Friday, December 20, 2013

Steelers Game 15 Preview - @ Green Bay Packers

The Steelers and Packers is one of those games that you love to watch. They are two great franchises with a lot of history and usually are always really good at football. While teams can change drastically from year to year these two teams pretty much always look the same and while they will have down years they are mostly consistent in being good football teams.

Things have gone a little different for both teams this year. The Packers are in the playoff hunt but they are doing so without stud quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Steelers weren't predicted to do all that well this year but were thought to have been in the playoff hunt to some degree but have lost about half of their team due to injuries. You know, just as everyone predicted.

This is still going to be a fun football game to watch regardless of the Steelers lack of playoff position. As most of you know I am a Wisconsin resident and live pretty close to Green Bay. I knew the Steelers were coming up to Green Bay this year but when I saw the date I got pissed. I am already back in Pittsburgh for the holidays and here are the Steelers in Green Bay. Figures.

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


Hit the jump for the preview






Packers Offense

With the loss of Aaron Rodgers it was thought that the Packers were done for and it was a foregone conclusion that the offense was going to be terrible. To be honest with everyone I don’t see why that was something that was too outlandish but the Packers have actually done a pretty nice job of staying near the top of the lead in terms of yardage.

Heading into the game against the Steelers the Packers are averaging 397.2 points per game which is good for fourth in the league. They are averaging almost 267 yards per game through the air which is good for seventh in the league and they have rushed for over 130 yards per game on the ground which is also seventh-best in the league. Quite the offense. The yardage has translated into points as they average over 25 points per game which is good for 12th in the league.

According to Football Outsiders the Packers have a top-10 offense with a 7.9% overall offensive team DVOA. That is down from last week when they were seventh in the league but still an effective unit considering they are without one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Their passing game has suffered as they rank 14th with a 13.4% DVOA while the running game has been one of the best in the league, like the raw numbers state, with a DVOA of 8.2% that ranks fifth in the league.

While the offense has been good they have been wildly inconsistent. With a variance of 17.3% they rank 31st in the league and only fractions of percentage points away from Philadelphia who is the worst in the league. You can look no farther than last week’s game against the Cowboys as how the Packers can fluctuate. They were shut down by a pretty bad Dallas defense in the first half and looked like they were going to get run out of the building before they couldn’t be stopped in the second half.


Here is a breakdown of the offense:


Quarterback: Matt Flynn
Completion %: 63.8% (81-127)
Yards: 914
Touchdowns: 6
Interceptions: 3
QBR: 25.2 (41st)
DYAR: -180 (37th)
DVOA: -26.1% (40th)

From all indications Aaron Rodgers is going to miss this this. That is good news for the Steelers and bad news for the Packers who still need to desperately need to win games in order to make the playoffs and give Rodgers a chance to play again in 2013.

Flynn was brought back to Green Bay after some failed backup quarterback experiments and while Flynn hasn’t been all that good he has been able to get the Packers some wins and not be totally terrible.

Last week is the game that most are going to point to for Flynn. Down by 24 to the Cowboys Flynn led an offensive charge in the second half and got the Packers back in the game and eventually won it for them after throwing for 299 yards and four touchdowns.

In four games with the Packers last week was the first week where Flynn threw more than one touchdown pass and I think that shows how awful the Cowboys defense really is. Anyways, Flynn does has a pretty accurate arm as he’s completed over 65% of his passes over his last two games. He is 50-of-71 in the past two and has thrown for over 250 yards both times. He didn’t start off all that well with the Packers but has really come on strong in their last two wins.



Running Back: Eddie Lacy
Attempts: 248
Yards: 1,028
Rushing Touchdowns: 8
DYAR: 156 (6th)
DVOA: 7.0% (9th)

When the draft was rolling around and the Steelers were linked to Lacy I have to admit that I wasn’t overly excited about that possibility. It wasn’t because Lacy was bad but I just don’t like the idea of taking a running back in the first round which was where Lacy was being projected to go. The Packers got him and he’s been pretty outstanding this season and a huge reason the Packers have been so successful on the ground.

On the year Lacy is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and scored eight of the Packers 13 touchdowns on the ground. He isn’t going to break away with speed but he is a guy that is going to pound the rock in the interior and he will continue to run hard. He’s over 1,000 yards on the year and while getting 1,000 yards as a running back isn’t as big of a deal as its made to be but as a rookie running back in only 13 games so far.

