Crushed Optimists

We are twin brothers who grew up in Central Washington. This blog is devoted to the life of Seattle sports fans, as well as various other topics that we will espouse for your enjoyment. We could be called another OFFICIAL SEATTLE SEAHAWKS site, but we'll take our uneducated crack at the Mariners, Sonics, and Huskies as well. A Seattle Sports Blog? Must be the land... of crushed optimism!

Monday, January 30, 2006

Super Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh Rushing Offense

It is time. Monday before the Super Bowl. A Super Bowl containing your Seattle Seahawks. Before we jump in, a quick side note. A few national writers have penned articles regarding how their cities don't care about this game. My response? If you are a football fan, you care about the Super Bowl. Maybe it's that we have never had our team there, but Colin and I grew up always getting excited about the Super Bowl, regardless of the matchup. If you have to have your team there to be excited, you are a spoiled idiot. Anyways, off the rant train and onto the preview...

Colin: Actually, let's stay on the rant train a minute. Basically, there are three groups of people who watch the Super Bowl. First, you have your actual football fans. We will watch at least part of the Super Bowl every year, whether it is the Rams vs. the Titans or the Bucs vs. the Raiders. It's just part of being a football fan. The second group are the individuals who just love an excuse to get together and eat some food and drink some brews. They could, for the most part, care less about who is playing; they wouldn't know anything about the team anyways. They might know who Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is, but that's about the end of the expertise. The third group are the people who hate football and are there because of a significant other, family and friendships, or just an insatiable desire to watch the commercials. Again, they don't care who is playing. So.... you have one group that will watch regardless, one group that just wants an excuse to party, and one group that hates all football. So, Skip Bayless..... shut up. Seriously, I thought you learned your lesson last time, but I guess not.

Much has been made of Pittsburgh's blue collar, in your face, rushing offense. They are supposed to be able to run on anyone at any time. They will "hit us in the mouth" with the run. Of course, this is the same team that has won their games through the air in the playoffs. So let's look more in depth at this "dominant" rushing offense led by the "better than Shaun Alexander" Wee Willie Parker.

During the regular season, Bill Cowher's commitment to the run was pretty evident, as the Steelers ran it 549 times to 379 passes. Of course, this discrepancy could be linked a little to the few games Ben Roethlisberger missed. For all those rushes, the success wasn't exactly there, as the "hit in the mouth" Steelers only averaged 4.0 ypc. That's not really all that impressive. In the postseason Cowher I believe has realized that his rushing game can be stopped and has flipped to passing to open the run, with 74 passes and 109 rushes. The higher rushing number is explained by Cowher playing extremely conservatively with leads, allowing both Indianapolis and Denver to creep back in those games.

Colin: What's incredible to me is the vast attention that will be paid to Jerome Bettis this week when he will, most likely, be of little importance in the actual game. Face it. Big Ben is THE offensive reason why Pittsburgh is in this game. Actually, I would break down the offensive and defensive realms of import as follows....

1. Pittsburgh's passing defense - Hasselbeck is the main cog in our offense. Let's be honest here. I love Shaun too, but we rise or fall based on the bald field general.

2. Pittsburgh's passing offense - Can Big Ben continue his rapid rise to glory? I see no signs to say otherwise. A huge task for our secondary.

3. Pittsburgh's rushing defense - It is time for Shaun to put all doubters forever to rest. I think he will.

That leaves....

4. Pittsburgh's rushing offense - It has been a less than impressive showing from the rushing game in the postseason, while the offense has overall seemed to shine. I just don't see the game being decided in this facet of the game unless Willie Parker becomes superhuman and our rushing defense forgets to make the trip to Detroit.

Before looking more in depth in the postseason, let's break down the two main rushers for the Steelers, Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis.

Willie Parker: 255 rushes, 1202 yards, 4.7 ypc, 4 TDs, 4 Fumbles (0 lost)
At first look those numbers are fairly impressive. 4.7 ypc is pretty darn good. Let's take a look at the actual games. Pittsburgh (like Seattle) played their fair share of good and bad teams. In games against teams ranked 17-32 against the run, Parker averaged 7.3, 4.4, 7.3, 2.6, 4.7, 5.8, 7.6, and 5.2 ypc. So besides one 5 carry for 13 yard effort, Parker and the Steelers were able to gash bad teams. Against the upper echelon of rushing defenses, Parker averaged 3.2, 2.6, 2.6, 4.5, 3.3, 3.6, and 3.2 ypc. Against the upper echelon of rushing defenses, this "quick hitter" had a long run of 24 yards (next high was 16). Against the upper echelon of rushing defense, Parker had 0 touchdowns. The most meaningless stat is final number of yards, and his high was 68 yards. Yes, I would definitely rather have him than Shaun Alexander.

