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!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Super Bowl Preview: Pittsburgh Passing Offense

This is the third in our four-part preview series this week. In the first two, we determined that:
1. Pittsburgh won't be able to run effectively.
2. We should run effectively.

Colin: Make that semi-effectively.

Now, just believing that we can stop the run means nothing to our chances. After all, Pittsburgh is the first #6 seed to reach the Super Bowl, and did so averaging 3.2 ypc this postseason, so apparently there's another reason for their success. The passing offense is a big part. Ben Roethlisberger has turned All-World in the playoffs, taking the keys to the offense and scoring quickly to put opposing teams into holes. Before looking at the improved postseason numbers, let's again look at the regular season.

As I've said previously, statistics can lie. Pitt ranked 25th in the regular season in receiving yards, averaging only 194 yards per game. That seems to be in our favor. However, total yards is always a stupid stat to review. In average yards per reception, the Steelers (at 13.6) ranked, are you ready for this, FIRST in the NFL. Here's what that means. This postseason, before we even look more in depth, isn't a fluke. These are dangerous receivers who can find deep seams in zones and get crucial yards after the catch.

Colin: This is extremely important to realize. The Pittsburgh passing attack IS FOR REAL, and this is the single most frightening aspect of this game for me. Side note: I don't want to write an actual blog entry for this, but the media are REALLY reaching for stories today if the top Super Bowl story is Stevens guaranteeing a win. Wow. You mean to tell me the Hawks think they are going to win? You mean to tell me the Steelers don't think they are going to win? And you are telling me that this statement will actually have an impact on the outcome of the game? Mark Schlereth thinks so, which is preposterous. If Pittsburgh needs a statement like that to wake up, they aren't ready to play the Super Bowl. Just a ridiculous, ridiculous non-story that is only a story because the media has no idea on what to cover in the lead-up to this game. Should Stevens have said what he did? Probably not. But this is, for the most part, a non-story, and people need to shut up about it. Anyhoo, back to the analysis....

Time to look at the man behind the machine, Ben Roethlisberger: 62.7%, 2385 yds, 17 TDs, 9 INTs, 98.6 rating
Back at our favorite Football Outsiders site, Big Ben ranked 8th in the NFL for Quarterbacks Per Game (and yes, they do take injuries into account). However, his growth was really seen in his play-making ability as he ranked 3rd in DVOA (Defense Adjusted Value over Average), basically meaning he was one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league each time he held the ball. The 8th ranking is actually more of an indictment of Pitt's red zone offense than anything else. Cowher obviously has been paying attention to this franchise quarterback, as Ben has been THE offense in the postseason, with an absurd 68.1% completion percentage, 7 TDs, only 1 INT, and a ridiculous 124.8 passing rating. There is nothing flukey about this performance. Roethlisberger has obviously turned into a franchise quarterback, and franchise quarterbacks can get on rolls like this. While we as Hawks fans should hope he has a setback, there is nothing in these numbers to suggest he will do that without help.

Colin: The game that I knew Big Ben was for real was last season against the Dallas Cowboys on the road. Ben was just great, and was the actual leader of the win. He was in control, and just seemed so calm under the pressure of a Bill Parcells-led team. At that point I understood just how lucky Pittsburgh had gotten to have Ben fall to them after Eli and Phillip, two guys that he is, in my opinion, much better than. In fact, if we weren't playing them, I would probably be just gushing over his ability to come up with plays to help his team win.

The offense flows through this man. Never forget that. Don't let the media deceive you into thinking that the offense flows through Bettis or Parker. Oh no. The offense rises or falls with Big Ben, and he has been excellent this entire season besides a game or two that he was struggling with his hurt thumb.

Final point about Ben: Do not, Seahawks fans, predict that he will succumb to the pressure of playing in the Super Bowl and will have a poor game. If he makes mistakes, it will be because we FORCE him to make mistakes. His decision-making will be fine. His touch will be fine. His poise in the pocket will be fine. It will be up to our front four to get adequate pressure on him and throw him a little off his rhythm.

Where would that help come from? Maybe the wide receivers... of course led by one of the top five in the league, Hines Ward. Ward of course led the Steelers with 975 yards and 11 TDs. Again, the total shouldn't be confused with a lack of talent, just a lack of opportunities. You put Ward in St. Louis and he blows everyone away. Ward is aggressive and wily, using his body to push even larger cornerbacks off his routes. Although there aren't great stats out there to judge wide receiver value, Ward is ranked as the 6th best receiver in football at Football Outsiders. The #2 receiver is Antwaan Randle El. I'm not worried about Randle El as a receiver. He only had 35 catches this past year and I've always felt he was overrated as a route runner. However, he is extremely dangerous as a return specialist (I'm looking at you, Tom Rouen) and on the reverse/screen. We won't be able to stay on him in the same way we did Steve Smith, so we should expect to see at least one screen/reverse during the game to get Randle El's playmaking ability involved. The unsung hero until the postseason has been Cedric Wilson, who did nothing the first 16 games, but is leading the team now in yardage. All this illustrates is that we finally are facing a team who could care less who gets the ball, just that they're open. No one dimensional Santana Moss, Steve Smith passing offense. We're not even done...

