Monday, October 31, 2011

WPIAL Playoff Pairings

The WPIAL playoff pairings were announced tonight. I'll post a full preview on Friday, but here's the quick rundown.

Higher seeded teams play first round games at home unless otherwise noted. All games afterwards are at neutral sites.


1. North Allegheny (6-0, 9-0) vs 16. Fox Chapel (3-3, 3-6)
8. Penn Hills (5-1, 5-4) vs 9. Seneca Valley (4-2, 7-2)

4. Penn-Trafford (6-0, 9-0) vs 13. Bethel Park (3-2, 4-5)
5. Gateway (5-1, 7-2) vs 12. Shaler (3-3, 5-4)

2. Central Catholic (6-0, 9-0) vs 15. Peters Twp (2-3, 4-5) at Fox Chapel
7. Mt. Lebanon (4-1, 6-3) vs 10. Woodland Hills (4-2, 6-3)

3. Upper St. Clair (5-0, 8-1) vs 14. Connellsville (3-3, 5-4)
6. Erie McDowell (4-2, 7-2) vs 11. McKeesport (4-2, 6-3)


1. Central Valley (7-0, 9-0) vs 16. Laurel Highlands (3-4, 4-5)
8. Ringgold (6-1, 7-2) vs 9. Highlands (4-2, 7-2)

4. West Mifflin (6-1, 8-1) vs 13. Mars (3-3, 6-3)
5. Montour (5-2, 7-2) vs 12. Chartiers Valley (4-3, 5-4)

2. Franklin Regional (7-0, 9-0) vs 15. Belle Vernon (4-3, 3-5)
7. Indiana (5-1, 7-2) vs 10. Hopewell (4-3, 6-3)

3. Knoch (6-0, 9-0) vs 14. West Allegheny (4-3, 5-4)
6. Thomas Jefferson (6-1, 6-3) vs 11. Greensburg Salem (5-2, 7-2)


1. Aliquippa (8-0, 9-0) vs 16. Steel Valley (3-4, 5-4) at Ambridge
8. Washington (6-1, 7-2) vs 9. Mt Pleasant (6-2, 6-3)

4. Freeport (6-1, 7-2) vs 13. Ellwood City (5-3, 6-3)
5. Greensburg Central Catholic (7-1, 8-1) vs 12. Ford City (5-2, 6-3)

2. Jeanette (8-0, 9-0) vs 15. Burrell (5-2, 6-3)
7. Shady Side Academy (6-1, 7-2) vs 10. Beaver (6-2, 7-2)

3. Seton-La Salle (7-0, 9-0) vs 14. East Allegheny (5-3, 5-4)
6. Beaver Falls (6-2, 7-2) vs 11. South Fayette (5-2, 6-3)


1. Clairton (7-0, 9-0) vs 16. Cornell (4-3, 5-4)
8. Monessen (6-2, 6-3) vs 9. Springdale (6-2, 7-2)

4. Rochester (6-1, 8-1) vs 13. Northgate (4-4, 5-4)
5. Avonworth (7-1, 8-1) vs 12. California (6-2, 7-2)

2. Sto-Rox (7-0, 9-0) vs 15. Frazier (6-2, 6-3)
7. Brentwood (6-1, 8-1) vs 10. Western Beaver (5-2, 5-4)

3. Bishop Canevin (8-0, 9-0) vs 14. Chartiers-Houston (4-3, 6-3) at Dormont Stadium
6. Beth-Center (8-0, 8-1) vs 11. Fort Cherry (5-2, 6-3)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Gameday: New England Patriots

Heinz Field
Radio: 102.5 WDVE and other affiliates

What To Watch For

1. Tom Brady

How can't this be the first thing that we talk about? When you talk New England, it all starts and stops with Brady. New England's offense is built around getting the ball to Wes Welker and their two tight ends. Rob Gronkowski had a huge game against the Steelers last year, but what makes Brady great is he doesn't key into one guy. He's going to get the ball to the open guy. You can't beat Tom by doing the same thing all game. He is good enough to make in-game adjustments to counter what the defense is doing. You almost need a different gameplan for each quarter.

2. Winning on Second Down

I touched on this briefly in my Breakdown of the Patriots that I wrote earlier this week. What the Patriots do on first down isn't what drives their offense - it's what they do on second. Amazingly, Tom Brady has a 68% completion percentage on first down and a 72.6% completion percentage on second down. That's pretty amazing. If the Steelers want to control the clock and keep their drives moving, they need to emulate the Patriots and succeed on second down. Getting ourselves into 3rd and longs isn't going to do us any good.

3. Bumps and Bruises

The Steelers are a banged up team. Casey Hampton is due to return to the lineup, but against New England who spreads things out that doesn't do us a whole lot of good. Hines Ward and James Farrior are banged up and were limited in practice throughout the week. Jason Worlids is still working through his quad injury so it will be Timmons on the outside again. If Farrior is playing hurt, look for the Steelers to utilize their "dollar" defense look with 3 safeties and 3 corners and 3 linebackers - likely Woodley, Foote and Timmons. The "dollar" look would enable Troy to play down in the box and try to generate some plays.

4. Seven not three

Against a team like the Patriots that is capable of putting up points all day long, the Steelers HAVE to get touchdowns when they get the opportunity. Kicking field goals isn't going to do us much good against New England, and we can't afford the kind of offensive line or route-running mistakes that have cost us touchdowns in the past. Nothing beats putting seven up on the board.

5. Turnovers

The Patriots defense doesn't have a plethora of Pro Bowl talent like in previous seasons, but they do have guys capable of making plays and creating turnovers. In 7 career games against New England, Ben has 12 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Chances are, Brady isn't going to turn the ball over, so we can't give New England any extra possessions. Scoring early and often will help build the base, but we can not afford to commit turnovers or 3-and-outs and put the defense back out onto the field for longer than they need to be out there.

Behind Enemy Lines

We tried to get a Patriots blogger to drop by for the Behind Enemy Lines segment, but they were too bust eating fried chicken, drinking beer, and playing Call of Duty.

Around the NFL

AFC North

Arizona @ Baltimore

The Cards defense is nowhere as good as Jacksonville's. The Ravens will probably blow them out and come into Heinz Field hot next week.

Cleveland @ San Francisco

It's going to take a lot more than 6 points to beat the 49ers, who have been impressive so far this year.

Cincinnati @ Seattle

Somehow, Marvin Lewis' team will be 5-2 after this week.

Game of the Week

New England @ Pittsburgh


Saturday, October 29, 2011

WPIAL Playoff Outlook

With the conclusion of high school football action tonight, only a handful of games remain tomorrow afternoon to close out the WPIAL regular season. All 64 playoff spots across the four classes have been accounted for, and only one conference title remains to be decided - the Allegheny Conference in AA. Thanks to Ford City's 14-13 defeat of Burrell, the Freeport Yellow Jackets have a chance to claim the conference title outright with a win over Summit Academy (thanks to a head-to-head victory over Shady Side Academy). Shady Side Academy beat Deer Lakes to finish their season at 6-1 in the conference and will win the Allegheny Conference crown if Summit Academy beats Freeport.

UPDATE: Freeport beat Summit Academy 27-0, thereby winning the Allegheny Conference title.

Here's a look at the final order of finish for each conference. We also throw out our predictions as to how the playoffs will be seeded. The top 2 teams from each conference are seeded 1-8 and get to play first round games at home. No teams from the same conference can play in the first round.

The Selection Show for the playoffs is Monday night at 7. I'll have another post next week previewing the actual matchups after they are announced.