Lacy has rushed for 100 or more yards four times on the season and the latest came last week at Dallas when he went for 141 yards on 21 chances and scored a touchdown. Lacy has scored a touchdown in seven of his last eight games and in that span he has three of his 100 yard games.

He isn’t without duds though but as a rookie you could probably expect that. He was held to only 16 yards on 10 carries against the Lions on November 28 and had only 27 yards on 13 carries two weeks before that. He also has been dealing with a banged up ankle but I doubt that would be much of a problem with how well he ran last week.

In terms of advanced stats Lacy grades out really, really well. Football Outsiders has him as the sixth-best running back in terms of DYAR and has him as the ninth-best in terms of DVOA. While he has been very productive he doesn’t have a great success rate (46%) where he ranks 22nd in the league but that isn’t something I would be overly concerned about with eight of the top-10 running backs in terms of DYAR ranking 12th or lower in terms of success rate. You would obviously like to see it higher but things could be much worse.



Receiver: Jordy Nelson
Catches: 72
Yards: 1,107
Rec. Touchdowns: 8
DYAR: 356 (2nd)
DVOA: 29.3% (8th)

Nelson has been a favorite target of Rodgers and for the most part I think Nelson has been underrated. He had a breakout year with 15 touchdowns and 1,263 yards in 2011 but had to deal with an injury riddled 2012 season that saw him play only 12 games and make 49 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. He is back on track this year as he will most likely pass his career high in receiving yards and he has been targeted 31 more times than any other receiver.

After scoring seven touchdowns in the first seven games of the season Nelson didn’t find the end zone again until last week when he scored against the Cowboys. Overall Nelson hasn’t put up huge numbers but he’s been very consistent. He’s caught for at least 50 yards in every game but two this year and has four games of 100 yards or more. He has five or more catches in eight games and while his 15.4 yard per catch average is right along with his career average but you have to think if Rodgers was chucking the football he would be closer to his 2011 average of 18.6 yards per catch.

Nelson ranks as the number two receivers by the advanced metrics with a DYAR of 356 that only trails Antonio Brown. Nelson also has the fifth-best DVOA at 29.3% and has a really solid catch rate of 68% which is fourth-best among the top-10 receivers in terms of DYAR.

While Nelson doesn’t have an eye-popping yard per catch average he does lead the team with 18 catches of 20 yards or more and the second-longest catch of the season that went for 76 yards.


Receiver: James Jones
Catches: 44
Yards: 692
Rec. Touchdowns: 3
DYAR: 91 (43rd)
DVOA: 2.6% (33rd)

Jones has been the guy that you are always waiting to breakout but never seems to take that next step. He has good size for a receiver standing at 6’1 208 pounds and while he has been banged up this year he is the team’s second leading receiver in terms of catches, yards, targets, touchdowns, and catches of 20 yards or more.

Jones hasn’t had a 100 yard receiving game since an October 6th game against the Lions but he’s been pretty good since then. He has had two games where he was less than 20 yards but has been pretty consistent even with fewer targets.

Last week Jones scored for the first time since that game against the Lions and that came on three catches for 49 yards. The week prior he made four catches for a modest 19 yards but in the two games prior he had a combined 10 catches for 159 yards. He has 80 yards on seven catches in the tie against Minnesota and then three catches for 79 yards against Detroit (the second time).

Jones ranks 43rd in the league with a 91 DYAR but he is much better graded out in terms of DVOA where he is 33rd in the league. Jones isn’t as reliable in catching the football with a catch rate of only 59% and some might say that he is starting to be overshadowed by Jarrett Boykin who ranks 24 in DYAR (169) and 13th in DVOA (19.4%) so that group gives whomever plays quarterback a good group of receivers.



Offensive Line
Left to right: David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang, Don Barclay

I have talked already about how good the Packers have been at running the football and while Lacy should get a lot of the credit so should the offensive line. I wouldn’t go out of my way to say that the Packers offensive line has been great, because it hasn’t, but it has opened up holes and given the Packers a chance without their leader.

Green Bay ranks 10th in the league with an adjusted line yardage (ALY) of 4.04 and while that is below the running back average (4.46) they are only one of 11 teams in the league that average better than four yards per carry in terms of ALY.

