Thursday, January 31, 2013

Major Conference Rundown

As the calendar rolls into February, the NCAA Tournament picture is beginning to take shape. There is still a month and a half of basketball before the Big Dance where teams can make moves and where we will be inundated with Joe Lunardi's Last 4 In and First 4 Out. Here's a primer on where things stand at the end of January as we approach the halfway mark on the conference schedule. I tend to be conservative in my estimations of where teams stand, so rather than declaring any team "in" the field as of right now, I'm going to take the cautious route and say they are "in good position." Also, rather than declaring teams to be "on the bubble" at this point in the season, I'll say they "have work to do" to ensure themselves a bid to the Tournament. Today I'm going to look at the Major Conferences that have the highest likelihood of being multiple-bid leagues.

Conference Leader: Miami

In Good Position: NC State, Duke

Work to Do: North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Florida St

The Hurricanes have been the surprise of the ACC this year, running out to a 7-0 conference record, including a throttling of then-#1 Duke. Miami's only losses this year have come when leading scorer Durant Scott and/or big man Reggie Johnson were injured. At full strength, the Canes are unbeaten. Duke played one of the toughest non-conference slates in the nation and should be in good shape to make the tournament, barring some kind of epic collapse. NC State started strong and handed Duke their first loss, but have gone only 2-3 since with losses to Maryland, Wake Forest, and Virginia. The Cavaliers have a lot of work to do in conference play and enter February with some prohibitive computer numbers (RPI 95, SOS 183, NCSOS 331). Similarly, Maryland's poor computer numbers (RPI 69, SOS 92, NCSOS 289) could come back to bite them if they don't start stacking good wins. North Carolina has been hot and cold all season. They have a Top 20 win over UNLV, but also a 20-point loss to Texas (RPI 141). Their wins over Florida St and Maryland are enough to put them in the field right now, but they'll have to avoid any upsets in conference play. Florida St is hanging around the fringe of the bubble right now but lacks any high-quality wins (best win over #47 BYU) right now. Their 3 losses to teams with RPIs in triple digits (#163 Mercer, #178 South Alabama, #220 Auburn) are a huge red flag on their resume.

Conference Leader: Butler

In Good Position: VCU, La Salle

Work to Do: Charlotte, Xavier, St Louis, UMass, Temple

The A-10 currently has 9 teams all within 2 games of first-place Butler. VCU and La Salle have the best computer profiles of the group, with Massachusetts and Temple not far behind. Charlotte, Xavier and St Louis all have RPIs in the 60s and will need to make a splash in conference play to make a run at an At-Large bid. La Salle recorded wins over Butler and VCU last week, but turned around and dropped a game to UMass. Aside from their win over La Salle, UMass lacks any top-75 wins. St Louis has two Top-50 wins (#6 New Mexico and #46 UMass) but has a horrendous loss to Rhode Island (RPI 180). Similarly, Temple has a great win over Syracuse on a neutral court but has two terrible home losses to St Bonaventure (RPI 130) and Canisius (RPI 132).

Conference Leader: Kansas

In Good Position: Oklahoma, Kansas St

Work to Do: Baylor, Iowa St, Oklahoma St

As they seem to do every year, Kansas is running away with the Big XII field. Their 7-0 start in conference play, coupled with a 19-1 overall record puts them squarely in the discussion for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas St, Oklahoma, and Baylor are all sitting two games back with Oklahoma St and Iowa St three back. None of those teams will catch Kansas, and as long as all five of the other teams stay the course and avoid any bad losses to the teams at the bottom of the league, all 6 should hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Oklahoma has the best computer profile of the group (RPI 16, SOS 8, NCSOS 29) but their best wins are over Oklahoma St (RPI 37) and Baylor (RPI 39). Kansas St also has an RPI in the 30s but has wins better a win than Oklahoma over Florida (RPI 5) and a head-to-head win over the Sooners. Baylor's profile is very similar to Oklahoma's and the Bears will be dancing again as long as they avoid any upsets. Iowa St has the weakest profile of the group (RPI 48, SOS 72, NCSOS 148) and only 2 Top-100 wins (Kansas St and BYU) with a horrendous loss to Texas Tech (RPI 198). Of all the Big XII teams on the radar, Iowa St definitely has the most work to do in February.

Conference Leader: Syracuse, Marquette

In Good Position: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville

Work to Do: St John's, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Villanova, Rutgers

Another year, another pack of teams from the Big East with quality resumes.  Syracuse and Marquette have a two-game lead over the rest of the field. Syracuse, Marquette, Louisville and Cincinnati all have RPIs in the Top 25 and are in good position. Pitt, Georgetown, Notre Dame, and Rutgers all have to continue to win as their horrible non-conference slates (NCSOS's over 225) did not provide a good base to their resumes. Villanova recorded two huge wins over Louisville and Syracuse last week but lost at Notre Dame and remain squarely on the bubble. Nova's great wins are offset by two bad losses (#125 Providence and #218 Columbia) so the Wildcats will need to continue their strong play in conference. Rutgers is the most precariously positioned of the group with a 3-6 conference record, no Top 50 wins, and a loss to St Peter's (RPI 274). However, their 4-1 mark against teams ranked between 51-100 puts them on the bubble right now.

Conference Leader: Michigan, Indiana

In Good Position: Michigan St, Ohio St, Wisconsin

Work to Do: Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern

Michigan and Indiana are set to square off on Saturday night with the Big Ten lead at stake. Behind them, Michigan St, Ohio St and Wisconsin are all in good position for At-Large bids, barring any kind of collapse down the stretch. Minnesota has a great computer profile (RPI 10, SOS 3, NCSOS 20) but lost 4 consecutive games before beating Nebraska on Tuesday. They need to get back to their winning ways down the stretch to keep their bid secure. After a hit start to the season, Illinois has lost 7 of their last 10 games and now are dropping precariously close to the bubble. Their resume still has good computer numbers (RPI 33, SOS 15, NCSOS 39) and their 3 Top 25 wins (Gonzaga, Butler, Ohio St) are nothing to scoff at, but at some point they have to stop losing games. On the other side of the coin is Northwestern who has some shaky computer numbers (RPI 84, SOS 24, NCSOS 187) but has 3 Top-40 wins and no losses outside the Top 100. The Wildcats are still on the wrong side of the bubble, but if they can stack together some more wins in conference play and get their RPI into the 60s they'll have a shot at the tournament.

Conference Leader: Wichita St

In Good Position: Creighton

Work to Do: Indiana St

The Missouri Valley Conference is back. Wichita St holds the conference lead thanks to a head-to-head win over Creighton, but don't count out the Bluejays. Creighton features National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott and is one of the best shooting teams in the nation. Indiana St still has some work to do and seemingly fell off the radar when they lost to Southern Illinois (RPI 215) in mid-January. However, last week's win at Wichita St propelled them back into the discussion and their solid computer numbers (RPI 38, SOS 43, NCSOS 20) and 3 Top-50 wins give them a solid case for consideration. The knock on the Sycamores is their 3 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, so they will need to avoid any more stumbles if they want to stay in the conversation.