Big East - 1. Central Catholic (6-0, 9-0), 2. Penn Hills (5-1, 5-4), 3. Woodland Hills (4-2, 6-3), 4. Fox Chapel (3-3, 3-6)
Foothills - 1. Penn Trafford (6-0, 9-0), 2. Gateway (5-1, 7-2), 3. McKeesport (4-2, 6-3), 4. Connellsville (3-3, 5-4)
Great Southern - 1. Upper St Clair (5-0, 8-1), 2. Mt Lebanon (4-1, 6-3), 3. Bethel Park (3-2, 4-5), 4. Peters Twp (2-3, 4-5)
Northern Seven - 1. North Allegheny (6-0, 9-0), 2. Erie McDowell (4-2, 7-2), 3. Seneca Valley (4-2, 7-2), 4. Shaler (3-3, 5-4)

Predicted Playoff Seeding
1. Central Catholic - The best team in AAAA all season
2. North Allegheny - The defending state champs have the talent to do it again
3. Upper St Clair - Their only loss was a 28-21 defeat at North Allegheny, which was the only game they scored less than 41 points
4. Penn-Trafford - The least heralded of the conference champs beat Gateway by 2 and McKeesport by 4 behind a solid line and good rushing attack
5. Gateway - Only a last-second field goal by the best kicker in WPIAL kept them from a conference crown
6. Erie McDowell - RB Greg Garmon is one of the best in the state
7. Mt. Lebanon - The loss to AAA Hopewell and dismantling by Upper St Clair drops their seed
8. Penn Hills - After a 1-4 start, they come into the playoffs hot having won 4 in a row
9. Seneca Valley - The best passing offense in WPIAL gets a tough draw against a Top 10 defense.
10. Woodland Hills - The Wolverines limp into the playoffs losing their last 2 to non-conference Pine-Richland and rival Penn Hills
11. McKeesport - Their head-to-head loss to Seneca Valley hurts them in the seedings but they are dangerous enough to make noise
12. Shaler - The Titans limp into the playoffs having lost their last 3 but a head-to-head win over Bethel gives them the seeding advantage
13. Bethel Park - They've been underwhelming all year but could surprise in the playoffs
14. Fox Chapel - They have a Pitt recruit on the O-line
15. Peters Twp - A win over Baldwin in Week 7 got them in
16. Connellsville - After going 1-8 and getting blown out of the water in conference play last year, they make the playoffs thanks to a 17-16 win over Hempfield two weeks ago

Conference Most Likely To Sweep the First Round: Northern Seven
Conference Most Likely to Get Swept out in the First Round: Great Southern


Big Eight - 1. West Mifflin (6-1, 8-1), 2. Thomas Jefferson (6-1, 6-3), 3. Chartiers Valley (4-3, 5-4), 4. Belle Vernon (4-3, 4-5)
Greater Allegheny - 1. Knoch (6-0, 9-0), 2. Indiana (5-1, 7-2), 3. Highlands (4-2, 7-2), 4. Mars (3-3, 6-3)
Keystone - 1. Franklin Regional (7-0, 9-0), 2. Ringgold (6-1, 7-2), 3. Greensburg Salem (5-2, 7-2), 4. Laurel Highlands (3-4, 4-5)
Parkway - 1. Central Valley (7-0, 9-0), 2. Montour (5-2, 7-2), 3. Hopewell (4-3, 6-3), 4. West Allegheny (4-3, 6-3)

Predicted Playoff Seeding
1. Central Valley - The defending champs went undefeated and did it in the best conference in WPIAL
2. Knoch - The Knights finished their first undefeated season in school history
3. West Mifflin - A loss to Trinity is the only mar on their record
4. Montour - Two losses in the tough Parkway Conference is nothing to sneeze at
5. Franklin Regional - Statistically, the best offense and defense in AAA but they play in its worst conference
6. Thomas Jefferson - Hard to put them this low, considering 2 of their losses were to Quad-A teams
7. Indiana - The Little Indians have a dangerous offense and could cause problems
8. Ringgold - They got blown out by Franklin Regional and aren't as good as their record indicates
9. Hopewell - Rushel Shell gets to continue his pursuit of the state rushing record
10. West Allegheny - The Parkway Conference's 4th place team could easily make Heinz Field
11. Highlands - The Golden Rams get an unlucky draw against traditional powerhouse TJ
12. Chartiers Valley - The Mustangs have struggled since Wayne Capers got hurt against TJ
13. Greensburg Salem - They put up a ton of points in AAA's worst conference
14. Mars - The usually high-powered Planets have been underwhelming this year
15. Belle Vernon - A 27-26 victory over Trinity in Week 3 got them into the playoffs
16. Laurel Highlands - Another team that was 1-8 and in the cellar last year that sneaks into the playoffs

Conference Most Likely To Sweep the First Round: Parkway
Conference Most Likely to Get Swept out in the First Round: Keystone


Allegheny - Freeport (6-1, 7-2), Shady Side Academy (6-1, 7-2),3. Ford City (5-2, 6-3), 4. Burrell (5-2, 6-3)
Century - 1. Seton-La Salle (7-0, 9-0),  2. Washington (6-1, 7-2), 3. South Fayette (5-2, 6-3), 4. Steel Valley (3-4, 5-4)
Interstate - 1. Jeanette (8-0, 9-0), 2. GCC (7-1, 8-1), 3. Mt Pleasant (6-2, 6-3), 4. East Allegheny (5-3, 5-4)
Midwestern - 1. Aliquippa (8-0, 9-0), 2. Beaver Falls (6-2, 7-2), 3. Beaver (6-2, 7-2), 4. Ellwood City (5-3, 6-3)

Predicted Playoff Seeding
1. Aliquippa
2. Seton-La Salle
3. Jeanette
4. Greensburg Central Catholic
5. Beaver Falls
6. Freeport
7. Washington
8. Shady Side Academy
9. South Fayette
10. Beaver
11. Mt Pleasant
12. Ellwood City
13. Ford City
14. Burrell
15. East Allegheny
16. Steel Valley

Conference Most Likely To Sweep the First Round: Midwestern
Conference Most Likely to Get Swept out in the First Round: Allegheny


Big Seven - 1. Sto-Rox (7-0, 9-0), 2. Rochester (6-1, 8-1), 3. Western Beaver (5-2, 5-4), 4. Cornell (4-3, 6-3)
Black Hills - 1. Clairton (7-0, 9-0), 2. Brentwood (6-1, 8-1), 3. Fort Cherry (5-2, 6-3), 4. Chartiers-Houston (4-3, 6-3)
Eastern - 1. Bishop Canevin (8-0, 9-0), 2. Avonworth (7-1, 8-1), 3. Springdale (6-2, 7-2), 4. Northgate (4-4, 5-4)
Tri-County South - 1. Beth-Center (8-0, 8-1), 2. Monessen (6-2, 6-3), 3. California (6-2, 7-2), 4. Frazier (6-2, 6-3)

Predicted Playoff Seeding
1. Clairton
2. Sto-Rox
3. Bishop Canevin
4. Rochester
5. Brentwood
6. Avonworth
7. Beth-Center
8. Monessen
9. Springdale
10. Fort Cherry
11. Western Beaver
12. Northgate
13. Cornell
14. California
15. Chartiers-Houston
16. Frazier

Conference Most Likely To Sweep the First Round: Eastern
Conference Most Likely to Get Swept out in the First Round: Tri-County South

Friday, October 28, 2011

WPIAL Week 9: Rivalry Week

Heading into the last week of the WPIAL season, most of the playoff spots have been decided. By my calculations, only 11 of the 64 playoff spots remain up for grabs. According to the Post-Gazette, only 9 playoff spots are still up for grabs. Maybe they took the time to figure out all the potential 3-way tiebreakers that could arise that I didn't figure out. Either way, unlike in previous years, there are no straight-up casket matches. Almost all the teams on the edge need another team to win or lose.

To briefly explain the WPIAL playoff system:

  • The top 4 teams in each conference make the playoffs
  • The top 2 teams from each conference play first round games at their home stadium
  • Ties are broken by Head-to-Head, Gardner Points (based on strength of victory in conference games), and Tiebreaker Points (based on margin of victory in conference games with a maximum of +10 and minimum of -10 per game). Tiebreakers revert to head-to-head whenever possible.


