Friday, December 6, 2013

Steelers Game 13 Preview - vs. Miami Dolphins

Dolphins and Steelers. Beginning of the year it was a game where the Steelers should win thanks to the fact that the Dolphins haven’t been good recently. After three games the Dolphins were 3-0 and the Steelers were 0-3 and you thought the script was flipped. Now the Dolphins are 6-6 and the Steelers are 5-7 and now nobody has any idea what to expect.

This is going to be one of those games where things could swing on one play. Neither team is overly good but they are good enough to hang around with just about any team on any given day. These two teams are about as evenly matched as you get and while the two teams against each other might not have the flash it should still be a pretty decent game.

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

Dolphins Offense

The Miami offense doesn’t really lack for playmakers (as you will see later in the preview) but they really haven’t been able to do all that much this season. So far the Dolphins rank 26th in the league averaging only 322 yards per game and are one of the worst rushing teams averaging only 89 yards per game on the ground. They don’t score a lot of points as they average 21 per game.

Miami ranks out as a pretty average offense according to Football Outsiders with an offensive DVOA of -0.7% which is right around league average (17th in league) with a pass offensive rank of 15th (6.2%) and a rushing attack of 18th (-5.0%) so it is a little better than what it might look like from the raw numbers.

While the Dolphins might not have a great offense they are pretty consistent with it. They rank fifth in the league with a variance of 3.5%. They have had their days where things go good (453 yards in a win over the Jets last week) and have been down (213 yards in a November 11 game against Tampa Bay) but most games fall right around 300-350 yards of total offense. Not flashy, but consistent.

Here is a breakdown of the offense:

Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill
Completion %: 62.1% (280-451)
Yards: 3,115
Touchdowns: 17
Interceptions: 13
QBR: 45.9 (28th)
DYAR: 81 (24th)
DVOA: -8.6% (28th)

Tannehill hasn’t been good but he hasn’t been awful either. He has been pretty steady for a Dolphins offensive unit and has already surpassed or is on pace to surpass the production level he had in his rookie season.

In 2012 Tannehell completed only 58% of his passes but this season is much better completing over 62% of his passes. He already has equaled his interception total of 13 from a year ago but has thrown five more touchdowns this season and is 179 yards away from equaling his 2012 total in four less games.

The past two weeks he has played some of his best football of the season in a loss to the Panthers and a win over the Jets. Last week he completed 28-of-43 passes for 331 yards and a pair of touchdowns and a lone pick. The week before he threw for 310 yards and completed 67% of his passes in the loss. Each of the last five games Tannehill has completed over 62% of his passes and while he hasn’t got the ball down the field overly well with a 6.91 yard per attempt average he has been a lot better as the year has gone on.

Tannehill doesn’t rank out very well according to the guys at Football Outsiders as he is a bottom tier quarterback and ranks pretty much where Andy Dalton does and from what the general feeling is on Dalton he hasn’t been all that good this year.

Tannehill isn’t a running quarterback but that doesn’t mean he can’t get outside the pocket and make something happen. On the year he’s rushed 34 times for 164 yards and a touchdown but in the last three weeks he has 11 carries for 79 yards. That does make up a large bulk of his season total but this isn’t going to be a quarterback who you can just ignore from stepping up and running for a first down.

Running Back: Lamar Miller
Attempts: 136
Yards: 547
Rushing Touchdowns: 2
DYAR: 4 (25th)
DVOA: -7.8% (25th)

I don’t really think the Dolphins know what they want to do in the backfield. Lamar Miller has got a bulk of the carries this year but Daniel Thomas started the season as the go-to guy and has been taking a lot of carries even though he hasn’t been all that good. Miller has been a pretty good back so far this year even if he hasn’t been getting a steady diet of carries.

Last week against the Jets Miller got 22 carries for 72 yards but in the three weeks before that he had only 21 carries for 27 yards. Maybe that is why he doesn’t get consistent carries but after coming off a 16 carry, 105 yard performance he is followed up by only getting 21 carries in the next three games.

Miller is also pretty solid out of the backfield as a pass catching option, although he isn’t used all that often. On the season Miller has 22 catches for 153 yards but over the last three games he has caught seven passes for 72 yards and while he didn’t find the back of the end zone he is making the defense respect his pass catching abilities.