Conference Leader: New Mexico

In Good Position: San Diego St, UNLV

Work to Do: Colorado St, Boise St, Air Force, Wyoming

Good luck trying to figure out any kind of order for these teams. New Mexico is the current conference leader, but Colorado St, UNLV, San Diego St and Air Force are all sitting just a game behind. Of the top 5, Air Force is in the most precarious position due to a terrible non-conference slate (RPI 79, SOS 110, NCSOS 263). However, with no losses outside the Top 75 and an RPI under 80, the Falcons could make a run at an At-Large bid if they can stack together some wins over the top teams in the conference down the stretch. The Top 4 in the league all have RPIs in the Top 30 and are well-positioned to make a run towards the Big Dance. Boise St and Wyoming both started the season well but have fallen to 2-4 and 2-5 in conference play respectively and their RPIs have fallen into the 60s. Low RPIs coupled with Non-conference slates that rank in the 200s means that both teams have some work to do to get back on the right side of the bubble.

Conference Leader: Oregon

In Good Position: Arizona, UCLA

Work to Do: Arizona St, Colorado, Washington, Stanford

Oregon looked like the team to beat, running out to a 7-0 record in conference play before losing to Stanford on Wednesday night. The Ducks still control their own destiny in the Pac 12, and their main challenge will be from a talented Arizona team that is in the conversation for a #1 seed. UCLA has been up and down all year. In the past week the Bruins have beaten Arizona on the road by 11 then lost at Arizona St by 18 and at home to a terrible USC team. Arizona St and Colorado are two polar opposites that make them hard to place right now. The Sun Devils have poor computer numbers (RPI 62, SOS 106, NCSOS 276) but have 2 Top 50 wins, are 3-3 against the Top 100 and have only 1 loss to a team with an RPI over 100. Similarly, Colorado has 2 Top 50 wins and no losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, but their computer numbers are much better (RPI 21, SOS 7, NCSOS 19) thanks in part to their 6-6 record against the Top 100. Washington and Stanford are both middle-of-the-road teams with one Top-25 win on their resumes that are keeping them in the conversation. The Huskies biggest downfall is their 4 losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs, 3 of which came at home. However, Washington's resume is boozed by their 5 wins against Top 100 teams while Stanford only has 3 (though the Cardinal only have one bad loss).

Conference Leader: Florida

In Good Position: Missouri, Ole Miss

Work to Do: Kentucky. Alabama

The SEC is Florida's to lose and if they keep playing the way they are they should be favored in every remaining game. The Gators have dominated SEC play so far with an average margin of victory of 28 points per game. The Gators face Ole Miss at home on Saturday with the top spot on the line, and the Rebels will be lucky if the game is still close at halftime. Missouri started the season strong, but has been devastated by injuries and just dropped a game to woeful LSU. Kentucky has slowly started to turn things around and is trending in the right direction after their 13-point win over Ole Miss this week. The Wildcats are a bit of an enigma right now with middle-of-the-road computer numbers (RPI 49, SOS 48, NCSOS 55) and only 1 win against the Top 50 (#40 Ole Miss). Kentucky has a 3-6 record against the Top 100 but their worst loss is to Texas A&M (RPI 76), which gives them an edge over other bubble teams with losses to teams with 100+ RPIs. Alabama has almost the exact opposite problem as Kentucky. The Crimson Tide have a 5-4 record against the Top 100 (including a head-to-head win over Kentucky), giving them more good wins, but also have a 4-3 record against teams in the 101-200 range with alla 3 losses coming at home in non-conference play. The Tide do have decent computer numbers (RPI 65, SOS 39, NCSOS 50) but will need to boost their resume with quality wins in conference play and prove that their December meltdown where they went 1-5 without Senior guard Andrew Steele was an anomaly. Since Steele's return the Tide have gone 6-2 and were 5-0 before his injury.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Data Analysis: Win Probability Added

For those that saw Moneyball or are familiar with Sabremetrics in baseball, you know the usefulness and application of some methods of advanced statistics. Baseball is a statisticians dream as you can whittle down every play, every moment in the game to a series of individual matchups. Pitcher vs hitter. Hitter vs fielder. Hitter vs park. The possibilities are endless and an entire industry around advanced statistical analysis has grown around baseball. Other sports, like football, are a little harder to analyze because of the team aspect of the game. The fact that there are 11 moving parts on each side of the ball all at the same time can mean that an offensive lineman correctly executed his block on a defender, but because of a blocking failure elsewhere on the line, the play was not a success. Football also has a much smaller sample size to draw from than baseball. Football has about one-tenth the games (16 opposed to 162) and about half as many plays per game (baseball games see close to 300 pitches per game while football games see about 130 plays per game).

One of the best sites for football statistics is Advanced NFL Stats, who developed win probability graphs by logging data on down, distance, field position, score and time remaining. They run graphs for each game that can show at any given point in a game the probability of a team winning. From this general model, they are able to isolate individual players and determine a Win Probability Added (WPA) value.
Win Probability Added (WPA) – The difference between a team’s Win Probability (WP) at the start of a play and the WP at the end of the play. WPA is the measure of a play’s impact on the outcome of a game. An individual player’s WPA is the sum of the WPA of the plays in which that player was directly involved. Being directly involved is defined as an offensive player who ran, threw, or kicked the ball, was targeted by a pass, or flagged for a penalty. Defensive players are credited for WPA when they tackle or sack the ball carrier, are credited with an assisted tackle or sack, cause a fumble, defend a pass, or are flagged for a penalty. 
This creates an opportunity to compare players across different teams or even within the same team to determine the approximate value they added to the team. As the definition says, on offense only skill position players qualify for their WPA metric. Season WPAs are determined by adding the WPA from each game played over the course of the season. The one problem with this is that players that miss portions of the season due to injury (such as LaMarr Woodley or Troy Polamalu) would almost automatically have lower WPAs than players who play the whole season. Therefore it is also useful to look at WPA per game.

On offense, Ben Roethlisberger led the way with a 2.25 WPA, which ranked him 14th amongst quarterbacks and 17th amongst all offensive players. When digging deeper into the stats, we see that Ben's numbers were built up over the first half of the year before the wheels fell off the wagon.
Interestingly, Ben's numbers started to take a turn for the worse in the Giants game, not after he was injured in the Chiefs game. This adds some credence to the notion that it was actually Antonio Brown's injury that was the turning point in the season. After Brown's injury against the Giants, not only did Ben's numbers take a dip, but the offense as a whole seemed to sputter and die. To put things in perspective, through 8 games (including the Giants game), Ben had a WPA of 3.11, which put him on pace for a 6.2 WPA for the season. This would have put Ben head and shoulders above every other quarterback in the league. Aaron Rodgers finished the season with the top WPA of an offensive player with 5.02 followed by Matt Ryan (4.87) and Tom Brady (4.69). Even if Ben had simply maintained his pace over the second half of the season and averaged no change over the last 8 games, he would have finished in 10th, ahead of RGIII, Russell Wilson, and Joe Flacco. As it was, the interceptions against Dallas and Cincinnati were season-killers for the Steelers, and the numbers bear that out.

