Tuesday, November 30, 2004

$15 I'll Never get Back

As a columnist employed by one of the two biggest papers in Pittsburgh, what are you supposed to write about when the hometown team has won nine straight games and is positioning itself for homefield advantage in the playoffs? If you guessed "anything as long as it's not laudatory," then congratulations, because you've earned the right to work alongside the likes of Bob Smizik. I'm referring to a Monday morning headline by the aforementioned scribe that caught my attention for it's sense of impending doom (apparently, this is what 15 clams will get you via the Black & Gold Insider, the paid content part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; somebody somewhere once said, "you get what you pay for and you pay for what you get." I'm pretty sure that nugget of wisdom applies here).

Specifically the headline reads: "Roethlisberger and rest of the Steelers' once-magical offense sputter again" (and there was also the slightly more pithy but equally apocalyptic: "Big Ben no longer looks like Superman" penned by Ed Bouchette, but I'll concentrate on Smizik here).

I guess these are the types of headlines you come to expect when the Steelers start the season 10-1 and there's little else to talk about outside of the surprising success of guys named Ben, Jerome and about 20 other players having great seasons. Honestly, it's OK to be contrarian, but shouldn't it also be important to make sense when doing so?
The Redskins, for sure, are one tough defensive unit. But they're not the 1976 Steelers or the '85 Chicago Bears. In their two most recent games against teams likely headed for the playoffs they allowed eight touchdowns, four each to the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers.

Which is to say a good offense has been known to handle the Redskins. Easily. The Steelers, however, are looking more and more like an average offense. They managed one touchdown in a 16-7 victory yesterday against the Redskins, a team that is 3-8 and plays like it.
To quote the principal from Heathers when talking to a teacher after yet another student is mysteriously murdered, Mr. Smizik, tell us when the shuttle lands. This is a long-winded and not-so-clever way of saying that the Redskins have one of the best defenses in the NFL no matter what Smizik thinks (or at least wants us to believe). In fact, as of week 11, they were ranked 4th in overall defense behind Baltimore, Pittsburgh and New England (who at the time were a combined 25-5; these rankings are based on DVOA -- a statistic created by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders and explained here).

In regards to the Philly and Green Bay games mentioned above, it's probably worth noting that on two of the four TDs in the Philly game, the Eagles started at their 38 and the Washington 32.

In the Green Bay game one of the Packers three touchdown drives started at the Washington 36 (by the way, Smizik mentions that the Redskins allowed eight TDs in these two games; there were only seven -- poor Washington, even blowouts are exaggerated in the retelling).

So let's recap: in two games the defense allows seven TDs; two of which were inside their own 40-yard line. Of the five remaining TDs, one drive started at the Philly 38. Yeah, Smizik is right, that doesn't sound like the 1985 Bears, but it also doesn't sound like the 2002 Steelers either. It's probably also worth mentioning that the Redskins have one of the worst special teams in the league. Hmmm. Maybe that has something to do with the defense having crappy field position that so often results in TDs.

And in terms of the Steelers looking more and more like an average offense, I'd probably disagree. Look, the Steelers make no secret of the fact that they're going to run the ball -- and that's exactly what they did yesterday. Both the Eagles and Packers are for the most part passing teams. It's a lot easier to rack up points when you throw the ball 50 times a game, but at the same time, you also run the risk of a lot more turnovers (the Eagles and Packers threw a combined 4 INTs in the two games; Roethlisberger has 6 INTs in 9 1/2 games).

Smizik also makes the point that the Steelers are slumping offensively because the Browns and Bengals combined for more than 100 points in their game yesterday -- and they're the same two teams that held Pittsburgh to three offensive touchdowns.
"That point was brought jarringly home when those two teams met yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium and produced an offensive spectacle the Bengals won, 58-48. Although the Steelers' offense could manage only two touchdowns against the Browns' defense, the Bengals scored six. Although the Steelers' offense could manage only one touchdown against the Bengals' defense, the Browns scored six."
The only flaw I can see in this reasoning is that it's basically all misguided -- other than that, it's right on the mark. Seriously, if you take a look at the stat sheet you'll see that the Browns threw the ball 39 times and the Bengals threw it 29 times. Additionally, Rudi Johnson had 202 rushing yards. Of course what Smizik fails to mention is that both teams combined to throw five INTs.

I'll say it again, the Steelers are a run-first team. Can you imagine the headlines if the Steelers defense gave up 48 points and Roethlisberger threw three picks, despite a victory? I have an idea of how they might read, because it's all you heard about during the 2002 playoff games against the Browns and the Titans. Back on earth, in the previous two games the defense gave up 10 points to the Browns and 14 points to the Bengals, and Roethlisberger only threw one INT and the Steelers won both games.

