2011 NFL Playoff Schedule, Steelers vs. Jets: A Statistical Preview

DANNY'S NOTE: This is going to be our official game thread for Steelers-Jets.

Fooch's Note: I'm not going to 100% ban pictures, but people need to use common sense. In a game thread there is very little need for them. They slow the site down and are unnecessary. I'm going to start deleting pictures that serve little to no purpose.

NEW YORK JETS @ PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Unlike the first game today, Steelers vs. Jets doesn't look so clear cut, despite a bigger overall disparity between the two teams, at least in terms of the stats. Truth be told, I'm actually rooting for a Steelers victory here because they're my Niner-fan buddy's 2nd -favorite team. I was going to say that I've had much more fun rooting for the Steelers than for the Niners in big games over the last 6 years, but then I realized the Niners haven't actually had any big games during that time. Alas! Anyway, it's on to the preview.

As always, if you're unfamiliar with the format of these statistical preview posts, see my post from last weekend. If you're unfamiliar with Football Outsiders' stats, see here for their overall team stats, OL & defensive front-7 (DF7) stats, and an explanation of the methods they used to come up with their stats.

Here's how PIT and NYJ stack up in terms of Total, Offense, Defense, and Special Teams DVOA (Top-8 in bold, Bottom-8 in italics):

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

NYJ

18.7%

6

5.6%

16

-7.8%

6

5.3%

5

NYJ - ROAD

2.4%

15.4%

5

18.3%

26

PIT

37.3%

2

17.9%

5

-18.5%

1

0.9%

16

PIT - HOME

44.2%

 

31.0%

2

-12.9%

4

 

 

At least from these stats and rankings, the Jets seem to be the Bizarro Ravens, which has various implications given that PIT beat BAL last week. First off, both mascots fly. OK, just kidding. Actually, the reason I say this is because, on the surface, NYJ and BAL look very similar statistically: the Ravens were #4 in Total DVOA, #12 in Offense DVOA, #4 in Defense DVOA, and #4 in ST DVOA. Furthermore, as was the case with the PIT-BAL matchup, the fact that the game's in Pittsburgh turns a modest PIT advantage into a seeming mismatch. However, like Bizzaro vis-à-vis Superman, there's one thing just a little different, and I don't mean Rex Ryan's foot fetish (Fooch, please don't suspend me for the first series for that one). Specifically, whereas the Ravens offense didn't travel well, it's the Jets defense that doesn't travel well. In fact, they were one of the worst road defenses in the NFL this season. If the Steelers were able to score 31 offensive points against Superman, I'll be interested to see how many points they're able to put up against Bizzaro.

After the jump, a brief foray into the strategy of blitzing shotgun offenses, and a statistical look at the "Polamalu effect"...

Here are the meaningful SVW matchups in the game:

Situation

PIT Rank

NYJ Rank

PIT SHOTGUN OFFENSE VS. NYJ SHOTGUN DEFENSE

4

31

PIT PASS OFFENSE VS. NYJ PASS DEFENSE ON 3RD DOWN

4

31

PIT PASS OFFENSE VS. NYJ PASS DEFENSE ON 3RD & LONG

4

32

PIT PASS DEFENSE VS. NYJ PASS OFFENSE IN RED ZONE

3

28

NYJ PUNT VS. PIT PUNT RETURN

28

2

The first 3 SVWs above are interrelated to a large extent, and seem to play into the Steelers' "rise from the ashes" flair for the dramatic. As Niner fans, we've seen how soul-crushing it can sometimes be for a defense if they continually fail to get off the field on 3rd & Long. Luckily, for the Jets' defense, they've been able to overcome it this season for the most part. Three of the team's five losses came against teams whose offenses ranked in the Top 8 on 3rd & Long; but, of course, they just beat one of those 3 teams last week (i.e., the Patriots). Similarly, 2 of their losses came against offenses that were among the Top 8 in Shotgun DVOA, with a third coming against the #11 Ravens. But, once again, they beat the #1 shotgun offense last week, and they beat the #9 shotgun offense 2 weeks ago (i.e., the Colts). So, perhaps this is much ado about nothing.

Now, the thing about 3rd & Long DVOA is that it's one of those "nice to know, but not really practical" stats because it's not like the Steelers are going to purposefully get themselves into 3rd & Long in order to exploit this matchup advantage. On the other hand, PIT's offense can - and should - use the shotgun more often to exploit their advantage in that situation.