For the receivers, Brown and Sanders actually posted very similar WPA per game numbers. Sanders actually had the highest WPA of the receivers because he was the only one of the group to appear in all 16 games. The most striking number amongst the receiver group is Mike Wallace's -0.78 number. This ranked him 76th amongst receivers in the league. Game-by-game breakdowns for receivers aren't available yet, but looking at Wallace's career numbers we can see some distinct changes in 2012.

Wallace saw declines in several key categories, including Success Rate, Yards Per Target, Catch Rate, and Deep Ball Percentage. For this measure, Deep Ball Percentage was defined as the percentage of targets over 15 yards downfield. While this has been steadily declining with each year of his career, the more telling statistic is Catch Rate, where Wallace caught only 53.8% of balls that were thrown his way this year, as opposed to 60.5% last season. Without this 7% decrease, Wallace would have had 72 receptions in 15 games. Even working with just his pure average for yards per catch, he would have had 105 more yards on the season. You can make any kind of excuses you want for Wallace's numbers being down, such as less deep balls, less targets (though his targets per game was actually the highest of his career) or less yards per target. But at the end of the day, the biggest number on the chart is the Catch Rate. The struggles of Mike Wallace's hands were well-documented this year and that is the biggest reason for his decline in production.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers featured 5 of the top 60 defenders in the league and had 4 players rank in the top 10 at their position. Additionally, 7 players ranked in the top 30 in the league at their position, which is significant considering the "linebacker" category lumps together both inside and outside linebackers. According to the WPA stat (and backed up by anyone who watched the Steelers this year), Lawrence Timmons was the top player on the defense. Timmons ended the year with a WPA of 2.36, which was not only the best on the team, but also the best amongst all linebackers (both inside and outside). The most amazing stat is that Timmons' 2.36 WPA was second in the league behind only Houston's JJ Watt who posted an amazing 2.96.

Timmons had a great year, there's no denying that. How he was once again shafted from getting an invitation to the Pro Bowl is just plain crazy. But looking at the bigger picture, this wasn't even the best year of Timmons' career from a WPA standpoint. In 2010, Timmons posted a 2.65 WPA, which was actually higher than Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu's 2.43 and James Harrison's 2.14 in 2008 when he won DPOY. Speaking of 2010, there are some stark differences that jump off the page when you compare the linebacking play from 2010 with 2012.

In 2012, only Timmons and Foote played all 16 games. The outside linebacker positions were a shuffle between Harrison, Woodley, Worlids and Carter. As a whole, the group only accounted for 25 sacks and 46 quarterback hits along with 40 tackles for loss. On the turnover side, the linebackers only forced 6 fumbles and had 4 interceptions.

The first thing you notice when looking at the 2010 data is that all four starting linebackers played in all 16 regular season games. This consistency showed in WPA where 3 of the 4 had WPA's over 2 and Farrior's 1.91 was a close 4th. Compare that to 2012 where the second most productive linebacker (Harrison) had a WPA of 1.70. That's a huge difference in impact plays from the linebacking corps. As far as other raw data, the 2010 group accounted for 33 sacks and 50 QB hits. The 2010 corps also produced turnovers, forcing 12 fumbles and coming down with 5 interceptions.

To compare the two groups, the 2010 squad had 8 more sacks. The difference here was the production of Harrison and Woodley. In 2010 they combined for 20 sacks while in 2012 they only combined for 12. This difference in 8 sacks is magnified when you also consider the 2010 group only had 4 more QB hits. This means the linebackers were getting pressure with approximately the same consistency but not getting home and landing sacks when they got close. The problems with getting to the quarterback cascaded down to turnovers where the Steelers forced half as many fumbles this year as they did in 2010. The dropoff once again can be directly pinpointed to Harrison and Woodley. In 2010, Harrison forced 6 fumbles, primarily through his tomahawk chop move coming around the back side of the quarterback. However, Harrison recorded 5 fewer sacks in 2012 than in 2010 and had 4 fewer forced fumbles. This is not to place the entire burden of the season on the linebackers, but there were significant deficiencies, particularly when compared with the last season in which the Steelers won the division and reached the Super Bowl.

In 2010, no one on the defensive line had a WPA over 1, but in 2012 Brett Keisel posted a 1.39, which was actually the 10th best WPA for a defensive end in the league. This is significant because Advanced NFL Stats groups 3-4 DEs and 4-3 DEs together. This means that Keisel scored higher than a significant number of 4-3 pass rushing DEs that tallied double the amount of sacks that Keisel did.

Despite having the #1 pass defense again this season, the Steelers secondary saw a significant dropoff from 2010 to 2012 in terms of WPA.

In 2010, Troy Polamalu's Defensive Player of the Year performance accounted for a 2.41 WPA in just 14 games. On the corners, Ike, B-Mac and William Gay all played 16 games. Gay led the way with the highest WPA, with McFadden (who split time with Gay throughout the season) coming in at 1.09.

That same 1.09 number that McFadden posted in 2010 as the second-highest CB was the highest WPA by a Steelers corner in 2012. Cortez Allen, whose numbers got a huge boost thanks to his play over the last two games of the season when he forced 3 fumbles and recorded 2 interceptions, was the highest rated Steelers corner. This does not mean he was the best player on the field, but the boost he got from those turnovers propelled him up the charts. Allen and Keenan Lewis's WPAs ranked them in the top 25 corners in the league. Lewis finished the season second in the league behind Seattle's Richard Sherman in passes defended. However, he was the only defensive back in the top 10 in the league in passes defended to not record an interception.

By comparison, Sherman and Jennings are mentioned in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. Intercepting passes is part of becoming a complete corner. Lewis has proven he can get a jump on the ball and make plays to break up passes. As he develops, he's going to have to start coming down with interceptions if he wants to make good on his promise of being a Pro Bowler.

Looking back at WPA, the biggest improvement obviously came from Ryan Clark who had a 0.78 in 2010 and improved to a secondary-leading 1.42 in 2012. In fact, Clark's 2012 season was the 6th best amongst safeties in the league. The loss of Troy Polamalu for half of the season obviously hurt the secondary, and it showed in the turnover numbers. In 2010 the secondary had 14 interceptions while in 2012 they only had 6.

All told, when data from the Steelers last Super Bowl run is held up side-by-side with their 2012 season, the biggest story is injuries. In 2010 the top 4 linebackers, top 3 corners, and 1 safety played in all 16 games. Fast forward to 2012 and the only players on defense to play in all 16 games were Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. On offense, only Emmanuel Sanders played in all 16 games this season, and he battled through some injuries through the middle part of the season. In 2010, the Steelers got contributions in all 16 games from Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace and Hines Ward. On the offensive line, the Steelers started 9 different linemen this year with only Ramon Foster and Max Starks starting all 16 games. Back in 2010, the Steelers had 8 different linemen start with Maurkice Pouncey and Flozell Adams starting all 16 games and Chris Kemoeatu starting 15.

