Friday, July 15, 2011

Local Media Panties In A Bunch Over James Harrison

When news first broke about James Harrison's comments regarding Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall yesterday, there were mixed reaction from Steelers fans. There was one contingent (which I admittedly am a part of) that thought Harrison's comments, while a little harsh, were understandable for someone on the defense. The other contingent, featuring at least two fairly prominent members of the Pittsburgh sports media, had the knee-jerk reaction that the Steelers need to part ways with Harrison as soon as possible.

Sure, we'll go down this road with you Mike. But let's not forget that this tweet was from Mike Vukovcan, KDKA-TV sports producer and producer of the #1 Cochran Sports Showdown. So basically, if it wasn't for "idiot athletes," Mike wouldn't have a job. Let's also remember that professional athletes aren't Rhodes Scholars or summa cum laude graduates. Sure there is the occasional few like former Florida State Safety Myron Rolle (drafted by Tennessee in 2010) that spent a year away from football in England on a Rhodes Scholarship. But for the most part, a lot of professional athletes are the same jocks that would shove kids in lockers in high school. The media runs a double-edged sword: they want athletes to be open and honest with them, and then they turn around and blast them if the athlete says something they don't like. As the saying goes, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one (even professional athletes). You're running the same risk asking a professional athlete a question as you do when the 6:00 news goes to a gas station and asks someone what they think of gas prices.

As we know, Harrison's statement about Ben focused on Ben's play in the Super Bowl. Mike Vukovcan and Post-Gazette beat writer Gerry Dulac took exception to this, calling out Harrison's Super Bowl play.

Of course, I took to twitter to respond to Puke and Douchelac. In response to his comment about Harrison only having 1 tackle (which was a 7-yard sack on 3rd down) in Super Bowl XLV asked Gerry if we were judging players entire careers based one game. Gerry responded by saying no one was judging their careers. Except that's what he just did. I also mentioned that Harrison had as many tackles in Super Bowl XLV as he had 100-yard interception returns in Super Bowl XLIII. Let's be honest, we don't beat the Cardinals if Harrison doesn't make that interception.

Ken Laird from the Trib dropped some knowledge on us this morning in response to these criticisms of Harrison's Super Bowl:

The common theme of criticism here is that Harrison somehow didn't perform in the playoffs. So let's take a look at the numbers. Numbers in parentheses are where he ranked on the team in that category.

2010 Season 2010 Playoffs
Tackles  100 (3rd)  15 (3rd)
Sacks  10.5 (1st)  4.0 (1st)
Pass Defense  5 (5th)  1 (2nd)
Interceptions  2 (2nd)  0 (2nd)
Forced Fumbles  6 (1st)  0 (2nd)
Fumble Recoveries  1 (2nd)  0 (2nd)

In the turnover category, only Ryan Clark had an interception in the playoffs, and Harrison was not involved in the 2 forced fumbles or 3 fumble recoveries. To say that Harrison's supposed lack of performance in the playoffs was somehow the reason for the Steelers losing is simply ridiculous. Harrison was 2nd in the league with 4 sacks in the playoffs (Terrell Suggs had 5). Of the 9 players that recorded more than 2 sacks in the 2010 playoffs, only 2 players had more than 10 tackles - Clay Matthews (16) and Harrison (15). In the regular season, of players that finished in the top 35 in the league in sacks (6.5+ sacks) only 2 players had more than 70 tackles. Harrison, who finished 15th in the league in sacks with 10.5 and 100 tackles, and Justin Tuck who was 7th in the league with 11.5 sacks and had 76 tackles.

Digging a level deeper into Harrison's stats, only 27 of his 100 regular season tackles came on passing plays. Adding his 10 sacks to that means that 10% of his tackles were sacks, 27% were on pass plays, and 63% were on running plays. On the season, the Steelers defense faced 593 pass attempts (64%) and 333 rushing attempts (36%). Harrison made tackles or sacks on 6.2% of opponents passing plays and 18.9% of opponents running plays.

In the Super Bowl, the Packers ran 39 pass plays and 13 running plays, 2 of which were kneel-downs by Rodgers. So in reality, the breakdown was 39 passes (78%), 11 runs (22%). Against the Packers, the Steelers saw less running plays than they were used to during the season, which in and of itself diminished Harrison's impact on the game. Considering that Harrison was approximately 1/3 as likely to make a tackle or sack on a pass play than on a running play, is it any surprise that the Packers pass-heavy offense diminished his statistics?