Conference Champions
Big East - Central Catholic (5-0, 8-0)
Foothills - Penn Trafford (5-0, 8-0)
Northern Seven - North Allegheny (5-0, 8-0)

Up For Grabs:
Great Southern - Upper St Clair (4-0, 7-1) faces Mt Lebanon (4-0, 6-2) to decide the conference title

Clinched Playoff Spots
Big East - Woodland Hills (4-1, 6-2), Penn Hills (4-1, 4-4), Fox Chapel (3-2, 3-5)
Foothills - Gateway (4-1, 6-2), McKeesport (4-1, 6-2), Connellsville (3-3, 4-4)
Northern Seven - Erie McDowell (4-2, 6-2), Shaler (3-2, 5-3), Seneca Valley (3-2, 6-2)

Seeding Scenarios
Big East - The winner of Woodland Hills-Penn Hills will finish second
Foothills - The winner of Gateway-McKeesport will finish second
Northern Seven - Shaler finishes second with a win over Pine-Richland. Erie McDowell finishes second if Shaler loses

Up For Grabs:
Great Southern (2 spots)- Bethel Park (2-2, 3-5) clinches with a win over Baldwin (1-3, 4-4), Peters Twp (1-3, 3-5) clinches with a win over Canon-McMillan, Baldwin can make the playoffs with a win over Bethel Park and a Peters Twp loss OR by beating Bethel by more than 10 and Peters Twp winning by less than 10. Head-to-Head: Bethel Park beat Peters Twp, Peters Twp beat Baldwin. Tiebreaker Points: Bethel Park 0, Peters Twp -20, Baldwin -20


Conference Champions:
Greater Allegheny - Knoch (5-0, 8-0)
Parkway - Central Valley (5-0, 8-0)

Up For Grabs:
Big Eight - Thomas Jefferson (6-0, 6-2) faces West Mifflin (5-1, 7-1) to decide the conference title
Keystone - Franklin Regional (6-0, 8-0) wins the conference with a win over Greensburg Salem (5-1, 7-1) or with a loss by less than 6. Greensburg Salem wins the conference if they beat Franklin Regional by 6 or more.

Clinched Playoff Spots:
Big Eight - Chartiers Valley (4-2, 5-3)
Greater Allegheny - Indiana (4-1, 6-2)
Keystone - Ringgold (5-1, 6-2)

Seeding Scenarios:
Keystone - Ringgold finishes second if Franklin Regional wins the conference. Franklin Regional finishes second if Greensburg Salem wins the conference.

Up For Grabs:
Big Eight (1 spot) - Belle Vernon (3-3, 3-5) clinches a playoff spot with a win over Elizabeth Forward or a Trinity (3-3, 4-4) loss to McGuffey. Trinity clinches with a win and a Belle Vernon loss
Greater Allegheny (2 spots) - Highlands (3-2, 6-2) clinches with a win over Hampton (2-3, 3-5) or a Mars (3-2, 6-2) loss to Knoch. Mars clinches with a win OR a Hampton loss OR a loss by less points than Hampton wins by. Head-to-Head: Highlands beat Mars, Mars beat Hampton. Tiebreaker Points: Mars +10, Hampton +1, Highlands -4
Keystone (1 spot) - Four teams are tied for the 4th playoff spot at 2-4. Laurel Highlands (2-4, 3-5) clinches with a win over Albert Gallatin and a Hollidaysburg (2-4, 2-5) win over Derry Area (2-4, 2-6). Hollidaysburg clinches with a win and a Laurel Highlands loss. Derry Area clinches with a win and a Uniontown (2-4, 2-6) loss to Ringgold. Uniontown clinches with a win, a Derry Area win, and a Laurel Highlands loss.
Parkway (3 spots) - Montour (4-2, 6-2) clinches with a win over Moon. The winner of West Allegheny (4-2, 5-3) vs Hopewell (3-3, 4-4) clinches a playoff spot. If West Allegheny wins, Hopewell is eliminated and the winner of Blackhawk (3-3, 5-3) vs New Castle (3-3, 4-4) gets the last playoff spot.


Conference Champions:
Century - Seton-La Salle (6-0, 8-0)
Midwestern - Aliquippa (8-0, 8-0)

Up For Grabs:
Allegheny - Shady Side Academy (5-1, 6-2) wins the conference with a win over Deer Lakes by 7 or more. Freeport (5-1, 6-2) wins the conference with a win over Summit Academy and a Burrell (5-1, 6-2) loss to Ford City. Burrell wins the conference with a win and a Shady Side Academy loss. Head-to-head: Shady Side Academy beat Burrell, Burrell beat Freeport, Freeport beat Shady Side Academy. Tiebreaker Points: Shady Side Academy +43, Freeport +39, Burrell +38
Interstate - Jeanette (7-0, 8-0) faces Greensburg Central Catholic (7-0, 8-0) to decide the conference title

Clinched Playoff Spots:
Allegheny - Ford City (4-2, 5-3)
Century - Washington (5-1, 6-2), South Fayette (4-2, 5-3)
Interstate - Mt Pleasant (5-2, 5-3), East Allegheny (5-3, 5-3)
Midwestern - Beaver (6-1, 7-1), Ellwood City (5-2, 6-2), Beaver Falls (5-2, 6-2)

Seeding Scenarios:
Allegheny - If Shady Side Academy wins the conference, Burrell finishes second.
Midwestern - Beaver finishes second with a win over Beaver Falls or a loss by less than 7. Beaver Falls finishes second if they beat Beaver by more than 7.

Up For Grabs:
Century (1 spot) - Keystone Oaks (3-3, 4-4) clinches with a win over Seton-La Salle OR a Steel Valley (2-4, 4-4) loss. Steel Valley clinches with a win over South Allegheny and losses by Keystone Oaks and Quaker Valley (2-4, 3-5). Quaker Valley clinches with a win over South Fayette, a win by Steel Valley, and losses by Keystone Oaks and Burgettstown.


Conference Champions:
Big Seven - Sto-Rox (6-0, 8-0)
Black Hills - Clairton (6-0, 8-0)
Eastern - Bishop Canevin (7-0, 8-0)
Tri-County South - Beth-Center (7-0, 7-1)

Clinched Playoff Spots:
Big Seven - Rochester (5-1, 7-1), Western Beaver (4-2, 4-4), Cornell (4-2, 6-2)
Black Hills - Brentwood (5-1, 7-1), Chartiers-Houston (4-2, 6-2), Fort Cherry (4-2, 5-3)
Eastern - Avonworth (6-1, 7-1), Springdale (5-2, 6-2)
Tri-County South - Monessen (6-1, 6-2), California (5-2, 6-2), Frazier (5-2, 5-3)

Seeding Scenarios:
Tri-County South - Monessen finishes second with a win over Frazier or a loss by 5 or less. If California loses to Geibel, the winner of Monessen-Frazier finishes second. If California beats Geibel and Frazier beats Monessen, 2nd place will be decided by tiebreaker points. Head-to-Head: Monessen beat California, California beat Frazier. Tiebreaker Points: Monessen +47, California +32, Frazier +30.

Up For Grabs:
Eastern - North Catholic (4-3, 5-3) clinches a playoff spot with a win over Bishop Canevin OR a loss by less than 10 and a Northgate loss by 1 more point than North Catholic's loss. Northgate (4-3, 5-3) clinches a playoff spot with a win over Avonworth and a North Catholic loss OR by losing by less than or the same amount of points North Catholic loses by. OLSH (4-4, 4-4) is eliminated based on tiebreakers. Head-to-Head: North Catholic beat Northgate, Northgate beat OLSH, OLSH beat North Catholic. Tiebreaker Points: Northgate +14, North Catholic +13, OLSH -4.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Deconstructing the Patriots

As Snow White's step-mother found out, looking in the mirror sucks.

Even though that mirror might have been a bit of a pedophile. Seriously, Snow White was like 7 years old and the mirror said she was fairer than the Queen? (Wiki has the proof)

But sometimes it's something you have to do. Especially when you're playing a team that has beaten you consistently over the last decade. The question has come up across various media outlets and talk shows this week: are the Patriots just that much better than the Steelers or is it something about the Steelers that they just can't beat the Patriots?

Tunch and Wolf even went as far as to call New England the "White Whale" to the Steelers Captain Ahab.

Maybe you want to think of them as the Mongoose to our Cobra.
Either way, the analogy is pretty accurate. The Patriots are a beast we just can't tame.

The question is - why?

Focus on the Playoffs

General football theory, much of which has been passed down from generations past, says that the most important thing to do in the regular season is to win your division. Theory says that you win your division, get home games in the playoffs, then let the chips fall where they may. The practical application of this theory is usually seen through the NFL Draft and free agency - you draft players to combat what other teams in your division are doing. This was no more evident than when Houston drafted Defensive End Mario Williams with the #1 overall pick in the draft. Why draft Williams over a quarterback or running back? According to Texans execs, it was because they felt they needed to get more pressure on Peyton Manning.

What New England has done is give this theory a giant middle finger.