Colin: Whoo hoo! Willie Parker! Yes! Here's a number I want to put forward. 4. 4. That is the number of rushing touchdowns that Parker achieved during the regular season. He did add one more with a passing touchdown, but that's not particularly impressive. And before all the Steelers fans come with the talk of, "Well, that's because Bettis gets those carries. Bettis gets the touchdowns!" Um.... Bettis had 6 rushing touchdowns on the regular season. 6. By the way, Verron Haynes had 3 and Big Ben had 2. I'm not scared of their rushing attack inside the red zone. Now, their play action inside the red zone.... that I'm worried of. But Willie Parker is not going to get a ton of yards and get into the end zone multiple times. He's a good, not great, rusher with above-average speed who has had some fumbling problems in recent weeks (remember Cincy?).

Jerome Bettis: 110 rushes, 368 yards, 3.3 ypc, 6 TDs, 0 Fumbles
Bettis is a short yardage guy, so averaging 3.3 ypc when teams are stacked to stop you isn't as bad as it looks at first glance. Still, if we just look at Bettis' ypc against the top rushing defenses, we have 3.2, 1.0, 2.8, 0.0, 1.5, and 5.9. The one outlier is the 17 carry, 101 yard effort against the Chicago Bears. That was nuts. He went off. Veterans have games like that (see Jerry Rice last year on Monday Night). That doesn't mean he will do that again. Again, this means we shouldn't really fear what Bettis can do against a good rushing defense.

Alright, so I've just seen the regular season numbers. What about the postseason?
Bettis: 5.2 ypc (against Cincinnati, you better believe I'm discounting that number), 2.7, 2.6
Parker: 2.4 ypc (against Cincinnati!), 3.5, 2.5, quick hitter only hit a long of 14 yards.

What exactly are we supposed to fear about these players? Even after Roethlisberger succeeded in loosening opposing defenses up through the air, the Steelers still could not run it effectively. This is why, again, the Broncos and Colts had multiple opportunities to come back in those games.

Colin: Let's make this simple. Combined these two elite backs rushed for 1394 yards on 329 carries (a 4.24 average) and 10 touchdowns. Are those fearful numbers? No. Are those numbers you have to pay attention to? Absolutely. There is the potential that Parker and Bettis get some yards and big gains. I just don't see them as near the top of possible gamebreakers for the Super Bowl.

Football Outsiders have some extremely interesting stats to further illustrate this point. They rank each running back with the number of points this person generated by being better than a replacement back. Shaun Alexander is ranked as being 57.8 points above replacement. Parker is ranked as being 14 points above replacement, while Bettis is right below him at 13.7. Better backs included Rudi Johnson (48), Warrick Dunn (41), Lamont Jordan (19.5), and Ricky Williams (14.1). Right below them are individuals like Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, and Mewelde Moore. The same group sees the Pittsburgh offensive line (for the run) as ranked #12, behind such behemoth lines as Houston (#8) and Miami (#11). As for pass protection, they fall to #23, which will be discussed later.

Final stat: Pittsburgh has Jerome Bettis, who is supposed to dominate on the 3rd and short and goal line situations. Well, Pittsburgh enjoyed a success rate of 68% on those plays, extremely respectable. Seattle, by the way? 81%. Baltimore? 76%.

Again, this is not to say that Pittsburgh has an awful running game. Of course not. They have a good running game. It's just not a dominant running game, and the offensive line hasn't performed at an elite level this year.

We do not fear these players because we have an elite rushing defense. What? The Hawks? Elite rushing defense? Let's take a look at the numbers.

