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Old 04-26-2012, 11:18 PM   #1
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Default Naughty Nurse: Pittsburgh Steelers anemic in the end

Naughty Nurse: Pittsburgh Steelers anemic in the end
Cold, Hard Football Facts for April 21, 2012

(Our Russian mail-order Naughty Nurse checks the statistical vital signs of each NFL team after each season. She breaks out her pigskin probe and uses her soothing, healing hands to take the temperature, and maybe a few liberties, with the Pittsburgh Steelers. See her statistical analysis of other NFL teams here.)

By Zachary Pierpoint
Cold, Hard Football Facts stat-master

Strange year in Pittsburgh: A Week 1 thrashing the likes of which not seen in Pittsburgh in two decades. A decent, if uninspiring 12-3 run to close the regular season. And a playoff shellacking the likes of which has never been seen (at least in terms of secondary performance).

Throughout the season, Pittsburgh was associated with a seesaw for their performance. Rarely stringing together good performances despite 12 wins. Pittsburgh pitched two shutouts, lost by 28 to Baltimore, manhandled New England, barely scraped by Indianapolis, knocked Cincinnati down a few pegs, and made Tim Tebow look like Joe Montana himself.

The run defense was historically bad (from a Pittsburgh-centric stance), allowing over 4.0 YPA for just the fifth time since the merger (although they still finished in the top 10 in the league). The takeaways were nearly nonexistent, as Pittsburgh set a new franchise low with 15 takeaways. And the Steelers were just 1-5 against division winners (including playoffs), getting outscored by 8.83 points per game.

On the other hand, the secondary led the league in Defensive Real Passing YPA for the third time in five years. Antonio Brown became the first player in league history with 1,000+ return yards and 1,000+ receiving yards in a single season. And Pittsburgh became just the third team to pass for more yards than their opponent in each and every regular season game.

On the third hand (the "is this good or bad?" hand), Pittsburgh's Offensive Hogs outperformed their Defensive Hogs for just the second time in the last eight seasons.

All in all, a very odd season in Steeltown, and one that leaves quite a few questions going forward.

The 2011 Storyline: A decent season was bookended by horrendous outings, leaving Pittsburgh with a sour taste in their mouths. Baltimore's Week 1 35-7 pummeling sent Pittsburgh to Denver, where an anemic effort sent Pittsburgh packing.

The Vital Signs
Coach (record): Mike Tomlin (55-25 with Pittsburgh; 55-25 overall)
2011 record: 12-4 (20.3 PPG - 14.2 PPG)
Record against the spread:
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 4-4 (20.3 - 19.1)
Record last five seasons: 55-25 (.688)
Best Quality Stat in 2011: Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt (1st)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011: Real Passing Yards per Attempt (27th)

6 6 27 3 9 1 13 3 10 4 5 10 19 7

Overall= Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS = Quality Standings; SCOR = Scoreability; BEND = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

Statistical Curiosity of 2011: In the regular season's 256 games, there were 545 instances of a quarterback throwing at least 5 passes. In those 545 cases, 177 times (32.5%) a quarterback threw for better than 8.0 YPA, none against Pittsburgh. However, come the playoffs, not only did Pittsburgh get torched for above 8.00 YPA for the first time all year, Tim Tebow dropped 15.05 YPA on the unsuspecting Pittsburgh secondary.

In fact, taking into account sacks, Tebow managed 15.05 Real Passing YPA, a single-game NFL playoff record.

This, however, is not an isolated issue for Pittsburgh. Over the last 5 seasons, 4 teams have had a season where their DRPYPA was below 5.0, the New York Jets in 2009, and Pittsburgh in 2007, 2008, and 2011. Over that time frame, Pittsburgh has finished outside the top 2 in DRPYPA just once and never out of the top 10. From a regular season stand point, Pittsburgh's secondary verges on a dynasty. However, that all breaks down in the playoffs.

Over those 5 regular seasons, Pittsburgh's defense has surrendered 5.06 DRPYPA and 5.99 YPA. In the playoffs over the same time frame, those numbers rocket to 6.75 DRPYPA and 7.81 YPA. You might say, "of course the defense fares less well, the quality of competition is higher!" However, in 23 regular season games against eventual playoff teams, Pittsburgh has held opponents to 5.82 DRPYPA and 6.61 YPA. To put those numbers in perspective, 5.06 DRPYPA was better than every team in 2011 (except Pittsburgh). While four teams bettered 5.82 DRPYPA and 24 teams better 6.75 DRPYPA. This means, that even taking into account just playoff quality competition, in the regular season, Pittsburgh's secondary would rank among the tops in the league. But in the playoffs, Pittsburgh's secondary is for some reason a chink in the armor.

One final addition to this statistical curiosity. Since 2007, Pittsburgh has played in 80 regular season games and 8 postseason games. In those 80 regular season games, Pittsburgh has surrendered above 8.75 YPA just once. In those 8 postseason games, Pittsburgh has surrendered above 8.75 YPA three times.

Ladies and gentleman, Pittsburgh's secondary. The most inexplicable disappearing act since Amelia Earhart

Best game of 2011: 25-18 win vs. New England (Week 8). An easy choice as Pittsburgh crushed AFC champion New England in a game not as close as the final score for their only win over a division winner. Tom Brady and the Patriots entered the game with plenty of swagger, having not lost in Pittsburgh since 2004. However, Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger rolled out a dink and dunk passing attack that controlled the clock and the game.