Another point that was brought up in my twitter conversation with Douchelac was in respect to Harrison's comment about the defense being put in situations where they have to bail out the offense. The twitter conversation pretty much speaks for itself.

For those of you not familiar with Twitter lingo, "RT" is a "re-tweet" of something someone else said. So in this case, my comment was the "Stopped Pack[ers] 3x when down 21-17 to give O[ffense] a chance to take [the] lead" in response to Douchelac's question.

More on this and the prior post in a moment.

This was his direct response to my previous comment. Somewhat out of left field. Also, the world looks a lot better through black-and-gold glasses. They're the only kind to wear. No idea why a beat writer for the Pittsburgh Steelers would suggest I take them off.

@alphadelt decided to take a crack at Gerry's comment to me. The only comment of mine here is the "Wooo," which is a common expression amongst twitter folk and bloggers.

But apparently Gerry, who used "tho" and "u" in  his conversation with me, thinks using "Wooo" as an exclamation of a burn is too low-brow for him.

I really don't think I need to explain myself here with respect to his argument that drives after turnovers mattered more...But for argument's sake, I'll do it.

The Steelers committed 3 turnovers in the Super Bowl which led to 21 points for Green Bay. One of those turnovers was a pick-6 where the defense had no chance to stop it, so we'll take that one off the table. Therefore, the defense gave up 14 points off turnovers. My point centered around the 3 stops the defense had after the score was 21-17 in the 3rd quarter. But in reality, the defense came out of the halftime break with a fire under their ass.

Here are Green Bay's 4 drives after halftime of the Super Bowl:
Across: Start time of Drive, Quarter, Time of Possession, Starting Yard Line, Plays, Yards, Result

The Steelers went into the half down 21-10. The defense forced a 3-and-out and the offense scored to get us back within a score (21-17). The very next drive for the Packers, Harrison came through with his only sack of the game on a big 3rd down to force a punt. The defense would force two more 3-and-outs, giving the offense 3 cracks at the Packers defense with the game within 1 score.

Now, Geriatric's point (I think) is that these stops in the 3rd quarter were less important in the scope of the game because they didn't happen after turnovers. So, if my interpretation of his comments is correct, if the Steelers defense had prevented the Packers from scoring after the turnovers ("when it counted" in his words), then it wouldn't have mattered what they did the rest of the game. Okay, I'll play that "what if' game:
  • If the Steelers defense prevents the Packers offense from scoring on the 2 drives after the turnovers, that takes 14 points off the board for Green Bay, which means the Steelers would have won 25-17.
  • However, if the Packers had scored on the drives when it didn't "count" (drives that followed a Steelers punt or kickoff), let's say, the 4 drives at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, they could have put anywhere from 12 to 28 points on the board. Even if the Steelers defense had held the Packers to all field goals in those 4 drives that Gerry thinks didn't count, the Steelers still would have lost 29-25. If the Packers had scored touchdowns on those drives, it would have been a crushing 45-25 defeat.
The long and the short of it is to say that the only drives that "count" are the ones that occur after turnovers is asinine. We could play the "What If" game all day, but it's not going to change the result of the game and putting the blame on either the defense or the offense isn't really fair to either. Win as a team. Lose as a team.

And now we come to the last point, and really the crux of this whole situation. Dulac's sentiments might have been ridiculous and childish in his responses, but Mike Vukovcan takes the cake for least supported/most off-the-wall sentiment in this whole situation.


Of course, I replied back saying that I disagreed with this sentiment, mentioning that Harrison was the 1st Steelers player ever to have 10+ sacks in 3 consecutive seasons (Woodley would go on to join him as the second). I also mentioned saying the Steelers could survive without Harrison is like saying the Pens could survive without Fleury. But Vuk was on a roll, and just had to get his thoughts out there...

For starters, his history is wrong. We drafted 3 in the last 2 years. In 2010 we picked Jason Worlids in the 2nd round and Thaddeus Gibson in the 4th round (Gibson didn't make the 53-man roster and was picked up by the 49ers). In 2011 we picked Chris Carter. 

