Friday, September 19, 2014

Steelers Game 3 Preview - @ Carolina Panthers

Pittsburgh Steelers at Carolina Panthers – 8:30 p.m.
NBC
All-Time Record: Steelers lead 4-1
Last Meeting: December 23, 2010 – Pittsburgh 27, Carolina 3

The Steelers are coming off a dismal performance against the Ravens last Thursday night. Nothing about that game was good and it just was something that you want to forget about. The Steelers are on the road again to face a team they don't normal play a lot and while there is a lot of unknowns about this Carolina team from most fans they are a 12 win team from last season and they boast one of the best defenses in the league.

As it was for every game last season here are some of the key terms I am going to use to break down the Panthers 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.

And now lets take a look at the Panthers.

Offense

Carolina got to the playoffs last season with a 12-4 record which broke a string of three consecutive losing seasons. So far this season they are off to a strong 2-0 start and the offense checks in with a DVOA of 3.1% which is good for 15th in the league. So far through the first two games they are doing work through the air with a DVOA of 45% (sixth in the league) while they are rated as one of the worst rushing teams (-36.7%, 30th in the league).

In terms of raw numbers the Panthers average just over 323 yards per game overall (23rd in the league) with 236 of those coming through the air and just over 87 on the ground. They have scored 44 points on the season which included 20 in the opener against Tampa Bay and 24 last week against Detroit.

The passing offense is run through Cam Newton. That should not come as a shock for most people as Newton is a freakishly gifted athlete that uses both his arm and legs to get the offense rolling. Newton had to sit out week one with an injury but came back last week and went 22-for-34 for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed four times for 19 yards. Last season he completed 62% of his passes for over 3,300 yards and 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Newton also rushed for 585 yards and six touchdowns which was actually down from his previous two years where he rushed for over 700 yards. Most of that had to do with the number of times he has rushed as he has been right around 5.5 yards per carry in his career but I would assume keeping him in the pocket and more healthy is the idea behind that.

It was only one game so the advanced stats are going to vary a lot but Newtown currently sits seventh in the league with a DVOA of 24.7% and ranks 16th with a DYAR of 56. For a historical purpose last season Newton ranked 19th with a DVOA of 1.7% while finishing 17th with a DYAR of 421.

Newton relies on tight end Greg Olson and a bunch of lesser receivers to get things done. Gone are the days of Steve Smith (now with the Ravens) so it will be interesting to see the progression of the receiving core for this team.

Olsen through two games leads the team in catches (14), targets (19), yards (115), and is one of three players with a touchdown catch. Olson has been consistent in the first two games with 83 yards and a score in week one and 72 yards in the second week. The Steelers struggled to cover the tight end in Baltimore so I would expect that Olsen is going to get a lot of targets, especially in the red zone.

The receiving core is comprised of rookie Kelvin Benjamin, ex-Steeler Jefficho Cotchery, and former Eagle Jason Avant. Benjamin has been the top target of that trio with eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes for 20 yards or longer. Benjamin ranks 26th in the league with a DVOA of 13.8% which is a few spots behind Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton. His catch rate is pretty low at 50% but the big play ability is something that should scare the Steelers as they are giving up large plays in bunches.

Cotchery is viewed as the Panthers most effective receiver with eight catches for 78 yards. He has a catch rate of 100% catching every ball that was intended for him and is second in the league with a 49.6% DVOA. It is still really early and these number fluctuate a lot at the beginning of the year but I think we saw last year what Cotchery can bring to a team. He’s an underrated guy that you might overlook but if you give him space he’s going to make the catch and going to make you pay.

The running game has been pretty bad for Carolina. They are still relying on DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to carry the load. There was a time where that was an excellent one-two punch but that time has passed and they aren’t near what they used to be.

Williams leads the team with 72 yards on 14 carries which all came in the first game of the season against the Bucs. Williams missed week two with a thigh injury but he is expected to come back and be ready this week. I would expect that Williams gets a bulk of the carries as Stewart has struggled with only 57 yards on 24 carries that included 37 yards on 15 carries against the Lions. Williams is obviously the higher ranked of the two running backs with a DVOA of 7.4% (16th in league) and a DYAR of 13 (17th in the league).

Overall in the run game Carolina ranks 30th with an adjusted line yard average (ALY) of 2.59 while they are bad in both power success (40%, 27th) and stuffed ranking (31%, 29th). The Steelers have struggled in a big way through the first two games to start the run so lets see which side of the ball can suck more!

The focus of the Panthers run game is up the middle and to the left side of the line. 65% of their running back carries are up the middle or off the guards which is the fifth-most in the league and well above the league average of 55%. While they run the football a lot up the middle that doesn’t mean thy are close to successful. They rank 31st in the league with an ALY of 2.04 which is nearly two full yards per carry lower than the league average (3.99).

Carolina also runs 16% of their running back carries off the left end and it is the spot of the line where they have the most success, ranking 16th in the league with an ALY of 4.73 which is almost a full yard more than the league average (3.75). They rank no better than 20th in any other area and are above league average in only one other area (left tackle).


