Saturday, November 29, 2014

GAMEDAY: New Orleans Saints

Home, Sweet Home
TV: FOX (map)

What To Watch For

1. Drew Brees Outdoors

The Saints offense, when clicking on all cylinders, is one of the best in the NFL. Drew Brees is consistently mentioned as one of the top quarterbacks in the game. Brees and the Saints offense is just as deadly as their reputation. However, Brees has another reputation that will come into play - his own outdoor record. In his career (which includes his time in San Diego), Brees is 55-48 in outdoor games (.533) and 56-33 in domes (.629). Additionally, Brees averages almost 60 yards less per game outdoors than he does indoors.

However, if the 2014 NFL season has taught us anything it is that the past does not matter. The Saints just dropped 3 games in a row at home, and Brees was decidedly mediocre in all 3 of them. Given the Steelers struggles in the secondary this season, it is entirely possible that Brees comes out and lights them up. However...

2. Back in Black (and Gold)

The Steelers are set to get 4 injured defensive players back on Sunday. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Shamarko Thomas are all probable to play with Ryan Shazier listed as questionable. Shazier did go through a full practice on Friday after being limited earlier in the week but it looks like a toss up as to whether or not he will play. The defense has been porous at best this season, but getting Ike and Troy back will certainly help the secondary and Shamarknado is a much better option to back up Troy than Will Allen. Steve McLendon remains out, but the Steelers will likely be in a nickel defense much of the game against the Saints anyways.

3. Jimmy Graham

The Steelers achilles heel this season has been defending tight ends. The middle of the field is basically a barren wasteland where anyone can run free to their hearts content. Graham is not a matchup problem, he is a matchup disaster. The Steelers will need to find a way to be physical with Graham at the line of scrimmage to try to slow down his timing with Brees because that is really the only way they can hope to defend him. If the Steelers come out with their normal defensive strategy to cover tight ends (which is to say, not cover them at all), Graham will eat them alive.

4. Which defense is worse?

These two teams are almost mirror images of each other, which just goes to show you how fine of a line the difference is between being 7-4 and being 4-7. Both teams have offense ranked in the Top 10 (9th and 10th respectively) and both have scored 288 points on the season. Both teams rank in the bottom half of the league in total defense with the Steelers allowing 5.9 yards per play (26th in the NFL) and the Saints allowing 6.1 yards per play (30th in the NFL). On the scoreboard, neither team has been able to prevent opponents from putting up points with the Saints allowing 26 points per game and the Steelers allowing 24 points per game. Additionally, both teams rank in the bottom 4 in the league on percentage of drives their opponents score on (New Orleans 43.9%, Pittsburgh 41.3%). The Saints MO this season has been to lose games late and the Steelers will need to hope that trend continues.

5. Big Contributions from Big Players

The biggest thing that happened to the Steelers over the bye week was the dumping of LeGarrette Blount, which left our backfield remarkably thin with just Dri Archer and Josh Harris behind Le'Veon Bell. This basically means that the Steelers are going to ride Le'Veon Bell as an every down back for the last 5 weeks of the season. Simply put, the offense will go as far as he can carry it. Bell will not only be responsible for shouldering the load in the running game but also for being a 3rd down back and handling blitz pickups. Antonio Brown is on pace to break Hines Ward's single-season receptions record and possibly break his own receiving yards record. AB has been outstanding in all but one game this year - the loss to the Jets. The Steelers need AB to continue to step up in big situations, especially against a porous Saints defense. This game has all the makings of a shootout and the Steelers need to attack this game like they did against Indianapolis and Baltimore with the notion that it is going to take 40 points to win this game.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Week 13 AFC Playoff Picture

With just 5 weeks remaining in the regular season, the AFC playoff picture is insane. Currently, 10 of the 16 AFC teams are either in position to make the playoffs or within a game of the last playoff spot. The Steelers didn't get any help over the bye week as all 3 of the AFC North teams that played won their games, which sets up a 5 week showdown for both the division title and the two wild card spots.

To start, it is fairly safe to assume that both New England and Indianapolis will make the playoffs. The Patriots and Colts both hold two game leads in their division races and it would take a massive surge from either Miami or Buffalo in the East or Houston in the South to topple them. Taking those two out of the equation, here's a look at how the other 8 teams in the AFC playoff hunt are situated, starting with our division foes because division tiebreakers are always broken first.

The North

Current Record: 7-3-1
Status: Leading AFC North by 1/2 game
Conference Record: 5-3
Division Record: 2-1

Remaining Games: @TB, PIT, @CLE, DEN, @PIT

Key Wins: BAL (2x)
Key Losses: NE, IND, CLE

The Bengals lead the AFC North by a half game thanks to their tie with Carolina. However, with 3 division games remaining the Bengals are not secure in their position atop the division. Their last 4 games will determine the AFC North Champions.

Current Record: 7-4
Status: 2nd in AFC North based on common games tiebreaker
Conference Record: 3-4
Division Record: 2-3

Remaining Games: SD, @MIA, JAX, @HOU, CLE

Key Wins: CLE
Key Losses: CIN (2x), IND

If the Ravens get through their next two games unblemished, it should be smooth sailing to the season finale with Cleveland. Even though the Ravens currently hold the tiebreaker in the division, they could just as easily lose it based on their 3 division losses (to the Steelers and Browns 2). 