Colin: Don't forget those trick plays that the Steelers run through Randle El and the passing game. It is 100% certainty that they will throw out at least one of these under the bright lights of the Super Bowl, and it will be up to our secondary to stay disciplined and ready for the inevitable. Can Tatupu outsmart Whisenhunt?

I love Hines Ward. He's one of my favorite players in the NFL. He just gets the job done, and he is one of the classiest individuals in the league. He is tremendous at finding the soft spot in the zone, and it will be a challenge for Trufant to handle him in single coverage. As Gavin stated, Cedric Wilson has been huge the past three games, and Dyson/Herndon won't be able to sluff off him at all. We must respect all the weapons that the Steelers bring to the table, or Big Ben will find the weak spot in our coverage with ease. He is terrific at distributing the ball to the open receiver and taking what the defense gives him.

The biggest threat I believe to us stopping this team is TE Heath Miller. After Jeremy Shockey destroyed us, any time we've faced a good TE, I've been worried. Tennessee, remember, ate us alive from that spot. Well, Heath Miller is a great TE. He ranks as the 5th best in football on Outsiders, and catches 75% of balls thrown in his direction, denoting excellent adjustment abilities and hands. He is the ultimate safety valve and Roethlisberger knows it. We have to slow him down.

Colin: Ben Troupe rocked us. Shockey rocked us. Whoever the 49ers have rocked us one game. Yep, the tight end position has been an extreme weak point for our defense. Ugh. My stomach hurts thinking about the possibilities here. I would be surprised if Miller DOESN'T catch a TD pass in this game. I'm dead serious. I will be extremely surprised.

Of course, the best way to disrupt an opposing passing attack is through pressure. So how did Pitt's offensive line do in protection? Finally we have some good news. Pitt allowed 32 sacks for the year at about an 8% per pass attempt clip. That ranks 23rd in the league. So perhaps there is some hope. In the playoffs, although, they have only allowed 5 sacks at a 7% rate, so there is improvement. Perhaps the Hawks can find a way.

What about those Hawks? Can they get pressure? Can they contain Heath Miller and Hines Ward? Let's start with the defensive line. The Hawks (as we are well aware) led the league in sacks with 50 sacks. If we adjust it to a per pass attempt number, we actually drop to 6th at a 7.8% rate. Not too shabby. The great thing about our pass rush is that we can come from any direction. Bryce Fisher or Grant Wistrom off the edge. Rocky Bernard or Marcus Tubbs up the middle. Lofa Tatupu or Leroy Hill on the blitz. In the playoffs we have been able to generate pressure against two good solid offensive lines with our front four. If that can happen we will disrupt the long routes the Steelers run.

Our pass defense has been spotty at best statistically, which I actually beg off due to the extent of injuries suffered by our corners (and of course Ken Hamlin). So a seasonal perspective doesn't do us justice (nor does it, as we are ranked 24th in the league). Here's the important stat on our passing defense. It is disciplined. We do not give up long plays and we stay where we are supposed to be. This explains our #2 red zone defense (terrific news against a team like Pittsburgh). We stuffed Peyton Manning and that offense twice deep without two of our top three starting corners. I've been searching for a site that lists how many pass plays of 30+ yards we allowed per game but can't. Oh well. I suppose for once this week you are going to have to take my word for it. Maybe Colin can show me up.

Colin: Nope. Tried but no luck.

A statistical objective stance on pass defense is difficult, but here is what we know. If you give Ben Roethlisberger time he will pick you apart. He has too many weapons and is too good of a decision maker. Seattle has to exploit Pittsburgh's protection problems and generate pressure with their front four. They need to shore up the zone and don't allow the vertical passing game to flourish. Can this happen? Since I believe we can stop the run with 7 men, I do think we won't allow huge pass plays. However, I don't think we will stop them in their tracks. Look for us to get a couple of sacks and decent pressure, but to give up 250 yards. To win, we need to continue our red zone prowess and not tack two TDs next to those 250 yards.

Colin: Big Ben will definitely throw for at least 200 yards. That's a given, and it is extremely likely that he will get up to 300 yards. Gavin is correct. Our pass defense needs to be predicated on a bend-not break mentality where he might get those yards, but he only gets one TD, and he perhaps throws at least one INT or maybe two. That would be a successful game by the secondary. Look for Boulware to, at the very least, come close to an interception. He's a big game player, and he will find something to key off of, especially by the 2nd half. Overall, this matchup is, best case, a wash, and probably a slight advantage for Pittsburgh. If we lose this game, I believe this will be the cause, as it will allow the Steelers to convert 3rd downs, eat up the clock, and keep the Seahawks' offense out the field.

posted by Gavin @ 2:51 PM  0 comments

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