The strategy was atypical for Roethlisberger, and he completed over 70% of his passes without throwing for more than 7.50 YPA for just the second time in his career. The deep ball is traditionally a big part of Big Ben's arsenal, and an important aspect in Pittsburgh's game plan. However, by taking a page out of Bill Belichick's book, Pittsburgh held the ball for 39:22 and did not punt until less than a minute was remaining in the game.

The defense held up their end of the bargain, limiting Brady to 4.47 RPYPA. Brady traditionally shreds the Steelers, having topped 8.0 RPYPA repeatedly, but on this Sunday afternoon, the secondary pressed his receivers and blanketed his tight ends. For once, Pittsburgh managed to win the RPYPA battle against New England, thanks to solid play on both sides of the ball, not only did Pittsburgh finally beat New England, they dominated.

Worst game of 2011: 35-7 loss at Baltimore (Week 1). The playoff loss to Denver may have been more crushing, as playoff losses generally are, but in Denver, most of the team played reasonably well. In Baltimore in week 1, however, we lauded the punter and the kick returner as the only bright spots, as the only spots lit at all.

The defense allowed 170 yards rushing, forced no turnovers, managed just one sack, and allowed 7.17 DRPYPA. The offense turned the ball over 7 times and scored just 7 points despite 312 yards of offense (44.6 YPPS). The special teams were not immune either, despite solid play from Sepulveda and Brown, as Baltimore exploited a weakness in scoring on a fake extra point attempt early in the second half.

Pittsburgh hadn't lost by four touchdowns in 14 years, hadn't had a seven turnover game in 16 years, and hadn't done both in 22 years. Pittsburgh left week one ranked dead last in the CHFF's Quality Rankings, courtesy of abysmal play all around. What a way to start the season!

Strength: Pass defense. Despite poor play in the playoff loss to Denver, the secondary has to receive credit as Pittsburgh's strongest unit. Ranked no. 1 in DRPYPA, no. 3 in Defensive Quarterback Rating, and no. 4 in Defensive Passer Rating, Pittsburgh's secondary shut down passers all season. A hiccup in the opening game (Flacco's 7.17 RPYPA) showed the unit was not infallible, and without Ryan Clark, things got ugly in the postseason, but even so, Pittsburgh's secondary was a rock in the regular season.

Pittsburgh was solid pretty much across the board, but only the secondary was consistently excellent, with no outing more impressive than the aforementioned New England game.

Weakness: Offensive efficiency. Pittsburgh's biggest weakness was also easy to identify: Scoreability. As a team, Pittsburgh was among the least efficient at turning yards into points in the league (no. 27 in Scoreability). Of the bottom 8 teams in the league in Scoreability, four secured top 5 draft picks, six secured top 7 picks, and the seven teams that aren't Pittsburgh are all drafting in the top 11. The other 7 teams averaged 4.14 wins on the year, making Pittsburgh's 12 wins all the more impressive.

The poor Scoreability mark was a team effort. A lack of takeaways by the defense gave the offense very few short fields to work with. The defense's inability to get off the field on third down didn't help either. The offense had major issues inside the red zone, and inconsistent play from the kicker furthered the issue.

Teams cannot reliably win while scoring points so inefficiently, so new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, had better focus on Scoreability when drawing up his game plans for next season.

General off-season strategy/overview: Pittsburgh's off-season is playing out much like most: cut some older players, try to sign their own free agents, pick up a cheap veteran or two, and focus on the draft. Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan did a lot of work assuaging an initially tight cap situation already, and so much of Pittsburgh's off season is already in the books.

The restructured contracts could make for difficulties down the road, but Pittsburgh's core team remains in tact. While Pittsburgh has cut a number of mainstays on the team (Hines Ward, James Farrior, et. al.), thus far Pittsburgh has only lost two starters: Farrior and William Gay. Between Larry Foote and Stephenson Sylvester, Pittsburgh already has players on the roster ready to step in for Farrior, both short and long term. And as for Gay, Pittsburgh has spent mid round picks on cornerbacks recently that the coaches seem to have faith in.

Entering the draft, therefore, Pittsburgh can once again focus on depth, lacking any dire needs. Pittsburgh will likely focus a little more heavily on ILB (depending on their faith in Sylvester), NT (Hampton is recovering from injury), RB (Mendenhall is, too), S (as both safeties are very good, but neither is very young), and OG (as Pittsburgh's offensive line remains passable at best). Wide Receiver could also become an issue, should any team decide to tender Mike Wallace with an offer Pittsburgh cannot match.

The biggest key for this offseason in Pittsburgh will be developing new locker room leaders. The changing of the guard with Ward, Farrior, and Aaron Smith leaving does not create a void on the field but does create a void in leadership. New players will have to step up into those roles and continue to push this team forward.

Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: Pittsburgh remains a contender as long as they have Roethlisberger behind center, and the guy with the long hair in the defensive backfield helps, too. Pittsburgh may be mortgaging the future with all the restructured contracts, but they remain a strong team for now. They have some definite issues (Scoreability, playoff secondary, etc.), but none that should keep them from vying for an AFC North crown and a Super Bowl berth for at least one more season.
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