Rather than build a team based on what other teams in their division were doing, they focused on the bigger picture: the playoffs. Excluding the Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts have dominated the AFC landscape over the last decade. The Colts went to the playoffs 9 times from 2000-2010 and won 7 division titles. Over that same time span, the Steelers went to the playoffs 7 times and won 6 division titles. In response to this, the Patriots built a team for the sole purpose of beating the Steelers and Colts in the playoffs. Over the 8 times the Patriots reached the playoffs from 2000-2010, they faced the Steelers and Colts a combined 5 times, going 4-1 against them. More importantly, 4 of those 5 games were AFC Championship Games. The Patriots built their team to succeed in the playoffs, specifically against the Steelers and Colts.

Pittsburgh and Indianapolis vs New England

Now, when you look at both the Steelers and Colts from a distance, you might think the teams don't have much in common. But digging deeper, the Patriots have been able to find the similarities and exploit them.

Pass Rushers

When you talk about the Steelers defense, you always have to start by talking about the outside linebackers. Whether those players were Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Harrison, or LaMarr Woodley, the Steelers defense is built on getting pressure of the edge. Similarly, the Colts defense is built around defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis - guys that bring the heat off the edge. In response to this, the Patriots have heavily invested in offensive tackles in the draft - choosing 12 tackles over the last 11 drafts, an average of over one per year. By comparison, they have only drafted 5 guards and 2 centers over that time span. The Patriots investment in offensive tackles has enabled them to combat these outside rushers, but also made them weaker up the middle. If you look back over the teams that have been able to beat them recently, all of them have gotten pressure up the middle and taken away Brady's ability to step up in the pocket.

Run-Stopping Linebackers and Safeties

While the Steelers linebacking tradition is strong and hard to argue with, it's difficult to see the Colts in the same light. However, when you look at the Colts linebackers over the past 10 years, while they haven't been as physically dominant as the Steelers backers, they still fly to the ball and focus more on stopping the run or playing zone defense. Similarly, in the Steelers zone blitz scheme, linebackers are typically dropping into zones across the middle. If the Steelers linebackers do line up in man coverage, it is usually against running backs or tight ends. The Steelers and the Colts have both had a safety win defensive player of the year, but for as good as Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu have been, both have been exposed in pass coverage. The Colts typically play a 2-deep zone or "Tampa 2" look under Dungy with the MLB dropping into the middle of the field. While the Steelers defensive looks have varied, none of the safeties they have had have been excellent in man-to-man coverage.

To combat this, the Patriots have done a number of things. The first is to have a tradition of pass-catching tight ends, dating back to Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and continued now with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. These tight ends create mismatches against linebackers or safeties. To attack the 2-deep safety look the Colts run, the Patriots utilize a Tight End post route (which we've seen a million times from Brady over the years) to hit behind the linebackers and in between the safeties in the zone. This is one of Brady's signature plays from about 15-25 yards out from the goal line. Gronk tortured William Gay with this route last year.

The other factor in the Patriots offense that has made them so deadly to the Steelers and Colts is their ability to hit running backs out of the backfield. Whether this was Kevin Faulk or Julian Edelman, the Patriots have utilized a "pass-catching running back" more than anyone else in the league. While guys like Faulk or Edelman aren't necessarily physical specimens, they are small and quick, a difficult matchup for linebackers to cover, particularly on 3rd and short situations.

The Patriots are able to spread the ball across the field. Running swing passes to running backs (which draws inside linebackers out of the middle of the field) leaves the middle open to tight ends. On top of that, the Patriots took the Bill Walsh philosophy of utilizing short passes instead of runs to the next level. They spread the field with multiple-receiver looks, forcing their opponents into either a nickel package or to move some of their linebackers out of the middle of the field, then can hit you with a draw play or quick-hitting run.

Soft coverage on the edge

In the Cover-2 scheme the Colts run or the Steelers scheme, the corners tend to play off-coverage, giving a 5-10 yard cushion at the line to prevent the deep ball. In the Colts scheme, this enables the corners to keep their eye in the backfield and set up in their zone. In the Steelers system, the corners rarely get safety help over the top, so even when they are in man coverage, they can't play bump-and-run because they have to keep the play in front of them.

When you look at the Patriots wide receiving corps over the last decade, only once have they had a true deep threat - Randy Moss. The rest of the time, their receivers have basically been a collection of #3 possession receivers. Whether that is David Boston, Deion Branch or Wes Welker, the Patriots offense is built to move the ball by getting small chunks of yardage underneath the coverage. If you have watched teams that have given the Patriots problems (like the Jets in recent years), they tend to have corners that play in press man coverage and don't let the Patriots receivers get off the line clean. Playing off coverage just invites quick passes to the wide receivers.

Big plays in the passing game

While it is somewhat difficult to compare the styles of offense played by the Steelers and the Colts, one thing is similar: both thrive on big plays in the passing game. Under Bill Cowher, the theory was that you passed to get the lead and then ran the ball to protect it. Under Tomlin and Arians, the fullback has been eliminated and Ben given more freedom to spread the ball around the field. Peyton Manning, one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history, unlike Tom Brady, prefers to take shots downfield to his wide receivers, that the Colts have invested high draft picks to acquire. For the Colts, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne made their living by going downfield and making big-time catches. For the Steelers, a slew of different receivers have filled the "deep threat" role, whether that was Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, or Mike Wallace. The two teams differ in that the Colts tend to use more vertical routes and post routes to their deep threats where the Steelers utilize deep in routes or double-crossing routes.

To combat this, rather than assembling cover-corners to run around the field with their opponents receivers, the Patriots go for the jugular. They go out and find corners and safeties that are ball hawks and big hitters. The Patriots have lined up two of the biggest cheap shot artists in the game - Rodney Harrison and Brandon Merriweather - at safety over the last decade. Their corners, from Asante Samuel to Devin McCourty (who led the league with 7 interceptions last year) are traditional ball hawks. Rather than defend the pass, the Patriots have built a secondary that consistently goes after the ball while it's in the air. over the last 10 years, Patriots defensive backs accounted for 157 interceptions, an average of almost one pick per game. To make matters worse, 18 of those picks have been returned for touchdowns. If you want further proof that the Patriots built their secondary to face the Steelers and Colts, consider this: in the 19 playoff games the Pats have played over the last decade, they have 27 interceptions. Of those 27 picks, 6 have come in their 3 games against the Colts and 6 have come in their 2 games against the Steelers.
That's 44% of their playoff interceptions in only 26% of their playoff games.

Defensive Scheme

The question must be asked - why have teams like the Steelers and Colts struggled against the Patriots but teams like the Jets have been able to succeed against them? For starters, the Jets in recent years have utilized one of the best defensive schemes against Brady - keeping him off the field. The best way to do this has been to run the ball against the Patriots, chew up clock, and control time of possession. However, when the Steelers tried to run the ball against New England last year, they had limited success in doing so. Why is this? Because the Steelers were predictable in their offensive approach to the game. They ran on first down, got 2-3 yards, then were forced into passing downs on 2nd and 7+.

The Patriots don't blitz much, and have never had top-tier pass rushers, but they will bring pressure in obvious passing situations, and they will do everything they can to force the offense into making mistakes. Over the last 10 years, Patriots defenders have posted 18 6+ sack seasons. By comparison, the Steelers have had 28 6+ sack seasons over that same time span.

The best way to attack New England is to be unpredictable. Yes, we can run on first down, but we shouldn't get in a habit of doing so. Against the Patriots, who are always well-prepared for the tendencies of their opponents, we have to do things differently, we can't ride the same formula to victory.

Offensive Scheme

The same is true on defense. There may not be a better quarterback in the league at reading defenses than Tom Brady. The Patriots generally run an offense with Brady in the shotgun, which gives him the opportunity to look out over the defense before the ball is snapped and read who is blitzing, enabling him to get the ball out of his hands quickly.

Watching New England, teams that are successful against them get pressure on Brady from the interior - not from the outside. Brady utilizes short passes (usually 1 and 3-step drops) that enable the ball to come out faster than pass rushers can get to him from the corner. When his initial looks aren't there, Brady likes to extend the play by stepping up in the pocket, not by scrambling out to the side as Roethlisberger does. Since Brady likes to step up in the pocket, pressure up the middle is the best way to throw him off his game.

The Patriots utilize their collection of small quick receivers to run quick slants and come-back routes that allow Brady to get the ball out fast and hit guys in stride so that they can catch the ball and turn it upfield for more yards. If it's there, Brady will take shots downfield, but he's not going to force the ball deep like Brett Favre would. Brady is the master at taking the check-downs and working the ball down the field, literally dinking-and-dunking the opponent to death.