Miller ranks 25th in both DYAR and DVOA and also ranks 27th in with a 43% success rate. This really doesn’t show a whole lot except that he probably around a top-25 back but hasn’t been much more this season.

Receiver: Brian Hartline
Catches: 62
Yards: 804
Rec. Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: 118 (32nd)
DVOA: 2.3% (40th)

Hartline might not be the idea of a number one receiver but for the Dolphins he has been that over the last few season. Last year he caught 74 passes for 1,083 yards but only found the end zone once. This season he has 62 catches for 804 yards and has scored three times already. 43 of his 62 catches have gone for first downs this year.

Hartline had his best game of the season last week with a nine catch performance for 127 yards and a touchdown which was his first score since week three. You can say a lot about Hartline not being the prototypical but he has been pretty consistent. He has caught 60 or more yards of passes in seven games this season and has at least three catches in every game this year. In the past four games he has at least five catches and has been targeted 104 times which is second-most on the team.

He also has a team-best 12 catches of 20 yards or more on the season but he has only caught a long pass of 34 yards this year. That is pretty low (based on no data) and you have to think at least one time he would go for 40 or 50 yards.

Hartline is also pretty reliable as he posts a catch rate of 61% which while it isn’t among the league leaders is a pretty solid number for a guy that has been targeted so much.

Receiver: Mike Wallace
Catches: 56
Yards: 743
Rec. Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: 6 (64th)
DVOA: -11.9% (66th)

This should be…interesting. Wallace really had an up and down tenure with the Steelers. He came in and blew the lid off of any defense and really was able to beat any defensive back and create big plays almost at will. Last season Wallace thought he should get paid big time (as would I) and the Steelers weren’t going to be able to do that. Wallace had a pretty bad season with the Steelers in 2012 and so far this year in his first season with the Dolphins, on a HUGE contact, he hasn’t been all that good.

So far this season Wallace has caught 56 passes for 743 yards and caught three touchdowns but what was once the visions of big plays have turned into only nine catches of 20 yards or more and he has five games this season where he didn’t catch at pass over 20 yards. Yikes.

Wallace has been good over the last two weeks with a touchdown in each and 209 yards on 12 catches in those two games. Last week against the Jets he caught seven passes for 82 yards and was targeted nine times. Overall Wallace has been targeted 105 times on the season and has played five games where he was targeted 10 or more times. Tannehill has been looking for him but he hasn’t really been making the big plays like most thought he would.

A problem that Wallace suffered from in Pittsburgh from time-to-time has been drops and so far this season he has a catch rate of only 54% which was the exact catch rate he had from a year ago. I am not sure what it is for Wallace and I imagine that he will not get a warm reception from the Steelers faithful when he steps on the field but Wallace did a lot of good things for the Steelers in his brief career here and I will choose to remember that.

That being said I am not overly sure I would be as scared of him as I would have been in 2010 or 2011. Something happened to him and despite him saying that he is one of the best in the league it just isn’t there.

Tight End: Charles Clay
Catches: 53
Yards: 581
Rec. Touchdowns: 4
DYAR: 62 (14th)
DVOA: 5.3% (19th)

Maybe a guy on the offense that not a lot of people really talk about is Charles Clay who will be catching passes from the tight end position. Clay is the third big receiver on the team with 53 catches and 78 targets while he leads the dam with four touchdown catches and seven catches of 20 yards or more.

Clay is in his third season with the Dolphins and after catching only 34 passes for 445 yards and five touchdowns in his first two years he has stepped up in a pretty significant way in 2013.

Clay hasn’t been overly splashy in his performances this season with only one game where he has over 100 yards of catches but has been targeted a good bit and has been a more stand-up tight end rather than someone who is going to put his knuckles on the ground and block a ton.

Last week against the Jets he caught seven passes for 80 yards and was targeted 10 times which was the first time he was targeted double-digit times in a game this season. He has at least four catches in each of the last four games and while he hasn’t been overly consistent on the year he has performed in spots.

He has pretty good hands for a bigger guy and has a catch rate of 69% and ranks somewhere around 15th in the advanced stats against all the other tight ends in the league so the Dolphins could do a lot worse in the passing game from the tight end spot.