Secondly, we drafted the Outside Linebackers for youth and depth. Coming into the 2010 season, the #3 OLB on the depth chart was Patrick Bailey. We were big fans of Bailey as a special teams ace, but there was room for improvement in the depth chart (and Bailey is probably better suited to a 4-3 OLB role than a 3-4 OLB role). Before the 2010 season, Kevin Colbert also faced this dilemma: Harrison was 32 years old and Woodley was entering the last year of his contract. Youth and depth was needed at the OLB position and Colbert went out and got it. 

Finally, just because we invest a draft pick in an outside linebacker doesn't mean it's a slam dunk that they will succeed in the Steelers defense. Unlike some other defenses around the league, the Steelers don't have a "plug and play" defense. It takes a special type of player to be a 3-4 Outside Linebacker in Dick LeBeau's defense. For as many success stories as there have been under LeBeau, there have been a number of players that have fizzled out and never reached their potential as well. In recent memory, Bruce Davis (2008 3rd round pick), Nathaniel Adibi (2004 5th round pick), and Alonzo Jackson (2003 2nd round pick).

Of course, there have been some great ones too...

But as I said, the position takes a special type of player. You can't just plug anyone in there. Remember when people slammed the LaMarr Woodley pick? That worked out great for us, but there's also the counter-example of Bruce Davis. Saying the Steelers would be okay without Harrison takes stupidity to an entirely new level. As I discussed earlier, not only did he lead the team in sacks last year (which keeps double-teams away from Woodley), but he also racked up a TON of tackles in run defense. Harrison's ability to crash down the line and hold his cutback corner on running plays that go away from him is a big key to our defense and was huge in stopping Chris Johnson in Tennessee last year.

I think this sentiment is the most troubling for me because Harrison is NOT indispensable to this defense, at least not in its current form with Worlids barely having half a year of special teams experience and Woodley hanging on by the franchise tag. If this idea continues to spread through the fanbase, it's going to turn James Harrison into the poster child for complaints against the Steelers defense. These types of articles probably won't stop and I'd really hate to see another All Pro athlete get chased out of town because the media didn't like him (see: Bonds, Barry, et al). 

I'll leave you with one final stat from ESPN's Adam Schefter:

As Ryan Clark said, "Ride or Die with #7"

1 comment:

DogBoy said...

I'm sorry, but I have to come to the defense of Gerry Dulac here.

First and foremost, your criticism of Dulac as a beat writer is just wrong. A beat writer's job is to objectively get you the news/story. He is supposed to call them as he sees them objectively. If he feels you're being too subjective and allowing your personal affinity for the Steelers to get into the way of your judgment, then I see nothing wrong with him calling you on it. And Dulac and Bouchette are very good beat writers.

I don't want to get too much into the merits, but the D did give up over 300 yards through the air and about 4.0 yards per carry (if I'm remembering what I heard on the radio correct). That isn't the dominant defense that the team is built on. Were the stops in the third quarter big? Of course, and they did swing some momentum which the offense couldn't completely take advantage of. I still think the offense lost the game for the Steelers, but the D definitely didn't have a good game either.

Also, I disagree that the common theme of the criticism of Harrison has been his playoff performance. The criticism has been focused mainly on the stupid things he has said this past year and his Super Bowl performance. The only reason his performance was brought up is because he criticized Ben and Rashard, and it's only been his performance in the Super Bowl that has been discussed because that is the performance he criticized of the other players.

There is no doubt that Harrison is an absolute beast on the field. He is nearly unstoppable - except in the biggest game of the year - and bringing up his performance is perfectly fair when he's throwing his teammates under the bus. The most common theme I have heard some speculate that stupid comments like this will end his Steeler career earlier because they won't want to put up with it once he is no longer dominant - or maybe even sooner, a la Santonio Holmes.

Two final points on Dulac: I don't understand what about anything he said was childish or ridiculous, and I think his reference to the language you used was actually to "suck", not "woo." I know you didn't say it, but you re-tweeted it and your "woo" emphasized it. My response wouldn't have been nearly as professional as Dulac's if you said something like that to me about what I do for a living.

There is something we can agree on. Mike Vukovcan is a moron. They have had a lot of success at that position, but that is just plain dumb - Porter and Harrison were obvious replacements. They don't have that now.

And DK is the best journalist in town.