Current Record: 7-4
Status: 3rd in AFC North based on tiebreakers
Conference Record: 6-3
Division Record: 2-2

Remaining Games: NO, @CIN, @ATL, KC, CIN

Key Wins: IND
Key Losses: none

All 5 of the Steelers remaining games are against teams in the playoff hunt, though two of them come against the 4-7 Saints and 4-7 Falcons who are somehow tied atop the NFC South. Nevertheless, the Steelers control their own destiny and can win the division with a sweep of Cincinnati and help their playoff status with a win over Kansas City, who currently holds one of the wild card spots.

Current Record: 7-4
Status: Last in AFC North based on tiebreakers
Conference Record: 4-4
Division Record: 2-2

Remaining Games: @BUF, IND, CIN, @CAR, @BAL

Key Wins: CIN
Key Losses: none

The Browns have not been a team that has blown many teams out this year. Four of their Seven wins have been by less than 6 points. Like the Steelers, all of their remaining games are against teams in the playoff hunt, though this includes a 3-7-1 Carolina team that is just a half game back in the NFC South. The Browns are very much still in the division race with 2 division games in the last 3 weeks.

The Rest of the AFC

Current Record: 8-3
Status: Leading AFC West by 1 game
Conference Record: 6-1

Remaining Games: @KC, BUF, @SD, @CIN, OAK

Key Wins: IND, KC, SD, MIA
Key Losses: NE

The Broncos appear on this list because they are clinging to just a 1-game lead in the AFC West and have road games remaining against the two teams chasing them - Kansas City and San Diego. The Broncos next 4 games are against teams in the playoff hunt before they close with Oakland. Given their 6-1 conference record it would take a lot for the Broncos to be knocked out of playoff contention. They could do the Steelers a big favor by winning out and knocking off some of the teams the Steelers are battling for playoff position.

Current Record: 7-4
Status: 2nd in AFC West, 1st Wild Card
Conference Record: 5-3

Remaining Games: DEN, @AZ, OAK, @PIT, SD

Key Wins: MIA, NE, SD, BUF
Key Losses: DEN

The Chiefs have 4 remaining games against playoff teams, two of which will determine who comes out on top of the AFC West. Their road game against the Cardinals won't help either team with tiebreakers but both teams will likely need the victory to hold their place in the standings. The game against the Steelers in Week 16 could essentially be an elimination game.

Current Record: 7-4
Status: 3nd in AFC West, 2nd Wild Card
Conference Record: 5-3

Remaining Games: @BAL, NE, DEN, @SF, @KC

Key Wins: BUF
Key Losses: KC, DEN, MIA

The Chargers have been boosted by a 5-game winning streak early in the season but are just 2-3 since then and their wins were an unimpressive 7-point win over Oakland and a 3-point win over St Louis. They have the hardest schedule of any remaining team with a road trip to Baltimore followed by the top 2 teams in the AFC coming to town in consecutive weeks before they close the season on the road with San Francisco (who is fighting for an NFC playoff spot) and Kansas City. If you're looking for a team with the potential to drop off big time, the Chargers are a distinct possibility.

Current Record: 6-5
Status: 2nd in AFC East
Conference Record: 5-3

Remaining Games: @NYJ, BAL, @NE, MIN, NYJ

Key Wins: NE, SD
Key Losses: KC, DEN

The Dolphins have the easiest schedule of any team in the playoff hunt with two games against the 2-win Jets and a game against the Vikings who are clearly out of the NFC playoff picture. Their best chances for losses will come in the next 3 weeks when they face Baltimore and play at New England. It would not be surprising to see this team win 10 games given their remaining slate.

Current Record: 6-5
Status: 3rd in AFC East
Conference Record: 3-5

Remaining Games: CLE, @DEN, GB, @OAK, @NE

Key Wins: none
Key Losses: SD, NE, KC

Who would have thought that a Week 13 game between the Bills and Browns would have huge playoff implications? Even though the Bills are the farthest back in the playoff picture, this is a big game for both teams. The Bills don't have any head-to-head tiebreakers (they split with Miami) so they need to rack up some victories against other teams in the playoff hunt. The Bills are also in search of their first winning season since 2004 and will have to go at least 2-3 down the stretch to get there, which basically means they need to beat Cleveland this week to have a shot. The Bills beating Cleveland would be a huge help to the Steelers in the AFC North race.

Monday, November 24, 2014

For Whom Le'Veon Bell Tolls: Steelers Win


For the second time this season, the Steelers took the field on a Monday night after losing a pitiful game the prior week. In both occasions, the stars seemingly aligned so that a win would propel them back up the divisional standings.

After writing a post on opening drives this week, I was particularly interested in how this game started, especially since the Titans had one of the worst opening drive offenses and the Steelers had one of the worst opening drive defenses.

The Titans ignored that fact and let the Steelers have the ball first.

It was the Le'Veon Bell show right out of the gate and for good reason - Bell ripped off runs of 12 and 19 yards to move the Steelers into Tennessee territory. Bell got 5 straight carries on the opening drive to get us into a 3rd and 6 when they gave him the ball again, which seemed like a give-up play to settle for a long field goal. Suisham was good from 49 into the wind.


Only the third time this year the Steelers scored on their opening drive. As was to be expected, Gruden was saying Gruden things.

On the first pass of the game, Zach Mettenberger threw one behind a receiver on an out-route and William Gay jumps the route and takes it back TO THE HOUSE.

Just like that, it's 10-0.

Unfortunately, the defense couldn't keep it going. They gifted the Titans some yards on a facemask then failed to get home on a blitz and Mettenberger hit Wright on a deep cross inside the 10. On the next play, Bishop Sankey (whose name sounds like a chess opening) ran through 6 arm tackles and got carried into the end zone by one of his linemen.