Think about it this way, would you rather have an offense posting 30 points a game, but also have a defense that played well one week only to get blown out the next? If that's what you're looking for, you should become a Colts fan. I'll take a steady offense that controls the clock and a dominating defense every time. Still, Smizik doesn't let up:
After [Cowher]lavishly praised the Redskins' defense, it was suggested to him that his offense might have had something to do with Washington's success. He wouldn't bite.

"Their defense is pretty good," was his only response.

The facts state otherwise. The facts state that the Steelers' offense is making the defense of its opponents look considerably better than they are. Roethlisberger had another ordinary game, his third in a row. He completed 9 of 20 passes for 131 yards. He threw neither an interception nor a touchdown. His passer rating was a below-average 66.9.

In his past three games, he has thrown for 403 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Those numbers are not terrible, but they in no way resemble the Roethlisberger of earlier games.
Now I suppose this is the argument against starting strong out of the gate. It gives people with too much time on their hands the opportunity to come up with hair-brained explanations for why Roethlisberger is slumping. If this is a slump, I'll take about 10 years of it and see what happens. Ask Joe Gibbs what a slumping QB looks like and I'm guessing his description doesn't fit that of Smizik's. I agree, Roethlisberger was 9 for 20 yesterday, but if Willie Parker didn't drop a pass he would have been 10 for 20 (does a 50% completion rate make it any better?). Don't forget that the Redskins have two of the best CBs (Smoot, Springs) and one of the best safeties (Taylor) in the league, and just maybe that, coupled with a team that blitz's more often than the Steelers, had something to do with Roethlisberger having to make quicker than usual decisions when throwing the ball (and I can't mention this enough, he still didn't have a turnover).

Or how about this: this game was played on a muddy field in windy conditions that aren't well-suited to throwing the ball a lot. If you don't think so, ask Patrick Ramsey. And before anyone even mentions the Ravens/Pats game, please consider that (a) it was 3-3 at halftime, (b) Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals and (c) one of the New England TDs was a fumble recovered in the endzone by the defense. Kyle Boller threw the ball 30+ times for 93 yards and had a passer rating in the 30's. Tom Brady mostly relied on the running of Corey Dillon (who rushed for over 120 yds with a TD) to move the ball.

And finally, if you don't want to listen to me (and that's certainly understandable), here's some clarity from arguably the best linebacker in football:
"We're not set up to rout the other team in every game," said linebacker James Farrior, who was more commonly known as "Potsie" during his days at Matoaca High School and the University of Virginia. One of the very few veteran free agents ever signed by Pittsburgh, Farrior's the unquestioned defensive signal-caller and leader in his third season as a Steeler.

"We're really set up to play and win tough, hard-fought defensive games. If that lets other teams feel they came close to beating us, so be it."
The funny thing is (other than Farrior's nickname being "Potsie" in high school), I found this quote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a Redskins-leaning newspaper. Interestingly, Farrior's quote was nowhere to be found in the eight stories written about the Steelers in either of yesterday's Pittsburgh papers.

Funnier still is that it took a Richmond paper to state the obvious point overlooked by Smizik (and as Kornheiser and Wilbon might say, "and those of his ilk"):
[Offensively] the Steelers weren't up to the challenge of dominating the Redskins. Washington's almost bottomless bag of blitzes was just about guaranteed to bother Ben Roethlisberger, who's started nine NFL games in his three-month career and won them all.

There's understandable skepticism over whether "Big Ben" would be capable of producing a win in a game Pittsburgh wasn't able to control with its defense and running game. Against the Skins, Roethlisberger was a modest 9 of 20 for 131 yards.

Pittsburgh, however, used much of yesterday's game as a kind of live-ammo training exercise. Once the Steelers built a 13-0 lead, they were content to slam 260-pound Jerome Bettis into the line regardless of how many defenders Washington had stacked up against the run.

"It took some discipline not to run pass plays against some of those defenses," said Roethlisberger, "but we run the ball."
Hmmm. This all seems so reasonable that it might actually be based in reality. The columnist, John Markon, writes one of the most straightforward assessments I've read of the Steelers all season. Why it was written in a Virginia paper should be somewhat troubling for people (such as myself) who look to the local Pittsburgh papers for Steelers coverage.

Of course Smizik could have spent the 10 minutes I did looking up these stats or maybe even talking to players (or at the very least, reading Roethlisberger's quote in the Markon piece admitting the Steelers committment to the run once they were up 13-0). Or he could've decided to write a column that flies in the face of common sense. He chose the latter; nice work Bob.

Postscript: Hey, I was watching NFL Countdown on ESPN last night and guessed who was first on the getting "Jacked Up" list? Not surprisingly, Willie Parker. #5 on the list was the Farrior hit on Cooley, so I guess it evens out (except that Parker dropped a pass that would have converted a 3rd down and Cooley hung on to the ball for an 11-yard gain; other than that, I guess it evens out).