Teams

Buffalo really has a split special teams unit. Overall they rank 27th in the league with a DVOA of -3.4% but while that tells you the sum of the parts that doesn’t really give you the full scope of what they have going on. The Bills rank near the top of the league in both field goals and kickoffs while they are one of the worst teams in the league in punt coverage and kickoff return.

In terms of field goals it pretty much starts and ends with kicker Dan Carpenter. Carpenter is fourth in the NFL with 18 field goals made and has only missed two on the season with a long of 55 yards. The only misses for Carpenter was one from 40-49 yards and another from outside 50 where he is 3-for-4 on the season.

The other end of the kicking spectrum is the punt game where the Bills have been pretty bad. Shawn Powell is the Bills punter and averages 46.1 yards per punt which ranks 12th in the league but when you look at his net average it sits at only 35.2 yards per return which is 31st in the league among the 32 qualified punters. That is worse than former Steelers punter Zoltan Mesko. Returners are averaging 14.7 yard per return against the Bills punt coverage team and that really isn’t all that good. At all.

In terms of the return game the Bills rely on Marquise Goodwin on kickoff returns and Leodis McKelvin on punt returns. Goodwin is averaging 23.9 yards per return with a long of 26 and while he does not qualify for the league leaders if he did that would rank him 17th of the 20 (including him) kickoff returners. Among those other 19 returners every one of them have a return longer than his season long of 26 yards.

McKelvin is averaging 8.3 yards per punt return on 10 returns while Jim Leonhard is also returning punts and averages 9.0 yards per return on seven returns. Leonhard has the long on the season with a 25 yard return. Yawn.

Game Notes

-The Bills are not a good football team. Their defense isn’t very good and their offense isn’t very good. Actually, scratch that, they do have a nice running game and that is actually worrisome. The Patriots ran all over this Steelers defense and the Bills have a much better run game with better weapons than the Patriots did. All that being said the Steelers aren’t a good team either and this makes me wonder why this game isn’t in prime time.

-Last week Buffalo out gained Kansas City 470-210 so it isn’t like the Bills are unable to move the football. They might not always move the ball with that kind of efficiency but if it weren’t for the Chiefs scoring two defensive touchdowns off Buffalo turnovers then the Bills probably hand the Chiefs their first loss of the season. The Steelers defense is having problems creating one turnover let alone turning multiple turnovers into touchdowns.

-The Steelers run defense is in bad shape. They have had back-to-back weeks of giving up 197 yards rushing to both the Raiders and Patriots and so far this season they have held opponents under 100 yards rushing only two times. Those two times were in the only two wins of the season for the Steelers.

-One good trend is that the Steelers are starting to create a few more turnovers. After not forcing one in the first four games of the season they have forced six in the last four games including four in the last two games.

-If the Steelers are going to win they are going to have to do it through the air. The Bills pass defense isn't that good and they have given up a league-worst 20 passing touchdowns so Ben might be able to spread the wealth a bit. I feel a little better about this than I have in the past with Jerricho Cotchery playing some good football and when you couple that with what Antonio Brown has done this year I think the Steelers will be able to make some noise. Don't look now but Cotchery ranks seventh in the NFL with a 201 DYAR and second (SECOND) with a DVOA of 48.9%. His catch rate is also 69% which is right up there with some of the best in the league. If the Bills try to take Brown out of the equation that is going to open up a lot of room for Cotch to make some catches and after last week I am more than OK with that.

PREDICTION - Man, this is really a brutal game to research and talk about. Not that it won’t be fun to watch because it is the Steelers and even though they are in a bad place right now so are the Bills, but man. The Bills are bad and the Steelers are bad so it might come down to who is less bad. I think the Steelers have more talent and here is hoping that wins out. Steelers 27, Bills 24.

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