What really sticks out for the Packers is how good they have been in short yardage situations. When they are in short yardage situations they are converting them at an 85% clip which is best in the league and a full four percentage points better than the next best team. They are also doing a nice job of not getting their backs dropped behind the line of scrimmage with a stuffed percentage of 17% which is the seventh-lowest percentage in the league.

Despite Lacy nothing being a speed back and being a little more of a downhill runner the Packers do a really nice job of spreading the wealth in terms of where they run the football. Of the Packers 341 running back carries they run only 40% of the time up the middle or off the guard which is way less than the 54% league average. That is the fourth-lowest percentage in the league and while they run some of the fewest running plays in the league up the middle they post a 4.61 ALY which is number two in the league.

The Packers also are wildly successful when running to the right tackle where they have an ALY of 4.46 and that is a place on the line where they run 9% of the time which consequently is the lowest percentage of all the five spots on the line. The Packers run the second-most to the left end where 21% of their running back carries go to and when they run there they average an ALY of 3.49 which is 18th in the league.

Where the Packers struggle is protecting the quarterback. They rank 26th in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 8.3% as they have given up 39 sacks on the season. That is a little above league average in terms of sacks given up (which is 36) but with how much they run the football it really ups their adjusted sack rate as league average is only 7.0%.


Packers Defense

The real weakness on this team is the defense. They just aren’t very good and while they did have a good unit when the Steelers played them in the Super Bowl they have gone downhill and they have given up yards in bunches so far.

So far this season the Packers have given up an average of 376.3 yards per game which includes almost 253 yards through the air and over 123 yards on the ground per game. Seven times this season the Packers have given up over 400 yards and that includes last week’s contest against the Cowboys when they gave up 466 yards and was the third time in the last four games where they gave up 400 or more yards.

The Packers also give up 26 points per game which is tied for 21st in the league so while the offense, especially the running game, have been good it really has had to make up for a lackluster defense that hasn’t been pulling their weight.

According to Football Outsiders the Packers rank 30th in the league with a DVOA of 12.6% with only the Dallas and San Diego defense ranking worse. They rank 26th against the pass (19.8%) and 28th (4.1%) against the run so it isn’t even like they can hang their hat on one portion of the unit stepping up and making a play.

In terms of pass defense the Packers are pretty awful across the board. They rank 30th in the league against the opposing top receiver with a DVOA of 27.6% where they give up about 83 yards of receiving on almost nine targets per game. It doesn’t get much better against the number two options with the Packers ranking 22nd in the league against those receivers with a DVOA of 5.2%. Against tight ends the Packers are 25th in the league with a 15.7% DVOA. Yikes.

What really makes this interesting in terms of the pass defense is that the pass rush has been really good this season for the Pack. They are third in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 8.6% and have 42 sacks on the season which is tied for the fifth-most in the entire NFL. The Packers have four players with five sacks or more and are led by both Clay Matthews and Mike Daniels who each have 6.5. A.J. Hawk and Mike Neal each have five so this is another case of where there just isn’t one guy to key on and I am not sure if that is good or bad.

The pass defense isn’t good but neither is the run defense. The Pack rank 26th in the league with an adjusted line yardage against of 4.24 and while that is much better than the running back yards per carry number (4.63) that still doesn’t mean the 4.24 ALY is any good.

While the Packers offense is highly effective in their power success the defense is just about as inept at it as the offense is good at it. Teams are converting the short yardage situations at a 78% rate which is 30th in the league while the Packers are only 19th in the league at stuffing opposing running backs at or behind the line with a 19% stuffed percentage.

Teams are really running the ball all over the offensive line and it has largely been successful for the offense. Offenses are running up the middle or off the guards 44% of the time which is well below league average but this is a rare instance where teams are running at least 10% of the time to every spot on the offensive line. Following the 44% up the middle carries it goes runs to the right tackle (18%), left tackle (13%), right end (13%) and left end (12%). The Packers are one of only 10 teams where the opposing offenses are running at least 10% of the time to each of those areas.

In terms of running success the Packers rank 19th or worse at every part of the line. They are most successful stopping the run up the middle where they give up an ALY of 4.05 but I wouldn’t exactly consider that good despite it being somewhat close to league average. The Packers rank 29th in the league when offenses run to the left tackle (4.59 ALY) and 30th in the league when teams run to the right end (4.71 ALY). To round it out the Packers are 23rd in runs to the offensive left end (4.23 ALY) and 20th in runs to the offensive right tackle (4.09)
To put that in perspective the Steelers have the most success running the football to the left end where they rank 11th with an ALY of 4.04 but I wouldn’t count on that as a game plan as they have only run 3% of their 304 running back carries to that area. The Steelers are run heavy up the middle at 69% but have struggled as they rank 25th in the league with an ALY of 3.70.