Whatever personnel decisions the Steelers make moving forward, the most important thing for success is to keep players healthy and on the field. We saw across  the board how injuries wrecked havoc on WPA from Ben Roethlisberger's game-by-game numbers bottoming out after Antonio Brown's injury and Ben's subsequent injury to the outside linebackers who were mixing and matching pairings all season. If there is a "silver bullet" out there that can fix the Steelers it would be the ability to stay healthy and injury-free. The Steelers aren't deficient in talent and still have top-tier players on both offense and defense. The potential is there to be right back in the mix in 2013 to compete for another Lombardi Trophy. The talent is there, the team just has to stay healthy and make the necessary plays down the stretch to bring home wins.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Clear Choice in the Harbowl

This Super Bowl matchup was probably the worst-case scenario for Steelers fans, even from the start of the playoffs. For the second consecutive year, the AFC Championship featured a game between two teams that no one with black and gold in their veins wanted to see in the Super Bowl. To make matters worse, we had to watch that game with the full knowledge that the winner would play San Francisco in the Super Bowl. This left Steelers fans in a bit of a predicament - who do you root for in the Super Bowl?

There is a clear-cut choice, and it is the San Francisco 49ers.

Now, a lot of Steelers fans and radio personalities have made a big deal about the 49ers tying the Steelers mark of six Super Bowls. But when you really think about it, does someone else having six rings really matter?

The first Super Bowl was played in 1967 and was won by the Green Bay Packers. The Packers repeated the next year, setting the pace for all other teams to follow. It was not until six years later that the Miami Dolphins, after their unblemished campaign of 1972, repeated as champions in 1973. Entering the 1974 season, which would end with the Steelers winning their first Lombardi Trophy, both the Packers and the Dolphins led the league in Super Bowl titles with two. The Steelers followed up their Super Bowl IX win with a return trip in 1975. In Super Bowl X they faced the Cowboys who had already been to the Super Bowl twice and were looking for their second title. The Steelers joined the top-tier of Super Bowl Champions in January of 1976 when they won their second title. The Steelers failed to reach the Super Bowl the next two years, and in 1978 Dallas became the fourth team in the league to win a second championship.

The ensuing Super Bowl was one for the ages. Both the Steelers and Cowboys entered with two titles under their belt and one would leave as the only three-time champion. The Steelers defeated the Cowboys thanks to four touchdown passes from game MVP Terry Bradshaw. The Steelers became the first 3-time champion in January of 1979 and followed it up by becoming the first four-time champion the following season. At this point, the Steelers had lapped the field and had twice as many Super Bowls as any other organization.

The 80s brought about the emergence of the San Francisco 49ers and saw them win four titles between the 1981 and 1989 seasons. The 49ers four Super Bowls in the 80s tied the Steelers mark. The Steelers held claim to being the only team with four rings for only 10 seasons from January 1980 to January 1990. Even though the Steelers were the first to win four titles, it was the 49ers who tied their mark only 10 years later.

Four years after the 49ers became the second team to win four Lombardi Trophies, Dallas defeated Buffalo for the second consecutive year to win their fourth title. The Steelers now shared the claim to the top spot with both San Francisco and Dallas. The next season, all signs pointed to an epic showdown between the Steelers and either the 49ers or Cowboys. However, the Steelers lost a heartbreaker in the AFC Championship game to the San Diego Chargers on a failed 4th and 3 pass at the goal line. The 49ers defeated the Cowboys in the NFC Championship and throttled the Chargers in the Super Bowl, becoming the first team to win five Super Bowls. The next season saw the losers of the two previous Conference Championships get a shot at redemption as the Steelers and Cowboys faced off in Arizona for the right to join San Francisco with 5 titles. The Cowboys defeated the Steelers thanks to two horribly thrown passes by Neil O'Donnell and the Steelers fell behind both the 49ers and Cowboys in the list of Super Bowl Champions.

From there, it would be another decade until any of the top three returned to the Super Bowl. The Steelers completed an amazing run in the 2005 playoffs, becoming the first #6 seed to run the table and win the Super Bowl. The Steelers fifth title came in January 2006, tying the mark set by San Francisco in 1995 and Dallas in 1996. Three years later, the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win 6 titles, defeating Arizona on Santonio Holmes' catch in the corner of the end zone. The Steelers failed to stretch out their lead in 2010 when they lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XL, but still remained the only team in the league with 6 titles.

Now, some around Pittsburgh think this is a very important distinction or record to hold. But looking back over the history of the Super Bowl, the Steelers were not the first team to win the Super Bowl, nor were they the first team to win two. They were the first team to win their third and fourth titles, but as we know that mark only stood for 10 years. After the 49ers tied the Steelers with 4 in 1990, the two teams shared the top spot for 5 seasons. The Steelers were not the first team to win a fifth title, and it took them 11 years to tie that mark that San Francisco set. The Steelers were the first team to win a sixth ring, and that is and will continue to be a mark of great pride amongst Steelers fans.

Is it nice to be the only team in the league with 6 Super Bowl titles? Yes, it absolutely is. However, is sharing the designation of "Most Super Bowls Won" (something we have done before for 3 years with Green Bay and Miami and for 5 years with San Francisco) worse than seeing the Ravens lift the Lombardi Trophy? Absolutely not. In the 47-year history of the Super Bowl, an individual team has only held the designation of "most titles won" for 23 years. The Steelers have been that team for 15 of the 23 years. In the big picture, the Steelers have been the sole team with the most Super Bowls for less than a third of the Super Bowl era. While it is a nice distinction to have, San Francisco winning will not change the fact that the Steelers were the first team with 6 rings. And as I have said, having to share the distinction of winning six titles is a much, much better option than seeing Baltimore win.

Therefore, I will be rooting for San Francisco next Sunday, and I would implore all of Steeler Nation to do the same.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Look at the Steelers Offseason Roster

This week, Kevin Colbert said that "significant changes" were going to be made to the roster during the offseason to help the Steelers get back under the salary cap. By most estimations, the Steelers are about $10 million over the cap as things stand right now. They will probably need to clear another $7-$10 million or so under the cap to have room to sign free agents and draft picks.


Under Contract: Ben Roethlisberger (3 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch

Ben has 3 years left on his contract and is carrying a cap hit of around $18 million for each of those three seasons. The Steelers need to get younger at backup quarterback and probably can't rely on the Leftwich/Batch tandem again this season. Look for the Steelers to bring in a young quarterback to be the #3 this season and the #2 of the future. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing them use a mid-round pick in the draft on a QB that can be the #2 of the future.