The Steelers came out passing and Ben hit Heath down the seam on a beautiful play-action to get us out of trouble. The offense continued to work it down the field before Ben hit Heath again down the middle to move us into Titans territory. Ben had to file a missed connections ad on CraigsList after floating a ball to a wide open Martavis Bryant in the end zone that the DB was able to recover and knock the ball away. Ben made up for it with a rope on the sideline to AB to get us inside the 10. Unfortunately, the offense out-thinks itself when Ben tries two fade passes that both fall incomplete and we have to settle for 3.


Second Quarter

For some reason the Steelers thought that squib kicking was a good idea on kickoffs to start the game, so the Titans got great field position. Mettenberger and Wright hooked up again and Mike Mitchell made a horrible attempt at a tackle, allowing Wright to get down inside the 10. The Titans get down to the 2, but thankfully Sankey trips over a blade of grass and the Titans have to settle for 3.

Live by the Bishop Sankey, die by the Bishop Sankey


The teams trade 3-and-outs before the Steelers finally get rolling when Ben decides throwing to Antonio Brown is a good idea. AB makes big catch after big catch, getting 11, 9 and then 17 to pick up a 3rd and 11 and get us out near midfield. The Prescription got a handful of carries to get us into Titans territory and take it down to the 2 minute warning. After a sack, AB bailed us out again with a conversion on 3rd and 8. Ben kept the foot on the gas and hit Heath on the numbers to get us to the red zone. After a timeout, Bryant dropped a pass that hit him right in the numbers on a post route to the goal line. It may have been tipped by the defensive back but Bryant has to make that play. Tomlin's bizarre clock management came into play when he took a timeout after a 2nd down run, leaving 52 seconds on the clock then called a pass to the end zone. Ben made his worst throw of the season, well behind AB and it got picked off.


Things went from bad to worse when Mettenberger bombed one and hit a wide open Nate Washington for an 80-yard touchdown.

What. Even.


Looked like the Steelers were in Cover-4/Quarters and Washington ran right past William Gay. Gay and Will Allen were about even there so Gay had no help over the top.


Third Quarter

Things looked bad as the Titans got the ball first, but thankfully they didn't know what to do with a lead and went 3-and-out.

The Prescription and AB continued to carry the team on their backs and got us to midfield before back-to-back sacks sent the ball back to Tennessee.

Coming into the game, Titans TE Chase Coffman had 2 catches on the season and 6 in his 5-year NFL career. But in one drive, he transformed into the second coming of Tony Gonzalez and tortured the Steelers for 3 catches and 32 yards, capping it off with a 4-yard TD reception over a diminutive corner and an out of position Mike Mitchell. Somewhere in there, Mitchell missed another tackle because he is as good at tackling as he is at twitter.


With just over 18 minutes remaining in the game, Steelers Nation was in a bad place. Everyone was looking at the schedule and wondering how this team beat the Colts and Ravens while dropping games to the Bucs, Jets and trailed the Titans by 11. The Steelers hadn't come back from a double-digit deficit in the second half since the 2002 Wild Card game against the Browns. You know which one I mean.

Quite frankly, it was a sickening situation. And the only prescription was Le'Veon Bell.

Bell absolutely took the game over on this drive, putting the team on his back and carrying them all the way down to the red zone, including a 27-yard run where he looked bottled up then deftly slid sideways into a hole and was gone down the sideline. On the last play of the quarter, Ben takes advantage of the LBs sneaking up to stop Bell and hits Heath down the seam to get us inside the 5.

Fourth Quarter

Right out of the break, Bell once again delivered, driving up the middle then stretching the ball out for the goalline.



The Titans went 3-and-out and we got it right back with 13 minutes to play. After absolutely dominating the Titans on the ground the last drive, Ben came out and ripped them through the air, getting us into Tennessee territory with a pass to Lance Moore then coming back with two check-downs to Bell to get another first down. Bell did some more work, allowing Ben to set up a beautiful play-action pass that he ripped to AB on a flag route.

What an absolutely monster throw. AB was bracketed by two Titans defenders when Ben threw the ball and in one step was wide open and able to make the grab. What a throw, what a cut by AB and what a catch.

Did that catch look kind of familiar?


A typical Steelers game would have followed the script where the defense, after a big score, allowed the other team to march right back down the field and tie the game or take the lead. Thankfully, this was not a typical game. The Titans were able to get the ball to midfield but opted to punt with 7 minutes to go rather than going for it on 4th and 4.

The Steelers got the ball back with 6:58 to play and did not relinquish it.

Things looked precarious when the Steelers got into 3rd and 4 right off the bat after Tennessee wasted a timeout trying to challenge an incomplete pass and turn it into a fumble. Ben was able to connect with Markus Wheaton on a slant route to pick up the first down. Don't under-estimate that catch. Manny Sanders dropped that same one at least 3 times last year in big situations.

From there, it was all Le'Veon Bell.

10 yards. Boom.

10 yards. Boom.

8 yards. Pow.

This is basically how the Titans defense felt on the last drive.

3 yards then 8 more. Boom. Boom. Two minute warning.

From there, it was just semantics as Bell picked up 5 more for a first down and Tennessee used their last timeout.

Because Mike Tomlin does not understand simple clock management, they ran the ball again rather than just kneeling it out. Nothing happened and Tomlin finally realized they could kneel it out.

Victory Formation.


204 rushing yards for Le'Veon Bell, 4th most by a Steelers back in a single game and 4th most on Monday Night Football history.