I talked about Hawk with the five sacks but he also leads the team with 110 tackles (68 solo) followed by Morgan Burnett with 86 total tackles from his safety position. In the secondary Sam Shields and Tramon Williams each have three interceptions while Shields leads the team with 14 passes defended.


Packers Special Teams

Overall the Packers social teams unit hasn’t been overly good this year. According to Football Outsiders they rank 19th in the league with a -0.2% DVOA which while is right about even doesn’t show the faults in it. The Pack rank 30th in the league in kickoff/kick coverage at -12.0% DVOA while having the worst kick return unit with a -7.8% DVOA.

The Packers have a pretty good field goal unit (3.9%) led by Mason Crosby. The punt return unit is actually one of the better in the league with a 6.7% DVOA while the punt team also is good with an 8.5% unit. While things are about down the middle for the Packers that usually isn’t as good as just having average units across the board.

Crosby bounced back from a pretty brutal year in 2012 and has hit 30 of his 34 attempts and is perfect inside 40 yards. he’s missed two each from 40-49 and from 50 and farther but as also hit five field goals from 50 or longer with his long coming from a 57 yard field goal.

Tim Masthay punts for Green Bay and ranks 21st the league with an average of 45 yards per punt which turns into a net average of 40.3 yards. He’s knocked 21 of his 57 punts intoned the 20 with five touchbacks and 19 fair catches. The punt return unit hasn’t been all that great as teams are averaging 10.1 yards per return on their 17 returns.

Micah Hyde is one of many that have returned kicks for the Packers and really hasn’t been all that good at it this year. Of his 16 returns he is averaging 21.6 yards and only has a long of 31. He doesn’t have enough returns to qualify for the league leaders but if he did he would rank 21st out of 23 returners.

Hyde also returns the punts for Green Bay and he does a much better job at that than he does in the kick return portion of his game. He is averaging 13.3 yards per punt return and has a long of 93 that was returned for a touchdown. Hyde does qualify for the punt return leaders and is second in the league in return average.


Game Notes

-This game is going to come down to the Steelers offense against the Packers defense. I know that is pretty easy to say but the Steelers need to take advantage of how bad the Packers defense has been. With the weather I really think the Steelers will be able to run the football a little bit and if they are able to do that then Ben Roethlisberger can use the play action game to eat that secondary apart.

-The big matchup here is going to be Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum against rush linebacker Clay Mathews. Mathews hasn’t been overly noticeable as of late but if you have watched him at all over the past few years then you know that he can win football games all by himself. Beachum has been really good this year, much better than any of us though, so this will be another nice test for him to further see what he has going into the offseason.

-How bad does it hurt now that the Steelers started the season 0-4. If they had one more win this year, over any team that beat them, then they would be in a good spot for a playoff spot. How bad does that suck? The Steelers lost to the Vikings? Woof. Sure, they lost to a couple good teams early but the Titans and Vikings losses really hurt right now. I know that we can talk about this unit the cows come home (do they ever come home?) and things won’t change but that doesn’t stop me from saying “what if”.

-This is the first time the Steelers and packers have played since the Steelers lost to them on February 6, 2011. That was the Super Bowl. Talk about bad memories. That game seems like forever ago but I am fairly sure that any Steelers player that was on that team will remember it. I was listening to the radio this week and whomever was talking said that the losing team holds onto those feelings more than the winning team does. That is exactly the case. The Packers can’t enjoy the win as much as the Steelers can hurt from the loss. These are two different teams and that game means zero right now but just food for thought.



PREDICTION - Going up to Green Bay and playing in Lambeau Field is no joke. It is going to be extremely cold there and while the Packers haven’s had a great season the place is going to be packed (no pun intended) with drunk cheese eaters and that is the way they like it. Anyways, not having Rodgers in the game is a huge deal. The Packers defense is pretty bad (OK, really bad) and while they have been able to get wins I think the Steelers offense is really good and the defense is a lot better than Dallas’ or Atlanta’s and that gives the Steelers the upper hand. Steelers 26, Packers 20.

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