Running Backs

Under Contract: Will Johnson (2 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Rashard Mendenhall

Restricted Free Agents: Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer

This situation is a mess after the Steelers cut Chris Rainey following his arrest earlier this month. Currently, fullback Will Johnson is the only back the Steelers have under contract. After his on-field struggles and off-field antics this past season, it's very likely that the Steelers will let Rashard Mendenhall walk away in free agency. Both Redman and Dwyer are Restricted Free Agents and the Steelers will likely tender them at the lowest possible level, around $1.323 million. This is a position the Steelers need to address in the offseason, either through free agency or the draft. Given the Steelers cap situation, signing a free agent does not seem likely so this should be a targeted position heading into the draft.

Wide Receivers

Under Contract: Antonio Brown (5 years remaining), Jerricho Cotchery (1 year remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Mike Wallace, Plaxico Burress

Restricted Free Agents: Emmanuel Sanders

Mike Wallace will be gone in free agency, and after his disappointing 2013 season, it's hard to see the Steelers making a big push in free agency to keep him. The big question is what the Steelers will do with Emmanuel Sanders. As a Restricted Free Agent, look for the Steelers to tender him in the spring then try to work out a long-term deal before training camp. Per the RFA tender numbers, a 1st round tender is $2.88 million, a 2nd round tender is $2.02 million or an original round tender is $1.32 million. Since Sanders was a 3rd round pick, I would bet that the Steelers opt for the Original Round Tender and save $700K against the cap in the short-term then try to work out a long-term deal with Sanders, assuming he signs his tender. Cotchery's $1.5 million cap hit ($1 million in salary) could make him a candidate for a cap casualty, but that would leave the Steelers very thin at receiver.

Tight Ends

Under Contract: Heath Miller (2 years remaining), David Paulson (3 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Leonard Pope

The big question mark here is Heath Miller's ability to recover from the devastating knee injury he suffered against Cincinnati. If Miller is on the same trajectory as Rashard Mendenhall was, he may miss the first few weeks of the regular season. This would leave the Steelers with a gaping hole at tight end that they would probably look to fill with a veteran to pair with David Paulson. Sadly, former Steeler Weslye Saunders got picked up by the Colts after we cut him last year, so he is probably not an option at this point.

Offensive Line

Under Contract: Marcus Gilbert (2 years remaining), Mike Adams (3 years remaining), Kelvin Beachum (3 years remaining), Willie Colon (3 years remaining), David DeCastro (3 years remaining), John Malecki (1 year remaining), Maurkice Pouncey (2 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky

Whenever a book is written about contracts in the salary cap era, Willie Colon's contract will be featured prominently in the chapter on worst contracts ever. In the first 3 years of his deal, Colon has played a total of 7 games and it's debatable how well he has actually played in those outings. With 3 years remaining on his deal and cap hits around $8 million each year, the time may have finally come for the Steelers to part ways with Colon. Max Starks was the only member of the line to play every snap last year and he'll likely go out and test the free agent market. I can't blame Max for going out on the market. The Steelers won't pay him more than the veteran minimum and he's proven that he's clearly worth more than that. If the Steeler try to re-sign one of their own here, it should be Ramon Foster who has started 42 games over the last 4 seasons. The rest of the line is in pretty good shape with Gilbert, Adams, Pouncey and DeCastro all under their cap-friendly rookie deals for at least the next 2 years.

Defensive Line

Under Contract: Brett Keisel (1 year remaining), Ziggy Hood (1 year remaining), Cam Heyward (2 years remaining), Al Woods (1 year remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Casey Hampton

Restricted Free Agents: Steve McLendon

The Defensive End position seems to be set, at least for 2013, with Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood under contract for one more year. If the Steelers get really tight against the cap, Keisel could be a cap casualty. He has a base salary around $2.8 million plus another million in pro-rated signing bonus which would become dead money if he was cut. Keisel has maintained his high level of play and rated as the 10th best defensive end in the league last year per Advanced NFL Stats. Nose Tackle is a bit more of a concern as Casey Hampton likely won't be back (unless he's willing to play for the veteran minimum) and Steve McLendon is slated to be an RFA. The Steelers would like to keep McLendon around and will probably tender him at the minimum value and hope no other team signs him. Alameda Ta'amu is still floating around the fringes of the roster but counting on him to be a future contributor isn't a good idea.

Outside Linebackers

Under Contract: James Harrison (2 years remaining), LaMarr Woodley (4 years remaining), Jason Worlids (1 year remaining), Chris Carter (2 years remaining), Adrian Robinson (2 years remaining)

While this looks like a position of strength on paper, more or less everyone in the Steelers universe has accepted the fact that James Harrison has likely played his last game in black and gold unless he is willing to take a significant pay cut. Harrison's base salaries are $6.5 million in 2013 and $7.5 million in 2014 coupled with $2.6 million in pro-rated money brings his cap hit over $9 million each season. Given the Steelers current cap situation, it's unlikely they can afford this much. LaMarr Woodley is also due a ton of money, but given his age the Steelers are more likely to restructure his deal than cut him loose. Woodley has to be better in 2013 than he was in 2012 when he spent most of the season battling a hamstring injury.

Inside Linebackers

Under Contract: Lawrence Timmons (4 years remaining), Sean Spence (3 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Larry Foote, Brandon Johnson

Restricted Free Agents: Stevenson Sylvester

If you're the kind of person that puts a lot of stock in mock drafts, you probably think the Steelers are almost guaranteed to take an inside linebacker in the first round this year. While that very well may be the case, most mock drafters forget about Sean Spence's place on the roster and focus solely on the age/free agency of Larry Foote. Spence was tearing it up in camp last year before suffering a brutal knee injury in the final preseason game. His recovery will dictate the Steelers needs at this position. They might be able to bring Larry Foote back on a 1-year deal at the veteran minimum to help bridge the gap, but the team's need at inside linebacker will depend solely on the long-term health of Spence.


Under Contract: Ike Taylor (2 years remaining), Cortez Allen (2 years remaining), Curtis Brown (2 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Keenan Lewis

Exclusive Rights Free Agents: Demarcus Van Dyke

Of all the free agents this year, Keenan Lewis might be the most important for the Steelers to keep. A 3rd round pick in 2009, Lewis finally took over as a starter last year and showed marked improvement in his play over previous seasons. He finished second in the league in passes defended even though he did not come down with any interceptions. Ike Taylor is carrying a cap hit close to $10 million the next two seasons, but as we saw when he wasn't in the lineup - he's worth that much. Cortez Allen came on strong as the season drew to a close and was responsible for 5 turnovers in the last two games.


Under Contract: Troy Polamalu (2 years remaining), Ryan Clark (1 year remaining), Robert Golden (2 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Will Allen, Ryan Mundy

This is a bit of a precarious situation for the Steelers as both Polamalu and Clark are over 30 and only have a few years left on their contracts. The best case scenario here would be to try to bring back Will Allen as the #3 safety for next year and add another young safety in the draft to groom as the eventual replacement. Undrafted Free Agent Robert Golden saw some playing time down the stretch due to injuries, but he still has a ways to go to replace what Troy or Ryan bring to the lineup.