I did a little research to try to figure out why NYJ is so bad against the shotgun, and my first instinct was to think about the tactical advantages of putting your QB in the shotgun. As I iterated, and reiterated, and reiterated on NN over the past couple of seasons, Alex Smith was a much better QB from the shotgun. Why? Well, first, he played from the shotgun in college, so there was a comfort issue. However, second, and more importantly, the shotgun allows the QB to keep the pass rush in his field of vision at all times. In essence, there's no "blind side," and for a QB like Alex Smith who's worried about everything right down to the orientation of his shoe laces at the snap, not having to worry about unseen rushers helps tremendously.

Getting back to the Jets' woes against shotgun offense, this article by Mark Kaboly in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review kind of sealed the deal for me in terms of the "why" question. It appears that, just as it's supposed to, Jet opponents have eaten them alive from the shotgun when the Jets' defense blitzes heavily. Against the Colts in last year's AFC Championship game, the Jets blitzed a lot, and Peyton Manning burned them from the shotgun. Similarly, Tom Brady burned a blitz-happy Jets defense in that infamous 45-3 late-season blowout. Not surprisingly, then, the Jets defense wisely chose not to blitz very much in the rematches this postseason, and they were able to avenge both losses. Highly relevant to this game is the fact that the Jets also chose not to blitz Roethlisberger very much in their 22-17 victory in Pittsburgh earlier this season.

Of course, choosing not to blitz Manning and Brady may have been more tactical than strategic in so far as NYJ's defensive coaches might have done some second-level poker thinking like, "Well, we think they think we're going to blitz a lot, so we won't," rather than thinking, "Blitzing doesn't work against them." Maybe they'll do the same thing today, and blitz Ben Roethlisberger a lot because they think PIT will be preparing for more of a straightforward 4-man rush. If I were the Jets, I'd stick to first-level poker thinking here. They beat PIT without much of a blitz, so there's no need to fix what isn't broken, so to speak. If they do make this mistake, the stats are clear: Roethlisberger is likely to eat them alive.

With respect to the other 2 SVWs in the table, the stats suggest a healthy dose of FG-kicking from the Jets, as well as a potential for the Jets to benefit from a field-position battle if the game turns into one.

Finally, before looking at the offensive and defensive fronts, I'll add a thought about one more situational matchup that just missed being an SVW, but is meaningful to me nevertheless. As we witnessed with our own eyes last week, the Steelers' offense is very good at pulling off come-from-behind miracles. The stats bear this out: PIT was #1 in Offense DVOA When Losing Big (aka by 8 or more). What was crazy about last weekend was that the Ravens were #1 in Defense DVOA When Winning Big. So, we had the best come-from-behind offense down 14 points against the best beat-a-dead-horse defense, and the offense won. Given that the Jets' defense was ranked 23rd when winning big, don't be surprised to have déjà vu all over again if the Steelers are down big early.

 Here's how the two teams rank in the trenches (Top-8 in bold, Bottom-8 in italics):

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

Stuffed

ASR

NYJ OL

3

3

20

6

4

11

2

3

8

PIT DF7

1

12

1

3

11

3

10

13

3

 

Team

ALY

LE

LT

C/G

RT

RE

Power

Stuffed

ASR

PIT OL

19

7

31

18

17

5

12

27

29

NYJ DF7

5

29

10

7

1

5

25

7

11

These rankings really favor the Jets on both sides of the ball. Given their rankings across the board, NYJ appears to have, at least statistically speaking, the best OL in the league, so they're very likely to be able to hold their own against PIT's equally impressive DF7. The mismatch here comes on the other side of the ball, with NYJ's DF7appearing to have a modest advantage against both PIT's run-blocking and its pass-protecting. First, PIT's "favorite" run is up the middle (i.e., they run there about 20% more than the average team), but NYJ's DF7 ranks 7th in C/G ALY. Second, as indicated by their ranking in Stuffed Rate, which is the percentage of RB carries that are stuffed for zero or negative yardage, it looks like PIT's OL either doesn't get much push in the running game or just totally misses blocking assignments altogether (Stuffed Rate = 23%). In contrast, NYJ's DF7 seems to be getting into the backfield relatively frequently on running plays (Stuffed Rate = 21%).