Offensive Line
Left to Right: Bryant McKinnie, Nate Garner, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry, Tyson Cloabo

The big story of the Dolphins season in terms of the offensive line has got to be the Jonathan Martin, bullying story that has been the headline for much of the season. Because of that circus the Dolphins were forced to trade for Bryant McKinnie who was awful for Baltimore and leaves a lot to be desired on that offensive line.

Because of, or in spite of I guess, the above problems the Dolphins rank 25th in the league with a 3.65 adjusted line yard ranking. That is one spot better than the Steelers but comes with the caveat that the Dolphins running backs are averaging 3.81 yards per carry so you can’t really say that the Dolphins line has really improved the run game all that much.

The Dolphins are pretty bad in short yardage situations as they rank 26th in the league with a power success rate of only 57% and are 27th in the league in stuffed ranking as they are getting the running back dropped behind the line of scrimmage 23% of the time which is not the type of trend you want to have from your offensive line.

The Dolphins predominately run up the middle or off the guards where 46% of the time and they also run very heavy to the left side of the line. 18% of the running back carries go to the left tackle and 16% goes to the left end. The Dolphins are most successful, however, running to the right end where they have a league-best ALY of 4.95 but only run that way 9% of their carries which is the spot of the line they run the least to.

When they run up the middle they rank 19th with an ALY of 3.88 while ranking 30th in the league to the left tackle with an ALY of 2.88.

Against the pass rush the offensive line has done a relatively awful job of keeping Tannehill off the dirt. They have given up 45 sacks on the season which is the most in the league and while that ranks last among raw number they rank only 28th with an adjusted sack rate of 8.9% which take into account how many times each team passes to put everyone on some equal ground. It doesn’t matter much though as the Dolphins have done a really bad job at it no matter how you slice it.

Dolphins Defense

Defensively the Dolphins line up pretty much as an average unit. In terms of raw numbers they are 14th in the league giving up just over 343 yards per contest while they rank ninth in passing yards allowed per game (221.7) and only 25th in rushing yards allowed per game (121.8). They also give up just over 20 points per game and to be really honest with you they look a lot like the Steelers in terms of the raw numbers.

When you look at the advanced metrics over at Football Outsiders the Dolphins are right around the middle of the pack overall with a defensive DVOA of -2.2% which is 14th in the league and that breaks down into the seventh-best pass defense (-7.4%) and the 30th ranked rush defense (3.9%). Just as their offense has done a good job of being consistent so has the defense, for the most part. Their variance of 3.9% is eighth-best in the league and don’t have as much up and down perforce as a team like the Steelers do.

The pass defense has been really good for the Dolphins all season. They have given up over 300 yards through the air only three times this season and only five times have teams passed for more than 250 yards. The highlight of the season so far for the pass defense was last week against the Jets when they held a pair of quarterbacks to only 78 passing yards.

Miami does a pretty nice job against opposing top receivers with a DVOA of -18.5% against the number one guys from the opposite team with those players getting thrown to just under 10 times per game and accounting for only about 68 yards per game. Not a bad combination as Antonio Brown has been one of the best in the league this year and that might lend to the fact that the Steelers will have to rely on their secondary options.

Against number two receivers they rank 23rd in the league with a DVOA of 11.6% while ranking 28th in the league against tight ends with a DVOA of 19.2%. Hello Heath Miller and Jerricho Cotchery. The Dolphins do bounce back against number three and four receivers as they have the best ranked DVOA in the league against those receivers (-33.9%) so the Steelers will have to take advantage when they have the chance as Miami is only really bending on one receiver and the tight end.

The Dolphins do this with help from a pretty solid pass rush that has 37 sacks on the season which come from 13 different players including 10 from team leader Olivier Vernon. Miami ranks eight in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 8.0% and while the Steelers haven’t given up a sack in the last two games (!!!) they will be hard pressed to keep a solid Dolphins pass rush off. That also takes into account that Mike Adams is going to be starting at one of the tackle positions. Yikes.