Under Contract: Shaun Suisham (2 years remaining), Drew Butler (2 years remaining)

Unrestricted Free Agents: Greg Warren

Shaun Suisham had a bounce-back year in 2012 and was one of the best kickers in the league after being the worst kicker in the league in 2011. He still has 2 years left on his deal and is slated to make $1.4 million per year the next two years. That base salary, coupled with a $350K pro-rated signing bonus is way too much to be handing out to a kicker in the current cap era. Some of the most successful kickers in the league were either undrafted free agents or late round picks, including Kai Forbath in Washington, Blair Walsh in Minnesota, Justin Tucker in Baltimore and Greg Zuerlein in St Louis. The Steelers need to look for a young kicker capable of kicking in poor weather conditions to alleviate some of Suisham's cap hit.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Arizona is still Pittsburgh West and Cleveland is still Cleveland

After parting ways with head coach (and former Steelers offensive coordinator) Ken Whisenhunt, the Arizona Cardinals search for a replacement finally ended this week when they hired former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as head coach. Now, it's been no secret that I wasn't a fan of the way Arians called the offense when he was here, but he proved his worth this year with Indianapolis when Chuck Pagano missed half the season to receive treatment for cancer.

Upon the news, Gerry Dulac was already fawning all over Arians on Twitter, but that's really nothing new. Are we sure that Arians can't take Dulac to Arizona with him?

I'll be honest, this is a great opportunity for Bruce, and best of luck to him. However, for as "hot" of a name as Arians was heading into the offseason coaching searches, he was the last of 7 head coaches hired. Additionally, back when he was offensive coordinator of the Steelers he had a grand total of 0 head coaching interviews after the 2008 or 2010 seasons. Is the lore around Bruce Arians that has been drummed up by the local and national media greater than he actually is as a coach? We'll find out pretty fast because there is no one in Arizona that even closely resembles Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck.

With Arizona's hire of Arians, reports out of Tempe were that Cardinals defensive coordinator (and former Steelers defensive backs coach) Ray Horton was livid with management and requested out of his contract. The Cardinals eventually did release Horton who has signed on with the Cleveland Browns to be their defensive coordinator. Which brings me to Cleveland....

The Browns were reportedly very interested in Chip Kelly then wound up signing Rob Chudzinski, the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, to be their head coach. Hardly an over-whelming hire, but Cleveland did themselves a favor and brought in Norv Turner to be the offensive coordinator (and now Horton to be the DC). The new ownership, led by former Steelers minority owner Jimmy Haslam seemed to be moving the organization on the path to respectability. But they are Cleveland after all, and it was only a matter of time until they did a very Cleveland thing.

That happened today when they announced former NFL Network on-air personality Michael Lombardi as their director of player personnel. This is a position that Lombardi has held before with both Cleveland in the 90s and Oakland in the early 2000s. What makes this the quintessential Cleveland move is when you consider Lombardi's draft day accomplishments:
  • From 1992 to 1995 as Cleveland's Director of Player Personnel in charge of all scouting, talent evaluation and personnel decisions, he drafted a grand total of 0 players that made the Pro Bowl (out of 30 draft picks).
  • In the 1994 draft he traded up to the 29th pick to select Derek Alexander (WR-Michigan). Isaac Bruce went 4 picks later to the Rams.
  • As Oakland's Director of Player Personnel and chief personnel adviser to Al Davis, he selected Sebastian Janikowski in the first round of the draft. Chad Pennington and Shaun Alexander were the next two players off the board.
  • His most infamous accomplishment might have been in the 2007 draft when he selected Jamarcus Russell over Calvin Johnson with the #1 overall pick.
So at the end of the day, despite bringing in a former Steelers owner, Cleveland is still Cleveland. And that's a good thing for us. A very, very good thing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Todd Haley Shuffle: Twitter Edition

Twitter has changed the way sports fans interact with each other and receive news and information about their teams. There is no doubting this. Twitter is a great resource. For the most part, if you've been around social media for a while, you have a pretty good sense of who to trust and who is reliable for information. Generally speaking, if someone works for a major network, chances are their reports are trustworthy. But the crap really hit the ceiling fan this afternoon when NFL Network's Ian Rapoport tweeted that a "source" (later revealed to be Todd Haley's agent) said Todd Haley was not interviewing for the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job after the Cardinals had asked the Steelers permission to interview Haley.

As luck would have it, shortly thereafter Steelers Depot who is pretty much all over everything Steelers related on Twitter, dropped this helpful reminder to Steelers fans who were either ready to press the panic button or heading down to the PartyMart.


Rapoport responded with a somewhat defensive tweet that he has since deleted. And then about 10 minutes later, the other shoe dropped from the Steelers beat reporters.

Now, say what you will about the Steelers beat reporters. I've been critical of their analysis of how the team plays and the articles they have written just as much as the next guy. But when one of them reports something, there's a very good chance they're right. This left Rapoport with little choice but to out his source in an attempt to prove the legitimacy of his report.

Rapoport stayed on the defensive and summarized what he knew. To be honest, Rapoport is a good guy and it seems to me like he got stuck in the middle of a bad situation here. He summarized what he knew and from whom:

And then about two hours after this all went down, "Steelers assistants" became....

 That sound you just heard is the echos of Rapoport crapping his pants. Honestly, I can't blame him for reporting something that he thought was solid information. If someone's agent says they are not going to interview for a job, then you would assume that is a trustworthy source. However, luck was not on the side of Ian Rapoport today, and he was one-upped by not only the Steelers beat reporters, but also Art Rooney II.

I was a fan of the Steelers hiring Todd Haley and through the first half of the season it seemed like the Haley offense was building something great. We were getting into third and short situations. We were converting third downs at a rate over 50%, something only two teams had done in the last 5 seasons. We were dominating time of possession by over 10 minutes per game. We were running the ball. The offense was clicking. Then Antonio Brown got hurt against the Giants and Ben Roethlisberger went down against the Chiefs. After that, the offense was never the same and returned to a lot of the "schoolyard" principles that we saw under Arians. The running game faltered and the offense sputtered to the finish. On the whole, Haley's first season as offensive coordinator was a bit underwhelming. I was not a fan of Bruce Arians' offense but I can't say that Haley's offense was an improvement over Arians. At the end of the year, it just seemed like "more of the same." I won't be shedding tears if Haley leaves for Arizona, but I do think our offense can be successful with Haley calling the shots.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

An Early Look at the 2013 Tournament Bubble

With the Steelers elimination from playoff contention and the NHL still mired in the craphole of negotiations, we turn our attention to college hoops. The beginning of January marks the start of conference play when teams start jockeying for position for the NCAA tournament. There has been some great action over the early part of the season from exciting early-season tournaments, particularly the Battle For Atlantis that saw Duke top Louisville in the title game to the toppling of #1 Indiana by Butler in overtime. The December slate of games didn't bring many top-tier matchups but the schedule heats up now that the calendar has turned to January. 