Third and Short

From watching New England (shockingly I couldn't find any hard stats on this), they do a better job than anyone I've seen at getting into 3rd and short situations. Once again, this flies somewhat in the face of common football theory which says to succeed you need to "win" on first down. "Winning on first down" is generally thought of as getting 4+ yards to get yourself into a second down situation where you can either run or pass. However, what the Patriots have done so successfully is "win" on second down. Regardless of what happens on first down, the Patriots make sure they always get into third and short situations. Even though they throw the ball a lot more than they run, the Patriots will mix in runs to keep the defense honest. By winning on second down, the Patriots are able to keep drives alive by staying out of 3rd and long situations. Additionally, 3rd and short situations enable them to keep running their same offense - it enables Brady to keep making short throws. On 3rd and short, Brady doesn't have to hold on to the ball for that extra second because receivers are still running 5-yard routes instead of 10-yard routes. Since Brady is able to still get the ball out fast on 3rd down, he rarely gets sacked, even when teams bring exotic blitzes after him.

A chink in the armor?

All that said, Brady is not invincible. He is at his best when the Patriots have a lead and he is able to move the offense at his will. Where he starts to break down is either when the Patriots are trailing or he starts to feel like the number of possessions he has left is limited. When the pressure gets turned up and Brady knows he needs to move the ball and put points on the board, he starts to rush throws and force things. This is where he makes mistakes and teams can take advantage. Granted, he is still Tom Brady and is still capable of making great plays to win games. But if there is a small scratch, it is when things start to go poorly for Brady: if he is getting pressured up the middle, if his receivers aren't making catches, if his passes are getting intercepted. The Bills had success against Brady by tipping passes, their defensive line did a great job of getting their hands up and knocking down balls, creating either incompletions or interceptions. Brady will never make a downright terrible throw like Brett Favre would, and when he misses, he tends to miss low (which leads to incompletions) rather than high (which leads to interceptions).

In conclusion, I hope this gives you a better sense of why the Patriots have been able to be so successful against the Steelers and how they will probably attack us on Sunday. This isn't to say that the Steelers can't win. They can. But there are certain things they will need to do to win. They need to get pressure on Brady up the middle. They need to hit him and knock him down. They need to play press coverage on the receivers. They need to cover tight ends. They need to score touchdowns instead of field goals. They also need to score early. Last year Ben had one of his best statistical games of the year, throwing for over 350 yards and 3 touchdowns. But the lions-share of those yards and touchdowns came in the fourth quarter when the game was already over. The Steelers were down 23-3 going into the fourth quarter, and though Ben mounted a spirited comeback, they still fell short 39-26. It is going to take a complete team effort to beat New England.

And we've done it before.

We all remember the "21 and Done" game on Halloween in 2004.

...what's to say we can't do the same thing on Halloween Eve in 2011?

Pittsburgh West: Steelers Win


The first thing you notice when CBS cuts to University of Phoenix Stadium is how much black and gold there is. I know the Cardinals are bad but holy crap, at least half the stadium was Steelers fans. Way to represent in the Southwest Steeler Nation!


Arizona wins the toss and elects to receive.

The Cards pick up a first down and Dan Dierdorf, who is probably the only Cardinal in the Hall of Fame, starts slobbering over some 3rd string tight end. On the next play, Timmons comes unblocked and Kolb throws a bad pass that gets tipped by Potsie and falls into the arms of Ryan Clark.

Brown gets us into the red zone and two plays later Heath undresses Clark Haggans on a wheel route and Ben finds him wide open at the goal line.

So many Steelers fans in Arizona, the HEEEEEEATH cheers were audible.


The Cards do pretty much nothing to respond after the turnover.

Ben can't hook up with Wallace 3 times, but offsetting penalties give us another chance and Ben hits Brown to move the sticks again. We work our way across midfield and look to set up in 3rd and short but Kemoeatu commits one of his textbook awful after-the-whistle spearing penalties where he dives onto the pile. Brown gets the 15 back on a post, but can't get to the sticks.

Kolb throws up a prayer for Fitz with Ike in perfect coverage and Fitz somehow makes a leaping grab down the sideline. 
What a catch by Fitz. Nothing Ike could do there. Fitz and Ike trade pass interference penalties.

Second Quarter

LaMarr Woodley rips through the Cards line and plows over Kolb.

Isaac Redman goes to work and picks up a first down on a check-down pass. After two more carries, Ben tries to hit Wallace down the sideline but his arm gets held up and Wallace can't make the catch one-handed.

The Cards start moving the ball and Beanie Wells gets to the second level to move them into Steelers territory. Kolb takes a shot down the seam but badly overthrows an open tight end. On 3rd down, he tries to go deep again but doesn't even throw it in the same zip code as Fitz. Former Browns punter Dave Zastudil pins the Steelers inside the 10.

David Johnson commits a false start penalty to set us back to the 5. As a personal note, every time the Steelers have the ball back inside the 10, I think to myself, "You know, the longest pass play in Steelers history is 90 yards." 
007 says NOT. ANY. MORE. On a play-action that was supposedly designed to go to DJ, 007 airs it out for Wallace who catches it in stride and burns past two defenders alllllll the way to the house.

95 yards, new Steelers record.

Take a seat, Bobby Shaw.


The Cards were moving the ball before and the short drive puts a tired Steelers defense back on the field. Arizona starts moving the ball again, with Fitz picking up a 3rd down on a quick slant that he breaks some tackles on to get across midfield. Two penalties on Ike give Arizona first downs into the red zone. Honestly, I'd rather Ike commit 5-yard penalties than let Fitz score. Beanie Wells got hurt somewhere in there (big surprise). Kolb hits Doucet to get them down to the goal line and two plays later some backup RB dives across the line.


The Steelers seemingly go 3-and-out with under a minute and a half to go, but a 3rd down penalty gives us new life. Ben hits Brown for 20 then goes to work on Patrick Peterson, drawing two penalties on the rookie to get us across midfield. Ben hits Hines for 9 to get close to the 20 then spikes the ball after wasting a good 16 seconds off the clock. On 3rd and 1, the Steelers try the Mewelde Moore sweep/draw that got stuffed for a safety against the Jets last year and the Cards do the same thing: stop Moore in the backfield. Suisham nails it to end the half.


Third Quarter

The Steelers come out throwing again, with Brown moving the chains again, but then they go to the motif offense and the drive stalls out. 

The Cards start moving the ball on the ground, but Woodley draws a holding penalty and comes up with the sack to force second and long. 
Kolb checks one down to former Pitt RB LaRod Stephens-Howling and LRSH cuts back, taking advantage of Troy and Potsie running into each other and takes it all the way to the house to cut the lead to 3.


007 comes back ready to lead the troops down the field. On 3rd and 6 he throws a beautiful pass to Heath over the linebacker and Heath makes a leaping grab for a big first down. 
Ben gets sacked but goes back to Heath for another first down. 007 starts getting Sanders involved hitting him for 5. 
Brown makes a leaping one-handed grab for 13 then 007 goes back to Sanders for 20 to get down to the 2. Two plays later, Ben makes a vintage Ben play, deking a linebacker out of his shoes then finding Manny Sanders on a scramble drill in the back of the end zone.


Arizona commits some penalty on the kickoff so their next drive starts back inside the 10. For some unknown reason, they decide not to block LaMarr Woodley and he nails Kolb in the end zone. 
Kolb somehow manages to get the ball away, but there's no receiver close. Grounding in the end zone? That's a safety.


I'll be back.

The Steelers come back with Mewelde Moore grinding out some solid gains behind an O-line that looked like they were out for blood getting a serious push up front.

Fourth Quarter

With the ball near midfield, Ben hits Wallace on the sideline to get us inside the 35 then Heath to get down to the 25. Ben gets "sacked" on a shaky "in the grasp" call where a Cardinal had him by the ankles and he was still trying to make a pass. The "in the grasp" rule is there to protect QBs from getting piled on when they're clearly going to be sacked, but Ben was still capable of making a throw there. Oh well. They can't do anything else but Suisham adds more points.


Kevin Kolb sucks. 3-and-out.

The Steelers go ground-and-pound with Mendenhall and Redman grinding into field goal territory. Wallace makes a catch on 3rd down but can't quite get to the sticks. Suisham hits his third field goal of the day.


