Thursday, December 01, 2005

Heels and Steelers ... and Sox

One thing you notice -- usually about halfway through a season -- is that being a fan -- at least my version of it -- can be pretty stressful (and the reason it usually takes me so long to realize that I'm stressed out is because I'm so caught up in all the minutiae surrounding the team). OK, really stressful. Honestly, I have no idea how I made it through the 2004 ALCS. I was up every night until 1 a.m. jotting down my thoughts, and this was after watching three-plus grueling hours of Red Sox-Yankees silliness. This went on for seven games. Eleven when you count the World Series.

The 2004 Steelers were equally as trying, except in the NFL, every week is an event. That's what happens when you only play 16 games. Every week matters. Yeah, I know, they went 15-1, but I had no way of knowing that before each game started.

The 2004-05 Tar Heels -- same deal. Anything other than winning the NCAAs would've been considered a disappointment. And when you play in the same conference as Duke, it doesn't take a whole lot to get your blood pressure up.

OK, so maybe "my teams" did pretty well: a World Series, AFCC, and a National Championship. Yeah, it could've been a lot worse. But I think one of the things that contributes to my stress level are the expectations each team has going into the season. The 2005 Red Sox: very high; the 2005 Steelers: maybe higher; The 2005-06 Tar Heels: not so much.

(Sound of tires screeching to a halt)

That's right, the Tar Heels, fresh off a national championship, weren't ranked to start the season (and still aren't), and feature a team that regularly plays four freshman, Byron Sanders, Reyshawn Terry, and the veteran of the bunch, David Noel. And when I say "veteran," I mean, a guy who averaged fewer than four points a game last year, and has started a whopping 20 games in his three-year career.

Here's my point (after what can kindly be described as a "long-winded preamble"): I actually enjoyed watching the UNC - Illinois game last night. And yes, I also enjoy watching the Steelers and Red Sox, but this game was different. First, I had absolutely no expectations. After the 2000 Tar Heels made it to the Final Four and virtually everybody either graduated or bolted for the NBA, I misunderestimated exactly how bad the Tar Heels would end up in 2001. Try 8-20 bad; Brian Morrison and Adam Boone are your starting guards bad. Matt Doherty lost his job in part because of this season bad. That's, uh, not good.

This year was a little different for two reasons. First, Roy Williams ain't Matt Doherty ... and that's a good thing. Second -- and I couldn't list this as a reason until after watching last night's game -- the freshmen class is pretty damn good. Still, nobody gives UNC much of a chance to do anything this year, and it's hard to argue with that logic when you consider that 90% of last years points are now playing in the NBA.

Fair enough. But the good news for me is that I can watch these guys without having heart palpatations. Yeah, I wanted them to win last night, and yeah UNC made some silly turnovers late in the game that probably cost them, but it was also fun watching guys like Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green and the "New and Improved Joe Wolf," Tyler Hansbrough play a lot of quality minutes as they get used to the whole big-time college sports thing.

Dick Vitale was in mid-season form, but even his dopey observations didn't elicit the usual vitriolic response that it would have last season. (I crap you not, last night he said about one of the UNC freshmen, [in screaming Vitale voice]: "He's his mother's son!" That's for clearing that up, doctor. Sheesh.)

Saturday the Tar Heels will play at Kentucky. I'll be interested to see if I still enjoy watching "this team grow" if they lose by 40 points. I'm guessing this could be a short honeymoon, but just like Nick Lachey, I'll ride this wave as long as I can ... or until Matt Leinart calls and says I can stay at his place. Either way.

Now, back to serious stuff.

I quickly fast-forwarded through the first few offensive series of the MNF game last night and came away with many of the same impressions as some of you mentioned here. On the very first play from scrimmage, Max Starks inexplicably decided not to block anyone. The result was a one-yard loss on a Willie Parker run. And by the way, the Colts had eight guys in the box on this play, and none of them even seemed fazed by the possibility of pass attempt. On the next play, the Colts again crowded the line of scrimmage, and Hines Ward was in man coverage on the outside. He was open downfield, but Ben missed high on the throw. The third down play of the next series led to Roethlisberger getting sacked after Alan Faneca got beat like a rented, red-headed mule.

I can appreciate that the Steelers have a game plan and they like to stick with it. I mean, no one complains when it works. But after watching Peyton Manning and all his gesticulations depending on how the defense aligned themselves, and then watching Pittsburgh, even with Indy bringing everybody to the line of scrimmage still opting to run the ball, it's not too hard to figure out why they didn't have much success. I'm guessing crappy pass blocking and some off-target passes didn't help things either.

In Wednesday's paper, Bettis mentioned that it's hard to get into a rhythm when you're cycling through running backs at a break-neck pace. Fair enough. And that begs a question many people have already been begging: namely, should the Steelers better define the roles of their RBs? "Yes," seems like a good answer, but Andrew offers some evidence for this, and even shows why Duce should be the starter:
"What Pittsburgh needs to do is figure out how to properly use the best running back on their roster - Duce Staley.

Staley has a 23.7% DVOA this year rushing. Willie Parker has a 2.3% DVOA rushing. Jerome Bettis has a -11.3% DVOA rushing. Verron Haynes has a -48.1% DVOA rushing.

Staley is by far the best pass blocker of the four backs.

It would seem to me that Staley should be starting and in for all downs for his series, and Parker should be in for relief every couple of series kind of like KC used Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson. Haynes should be relegated to special teams, and Bettis reserved for short yardage situations (2 yards to go and less).