At this point in time, it's hard to put trust in quantitative rankings like the RPI due to teams playing non-Division 1 opponents (which do not count towards the RPI) early in the season. Case in point here is Northwestern St who holds a 7-4 record and has an RPI of 44. However, they are only 3-4 against D-1 opponents and their best win is over Louisiana Tech who has an RPI of 71. As the season moves on, quantitative measures like RPI become better measures of performance (even though the RPI isn't a perfect metric).

Major Conference teams still have plenty of time to jockey for position and make a run for the tournament by building their at-large resume. However, for schools from smaller conferences, time has just about run out on the opportunity to land another quality win and improve their resume. Here's a brief look at some teams you'll be hearing a lot more about as we head toward Selection Sunday and are discussing the Tournament Bubble. Last season, Iona was awarded the last spot in the field despite 4 losses in the MAAC and 2 losses to teams with 200+ RPIs, mostly thanks to a Top-40 non-conference Strength of Schedule. The committee has in the past awarded Mid-Major teams that play a difficult slate, including giving Long Beach St a #12 seed last season after LBSU played a brutally tough non-conference schedule.

Outside of the Big Six conferences, only the Atlantic 10, Mountain West and West Coast conferences have averaged at least 1 at-large bid per year over the last 5 years. This season, those three conferences should be right in the thick of things for multiple bids as well. The Atlantic 10, with the addition of VCU and Butler, is on the verge of being considered a Major Conference. The A-10 currently has 4 teams in the RPI Top 40 (Butler, Temple, VCU, and UMass) with 3 more (La Salle, St Louis, St Joe's) in the top 68. The A-10 could be in line for 4 or 5 bids to the tournament barring an epic collapse from one of the top teams. 

The Mountain West might be the best mid-major league in College Basketball with 6 teams who have 2 or less losses. Wyoming is still undefeated but is largely unproven aside from their win over Colorado. New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego St, Colorado St, and Boise St all have 2 losses and are well positioned to make a run for the tournament entering conference play. The West Coast Conference earned 3 bids last year with Gonzaga, St Mary's and BYU and all three of those teams have looked strong in non-conference play. 

As things currently stand, there are three other Mid-Major leagues with enough depth to warrant multiple bids. This may change as we progress towards March, but there are leagues out there like the MEAC (no teams with winning records), Atlantic Sun (1 team with a winning record), SWAC (1 team with a winning record) and Big South (1 team with a winning record) that will certainly only get one bid to the Dance. The Mid-Major leagues with a legitimate chance to field an at-large team are the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ohio Valley Conference and the Patriot League.

If you take the Atlantic 10 teams out of the equation, the discussion over the best Mid-Major school in the country comes down to Gonzaga and Creighton. The Blue Jays have a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott and have the 7th most efficient offense in the country according to Creighton is the clear front-runner in the MVC, but there are two other teams currently lurking in the Top 30 of the RPI - Wichita St (RPI 18) and Indiana St (RPI 26) with Illinois St (RPI 54) hanging around the Top 60. The Shockers high ranking at this point is mostly based on their 13-1 record with the only loss coming on the road to a Top 50 team (Tennessee). Wichita St also boasts a road win over VCU and a neutral court win over Iowa. However, their non-conference strength of schedule is currently in the 120s, which is not a good sign. Indiana St, on the other hand, has an excellent non-conference SOS (29) and 3 of their 4 losses have come to teams in the Top 50 of the RPI. If their non-conference SOS can stay high and the Sycamores perform well in conference play, they should be in the mix for an at-large bid. Illinois St has a non-conference strength of schedule hovering in the low 80s and has some work to do to improve their resume and will have to avoid suffering any bad losses in the MVC.

The Patriot League has been known for pulling shocking upsets in the Big Dance, with 14th seeded Bucknell toppling 3rd seeded Kansas in 2005 and 15th seeded Lehigh beating Duke last year. You'll be hearing those names often as the season rolls on. Bucknell is led by senior Center Mike Muscala who is averaging 19 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. The Bison have a solid RPI (31) but a horrendous non-conference SOS (192) that could be their downfall if they don't win the Patriot League. Lehigh's resume looks even worse than Bucknell's. The Mountain Hawks dropped a home game to Bryant (RPI 116) just before New Year's and their non-conference SOS is a vomit-inducing 247. Lehigh will not get an at-large bid if their RPI stays in the 80s and will need to go on a big run through the conference if they want to go dancing. Lehigh does have one more opportunity to land a big win when they face VCU this weekend. 

Much like the Patriot League, the Ohio Valley Conference has two good teams that have less-than-impressive resumes heading into conference play. Murray St held the distinction as the last undefeated team last season but have already dropped 3 games this year, including a home loss to Valparaiso (RPI 131). The Racers have battled through injuries but their borderline-top 50 RPI could set them back if they drop more than 2 games in conference play. Their non-conference SOS is currently 65 and includes neutral court wins over St John's and Auburn. Belmont left the Atlantic Sun and moved to the OVC this year and certainly has the paper resume of a team worthy of an at-large bid. The Bruins have a Top-25 RPI and a non-conference SOS of 33 despite two losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs (UCF and Northeastern). The Racers and Bruins only face off once in the regular season and any losses between now and February 7th could spell at-large doom for either team. Right now, Belmont seems more likely of garnering an at-large bid than Murray St, but if both teams run through the conference and meet in the OVC Championship game, we could see both of them dancing in March.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Steelers Fans Guide to Wildcard Weekend

The 2013 NFL Playoffs are here, and let's be honest, none of us are spending them the way we want. We all want to see the Steelers playing in the playoffs. To go back to a confrontation I had with an Eagles fan early this season at Heinz Field, he told me he would rather not make the playoffs than lose the way Pittsburgh did in Denver. That is absolute nonsense. You always want to be in the playoffs, even if it is as a Wild Card, you want to be there, you want to have a chance to win a championship.

But now, we have to sit at home on our couches pouring over NFL Draft scouting reports while twelve other teams fight it out for the Lombardi Trophy. Some Steelers fans may decide to spend their weekends doing other things, but for those of you that sit down and watch, here's a viewing guide to the playoffs. Obviously, choosing between teams that are not the Steelers is always a "lesser of two evils" situation, so hopefully this is helpful.

The most important thing to remember when deciding on a team to root for is rivalries. Obviously, this put Baltimore, Cincinnati and New England at the bottom of the heap. This shouldn't be much of an issue as most Steelers fans inherently root against these teams anyway.

After eliminating the rival teams, the next category to consider is Super Bowl Championships. As Steelers fans, we love holding the "Sixburgh" or "First to Six" or "How Many Yinz Got?" over fans of all 31 other teams. Therefore, we don't want to see anyone else get to 6 or even get within striking distance of 6 Rings. Looking at the 12 playoff teams this year, San Francisco leads the pack with 5 rings, followed by Green Bay with 4, New England and Washington with 3, Denver and the Colts with 2 and the Ravens with 1. 

The final category to consider, if you're still torn, is general jagoffery. Does the team have a player that it's really easy to hate (ie Peyton Manning)? Does the team have someone it's really easy to cheer for (ie Adrian Peterson)? Is their coach a Harbaugh? 