Kolb finally figures out that throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald is a good idea and hits him twice to get into Steelers territory. Doucet gets 9 on 3rd down to get them into the red zone and Kolb sneaks for a new set of downs. Kolb converts another 3rd down then hits Doucet on the same inside slant the Cards tried to run in the Super Bowl, but we didn't have James Harrison on the field this time, so it's a touchdown.

The Cards go for 2 and the Steelers bring heat, forcing Kolb to throw the ball away.


Rather than go for the onside kick, the Whiz opts to kick off and the Cards never see the ball again. Redman and Moore do work and grind down the clock. Ben hits Sanders on a 3rd and 4 to get a key first down then after the Cards use their last timeout, Ben goes back to Sanders on a crossing route on 2nd and 11 to get a big first down to ice the game.

Victory formation.


Players of the Game:
Offensive Game Ball: Ben Roethlisberger
Defensive Game Ball: LaMarr Woodley

Honorable Mentions:
Mike Wallace
Antonio Brown
Heath Miller
Ike Taylor
Shaun Suisham
Ryan Clark
Steve McLendon

Mr. Yuck Sticker of the Game
Dan Dierdorf

Look, I get that Dierdorf spent his career as an Arizona Cardinal. I understand that he was inducted into the hall of fame as a member of the franchise, so he has fond memories of his time there. But his verbal erection for the Cardinals was downright sickening. I can understand salivating over a guy like Larry Fitzgerald or Adrian Wilson who are All-Pro talents. However, when you're talking about 3rd string tight ends like they're the next Shannon Sharpe and can't say a decent thing about Heath Miller, you need to seriously re-evaluate your objectivity and ability to announce a football game.

Final Thoughts
  • How much of a beast has LaMarr Woodley been? He has 5.5 sacks in the last 3 games plus the forced safety and is now leading the AFC in sacks with 7.
  • The offensive line had a really good first half pass-blocking for Ben.
  • Chris Kemoeatu needs to stop committing those back-breaking personal foul penalties. He's done it throughout his career.
  • Ike Taylor is having a Pro Bowl caliber season. He's been facing #1 receivers all season and shutting them down. Great job on Fitz today.
  • Antonio Brown had his first 100-yard game of his career. Great to see him stepping up.
  • Hines twisted his ankle in the second half and didn't return. Hope he makes it back for the New England game.
  • We really can't say enough good things about Mike Wallace. What a player.
  • Huge game for the Young Money crew. Wallace sets the franchise record with a 95-yard touchdown and has 118 yards, Antonio Brown has his first 100-yard game and Manny Sanders adds 46 and a touchdown.
  • The Ravens looked horrible against Jacksonville, which makes us feel a little better about how the Steelers played in the second half against the Jags. Also, we're back in first place in the division.
  • Bring on the Patriots.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gameday: Arizona Cardinals

Not-As-Good-As-CCAC Stadium
Radio: 102.5 WDVE and other affiliates

What To Watch For

1. Pittsburgh West

To call Arizona "Pittsburgh West" might even be an understatement. Pretty much every player the Steelers have cut in the last 5 years is on this team. The Whizard of Az, Ken Whisenhunt leads a coaching group which contains Russ Grimm and Ray Horton. On top of that, former Steelers OLBs Joey Porter and Clark Haggans will be starting for the Cards. Former Pitt standouts Larry Fitzgerald and LaRod Stephens-Howling will both be heard from as well.

2. Seven in front of Seven

The Steelers will field their seventh different starting offensive line this week as Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, and Jonathan Scott will go to work against the Cards defense. Former Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton is the Cards defensive coordinator, and should bring a similar defensive package to what Dick LeBeau runs. With Porter and Haggans in their elder years on the outside, I would hope that Starks and Scott can handle them. The guys to watch out for are the two 3-technique defensive ends on the inside: Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are two guys that could cause havoc for the Steelers.

3. Larry Fitzgerald

Let's face it, the guy can flat out do anything. It doesn't matter how many guys are covering him, he's going to get the ball. He can do it all over the field, whether it be in short passes, intermediate routes, or going deep. He's also a threat to take any pass all the way, as we saw in the Super Bowl. With really no one on the other side of the field, he's been seeing double teams all year and still has 27 receptions (21st in the league) and 427 yards (12th in the league).  Fitz is a threat all the time. In the Super Bowl, LeBeau had Troy lined up on Fitz to bump him at the line then release him to Ike over the top. After Fitz released, Troy was buzzing back to the flat to cover RBs out of the backfield. When Arizona started hitting the RBs for big gains, the coverage shifted away from the bump-and-release and Fitz took a simple slant route to the house.

4. Rashard Mendenhall

From a yardage perspective, Arizona is a top-15 defense against the run this year. However, they have surrendered 8 rushing touchdowns (most in the league) and have not forced any fumbles. The Steelers should be able to run the ball on these guys and shouldn't fall into a rhythm of trying to force things in the passing game that aren't there.

5. Fast Track

The Steelers have a lot of speed on their team, even with Mike Wallace having a tweaked hamstring. Arizona plays in a dome and the conditions should be ideal for the Steelers to use their speed to take some shots deep. There won't be wind to blame it on if the offense doesn't produce this week. The Steelers need to get out to a quick start on offense and get some early touchdowns to keep things rolling. Don't give Arizona a chance to get the ball to Fitz with the game on the line.

Behind Enemy Lines

This week's Behind Enemy Lines guest is Scott from the Cardinals blog Raising Zona. We always appreciate a good Cohen Brothers reference. If you want to know how serious the Cards are taking this game, check out this post: Arizona Cardinals Season Starts This Week. You can also find Scott on Twitter @azsportsguy

1. Arizona has had a slow start to the season but played some good football, including a game they should have won against the Giants. Besides winning the game, what do you want to see from the Cardinals for this game to be considered a "success"?

 Well for starters, don't get down 28-0 in the first quarter. That's what happened two weeks ago against the Vikings in their last game before the bye. After the first quarter, the Cards outscored the Vikings 10-6. Vikings didn't see the end zone for the last three quarters of the game. If it is close in the fourth quarter, maintain composure and make the right play calls. They lost their first three games by a total of eight points. 

 2. The Steelers offensive line has been patchwork at best this season, and in all likelihood we will be starting our 7th different combination of lineman against Arizona. We're looking forward to seeing how they handle the pass rush that former Steelers DB Coach (now Arizona defensive coordinator) Ray Horton sends after Ben. Are there any matchups you're looking forward to watching?

 Well, yeah I want to see what the defensive lineman can accomplish. Can they get to Kolb? Can they stop the run. Beanie Wells, when healthy, has been terrific this season. 

 3. Larry Fitzgerald burned the Steelers in the Super Bowl, particularly in the second half, and is capable of being a game-breaker at any time. Who are you looking for to have a big game for Arizona?

 Well, Fitzgerald of course. He can catch anything at anytime. I think Kevin Kolb is due for a breakout game. I don't know if he can have one against the Steelers defense, but hey, a man can wish right? I would also expect a second receiver, someone like Early Doucet to step up. I think Beanie Wells though might have the biggest day of all. 

 4. The Cardinals big offseason move was trading CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and draft picks to Philadelphia for quarterback Kevin Kolb. How has Kolb looked so far this season and is he the long-term answer in Arizona?

 I'm answering questions like this on Kolb left and right and my answer is always the same, people have to give Kolb a chance. Peopler already want him out. People are already calling him a bust. He's played five games - FIVE folks. He had NO offseason of preparation with a new team. He was traded to the Cards and missed the first several days of camp due to the new CBA rules, so he didn't even get a full camp. I say don't judge him on what he does this season, but judge him on next. Now, of course I, like most others, are disappointed in Kolb so far, but there has to be some understanding and context around his performance. People have short memories. They've already forgotten how bad the QB position was in 2010 here. Give Kolb a chance to succeed. It may take all season for him to become comfortable in this system. He may not have what people would consider a great game until 2012. 

 5. Any other final thoughts?

 I think the Cardinals will keep this one close after coming off the bye. I won't say they will win, because hey, these are the Steelers they are playing. If these were the Rams coming in, I would give the Cards a decisive edge. The bye week though I think gave the Cards the chance to regroup and I expect probably one of their more crisp performances of the season on Sunday.

Around the NFL

AFC North

Baltimore @ Jacksonville

Good luck Blaine.

Seattle @ Cleveland

Charlie Whitehurst is starting for Seattle? Should be a crapshoot.