And when they do pass, the Steelers refuse to throw to Staley despite his great performance receiving when with the Eagles.

2003: 10.0 DPAR (#7)/30.4% DVOA (#7) receiving, 77% complete
2002: 18.2 DPAR (#3)/39.9 DVOA (#5) receiving, 74% complete
2001: 12.5 DPAR (#5)/19.1% DVOA (#13) receiving, 70% complete

These are high percentage throws that help the QB manage the game and keep drives alive. Several times last night, Staley was released into passing lanes when no block was needed and was left wide open, but Roethlisberger didn’t even look for him (undoubtedly, he was his 4th or 5th read on these plays), instead tossing incompletions or picks into coverage.

Cowher seems to insist on using Veron Haynes on passing 3rd downs (thankfully, not last night), who is a disaster in all aspects of the game (rushing, receiving, and blocking).

Look at receiving by Pittsburgh backs this year:

Parker: 2.4 DPAR/22.1% DVOA
Haynes: -1.0 DPAR/-30.2% DVOA"
First, let me say that I love Verron Haynes. Partly because he's a great dancer, and also because I think he's a good special teams player, and an adequate third down back. That said, it's hard to argue with the case Andrew's made above.

Let it never be said however, that Cowher is one to make sweeping personnel changes, even if they're (seemingly) painfully obvious to everybody. In 2003, Cowher insisted on trotting DeWayne Washington out to cornerback even though (a) Deshea Townsend was a lot better, and (b) Washington's best defense against a receiver was defensive holding or pass interference. The whole Tommy Maddox debacle -- both the Jacksonville and Baltimore games. Both times Tommy should've been pulled, and both times Cowher instead decided that it was in the teams best interest to throw the ball more. Yeah, that didn't work out so well.

What's peculiar is that for a guy who claims to be so impatient (see onsides kick, for example), he's glacially slow to make personnel changes. I'm guessing some of that has to do with big contracts (see Washington, DeWayne) and personal relationships (Maddox). Well, let's see what happens with the running backs. If history's any guide, I'd guess nothing.

A bigger issue could be the offensive line. As Israel pointed out, Cowher was as pointed as he's been all season in how unhappy he was with the play of the offensive line. It's no secret that Kendall Simmons had a pretty crappy game (and I'm not even talking about the 18 false start penalties). But everybody on the line struggled at some point Monday night. I'm sure part of that was the noise (a large part), and part of it had to do with the Colts have a pretty good defensive line.

[Quick aside time: In yesterday's paid content part of the Tribune Review, Rocco DeMaro came out with his least insightful piece, since, well, he last wrote a column. Mull this over:
"The Colts repeatedly jumped the Steelers' snap count. They had it timed perfectly. As soon as Jeff Hartings looks down then up again, he snaps the ball. Every time.

Peyton Manning is great for a lot of reasons. He's accurate, he's got a good arm and he's smart. But he's also a master of all the little things. His play-action fakes are perfect. And he varies his snap count to keep the defense off guard."
Gee, do you think the Colts had a bead on the snap count? Really? Hey, Norman Einstein, maybe it had something to do with the snap count being, I don't know, silent. That's what happens when you play in a dome and the crowd noise is deafening (just ask Kendall Simmons). And yes, Manning was able to vary his snap count because his line was able to hear him. I'm guessing he may not have that same luxury when the Colts travel to play the Seahawks. What a dope. (the bigger dope of course, is me for paying 30 bucks to read this stuff)]

I'm not sure how the numbers broke out for that game, but for the season, the line has done surprisingly well. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers rank 13th in Adjusted Line Yards (this is just average yards gained by a RB when controlling for a bunch of other variables), but I found this breakdown particularly interesting:
ALY R ALY Rank ALY Rank ALY Rank ALY Rank
4.18 13 3.00 30 4.06 19 4.88 5 5.43 5
When running left, Pittsburgh averages 4.18 yards (left end) and 3.00 yards (left tackle), which ranks 13th and 30th. This is surprising since both Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca are Pro Bowlers. Up the middle, the Steelers average 4.06 (ranking 19th). To the right however, they average 4.88 (right tackle -- 5th in the league) and 5.43 (right end -- also 5th in the league). Huh? Who would've guessed that.

Yes, we have no idea if the guard was pulling or where the tight end was, or what defense the Steelers faced, but still, on the surface these numbers are eye-opening. That doesn't change the fact that when you watch these guys, especially recently, they haven't been especially proficient at, you know, blocking people (especially pass blocking). So knowing all this, and given Cowher's penchant for not making changes, I'll be shocked if he decides to mix things up on the offensive line. I'm not saying I'd be averse to it, I just don't see it happening, at least based on past experience.

I haven't talked much about the Red Sox since, well, Theo called it quits, but I was reading this story in the Boston Globe and could only shake my head. Scott Boras seems to think that Johnny Damon should get a 7-year deal, even though he's 32. Yeah, I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with you on that one. Hey, if the Blue Jays want to give 35-year-old Brian Giles $10 million a year, more power to them, but that doesn't mean Damon should get a 7-year contract. Jeepers, is everybody on dope? Seriously, if I'm the Red Sox GM (whoever it might be), I say let Damon walk ... even if that means he walks to the Bronx. I like the guy, and my wife really likes him, but not that much (well, at least I don't like him that much, I'll have to get back to you about my wife). OK, that’s all I got.