Using these metrics, here is a look at the Wild Card Weekend games.

Cincinnati at Houston
Saturday, 4:30pm

The Bengals are a rival team from the AFC North, so that automatically knocks them down a peg. Neither team has any Super Bowl wins. The Bengals however, are the Bengals, and JJ Watt is a great player to watch who should win Defensive Player of the Year. Steelers fans should root for Houston.

Minnesota at Green Bay
Saturday, 8:00pm

None of the NFC teams can be considered "rivals", so this matchup is a little more of a toss-up. Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson are both exciting players to watch and Clay Matthews and Jared Allen are two of the best in the business at rushing the passer. On the whole, Super Bowl titles carries a lot of weight here, with the Packers closing in on the Steelers mark. Steelers fans should root for Minnesota, though I won't blame you if you root for Green Bay, they're a classy organization.

Indianapolis at Baltimore
Sunday, 1:00pm

This should be the most obvious of the bunch. In an awesome storyline, the Colts that once fled Baltimore under cover of darkness to move to Indy now have to return to Baltimore while coached by the Ravens former defensive coordinator. Go Colts.

Seattle at Washington
Sunday, 4:30pm

This is probably the most exciting playoff matchup with two rookie quarterbacks squaring off in the last game of the weekend. RGIII and Russell Wilson have both been fantastic this season. Given the Redskins recent struggles, many forget about their 3 Super Bowl rings. The Redskins also have the most jagoff-filled front office in the league with Daniel Snyder paying out huge salaries to free agents trying to turn them into the Yankees of the NFL. Pete Carroll is a jagoff too, but you have to love the way the Seahawks play defense. This is a close one, but I'm giving the edge to the Seahawks for rooting purposes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

We Must Face The Long Dark of Moria: Steelers Win

This was the Steelers first meaningless home game since 2003 and the first meaningless game they had played since 2006. Not much was at stake aside from preserving an 8-year stretch of non-losing seasons and not having been swept by the Browns since 1988.

Game Recap

Rather than coming out with the run-run-pass motif offense, Haley changes it up and goes pass-run-run but it still results in a punt after the Steelers can't move the chains from 2nd and 2.

Thaddeus Lewis, he of no NFL experience, comes out and hits two passes but misses on a deep ball on 3rd down.

The Steelers go back to the motif on 3rd and 1 and Ben makes a horrible throw that's almost picked off. Yikes. No clue why we're throwing on 3rd and 1. Butler booms one to pin the Browns deep.

The Steelers forget to cover Greg Little on 3rd down and Lewis moves the chains. Lewis goes back to Little who is wide open over the middle and he turns it upfield and takes it all the way to midfield. The Steelers continue not to cover the Browns receivers and give up another completion down to the 20. Lewis finally redeems himself and telegraphs a pass that Troy undercuts for his first pick of the year.

Right off the pick, Ben goes play-action and hits AB on a deep post but a holding penalty nullifies the huge gain. Haley tries to get cute back in our own end and Brown gets taken down on a reverse for a big loss in the backfield. A bad punt gives the Browns the ball on our side of midfield.

Lewis hits another pass over the middle and moves the Browns into field goal range.

Second Quarter

The defense finally makes a play and stops the Browns on third down. Dawson shanks a 39-yard field goal.

The Steelers move the sticks for the first time when Ben hits Plax on a slant. Mendenhall gets to the outside and moves us across midfield. Ben finds Cotch over the middle to convert a 3rd down and move us to the fringe of field goal range. The Steelers run a give-up play on 3rd and 3 and Redman goes nowhere. Suisham nails it from 41.


Lewis hits a few more passes and get another first down near midfield. The Browns keep moving the ball into Steelers territory with the defense playing on their heels. The defense locks it down and the Browns send Dawson back out who drills one from 51.

Wow. Big kick at the closed end.


Ben hits AB to get things moving but the drive doesn't go anywhere. Tomlin inexplicably uses a timeout with just over 2 minutes left before a 3rd down play rather than letting the clock wind down. Strange.

On the second play the Browns try a quick pass to Gordon that Cortez Allen strips out and Lawrence Timmons falls on it to set up the Steelers at the Cleveland 24. That's the kind of play we were missing all year.

Redman takes one right up the gut and inside the 15. Ben tries to find Sanders over the middle and he gets dragged down drawing the flag. With the ball on the 1 Ben goes play-action and hits Pope over the middle for the score.

Points off turnovers.


The Browns run it out.

Third Quarter

The defense locks it down but Cleveland runs a fake punt and takes it up the middle for a huge gain before AB makes a tackle.
The Browns go deep right away and draw an Pass Interference call on Victorian inside the 5. Two plays later, Lewis finds Little open in the back of the end zone.


Kelvin Beachum gets blindsided on an outside run by Dwyer and the Steelers are literally out of linemen. John Malecki comes in at RG and Foster moves to RT. Bad times on the line. The Browns do a very Browns thing and commit two penalties on a 3rd down, giving the Steelers a first down. The offense starts rolling with Dwyer moving the sticks again then Sanders taking a WR screen for 12 more. AB takes an end-around inside the 15 then Dwyer pounds forward with a great second effort to move the chains again. On 3rd and goal Ben does his Ben thing and steps up in the pocket and hits AB right across the middle at the goal line for the score.

Ben being Ben


The Browns come back and drive the ball down the field. The Steelers finally get their first sack of the game when the whole D-line destroys the Browns line and sacks Lewis.

Fourth Quarter

With the Browns backed up in 3rd and forever, the defense comes up with a stop.

Pinned back in their own end, it's motif offense time and Ben gets sacked on 3rd down. Another bad punt from Butler gives the Browns the ball across midfield.

The defense comes up huge and forces a 3-and-out.

The offense picks up a few first downs but stalls out near midfield.

In a strange play, the Browns complete a pass to the sideline. Cortez Allen runs past the receiver as he falls to the ground but doesn't touch him. Once the receiver gets up Allen swats the ball out of the receiver's hand and scoops it up and takes it down the sideline, all the way inside the 30.

Replay holds it up. Crazy play.

That's 5 turnovers that Cortez Allen has created in the last two weeks.

Redman converts a 3rd and 1 to get us inside the 15. On 3rd down, Ben rockets one and Plax climbs the ladder on the post route and snags it for the score.



The Browns get it back and the Steelers go into their prevent defense leaving a lot open underneath. The Browns move the ball into Steelers territory before a well-timed blitz from Timmons absolutely buries Lewis on 3rd down. On 4th down, LeBeau calls the exact same blitz and Timmons comes free again and knocks the ball out. Ziggy falls on it for the recovery to seal up the win.



Sadly, that ends the season too.

Thanks everyone who followed the blog or talked on Twitter this season.

Stick with us through the offseason. We'll be diving in to draft coverage pretty soon here and looking back over the season that was and where things went wrong.

Now, the offseason.

To paraphrase Gandalf, "We must face the Long Dark of Moria. It is a three month journey to the draft. We must be cautious."