Cincinnati - bye

Game of the Week

Atlanta @ Detroit

The Falcons want to run the ball, but Detroit has one of the best front 4's in the league. No one can stop 2-car-garage Megatron.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

WPIAL Week 8 Playoff Scenarios

With two weeks left in the high school football season, teams have started to lock up playoff spots and conference championships. Through seven weeks of the season, 29 of the 64 playoff spots across the four classes have been locked down. So far only two conference champions have been crowned, with eleven more schools potentially raising the conference title banners this week.


9 of 16 playoff spots clinched

Big East

Clinched Playoff Spot: Central Catholic (4-0, 7-0), Woodland Hills (4-1, 6-1), Penn Hills (3-1, 3-4)

In The Running: Fox Chapel (2-2, 2-5), Altoona (2-3, 3-4)

Central Catholic can clinch the conference title with a win over Altoona
Fox Chapel can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Plum or an Altoona loss


Conference Champion: Penn-Trafford (5-0, 7-0)

Clinched Playoff Spot: Gateway (3-1, 5-2), Connellsville (3-2, 4-3)

In the Running: McKeesport (3-1, 5-2), Hempfield (1-3, 1-6)

McKeesport can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Hempfield

Great Southern

Clinched Playoff Spot: Upper St Clair (3-0, 6-1), Mt. Lebanon (3-0, 5-2)

In the Running: Bethel Park (2-1, 3-4), Peters Twp (1-2, 3-4), Baldwin (0-3, 3-4)

Bethel Park can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Upper St Clair or a Baldwin loss
Peters Twp can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Mt. Lebanon and a Canon-McMillan loss

Northern Seven

Clinched Playoff Spot: North Allegheny (4-0, 7-0)

In the Running: Shaler (3-1, 5-2), Erie McDowell (3-2, 5-2), Seneca Valley (2-2, 5-2), North Hills (2-2, 4-3)

North Allegheny can clinch the conference title with a win over Shaler
Shaler can clinch a playoff spot with a win over North Allegheny
Erie McDowell can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Butler


7 of 16 playoff spots clinched

Big Eight

Clinched Playoff Spot: Thomas Jefferson (5-0, 5-2)

In the Running: West Mifflin (4-1, 6-1), Chartiers Valley (4-1, 5-2), Belle Vernon (3-2, 3-4), Trinity (2-3, 3-4), South Park (2-3, 2-5)

Thomas Jefferson can clinch the conference title with a win over Belle Vernon and a West Mifflin loss
The winner of West Mifflin-Chartiers Valley will clinch a playoff spot
Belle Vernon can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Thomas Jefferson

Greater Allegheny

Clinched Playoff Spot: Knoch (4-0, 7-0), Indiana (4-1, 6-1)

In the Running: Highlands (3-1, 6-1), Mars (2-2, 5-2), Kittanning (1-3, 1-6), Hampton (1-3, 2-5)

Knoch can clinch the conference title with a win over Highlands
Highlands can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Knoch or a Hampton loss
Mars can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Valley and a Hampton loss


Clinched Playoff Spot: Franklin Regional (5-0, 7-0), Ringgold (5-0, 6-1), Greensburg Salem (4-1, 6-1)

In the Running: Derry Area (2-3, 2-5), Hollidaysburg (2-3, 2-4)

Ringgold can clinch the conference title with a win over Franklin Regional


Clinched Playoff Spot: Central Valley (5-0, 7-0)

In the Running:, West Allegheny (4-1, 5-2), Blackhawk (3-2, 5-2), Montour (3-2, 5-2), New Castle (2-3, 3-4), Hopewell (2-3, 4-3)

Central Valley can clinch the conference title with a win over Blackhawk
West Allegheny can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Montour or a Hopewell loss
Blackhawk can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Central Valley and a New Castle loss
Montour can clinch a playoff spot with a win over West Allegheny and a Hopewell loss


8 of 16 playoff spots clinched


Clinched Playoff Spot: none

In the Running: Shady Side Academy (4-1, 5-2), Burrell (4-1, 5-2), Freeport (4-1, 5-2), Ford City (3-2, 4-3), Summit Academy (3-2, 3-4)

Shady Side Academy can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Summit Academy
Freeport can clinch a playoff spot with a win over West Shamokin and a Summit Academy loss
Burrell can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Deer Lakes
Ford City can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Apollo-Ridge and a Summit Academy loss


Clinched Playoff Spot: Seton-La Salle (5-0, 7-0), Washington (4-1, 5-2), South Fayette (4-1, 5-2)

In the Running: Steel Valley (2-3, 4-3), Keystone Oaks (2-3, 3-4), Burgettstown (2-3, 4-3),

Seton-La Salle can clinch the conference title with a win over South Fayette


Clinched Playoff Spot: Greensburg Central Catholic (6-0, 7-0), Jeanette (6-0, 7-0), East Allegheny (5-2, 5-2)

In the Running: Mt. Pleasant (4-2, 4-3), Waynesburg (3-3, 3-4)

Mt Pleasant can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Waynesburg


Conference Champion: Aliquippa (7-0, 7-0)

Clinched Playoff Spot: Beaver Falls (5-1, 6-1)

In the Running: Beaver (5-1, 6-1), Ellwood City (4-2, 5-2), Laurel (3-3, 3-4), Riverside (2-4, 3-4)

Beaver can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Laurel
Ellwood City can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Beaver Falls or losses by Laurel and Riverside


5 of 16 playoff spots clinched

Big Seven

Clinched Playoff Spot: Sto-Rox (5-0, 7-0)

In the Running: Rochester (4-1, 6-1), Western Beaver (3-2, 3-4), Cornell (3-2, 5-2), Shenango (2-3, 3-4), Neshannock (2-3, 3-4)

Sto-Rox can clinch the conference title with a win over Shenango
Rochester can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Neshannock
Western Beaver can clinch a playoff spot with a win over South Side Beaver
Cornell can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Union

Black Hills

Clinched Playoff Spot: Clairton (5-0, 7-0), Fort Cherry (4-1, 5-2)

In the Running: Brentwood (4-1, 6-1), Chartiers-Houston (3-2, 5-2), Carlynton (2-3, 3-4), Serra Catholic (2-3, 2-5)

Clairton can clinch the conference title with a win over Fort Cherry
Brentwood can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Serra Catholic
Chartiers-Houston can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Avella


Clinched Playoff Spot: Bishop Canevin (6-0, 7-0)

In the Running: Avonworth (5-1, 6-1), Springdale (4-2, 5-2), Northgate (4-2, 5-2), OLSH (4-3, 4-3), North Catholic (3-3, 4-3)

Bishop Canevin can clinch the conference title with a win over Riverview
Avonworth can clinch a playoff spot with a win over OLSH
Springdale can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Leechburg
Northgate can clinch a playoff spot with a win over North Catholic

Tri-County South

Clinched Playoff Spot: Beth-Center (6-0, 6-1)

In the Running: Frazier (5-1, 5-2), Monessen (5-1, 5-2), California (4-2, 5-2), Jefferson-Morgan (4-2, 4-3)

Beth-Center can clinch the conference title with a win over West Greene
Monessen can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Jefferson-Morgan
Frazier can clinch a playoff spot with a win over California or a Jefferson-Morgan loss
California can clinch a playoff spot with a win over Frazier and a Jefferson-Morgan loss

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Statistical Analysis: Turnovers

One of the big topics of discussion this week has been the Steelers inability to generate turnovers. Ed Bouchette wrote a decent article in the Post-Gazette about this issue today, and Tunch and Wolf talked about it on their radio show. Bouchette brings up some good points, including citing injuries to Hampton, Smith, and Harrison as a cause for lack of turnovers.
"Harrison has missed the past two games with an eye injury and will miss more. In the past, he was a turnover machine -- he forced 24 fumbles over the past four seasons that all wound up with him starting in the Pro Bowl. He has one this season, and that helped the Steelers beat Indianapolis when Troy Polamalu scooped it up and ran 16 yards for a touchdown in a 23-20 victory."
Bouchette also cites the stat that over the last 10 years, the 7 times the Steelers have had a positive turnover differential (creating more turnovers than they have committed), we made the playoffs every year. Conversely, the 3 years we had a negative turnover differential we did not make the playoffs. Currently, the team has a -10 turnover differential, due in large part to the 7 turnovers in the opening game against Baltimore. Since that game, the Steelers have committed 5 turnovers and created 2. We took a look at the data over the last 3 seasons to see if there was any difference between what the Steelers have done this year and in the past.


