Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Silver Linings

Even though I'm still smarting after the Steelers loss Sunday, the biggest upset of the weekend took place on Saturday. In Kentucky. The unranked Tar Heels upset the 10th ranked Wildcats in a game that featured four UNC freshmen getting a lot of quality minutes, Reyshawn Terry having his biggest game since high school, and Tubby Smith looking like a crazed, strung-out Marvin Lewis as he ranted and raved up and down the bench for 40 minutes.

I said last week that one of the great things about this basketball season is that I can enjoy it relatively stress-free, since there are really no expectations for this team to do much (they were picked to finish 6th in the ACC for crissakes). Well this mindset worked pretty well Saturday, because other than a brief flurry by Kentucky to start the second half, UNC pretty much controlled the game. PG Bobby Frasor isn't spectacular, but he doesn't get rattled, either. Marcus Ginyard is Jackie Manuel defensively, with the ability to score points off the dribble. And I know this is going to sound weird, but Tyler Hansbrough reminds me of Marvin Williams. Yeah, I know, if you didn't know any better, you'd swear they were brothers. Seriously, both guys are tenacious when it comes to getting rebounds, and neither seem to care that they are (were) the youngest players on the court. Danny Green, the fourth freshman who comes off the bench, should really think about growing his hair out, and maybe moussing it up before games. That way, he'd not only play like Rick Fox, but he'd look like him too.

It's funny, going into this season all people could talk about was next year's recruiting class -- maybe one of the best ever at UNC. Yeah, it might make sense to slow up long enough to actually watch these guys play too, because they're pretty good. Now before I get too far ahead of myself, I should remember that the 2002-03 team (Roy's first season in Chapel Hill) beat Kansas in an early season tourney with three freshmen who turned out to be decent college players, but it took a couple of seasons before that team played it's best basketball. And I realize that this team will probably have a few bumps in the road too, but hey, beating Kentucky in Kentucky in your first college road game ever is a pretty big deal. With the Christmas break here, the Heels have a Wednesday night game against St. Louis, and then a relatively easy schedule until the New Year. But yeah, yeah, I know, there's still a long way to go.

One of the problems letting people smarter than you read what you write is that they have the opportunity to correct you in the comments. And consequently, I'm now shutting down the comments to avoid such mishaps in the future. And I'll only except email with laudatory subject lines. OK, not really. In fact, DJ Any Reason makes several very good points in response to my "no-pass theory" put forward after the Bengals game Sunday.
Well, Ryan, not exactly a Norman Einstein level of reasoning, but there's a few flaws in your 'no-pass' theory:

1) Ben Threw 3 picks in 41 attempts, or one every 13 2/3 throws. The Steelers, on run plays, fumbled four times on 28 carries, or one every 7 carries. Now, we recovered three, but according to FO logic we ought to lose about half, or one of every 14 carries - amazingly similar to one of every 13 2/3rds. Now, none of that really matters, because the sample size is so small, but its not like the turnover story in this game really demonstrates the dangers of throwing the ball.

2) Against the best interception team in the league, Ben threw three picks in 41 attempts. Before today, there had been 366 passes thrown against the Bengals. If you average Ben's INT rate over 366 passes, he'd throw 26.78 picks. The Bengals, before today, had picked off 23 passes. If you go the other way, and predict how many passes the Bengals would intercept on 41 attempts based on their season average, the closest whole number is... 3. On the other hand, the Benglas weakness is their run defense, allowing an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Today, te Steelers ran 28 times for 95 yards, of 3.4 yards per carry. Seems to me that we did better against the season-average throwing than running.
Yeah, I don't disagree with any of this. In fact, it's spot on. One of the problems with writing down your thoughts right after watching a game like Sunday's Bengals-Steelers' is that you often are more emotional than rational. Well, that's not really a problem per se -- that's what it means to be a fan, I guess -- it just sometimes clouds your judgment and leads to the occasional dopey line of reasoning. That said, I think the real problem with my thoughts on too much passing was more a function of crappy writing than of faulty logic (or, to be more precise, logic faultier than usual).