As Tomlin said after the game, don't write our obituary just yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

WPIAL Championship Preview

Championship Friday is upon us. Because of the PIAA schedule and Thanksgiving being late this year, the WPIAL Championships are not being played on the day after Thanksgiving as they typically have been. Instead, we get a Friday where some schools did not opt to cancel classes which has led to a #Hookie4Heinz movement on Twitter. Unfortunately, since these games are not being played on Black Friday, it will make the parking situation even more difficult because some of the outlying lots and garages will be filled with people who normally park there to work downtown. To complicate matters for the evening games, it is also Light Up Night and there is a Penguins game at 7:00. On the WPIAL website, their suggestions for parking were the Heinz Field Stadium Lots, other North Shore lots, the Rivers Casino Parking Garage (which is only an option if everyone in the car is over 21) or the downtown lots and garages which are going to be backed all day. If you're planning on going to a game, go early because parking is going to be an issue.

If you're not going to the games, ROOT Sports will be broadcasting the Class A game live at 11:00am and the Quad-A game live at 2:00pm. Due to the Penguins game in the evening, the AA and AAA games will be on tape delay and broadcast at 10:00pm and 12:30am respectively.

If you're going to be stuck at work all day, your best bet is to tune in to the MSA Sports broadcasts of the games, which can be found here. As far as I know, the MSA broadcasts work on iPhone/iPad and Android systems as well.

Twitter will be buzzing with updates tomorrow so make sure to keep an eye on the following hashtags: #WPIAL #MSAscores #Skylights

Additionally, I recommend following: myself (obviously), @MSAsports, @PGVarsityXtra, @TribHSInsider, @mwhiteburgh, @JRown32, @AJWPIAL and @WPIAL_Insider for updates throughout the day.

1. Pine-Richland (12-0) vs 3. Central Catholic (11-1)
2:00 pm

Championship History

Pine-Richland won the WPIAL AAA title in 2003 and lost in the Championship Game in 2002. Richland High School won WPIAL AA titles in 1969 and 1970.

Central Catholic is the defending AAAA Champions, have won 4 WPIAL Championships (2003, 2004, 2007, 2013) and have played in 6 Championship Games.

Playoff History: In their only playoff meeting, Central Catholic beat Pine-Richland in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.

The old adage that "offense wins games but defense wins championships" will be put to the test in the Quad-A Championship. Pine-Richland boasts the top offense in Quad-A, scoring nearly 48 points per game, while Central Catholic has the top defense, holding opponents to just 10.6 points per game. These Northern Eight Conference foes met in Week 8 with Pine-Richland's offense controlling the game en route to a 48-28 victory. The 48 points the Rams scored against Central Catholic was the most that a Vikings defense had allowed in 11 seasons since giving up 49 to Woodland Hills in 2003.

Pine-Richland's offense has been dominant this season, scoring at least 40 points in all but two games. The Rams boast the top passer in the WPIAL in senior QB Ben DiNucci who has thrown for 3,296 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing an absurd 74% of his passes. His favorite targets have been a pair of 1000-yard receivers in Mike Merhaut (1174 yards, 15 TDs) and D'ondre Gastion (1002 yards, 11 TDs). As a mark of how good DiNucci's weapons are, every Ram player who has caught at least 7 passes aside from RB Connor Slomka is averaging at least 14 yards per reception. But don't let his receiving stats fool you, Slomka has been an effective weapon for the Rams offense, rushing for 1214 yards and scoring 32 touchdowns, putting him in the top five in the WPIAL in scoring. Slomka, an Army commit, has played his best football in the playoffs, rushing for 348 yards and scoring 12 times in 3 games. Pine-Richland is also in contention for the Best Student Section in the entire WPIAL, based solely on the fact that they plan on bringing a live ram to the game.

Central Catholic is the defending Quad-A Champions and the only blemish on their resume is their loss to Pine-Richland. The Vikings rode a dominant defense that pitched 5 shutouts this season, including a 28-0 victory over an explosive Woodland Hills team in the quarterfinals. The Vikings got pushed by Penn-Trafford in the semi-finals after Penn-Trafford recovered multiple onside kicks in the first half but ultimately pulled away thanks to a 200-yard performance from John Petrishen and a 100-yard night from Vinny Emanuele. Petrishen has been the driving force of this Central Catholic team all year, playing wide receiver and running back on offense, all over the secondary on defense, and has scored 4 times on kick returns. Central Catholic's offense is built around their running game and the Vikings only average 7 pass attempts per game. Their dominant ground attack has enabled them to control the clock on offense and let their defense slam the door on most teams this season.  Grant Foster, son of former Steeler Barry Foster, leads the team with 729 yards and 16 TDs but has been hampered by an injury lately. Vinny Emanuele has stepped up in the playoffs, rushing for 268 yards and 4 TDs over the last 3 games. In the first meeting, the Vikings faltered when Pine-Richland pulled away in the second half and they were forced out of their comfort zone of running the ball and playing defense.

1. Central Valley (12-0) vs 3. West Allegheny (11-1)

Championship History

Central Valley won the WPIAL title in 2010, the first year of the school's existence after the merger of Center and Monaca school districts. They lost in the Championship Game to West Allegheny last year. Monaca won 3 WPIAL Class A titles (1975, 1982, 1985) and played in 8 Championship Games. Center lost in their only Championship Game appearance in 1988.

West Allegheny has won all 7 WPIAL Championship Games they have played (1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2009, 2012, 2013).

Playoff History: West Allegheny beat Central Valley in the WPIAL Championship last year, the only playoff meeting between the two schools.