At the end of the season the Seahawks ranked #5 in the NFL in rushing defense, averaging 94.4 yards per game allowed. Now, the rankings are a little off, because yards allowed is a ridiculous statistic to rank a team on. For example, the Hawks allowed 1510 yards for the season on 420 carries. The Denver Broncos (#2 ranked rushing defense) allowed 1363 yards but on only 344 carries. Do the math and the Hawks 3.6 ypc is better than the Broncos 4.0. If we rearrange the top ten by ypc Seattle comes out tied for fourth (note: this process actually also ranks Pittsburgh as #1, something we will have to discuss later). In case anyone's curious, this doesn't make a large difference in the points I made above with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. Indy would drop out of the top half.

That 3.6 ypc is very respectable and denotes a consistent and responsible attack. Let's look at each game.
Jacksonville: Fred Taylor (20 for 76, long 9, 3.8 ypc). Long 25 by Matt Jones.
Atlanta: Warrick Dunn (16 for 54, long 12, 3.4 ypc). Long 32 by Michael Vick.
Arizona: Marcel Shipp (10 for 41, long 15, 4.1 ypc).
Washington: Clinton Portis (25 for 90, long 13, 3.6 ypc). Long 18 by Mark Brunell.
St. Louis: Stephen Jackson (17 for 77, long 16, 4.5 ypc).
Houston: Dominack Davis (18 for 40, long 6, 2.2 ypc). Long 12 by David Carr.
Dallas: Marion Barber (22 for 95, long 14, 4.3 ypc).
Arizona: Marcel Shipp (13 for 20, long 4, 1.5 ypc). Long 15 by JJ Arrington.
St. Louis: Stephen Jackson (17 for 70, long 18, 4.1 ypc).
San Francisco: Maurice Hicks (11 for 83, long 50, 7.6 ypc).
NY Giants: Tiki Barber (26 for 151, long 49, 5.8 ypc).
Philadelphia: Ryan Moats (10 for 26, long 14, 2.6 ypc).
San Francisco: Kevan Barlow (11 for 33, long 11, 3.3 ypc).
Tennessee: Chris Brown (20 for 56, long 9, 2.8 ypc). Long 11 by Steve McNair.
Indianapolis: Edgerrin James (13 for 41, long 11, 3.1 ypc).
Green Bay: N. Herron (23 for 61, long 11, 2.7 ypc).

Before throwing in the playoff games into the mix, the Hawks did a few things very well. The first is only allowing one 100+ yard rusher the entire season, and Tiki needed overtime to hit that mark. This means that the Steelers shouldn't assume that they will be able to move the ball between the tackles with effectiveness. The second is that the Hawks only allowed 6 runs of 20+ yards all season. Only six!! That means our defenders, although young, are very disciplined and our secondary (probably Michael Boulware, the converted linebacker) are great tacklers. Most of the highs from these games are QB sneaks, and those just happen every now and then. Let's look at these stats through the same lens as before. Against good rushing teams (supposedly like Pittsburgh), the Hawks faced Atlanta (shut down Warrick Dunn), NY Giants (Tiki needed OT), Washington (mediocre performance by Portis), Jacksonville (3.8 ypc for Fred Taylor), Dallas (worst game they had against the rush all season), and Indy (exhibition game). Another conclusion we can draw is that the Hawks actually had more problems with quicker backs (like Tiki), than up the gut runners like Fred Taylor. Since the Steelers aren't good at blocking for Parker on sweeps, I'm not that concerned.

Moving on to the postseason, the Hawks have been nothing short of brilliant. While acknowledging the health issues of the opposing runners, the offensive line hasn't been able to generate any kind of a push that the numbers illustrate.
Washington: 2.4 YPC
Carolina: 3.0 YPC
That's some darn good defense right there, and is a primary reason why those two teams only conveted 21.4 percent of their third downs. Both of these teams entered the games believing (along with outside pundits) that they could ram the ball down our throats. Both left a lot wiser.

While the Seahawks aren't going to be confused with Tampa Bay anytime soon, they do a consistent and respectable job against the run, and we should expect more of the same in Super Bowl XL. We shouldn't expect anything like what we've seen in the postseason against beat up running backs, but we should expect to only allow the Steelers about a 3.1 YPC with no long runs.

Colin: Good points all around, Gavin. Again, we have already put forward the notion that the Steelers are a good, not great, rushing team. Now it appears that the Seahawks have risen to become a great rushing defense. Again, let's look at some stats, again from Football Outsiders....