It's not that I think Roethlisberger isn't capable of throwing the ball 40 times a game (even though, I wrote -- and I quote, "And hopefully, Roethlisberger's performance will give people pause the next time they suggest that the Steelers should throw the ball a lot more often... "), or that he's too mistake prone to handle the responsibilities of leading the Steelers to wins in the two-minute offense. He's proven on more than one occasion that he's very comfortable -- and successful -- in such situations. Yesterday's little diatribe was more focused on those people who have been lamenting for weeks that the Steelers should let Ben air it out Kurt Warner style and everything else will fall into place offensively. Yeah, that ain't how it works.

Overall, I have no problem with yesterday's game plan. The defense wasn't great, but they weren't dreadful either, especially since the Bengals are one of the best offenses in the NFL. Like I said yesterday, they played well enough to win. I covered it earlier, so I won't rehash it here, but yes, the special teams sucked. And as long as the six turnovers weren't part of the offensive game plan, it's hard to argue with most of the play calls.

Look, the Bengals had 8, 9, and sometimes 10 guys near the line of scrimmage, so it follows that the Steelers should throw the ball. And they did so with some success. Just because Ben threw three picks, doesn't mean I think this team should only run the ball. In fact, last week, I was wondering just the opposite when the Colts stacked the line of scrimmage and even made this comment as recently as last Friday:
"If an opposing defense brings 10 guys to the line of scrimmage, the Steelers might want to think about passing the ball. Nothing fancy like a five-step drop, just a quick slant to a receiver, a swing pass to a running back, or a quick hitch to a tight end. Just thinking outside the box here."
My point, which wasn't explained very well, was that people shouldn't just assume because Ben throws the ball on 75% of the snaps, the Steelers will automatically win the game. I understand that interceptions happen, and the only one that bothered me yesterday was the second one (the long pass to Hines down the right side). The first pick was poor judgment, but hey, it happens. The last interception Ben said he didn't see Odell Thurman until it was too late. Yeah, that's Ben's fault -- and he took full responsibility -- but what can you do? The guy was trying to make a play, and he made a mistake. Big whoop. And the only reason I wasn't happy about the ball to Hines was because of the situation (the execution didn't help, but if the Steelers hadn't called that play, it wouldn't have mattered).

It was 3rd and 7 at the Cincy 42 and the play before, a 2nd and 9, the Steelers ran Willie Parker up the middle for two yards. First, the 2nd down play was questionable, and the third down call compounded the problem. With the ball in Cincy territory, there has to be a higher percentage play that can get seven (or even six) yards than a bomb down the sidelines. The Bengals are one of the worst teams in the league against tight ends (I mean Jerame Tuman caught a big pass for the love of god), and a little hitch to Heath Miller might have been more likely to move the sticks. But look, quibbling about a call here and a call there could go on for days, weeks, and months. Overall, I really have no problem with how the game was called -- including Roethlisberger putting the ball up 40-plus times. The bottom line is if Pittsburgh doesn't turn the ball over, they probably win. And while it didn't seem like it at the time, Pittsburgh dominated the time of possession and total yards.

I'm sure that makes you feel a lot better. And if it doesn't, how about the fact that Roethlisberger had the best Week 13 performance according to DPAR?

A few weeks ago, Bassett left the following comment:
"Ryan I would be interested to see your thoughts on Roethlisberger and his ability to stay healthy, long term...

It just seems to me that we are halfway through his second season of starting, he doesn't throw the ball as much as other young QBs, he has a pretty decent line (#4 in 2004, and currently #13 in FO's 'sack rank' ... that sounds funny) but still manages to have some nagging stuff, like now and late last year..."
This is something I've been meaning to address for a while now, but because I'm really, really lazy, I haven't gotten around to it. Well, I figure if I wait much longer, Big Ben will be carted out of Heinz Field in a body bag, so now's as good a time as any.