West Allegheny is the two-time defending AAA Champions but their only losses in the last three seasons have been to Central Valley. In fact, every regular season meeting between these two schools has been won by the home team. West Allegheny also won the only neutral site meeting - last year's WPIAL Championship Game. Between the two schools, they have won four of the last five AAA Championships. These Parkway Conference foes will continue the Championship tradition of the conference, making this the 6th consecutive year a Parkway team has won the AAA crown. Incredibly, this is the 9th straight year that a Parkway Conference team has appeared in the Championship Game.

Since Central Valley came into existence in 2010 with the merger of Center and Monaca and have been one of the dominant programs in AAA ever since. The Warriors have at least made the semifinals every season and this will be their third appearance at Heinz Field. Central Valley is the top seed thanks to their win over West Allegheny in the season finale. The Warriors have dominated the opposition all season and the only team to come within 20 points of them was West Allegheny who they beat by 11. They have been paced on offense by Pitt recruit Jordan Whitehead, who is one of the top defensive backs in the state but also led the team in rushing with 1412 yards. Whitehead has been an all-around playmaker for Central Valley on offense, defense and special teams and leads the team with 27 total touchdowns. Central Valley has been very balanced this season with two quarterbacks combining for over 2000 passing yards. John George started the year under center but was injured in Week 3 and Chris Callaghan took over and threw for 1266 yards and 12 TDs. George returned in Week 7 and has thrown for 879 yards and 11 TDs on the season, with 279 yards and 4 TDs coming in the last two weeks. BJ Powell has been the Warriors primary receiver with 720 yards and 9 TDs and is complemented by Dante Lucci (464 yards, 4 TDs) and Kurt Reinstadler (459 yards, 5 TDs).

West Allegheny made the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in 1993 and the reigns were handed to Bob Palko in 1995. Since then, Palko has become the best big game coach in WPIAL history, becoming the first coach to win 7 WPIAL titles last season when the Indians won their second consecutive title. Palko has never lost a WPIAL Championship Game and is looking for the second three-peat of his career, the first coming from 1999-2001 when his son Tyler was under center. Now, senior QB Andrew Koester can join Tyler Palko as a 3-time WPIAL champion. Koester has been outstanding this season, throwing for 1211 yards and 15 TDs and led a drive in the final minute to bring West Allegheny back to tie Woodland Hills and force overtime in the WPIAL Game of the Year (so far) where the Indians eventually prevailed. As is typical with a West Allegheny team, they have been a dominant rushing team but have don't have a singular feature back. Chayse Dillon leads the team in rushing with 916 yards and 18 TDs but he is not far ahead of Terence Stephens who has run for 837 yards and 17 TDs. Whitney White has added 652 yards and 10 TDs, giving West Allegheny a dangerous three-headed beast on the ground. In the semifinals, the Indians took on Thomas Jefferson and the WPIAL's leading rusher Austin Kemp. Not only did West Allegheny totally dominate the game, jumping out to a 41-0 halftime lead, they dominated TJ on the ground, beating the Jaguars at their own game.

1. South Fayette (12-0) vs 2. Aliquippa (12-0)

Championship History

South Fayette won the WPIAL Class AA title in 2010 and 2013 (beating Aliquippa both times). They won the 1936 Class A Championship Game and were awarded the 1964 Class A title (no championship game was played). They lost in the 1967 Class A Championship Game.

Aliquippa has won 16 WPIAL Championships. They won 8 Class AAA Championships (1952, 1955, 1964, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989) and played in 13 Class AAA Championship Games. After moving down to Class AA in 1990, the Quips have won 8 Class AA Championships (1991, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2008, 2011 and 2012) and played in 12 Class AA Championship Games.

Playoff History: South Fayette is 2-1 against Aliquippa in the playoffs with both wins coming in Championship Games (2010 and 2013).

In another rematch of last year's WPIAL Championship, South Fayette and Aliquippa meet for the third time with a WPIAL title on the line. Aliquippa has lost only two games to WPIAL opponents in the last five seasons - both of them coming against South Fayette at Heinz Field. This is Aliquippa's 7th straight appearance at Heinz Field and the Quips have won more WPIAL titles than any other school. These have been the top two teams in AA all season and have been on a collision course for a rematch after their epic back-and-forth championship game last season. Both teams got scares in their semifinal contests but pulled away in the fourth quarter to force the rematch. These are the top two offenses and defenses in AA with Aliquippa averaging over 50 points per game and South Fayette averaging 46.5 per game. On the defensive side, the Quips were slightly better as well, holding opponents to 11.5 points per game as opposed to South Fayette's 12.6 points per contest.

South Fayette is led by the WPIAL's all-time leading passer Brett Brumbaugh who is second in the WPIAL in passing this season with 2927 yards and 35 TDs. Brumbaugh's favorite targets have been junior WR Nick Ponikvar who has 874 yards and 9 TDs and senior TE Logan Sharp who has 755 yards and 12 TDs. Brumbaugh has spread the ball around this season and has completed at least 10 passes to 6 different players - all of them averaging over 12 yards per reception. The Lions are not solely reliant on Brumbaugh's arm as junior RB Hunter Hays has rushed for 1280 yards and 24 TDs with 350 yards and 6 TDs coming in the postseason. South Fayette breezed through their conference slate and their opening round matchup, posting 40+ points every week and only surrendering 21 points once - to Quaker Valley in the season finale. But the quarterfinals and semifinals brought two scares to the defending state champions who now hold the WPIAL's longest winning streak at 28 games. Both South Park and Seton-La Salle were able to put 21 points on the scoreboard against the Lions but eventually South Fayette was too talented, beating South Park by 18 and Seton-La Salle by 14. Even with those close calls, South Fayette has still scored 35+ in every outing and not allowed more than 21 points to anyone this season.