Against the rush the Dolphins rank 25th in the league with an ALY against of 4.17 that ranks only one spot below the Steelers in terms of rush defense. Miami also gives up 4.28 yards per carry to the running back which is a little bit higher than league average (4.07) so if the Steelers are able to get any kind of push they should be able to have some success in the running game.

The Dolphins can be had at pretty much any area of the defensive line as the highest rank they have against the run is 13th in the league when the offense runs to the left tackle and to the right end. Teams are running up the middle/off the guard 50% of the time and when they do that they are posting an ALY of 3.98 which is league average for that area of the offensive line. For the defense of the Dolphins that ranks 17th in the league.

Philip Wheelers leads the team in tackles with 86 (64 solo) while also having a sack and seven passes defended. Brent Grimes leads the secondary with four interceptions and 14 passes defended and took one of those four interceptions to the house.

Vernon is the big sack leader with 10 (as I have already told you) and Cameron Wake has 6.5. Jared Odrick has 4.5 and Randy Starks has three to round out a bunch of guys who have sacks.

Dolphins Special Teams

Caleb Sturgis kicks for the Dolphins and has the eighth-most field goals in the league with 23. That being said he has missed seven field goals which include a pair under 40 yards. He’s missed two of his 10 attempts between 40-49 yards and three of his six attempts from 50 yards or farther.

Brandon Fields headlines a pretty good punting unit as he is second in the league with an average of 48.9 yards per punt and is averaging 41.9 net yards per punt which is fourth in the league. 24 of his 61 punts have ended inside the 20 and has forced 12 fair catches. While he has a strong leg he can out kick the converge with punt returners averaging 12.1 yards per return on the 32 returns this year.

Marcus Thigpen handles the return duties for the Dolphins. He averages 24.4 yards per kickoff return which is 15th best in the league and has a long return of 50 yards. In the punt return gave he has 24 attempts and averages 8.6 yards per return and has made 17 fair catches.

Game Notes

-The Steelers are down to now or never. There are about a billion teams still in the playoff hunt and the Steelers are still only one game out of the playoff spot. I have no idea how that is even possible with how the Steelers have been so up and down this season but there is still a decent chance they could make the playoffs (despite what I continue to truly think). Staying in contention can only happen if the Steelers win. The Dolphins are one of those teams a game ahead of the Steelers and what better way to get in the hunt than to beat a team directly in front of you to not only even the record as well as hold the tie breaker. Sounds good to me.

-The Steelers offensive line is an absolute mess. Fernando Velasco was put on the IR and they are going to be without Kelvin Beachum after he was hurt last week. That means Mike Adams is going to start. Yikes. David DeCastro is also banged up and while the Steelers think he is going to play they aren’t sure on that. Think about that. The Steelers are starting one guy at tackle who is third on the depth chart, will have their third center of the season, and be missing one of their better linemen that was filling in for the black hole that was left tackle. If the the offensive line is able to hold off the Dolphins pass rush and open up a few rushing holes then there is no way the Steelers don’t make the playoffs.

-Le’Veon Bell has a pretty decent chance to play this week. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I am any type of doctor and that I know better than anyone else who just watches the game on TV on the ability of player to play, but I have a really hard time coming to grips with Bell being on the field Sunday. This isn’t like he was a little banged up and could have came back into the game, he was knocked out. Like unconscious. That was less than a week ago. Again, if he passes the tests and deemed OK to return then I guess he can return but if it were me I would probably take an extra week to make sure his brain was OK. You know, the brain is pretty important and a little bit bigger than a football game despite “knowing what they are getting themselves into.”

-Since 2001 the Steelers are 5-0 against the Dolphins and 13-11 against then all-time. That really doesn’t mean anything but I guess it looks cute. They played each other back in 2010 and the Steelers won 23-20. Records against teams are meaningless.

PREDICTION - Seriously, I have no idea. The Dolphins are a .500 team trying to fight to get into the playoffs and the Steelers are a team that isn’t .500 that has as good of a shot as any to get into the playoffs. The Dolphins don’t do anything overly well but they don’t do anything horrible either. I think these teams a pretty similar and from what we have seen in the preview that rings pretty true. The Steelers are playing at home and they have the better quarterback so I give them the edge. Steelers 24, Dolphins 20.

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