(By the way, I'm slowing turning into all that I hate about sports fanatics. Leading up to Sunday's game, all I could think was that, because of Ben's myriad injuries, there was a 100 percent chance Maddox would see the field. I then spent the game yelling at most every play call, and almost every player on the Steelers. After the game I felt like Jimmy Swaggart after he got caught at that Motel 6 with a hooker: embarrassed by my actions, and worried that all the crying as I repented would create a mini-climate super humidified in the general vicinity of my head, and totally wreak havoc with all the hairspray keeping my wig in place. OK, maybe not quite that bad -- or weird -- but I do hate those fans whose sole purpose it seems, is to complain about their team under every circumstance. And even though I didn't get caught with a hooker, I feel obliged to apologize to the Steelers organization for my behavior. So there.)

Anyway, back on earth -- and to Bassett's question, it does seem peculiar (or maybe unlucky?) that Ben is always battling some injury. Whether it's a sore thumb, or knee surgery, Roethlisberger has been recovering from something since Week 1 (when he first hurt one of his knees). I think part of this is just luck; Tom Brady takes more hits than any bong found in Michael Irvin's car. (Although, to be fair, I'm not suggesting that Irvin was the guy using the bong. My money's on Woody Paige and Skip Bayless as Irvin drives them to the set of "Cold Pizza" every morning. Seriously, how else can you explain that show?) And he pops right back up. Every time. And that's where luck comes in. To my knowledge, Brady hasn't strained any knee ligaments, broken any fingers, or missed any considerable amount of playing time because of getting knocked silly (other than, ironically, part of the 2001 AFCC game).

On the other hand, neither Petyon Manning nor Carson Palmer spend a lot of time on the ground either, but for wholly different reasons than Brady (especially this season). Both QBs don't hold the ball that long (even though they're not afraid to throw downfield), have solid offensive lines, and have a good understanding where all their receivers are. One of the negatives (if you can call it that) of Roethlisberger being able to create something out of nothing is that he has to hold onto the ball a lot longer. Which means that fat defensive linemen have more of a chance to tee off on him. And we're not just talking about sacks, either. Ben takes a lot of hits over the course of a game, many after he's released the ball. And like I mentioned, part of staying healthy is luck. The hit in the Chargers game was lucky in that an inch either way and Ben could've been out for the season. Same thing Sunday on the personal foul call when Ben got hit in his left knee. But he's also missed three games with a right knee problem and I still don't know how the hell he jacked up his right thumb against Indy.

To further support my luck hypothesis, Brett Favre, who's started something like 800 games in a row, plays in much the same way as Roethlisberger. Except even when he gets jacked up, he's been able to avoid serious injury. Michael Vick is prone to injury because he always holds onto the ball too long, and he insists on taking big hits when he scrambles. If Peyton Manning is at one end of the spectrum, Vick is at the other, with Ben somewhere in the middle, I guess.

But this season has been a bad one for Steelers QBs. Well, at least the competent ones. Batch broke his hand on a Cleveland players' helmet and has been out for three weeks now. Ben's injuries are well-documented. Only Tommy Maddox has been healthy enough to play two forgettable games (And let's not forget, the Jacksonville game required a miraculous comeback from a calf injury the week before, that saw Maddox miss going to San Diego entirely. God, that seems like 10 years ago). So yeah, Ben's ability to stay healthy is a real concern, especially since his thumb might be broken, and Pittsburgh has their work cut out for them going forward. Can the Steelers win out? Sure. Can they do it without Ben? Well, that complicates things, but if Batch is out too, then it gets a whole lot easier to see how this season will end up. Whatever the case, all this jabbering doesn't change the fact that Pittsburgh has to take care of their business and not worry about what everybody else is doing. That said, I really need the Browns to win. And Indy. And Dallas. And Miami. That is all.