Most AA schools that graduate 3 players that go on to D1 schools don't run through their schedule and find themselves undefeated and playing for a championship the next year. But this is Aliquippa. The Quips have scored 40+ points in every game this season and the only team to break 20 against them was Washington in the semifinals. The Quips have been so dominant that most of their games have been in the mercy rule by halftime. Aliquippa has a pair of junior running backs that have been unstoppable this season, both carrying the ball 132 times. Kaezon Pugh has racked up 1510 yards and 25 TDs while DiMantae Bronaugh has 1245 yards and 24 TDs. The Quips are not solely reliant on their running game as senior QB Darrien Fields has thrown for 1459 yards and 18 TDs, primarily to 6'3" senior WR Patrick Anderson who leads the team with 404 yards and 9 TDs. The Quips have yet to figure out a Brumbaugh brother in a WPIAL Championship Game, but they have the offensive ability to hang with South Fayette and this has all the makings of another epic AA title game.

2. Clairton (12-0) vs 5. Avonworth (11-1)

Championship History

Clairton has won 10 total WPIAL Championships. They were awarded the Class AAA WPIAL Championship in 1929, 1931 and 1954 (no Championship Games played) and lost AAA Championship Games in 1957 and 1958. Clairton has played in 13 Class A Championship Games and won 7 times (1989, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012).

Avonworth tied Union in the 1959 Class A Championship Game, the only WPIAL title in school history and their only appearance in a Championship Game.

Playoff History: Clairton is 2-0 against Avonworth with wins in the 1982 and 2009 quarterfinals.

In terms of championship pedigree, these two schools are polar opposites. Clairton has been the dominant team in Class A for the last decade, winning 6 of the last 8 Class A titles. After a down year last season where the Bears lost one regular season game "only" made the semifinals (which is a down year by Clairton standards), the Bears have roared back to the forefront of the Class A picture this season. While much of the focus this season was on the potential matchup between Clairton and defending state champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, Avonworth flew under the radar and pulled the upset on North Catholic in the semifinals. The Class A semifinal games last week were about as good a pair of games as you will see with Avonworth scoring a touchdown with 4 minutes to play to pull ahead of North Catholic 28-21. The Lopes then got two interceptions in the final four minutes to seal the victory and earn their first trip to a WPIAL title game since 1959. On the other hand, Clairton's offense continued their record pace but were matched almost score-for-score by Neshannock. The Lancers were able to tie the game late and send it to overtime where Clairton scored first then intercepted a pass to secure the victory and prevent Neshannock from reaching their first Championship Game in school history.

Clairton's offense has been absolutely incredible this season. The Bears have always been known for blowing their opponents out of the water, but they have taken it to an entirely new degree this season. Through 12 games the Bears have scored 788 points, an average of 65.7 per game. They are just 72 points shy of tying the state record of 860 points which was set by the 2007 Jeannette team led by Terrelle Pryor - in 16 games. Clairton scored 70+ points in each of their first 5 games but slowed down slightly, averaging just 59 over their last 7 contests. Their 48 points against Neshannock was their lowest output of the season and the 42 points the Lancers scored was the first time anyone scored more than twice against the Bears defense. The Bears have been led by sophomore sensation Lamont Wade, who is ranked as one of the top CB recruits in the nation for the class of 2017. To call Wade "explosive" on offense doesn't even do justice to his playmaking ability - he has led the Bears with 2128 rushing yards and a WPIAL-leading 39 TDs after starting the season as the backup running back before junior Harrison Dreher was injured in Week 4. Dreher returned in the quarterfinals and gives the Bears a vicious 1-2 punch in the backfield as he has run for 679 yards and 16 TDs in only 6 games. Wade was absolutely sensational in the playoffs, rushing for 744 yards and 15 TDs in 3 games, including 267 yards and 6 TDs last week against Neshannock. Clairton can do more than run the ball, as senior QB Ryan Williams has thrown for 2232 yards and 27 scores on the season. His favorite targets have been 6'5" junior Aaron Matthews (598 yards, 12 TDs, 34 2-point conversions) and senior WR James Hines (731 yards, 10 TDs).

Back in August, I went on the record and said that last year Avonworth was the 3rd best Class A team in the state behind State Champion Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and Old Forge who took CWNC to overtime in the PIAA Championship. The Antelopes overcame more adversity than any other team appearing in a championship game this season, losing player after player to injuries but managed to persevere. Junior QB Zach Chandler was lost in Week 4 after a hot start to the season where he threw for 742 yards. Senior Josh Drwal stepped in and while he doesn't have the same arm talent that Chandler has, is an elusive runner who has helped reinvent the Lopes offense into a read-option attack. The focus of their offensive attack has been 6'2" junior Jamal Hughley who started the season at WR but has also played RB and enters the championship game as the Lopes leading rusher (779 yards), receiver (449 yards) and scorer (17 TDs) despite missing time at the end of the season with an injury he suffered in Week 7 against North Catholic. Hughley was able to get his revenge last week, rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Lopes to their first WPIAL Championship Game since 1959. While no individual's stats will blow you away like with Clairton, don't let the Lopes fool you. They have an excellent offensive and defensive line and are capable of controlling a game on the ground. This will be the best defense that Clairton has seen all season, but their weakness (as displayed in their Week 7 loss to North Catholic) is speed on the perimeter, which is where Clairton excels. Avonworth's hope lies in their defensive line being able to control the game and keep Clairton's rushing attack bottled up. The Lopes defense will need to continue to be opportunistic, especially in the secondary where Josh Drwal and Brandon Wasko recorded interceptions in the closing minutes to seal their semifinal victory over North Catholic.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gameday: Tennessee Titans