Defense

Defensively the Panthers are one of the best in the league as they were in 2013. Last season the Panthers ranked third overall with a DVOA of -15.7% and were third-best against the pass (-15.6%) and sixth against the run (-16%). This season is no different through two weeks with the Panthers ranking second in the league overall (-26.8%) including third against the pass (-29.5%) and eighth against the run (-20.9%).

In terms of raw numbers the Panthers are giving up only 21 points, which is the second-fewest in the league. They are giving up only 293.5 yards per game including only 86 on the ground and 207.5 through the air. Suffice it to say the Panthers are very good at not allowing their opponents to score points or move the ball. Not ideal for the Steelers.

The defensive backfield has done a pretty good job across the board of shutting down all types of receivers. Through two weeks opposing top receivers have been targeted nine times a game and the Panthers post a -19.8% DVOA against which is seventh in the league. They are even better against number two receivers who they post a -36.7% DVOA against and that is fifth-best among teams in the National Football League. The one place the Panthers struggle a bit is against running backs where they have a DVOA of -12.4% which is 16th in the league. That actually isn’t too bad and really highlights what kind of job they have done to shut down their opponents.

Last season the Panthers led the league with 60 sacks and this season they are off to another good start with seven sacks through the first two games. Their adjusted sack rate of 7.9% ranks ninth in the league and with the Steelers having some problems keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright this is a concern.

Carolina is also pretty good against the run as they allow an adjusted line yard mark of 3.45 that ranks 10th in the league. They do struggle a bit in terms of allowing teams to run in short yardage situations (definition above) as they haven’t made a single stop in those situations thus giving them 100% power success against. While they aren’t stopping teams in short yardage situations they still do a pretty good job at he line of scrimmage with a stuffed percentage of 23% (seventh in the league) so it’s not a total loss at the point of contact.

The Panthers really excel in stopping the run when the offense tries to run to the right side. That means left defensive tackle Colin Cole and left defensive end Charles Johnson are getting it done this season along with their linebackers. When teams attempt to run to the offensive right tackle the Panthers are giving up an ALY of -0.15 which is second in the league and when they run to the right offensive tackle they give up an ALY of 0.00 (fourth in the league). That is dominant.

Teams can have success against Carolina but it has to be to the offensive left side or up the middle. The Panthers are in the middle of the pack in all three of those areas including allowing an ALY of 4.18 up the middle or off the guards. That is above the league average of 3.99 and the only other area of the line where they give up more than league average is off the left offensive end with an ALY of 3.40 (3.18 is league average).

Luke Kuechly is the leader of the defense. He was the 2013 Defensive Player of the year and he is off to a fast start again this season. So far he’s registered 20 tackles (10 solo) with a sack and two passes defended. Both Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison each have 2.5 sacks with Greg Hardy picking up the other. Hardy will not be playing football this weekend since he was placed on the Commissioners list while they sort out him being found GUILTY of domestic violence. Total and utter joke that he was allowed on the field at all this year.

In the defensive back field Antoine Carson, Melvin White and Roman Harper each have a pick while Carson is second on the team with 19 tackles.


Special Teams

Over the Panthers specials teams hasn’t been overly good. Graham Gano does the kicking for Carolina and has hit five of his six attempts only missing one times between 40-49 yards and hitting his only try from 50 yards or further.

Philly Brown does the kick and punt returns. He has actually yet to return a kickoff because of touchbacks but his punt returns have average 8.8 yards per return in five tries. Nothing overly flashy to see here.

The Steelers

-For most of this short season the Steelers have struggled. They played lights out on both offense and defense against the Browns in the first half but since then it has been way more of a dud than anything else. The defense has yet to force a turnover and the offense wasn’t able to score a touchdown in a Thursday night loss to the Ravens last week. Things aren’t bad but they aren’t good either.

-The Steelers post a fringy top-10 offense with an offensive team DVOA of 5.2% while they rank eighth in the league with a rushing DVOA of 6.9%. They aren’t throwing the football well (11%, 20th) and that has a lot to do with not a lot of depth outside of Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton and the fact that Roethlisberger has been pressured, a lot. The Steelers rank 24th in the league with an adjusted sack rate against of 8.2% and have given up six sacks in two games.

-The Steelers defense has been pretty bad so far. They rank 25th with a 11.7% DVOA ranking 20th or worst against both the pass (26.4%, 22nd) and the run (-0.1%, 20th). They are giving up big plays almost at will and while they are bending and not totally breaking they just aren’t getting turnovers. When you are turning the ball over and not creating turnovers you aren’t going to win many football games.

PREDICTION – For the existence of this blog I have rarely picked against the Steelers. I first did last year, I think but it was later in the year after a really rough start. This will be the earliest I pick against the Black and Gold, unfortunately. The Panthers are just a good defensive team. I don’t think they have a lot to offer on offense but with the Steelers inability to get to the quarter or to force a turnover it really puts a lot of pressure on the offense to score points and not turn the ball over. The Panther do create turnovers (+6 this season) and get after the quarterback so I think it is going to be a little too much for the Steelers to handle. Panthers 23, Steelers 17.

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