Surprise! Guess which defensive line is ranked #1?? That would be Seattle! That's right, the Seattle Seahawks defensive line is ranked above Tampa Bay, Miami, and then Pittsburgh. Interesting.....

This is a line that is extremely disciplined and limits the big play. Give massive props to the leadership of one Lofa Tatupu, who constantly is shifting down lineman until the snap depending on what he is seeing from the offense. Part of this game will hinge on Tatupu's early recognition of the Pittsburgh alignment and his adjustments throughout the game.

Well, that's enough from me.... tomorrow we preview the Seattle running game!

Gavin: I probably wouldn't even classify the Steelers' rushing game as "good". I'd call it "mediocre" and we should be able to handle it well.

posted by Gavin @ 1:57 PM  3 comments


At 7:27 PM, Anonymous MarinerGeek said...

Nice analysis, Gavin. interview Aaron Schatz (highly regarded Football stats guru) of Football Outsiders. Schatz had this to say about the Hawks D-Line.

.NET: Regarding a recent online assertion that Nick Goings would outrun Alexander by 40 yards, which gave those of us up here in the Pacific Northwest a nice chuckle - you and I had a conversation in which I mentioned that this showed a complete lack of knowledge of Seattle’s offensive dynamic. You countered with the idea that what it really shows is a lack of respect for Seattle’s run defense. You then gave me a very interesting number regarding that run defense in regards to adjusted line yards. What are adjusted line yards and what do they tell us about Seattle’s front four?

Aaron Schatz: Well, more the front seven. Run defense is usually the seven guys including the linebackers. Obviously Lofa Tatupu and even Leroy Hill have been hugely important to the improvement in Seattle’s run defense this year.

The funniest part of that Don Banks column was that Carolina is his favorite because they put together two great games, which of course Seattle and Denver could not have put together two great games because they’ve only played one game each.

Adjusted line yards is an attempt to separate the offensive line from the running back or on the defensive side the tackling abilities of the secondary from the front seven. It takes runs and cuts them off based on the length.

So you count only 50 percent of the yards from five to ten and nothing after ten, and you give extra credit for a loss. Then, you sort of get a picture of which teams are more dependent on the running back breaking it long. Once you’re in the open field, after ten yards, it’s really much more about the running back’s shiftiness and pursuit and tackling in the secondary. It’s not about offensive line anymore at that point.

Seattle is, in fact, number one this year in adjusted line yards on defense and number six on offense. Their run defense has been spectacular this year. The reason Seattle is seventh in our DVOA number in the overall ratings is that they have given up some long runs. That would probably be more of a worry against “Mr. Boom-and-Bust”, DeShaun Foster, than it will be against Nick Goings. They may give up a run of 20 or 30 yards here, but when it comes to the front seven, they stuff guys all the time and they keep guys down.

Last week they totally controlled Clinton Portis, and look - Edgerrin James was trying in that Indy game. Maybe (Peyton) Manning was sitting out, but Edgerrin James was trying and they kept him down pretty good, too.

The other place where they really match up well with Carolina, is the third- and fourth-and-short. Seattle ranked fourth on defense, Carolina was 22nd on offense. When it came to long runs over 10 yards, Seattle was 10th, which is about average, but Carolina was 26th. So even with DeShaun Foster they weren’t breaking a lot of long ones.

People know, who read Football Outsiders, that we really are down on DeShaun Foster. We think he’s very overrated. He happens to have really good games whenever he’s on television or playing Atlanta. But a lot of the times he’s running into the line for a yard or two every time and then maybe breaking one for 15 and that’s the one that shows up on SportsCenter.

Lots of other good stuff in the article, which I think is also available in audio.

.NET Q&A - Aaron Schatz

At 8:04 PM, Blogger colin_hesse said...

Interesting. Glad to know we weren't the only ones who thought that Banks assertion was just flat out stupid.

Thanks for your comments, man, they are appreciated!

At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Jake said...

Also interesting from Football Outsiders, and something that has been somewhat overlooked during the playoff run, was how well Jerramy Stevens has been playing. He was in the top 5 in the league in the DVOA ranking supplied by FO. Think back to the really good West Coast offenses, and Brent Jones and Mark Chmura. Is it any coincidence that the Seahawks have had their most dominant offensive season at the same time Stevens has finally become a solid performer? I think not.


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