LP Field
TV: ESPN (WTAE locally)
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates

What To Watch For

1. Playing Down

Coming off a loss to the woeful New York Jets, there have been lots of numbers thrown around on Twitter and Pittsburgh Sports Radio in the past week. Mike Tomlin is somewhere around 1-8 on the road against teams with .200 or worse winning percentages. Mike Tomlin is just 13-13 against teams with losing records. Either way you slice it, the Steelers constantly play to the level of their opponents. They get up for big games (as we saw against Indianapolis and Baltimore) and they stink up the joint against poor competition (Jacksonville, Tampa, New York). So which Steelers team will show up against the 2-7 Titans? Tennessee has lost by 14 points each of the last two weeks since Zach Mettenberger became the starting quarterback. Unfortunately, the Steelers only have 7 wins by 14 or more in their last 42 games and no wins by more than 20.

2. Hello, Old Friends

Remember Ken Whisenhunt and Ray Horton? Our old friends have now found their way to Tennessee after a stint in Arizona and Whisenhunt's year as offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers and Horton's exile in Cleveland. The Steelers should be familiar with Whisenhunt's offense and Horton's defense as it is extremely similar to the offense and defense that they currently run. Of course, the Titans defense has been just as bad as the Steelers defense this season, giving up about 24 points per game. Tennessee is in the first year of a transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and are still working on getting all the pieces in place. On paper, this is a defense that the Steelers should be able to exploit, but as Ray Horton has shown in the past against the Steelers, he is going to blitz the crap out of Ben Roethlisberger - a strategy that worked pretty well for Rex Ryan and the Jets last week. On the other side, former Titans head coach Mike Munchak is the Steelers offensive line coach and will probably looking for a pound of flesh out of the team that ousted him about a year ago.

3. Something's Gotta Give

If you've been reading this blog or following me on Twitter, you'll know just how bad the Steelers are outside of Eastern Time. If you don't, I wrote about that time zone thing as soon as the schedule was released. The Steelers are just 6-16 under Tomlin outside of Eastern Time and have lost to the likes of Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Matt Cassel and Terrelle Pryor. Don't think for a second that Zach Mettenberger isn't capable of adding his name to that list - just like Matt Hasselbeck did the last time the Steelers visited Nashville. Of course, there's the other stat of Dick LeBeau being 17-2 against rookie quarterbacks. So something has to give. Either the Steelers will win their second consecutive game outside of Eastern Time (after ending an 8-game losing streak by beating Matt Flynn and the Packers last year) or Dick LeBeau will lose just his 3rd game ever against a rookie quarterback. As a microcosm, it will be interesting to see how both teams come out of the gate. The Steelers have been one of the worst offensive and defensive teams on opening drives this season. While the Steelers only have 2 opening drive scores this year, the Titans are one of two teams with less, having put points on the board just once this year on an opening drive. That Titans offense will be up against a Steelers defense that has allowed 8 scores on opening drives this season.

4. The Playoff Picture

After losing to the Jets, no one wanted to hear about the Steelers chances of making the playoffs. But just like after the loss to Cleveland, it's amazing the difference that one week can make. After losing to the Jets the Steelers were sitting at the bottom of the AFC North. However, with Baltimore (6-4) on bye and Cleveland losing to the Texans (6-4), the Steelers are in position to get a leg up on both of those teams and put themselves just percentage points behind the Bengals (6-3-1). This game is also important because it has implications in tiebreaker scenarios involving common opponents and division opponents. With the Steelers heading into a bye next week, they can also get a leg up on Miami and San Diego (both 6-4) for the last wild card spot. In short, this is a game the Steelers have to win if they have any hope of making the playoffs.

5. Safety Play

The Steelers have been cursed with some of the worst safety play in the league this season. Mike Mitchell has not only been hilariously out of position all the time, he has also made a number of dirty plays that make him really hard to cheer for. Mettenberger has a big arm and the Titans have basically nothing to lose which means Mettenberger will have the green light to take shots down the field all game. Mitchell's biggest issue has been preemptively jumping underneath routes and letting receivers run right past him deep down the field. Troy Polamalu will be out once again which means the Steelers will need to get something out of Will Allen or Shamarko Thomas or Robert Golden. The nightmare scenario is that Tennessee is able to hit a couple of big passes that turn into points and keep them in the game well into the fourth quarter. The Steelers will need to generate a pass rush against a Titans line that has been decent this season and force bad throws and turnovers out of Mettenberger. The Steelers struggle with putting bad teams away, which is exactly what they need to do tonight to head off into the bye week on a high note.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Tortoise and the Hare: The Steelers Slow Starts

The Steelers are sitting at 6-4 and only a game out of the last wild card spot in the AFC. They have looked dominant in their victories against Carolina, Indianapolis and Baltimore and looked absolutely dreadful in losses to Baltimore, Cleveland and New York. One of the stats we have heard week in and week out is that the Steelers continue to give up points to opposing teams on the opening drives of games, which they have done in 8 of 10 games so far.

The 8 scores in 10 games, an 80% scoring percentage, is far and away the worst mark in the league. The only other teams over 56% are the Jets (60%) and the Raiders (67%). Hand-in-hand with allowing the opposition free access to the scoreboard, the Steelers have allowed more yards per opening drive (51.0) than any other team. Opponents are controlling the clock as well, averaging 4:31 on their opening possessions, the 3rd highest mark in the league, trailing only Baltimore (4:54) and Cincinnati (4:32).