The first number that one needs to look at is interceptions. Troy Polamalu (despite missing half the season in 2009) has led the team in interceptions each of the last 3 seasons. In 2008 and 2010 he had 7 and had 3 in his injury-shortened 2009 season. In the last 3 years, the only other players to record more than 2 interceptions in a given season are Ryan Clark (3 in 2009) and Tyrone Carter (3 in 2008). The way the Steelers defense is set up, it is predicated on the safeties creating the interceptions, not the corners. When you look at other teams like Philadelphia or New England, their corners tend to play more of a short zone coverage that enables them to undercut sideline routs and come up with a lot of interceptions that way. The Steelers tend to give more of a "3 deep" look where the outside corners drop into a deeper zone, giving up the 9-yard out-route, or man coverage with only 1 or no safeties over the top, which forces the corners to give a little more cushion.

So the question should be asked - why haven't the safeties created any interceptions this year?

The easy answer would be, "They're not catching the ball." If I was writing for the Post-Gazette or the Trib, I would probably use this excuse and cite a number of examples where Troy and Ryan have come close to having picks this year, including an easy pick-6 against Seattle that hit Troy right in the hands. However, I'm a blogger and I hold myself to a little higher standard than simply citing plays that weren't made - I want to know if there's anything fundamentally different about our defense this year. 

The first stat that jumped out to me is the number of pass attempts by opponents. Over the past 3 years, the defense has been on the field for an average of 972 plays per season. On average, 558 of those have been passing plays (which is 57.4% of the total plays). This season, only 194 of the 357 plays the defense has played have been passing plays, 54.3% of the total. Since teams have had more success running the ball against us this year than in the past, they have thrown the ball less, which means there has been less opportunities for interceptions.

Another aspect to take into account is the types of plays opponents are running. There are two stats we can look at for this: Yards Per Attempt and Yards Per Completion. The following chart shows how these two statistics have changed for the Steelers opponents over the last 3 years and how this season stacks up.

As you can see, both Yards Per Attempt and Yards Per Completion are the lowest they have been since 2008. From this, it is safe to conclude that the Steelers opponents have been throwing shorter passes and not taking as many shots downfield. Simple football logic says that the shorter the throw, the more accurate a quarterback will be. Since opponents are throwing shorter passes this year and taking less chances downfield, this could be another contributing factor in why there have been less interceptions this year.

But is this enough? Can we simply place the blame on there being less pass attempts and those attempts being shorter passes? In short, the answer is no. Over the past 3 seasons, the Steelers have 53 interceptions on 1,674 pass attempts (3.17% of attempts). This season however, we have only 1 interception in 194 attempts (0.52% of attempts). If we had the same interception rate this year as we had the past 3 years, we would have 6 interceptions at this point in the year. That is a significant difference from the 1 we currently have.

Considering that Troy and Ryan account for most of the team's interceptions, one has to ask - has something changed about how they are playing? In my opinion, yes. Given that teams have had success running the ball against us, we have seen Troy and Ryan lining up in the box a lot more this season than in previous seasons. In particular, Troy has taken to lining up on the line of scrimmage a lot more (especially with Harrison out) on first and second down and playing backside pursuit against the run. This has afforded him the opportunities to make some big plays in run defense, such as his 3rd and 1 stop of MJD this past week. However, when Troy is playing on the line or down in the box, this limits his ability to make plays against the pass. Over the past 2 weeks, the Steelers have faced two very good running backs in Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew, both of which have been heavily utilized in the passing game. To combat this, the Steelers had Troy spying the running backs, even in passing situations, to cut down on screen passes and swing passes. By playing against running backs rather than wide receivers, Troy has had less of an opportunity to make interceptions than in the past.

Does this mean that Troy hasn't had his chances to make plays? Absolutely not. As I said at the beginning, Troy has had a few balls bounce off his hands or been in his vicinity that he just hasn't caught. I would say the combination of missed chances, facing less pass attempts, the schematic change of playing in the box more and opponents attempting shorter passes have been a big factor in Troy not making any interceptions yet.


The first aspect of the fumble stat that needs to be addressed is the difference between forced fumbles and fumbles lost. A forced fumble is recorded any time a ball is knocked free. A fumble lost is when the other team recovers the ball. Last season, there were 730 fumbles in the NFL, 349 of which were lost (47.8%). Over the last three years, the Steelers have fared much better than this, recovering 9 of 12 in 2008 (75%), 10 of 14 in 2009 (71%), and 14 of 28 in 2010 (50%). This season, they have only recovered 1 of the 4 fumbles they forced (25%). From 2008-2010 the Steelers forced 54 fumbles, 33 of which we recovered (61%). This is an average of 1.125 forced fumbles per game. If the Steelers had continued at this pace this year, they would have 7 forced fumbles right now as opposed to the 4 they have forced.

Over the past 3 seasons, James Harrison has led the team in forced fumbles every year (7 in 2008, 5 in 2009, 6 in 2010). Only 2 other players have forced more than two fumbles in a season (Timmons forced 4 in 2009 and Woodley forced 3 in 2010). Between the three (Harrison, Woodley, Timmons), they have forced 31 of the team's 54 fumbles (57%). I was surprised to find that of all the splash plays Troy has made, his only forced fumble in the last 3 years was the strip-sack of Joe Flacco last year.

Now, considering that Harrison, Woodley, and Timmons have been our best fumble generators, let's take a look at why these three guys aren't producing as they have in the past. For Harrison, the answer is obvious - he has been injured. In the 3.5 games he played, he forced 1 fumble which was nothing short of the biggest turnover of the season. As for LaMarr Woodley, he has forced the least amount of fumbles of the three linebackers (6). 

This can be explained from a schematic sense. James Harrison plays right outside linebacker, which means that for right-handed quarterbacks, he is rushing the passer from the blind side. Most of the time, quarterbacks don't see him coming, making it easier for him to tomahawk the ball out of their hand. 

Conversely, Woodley as the left outside linebacker rushes from the front side (of right-handed quarterbacks). This means that most quarterbacks will see Woodley coming and can either step away from the pressure, throw the ball away, or at least secure the ball before the sack.

The third player in the equation is Lawrence Timmons, who has forced 7 fumbles in the last 3 years. With Harrison's injury, Timmons has been moved from his natural position at inside linebacker to playing Harrison's spot on at right outside linebacker. In two games, Timmons has been less than impressive. For the guy who led the Steelers in tackles last year, he missed several last week against the Jaguars and was shut out on the stat sheet, finishing with 0 tackles. Timmons hasn't gotten pressure from the backside and hasn't really been a factor in creating turnovers. 

At this point you might be wondering about the fourth linebacker in the unit - James Farrior. As surprising as it might be for how productive the other 3 linebackers have been, Farrior has only produced 3 forced fumbles and 1 interception over the last 3 seasons. Larry Foote, who was inserted into the starting lineup when Timmons moved to the outside, has only 2 forced fumbles since 2008, including his stint in Detroit in 2009. 

Finally, since we began by discussing turnover differential, let's take a look at how the Steelers offense has done with turning the ball over. In the past 3 years the Steelers have fumbled 50 times, with 30 of those being recovered by opposing teams. This 60% rate is a bit higher than the league average, but is still below this season, where opponents have recovered 6 of 7 fumbles (86%) by the offense. In fact, the only fumble the offense did recover was when Trai Essex fell on a Roethlisberger fumble against Jacksonville. If we had recovered offensive fumbles at the same 60% rate we had over the past 3 years, we would have only lost 4 fumbles as opposed to 6. 

In conclusion, there are a number of factors that have created the current situation for the Steelers defense and their lack of turnovers. To begin with, the injury to James Harrison has not only taken our best fumble-producer out of the lineup, but has also shifted Timmons to the outside where he is nowhere near the same player he is on the inside and inserted Larry Foote into the lineup. Foote is a good tackler and solid against the run, but he, like Farrior, is not a turnover producer. Without Harrison in the lineup, we haven't gotten backside pressure on the quarterback, which is a key facet of producing turnovers. On top of that, the offenses we have faced this year have utilized a shorter passing attack, which has limited the number of deep balls and thus the potential for interceptions. Due to teams having more success running the ball against us, Troy has moved down into the box and keyed more on running backs rather than sitting in zones and undercutting passes. All of these elements have contributed to the Steelers current situation where they have only generated two turnovers in six games.