Finally, although I didn't mention this last week because of how bad the Ravens' DF7 was in opposition, the Steelers' OL is pretty awful in terms of protecting Roethlisberger. Of course, as was the case with Cutler and the Bears' OL, I have to reiterate that sack rates follow QBs around like a magnet. There's a reason why Roethlisberger is just outside the Top 10 in NFL history when it comes to sacks-per-dropback. I mean, it's not like he's had horrible OLs for 7 seasons, and winning Super Bowls despite them. Rather, he's a gunslinger of the broken play variety, and much of the time a rusher's going to track him down before he's able to fire a bullet.

Nevertheless, I do bring up PIT's ASR here because of my earlier commentary about blitzing. Specifically, if there was ever an OL against which the Jets don't have to blitz to sack a QB, it's the Steelers'. This makes me double down on the idea that it'd be incredibly unwise for Rex Ryan to go all chess-match on Bruce Arians, and blitz heavily just because he thinks the Steelers are expecting the opposite.

THE TROY POLAMALU EFFECT

So far, it seems to be a pretty even matchup, but there's one major difference between today's game and the Jets' earlier win over the Steelers this season: the participation of Troy Polamalu. Being that this is a statistical preview, I did some fishing around for research quantifying Polamalu's impact on the PIT defense. Now, obviously, quantifying individual defensive performance is even more difficult than doing so for offensive players, and, at an even more basic level, quantifying individual performance is more difficult than quantifying team performance. Therefore, don't read this and think I or anyone else has answered the Polamalu question definitively.

Most of what I found was your typical "The Steelers are (insert good record here) with Polamalu in the lineup, but (insert worse record here) without him" reference in the journalistic previews. I also found a statistical analysis by Brian Burke over at Advanced NFL Stats, but I'm always kind of skittish about attaching win probabilities to specific players (ala WAR in sabermetrics), especially specific defenders. So, of course, I did my own analysis looking at the performance of PIT's defense, as a unit, with and without Polamalu since he became a full-time starter in 2004. Here's a table summarizing my results (except for WPct, a negative difference means that the defense played better with him):

Polamalu

W-L

WPct

PA

Tot Yds

Pass

Run

DVOA

Pass

Run

Overall

With

55-26

0.679

16.6

273.0

191.1

81.9

-17.8%

-14.6%

-22.3%

Overall

Without

12-9

0.571

17.3

286.3

200.7

85.6

-2.8%

3.4%

-17.7%

Difference

0.108

-0.8

-13.3

-9.6

-3.7

-15.0%

-18.0%

-4.5%

Home

With

33-12

0.733

16.7

276.4

195.8

80.5

-18.8%

-16.8%

-22.8%

Home

Without

9-2

0.818

14.2

263.7

188.4

75.4

-10.2%

-4.3%

-24.2%

Difference

-0.085

2.5

12.6

7.5

5.1

-8.6%

-12.5%

1.4%

Road

With

32-14

0.696

16.4

269.7

186.4

83.3

-16.8%

-12.4%

-21.8%

Road

Without

3-7

0.300

20.8

311.1

214.2

96.9

5.3%

11.9%

-10.7%

Difference

0.396

-4.4

-41.4

-27.8

-13.6

-22.1%

-24.3%

-11.1%

In the table, it becomes clear as day that the so-called "Polamalu effect" seems to interact with a home-road effect. In other words, although it's true that the Steelers are a better defense overall when Polamalu plays, their performance decline without him is much more pronounced when he misses a road game. Given that today's game is in Pittsburgh, I take these stats to suggest that PIT's defense will play slightly better than they did in their earlier Polamalu-less game against NYJ, but I wouldn't expect there to be a massive improvement. If the game was in New Jersey, things would be a lot different.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite how lopsided it seems according to the overall DVOA stats, there aren't many situational advantages for PIT to exploit if NYJ rationally decides not to blitz on passing downs. All in all, this game has honestly been the toughest to call among the ones I've previewed for NN this postseason. In the end, I wouldn't be surprised by either team winning. However, I think PIT's got an ever-so-slight statistical advantage, and some of those advantages suggest this game might come down a dramatic climax at the end of the 4th quarter (or overtime). So, I'm going with PIT. Besides, my friend will disown me if I don't.

**DVOA, ALY, and ASR statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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