While the defense has gotten off to some slow starts, the offense has also not contributed coming out of the gate either.

After yet another opening drive ended in a punt against the Jets, I decided to look up some of the stats. What I found isn't pretty. In the 10 games this season, the offense has punted on their opening drive six times, fumbled twice, scored one touchdown and kicked one field goal. Additionally, the Steelers have failed to get a first down on 4 opening drives - 3 of them being 3-and-outs and one fumble against Tampa.

It's not just that the Steelers aren't putting points on the board in their opening drives, they aren't moving the ball and controlling field position either. Their average opening drive has gained 26.3 yards, tied with the Eagles for 28th in the league. Only the Titans and Giants have scored less on opening drives - Tennessee has 1 field goal and the Giants have not scored at all. The Steelers 20% scoring percentage is about half of the league average of 39% (22% TDs, 17% FGs). Consider this: the league average this season is 18.8 points scored on opening drives. The Steelers have scored 10, more than a full touchdown below average. On top of that, the Steelers punting percentage (60%) is the 5th highest in the league, behind the Giants, Chiefs, Texans and Bears.

All of these stats are troublesome, but perhaps the most problematic statistic is average start position. The Steelers are dead last in the NFL with an average start position of their own 18 yard line. They have only started on the plus side of the 20 yard line once in 10 games. The Steelers have gotten the ball first in 7 of 10 games and because of the offense's inability to move the ball on opening drives and the awful punting from Brad Wing (who ranks 30th in the league in yards per punt), their opponents have the 6th best opening drive starting field position.

Graphically, here is how opening drives have looked on average for Steelers and their opponents this year:

Looking at the broader picture, is this an indictment of the 2014 Steelers or of the Todd Haley Steelers?

In Haley's tenure from 2012-present, the Steelers have averaged more opening drive punts and less opening drive scores than they did under Arians. But when you look at the bottom of the chart, you will note that Haley's teams have averaged 9 yards worse in starting field position than Arians' teams did. This may be due in part to the league-wide average dropping from the 28.6 yard line (from 07-11) to the 25.3 yard line (from 12-14). Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders did a fantastic analysis earlier this year on the impact of the NFL moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 yard line in 2011. His conclusion was that starting field position on kickoffs has decreased by about 5 yards since kickoffs were moved up. The Steelers have two issues in play here: Haley's offenses have averaged 7 less yards on opening drives than Arians' offenses and they are starting 9 yards deeper in their own territory. In total, this amounts to a difference of about 16 yards of field position.

A perfectly average opening drive under Arians would start at the 33.6 yard line, gain 34 yards and end at the opposition's 32 yard line. This perfectly average drive would put the Steelers in position to attempt a 49-yard field goal.

A perfectly average opening drive under Haley would start at the 24.5 yard line, gain 27.6 yards and end at the opposition's 48 yard line. In this case, the Steelers would most likely punt (as they have done 55% of the time under Haley). As you can see, both the starting field position and the average yards gained play a big role in the end result.

The 2014 numbers are even worse, as they include a starting field position that is 6.5 yards worse than Haley's average and 15 yards worse than Arians' average. Of course, offensive coordinators have no control over starting field position, but it is part of the hand they are dealt. The 2014 Steelers have gained about the same as the average Haley team on their opening drive (only 1.5 yards below average), but the starting field position means that an average opening drive for the 2014 Steelers comes to an end at their OWN 44 yard line.

Yardage aside, the biggest difference between opening drives under Haley and under Arians are the punting and touchdown percentages. Haley's teams have averaged 54.8% punts and 14.3% touchdowns while Arians' offenses averaged 40% punts and 27.5% touchdowns. There is almost a direct correlation here as Arians' offenses had 14.8% less punts and 13.2% more touchdowns. The field goal percentages are essentially equivalent but Arians offense scoring touchdowns over punting is a huge difference in how the Steelers came out of the gate.

As you will recall, Arians was famous for scripting the first 10-15 plays of a game during the week and doing his best to stick to that script when the game started. If Haley does the same thing, it is blatantly obvious that Arians was much better at writing the script during the week than Todd Haley. However, as you will recall I had a post a few weeks ago comparing the points per game numbers from Bruce Arians's offense and the Todd Haley's offense. The points per game were relatively equal, which means that even though Arians' teams were much better out of the gate, the team normalized over the rest of the game to make the points per game and yards per game numbers relatively equal.

Friday, November 14, 2014

WPIAL Semifinals Results and Championship Matchups

The top two classifications saw blowouts in the penultimate round while Class AA and Class A saw tight games that went down to the wire. All of the Championship Games will be Friday November 21 at Heinz Field and will be broadcast on ROOT Sports.


Semifinals Results

1. Pine-Richland 42, 5. McKeesport 7
3. Central Catholic 52, 2. Penn-Trafford 34

Championship Game
1. Pine-Richland (12-0) vs 3. Central Catholic (11-1)


Semifinals Results

1. Central Valley 41, 5. Ringgold 13
3. West Allegheny 41, Thomas Jefferson 7

Championship Game
1. Central Valley (12-0) vs 3. West Allegheny (11-1)


Semifinals Results

1. South Fayette 35, 5. Seton-La Salle 21
2. Aliquippa 44, 3. Washington 26

Championship Game
1. South Fayette (12-0) vs 2. Aliquippa (12-0)


Semifinals Results

5. Avonworth 28, 1. Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic 21
2. Clairton 48, 3. Neshannock 42 (OT)

Championship Game
2. Clairton (12-0) vs 5. Avonworth (11-1)