"You are educated when you have the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing your temper or self-confidence." - Robert Frost

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Steelers Weeks 5 - 6

Steelers  16    Eagles  14

@Pittsburgh    -4    Philadelphia    44    -205  +175
Projected Win Probability:    65.15%

Titans  26    Steelers 23

Pittsburgh    -6    @Tennessee    43    -260  +220
Projected Win Probability:  70.49%

The Steelers really had a chance last week to make some noise in a weak AFC.  A squeaker at home vs. the Eagles was greatly helped by a couple Michael Vick fumbles and a clutch 4th quarter comeback drive by Ben Roethlisberger and the offense.

Despite the Sunday injuries to Troy Polamalu and Lamarr Woodley, many fans (including myself) thought a win versus a slumping Titans team on Thursday combined with yet another layoff to get healthy might lead to better things as we head into our mid-season divisional matchups.

But another inconsistent first half offensively, a special teams breakdown to give the Titans seven free points and a defense that just couldn’t get off the field (the Titans ran 42 plays in the first half vs. 26 for the Steelers) contributed to a 16-10 halftime deficit.

Things also didn't look good on the offensive line as both Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert left with injuries.  Combine that with Mendenhall leaving the game after one run in the 3rd quarter (a fitting -2 yard loss) and it was a depressing performance all around.

The Steelers still gave it a run (maybe just to tease us) and Roethlisberger led the team on two long scoring drives to start the second half and take a 23-16 lead to start the 4th quarter.  The hopes of Steeler Nation to get a win and get out of dodge looked positive at this point.

But yet again, the defense broke down in the 4th quarter making the 37-year old Matt Hasselbeck look like John Elway.  The Titans rallied with a 12-play, 80 yard drive that included three 3rd down conversions (3rd and 8, 3rd and 10 and 3rd and 5) to tie the game with four minutes left.

Again, hope was not lost as Roethlisberger looked to engineer a second field goal drive to win it in five days.  Steeler Nation was again tentatively optimistic and pinned our hopes on the shoulders of Roethlisberger.

But the drive failed inexplicably so close to field goal range (after a few huge plays to get us there) at the Titan’s 36 yards line.  Mike Tomlin poorly decided to let Shaun Suisham attempt a 54 yarder on grass (would have been Suisham’s career long) and it came up short by a couple of yards.  With great field position, Hasselbeck again found a hole in the Steelers’ defense and got the one play needed to give them a shot to win in regulation and the Titans hit the 40 yarder to win it.

I was more in shock at first than anything.  Then angry.  Really angry.

I can’t tell you the last time I've been this angry at the Steelers.  It wasn't just the loss, but all the contributing factors to the loss.  Ones we've seen time and again and frustrate so many fans year after year.  Penalties on special teams.  Poor offensive line play.  Inconsistent running game.  Poor late game clock management and decisions making.  Defensive breakdowns and 3rd downs allowed in the 4th quarter.

You couldn't write a script that would upset Steelers fan more than what happened last Thursday.

The lack of late defensive stops is now not the icing on the cake, but maybe the whole cake.  Look at the list of 4th quarter possessions against this season:

14:11 to 9:23       Denver 20           10 plays, 80 yards             6 first downs      Touchdown
8:18 to 3:00         Denver 37           12 plays, 51 yards             4 first downs      Field Goal

14:53 to 13:47    NYJ 20                   3 plays, 22 yards               1 first down        Punt
3:34 to 3:04         NYJ 17                   3 plays, 0 yards                  0 first down        Punt
1:07 to 0:00         NYJ 18                   6 plays, 49 yards               3 first downs      End of Game

1:31 to 12:13       Oakland 20          11 plays, 90 yards             6 first downs      Touchdown
10:45 to 6:30       Oakland 36          9 plays, 29 yards               3 first downs      Field Goal
1:43 to 0:00         Oakland 25          9 plays, 49 yards               3 first downs      Field Goal

14:51 to 6:33       Phila 21                 17 plays, 79 yards             6 first downs      Touchdown

13:34 to 9:56       Tenn 25                6 plays, 27 yards               2 first downs      INTERCEPTION
8:18 to 4:19         Tenn 20                11 plays, 75 yards             5 first downs      Touchdown
0:49 to 0:00         Tenn 45                5 plays, 33 yards               1 first down        Field Goal

The Steelers defense has allowed 40 points on 12 fourth quarter possessions (3.33/drive), but what is most disturbing is an almost unheard of 86.2% drive success rate against (that’s the percentage of 1st and 10 situations that end in either a first down or touchdown).  And remember two of the so-called “stops” were really end of game field goal attempts.  This defense literally only gets a stop in a 1st in 10 situation 10% of the time in the 4th quarter.

That’s as bad a defensive statistic as I have ever studied, recorded or researched.

Something is terribly wrong with our defense and it is possibly systemic in nature (which means there are so many problems, they can’t all be fixed).  Certainly talent is an issue, but so is coaching and defensive planning (with this particular group of players).

It’s probably too early in the season to list ideas and fixes.  I have many in my head right now rolling around (as do many other Steelers fans).  The problem is good fixes (the ones that really help) need to be implemented in the off-season.  They need to be incorporated into the Program and start with off-season front office decisions and lead into coaching points during OTA’s and season preparation in training camp.

I’m sure Tomlin and Lebeau are going to do some things different week-to-week, but those are cosmetic in nature.  They aren’t really going to fix the team.

In my anger, I was about ready to write-off the 2012 Steelers’ season.  But Sunday’s games again give us a ray of hope.  Currently only two teams in the AFC have 2 or fewer wins (Baltimore and Houston).  In the loss column we are tied with eight other teams.  We have yet to lose a divisional game and that brings its own opportunities (starting with Cincinnati next week).

I will be honest and say I’m not confident anymore.  This team is going to have to show me they can do it before I start believing in them again.  I still have some faith in the offense and in Roethlisberger (who is having a very good season).  I still like the changes Haley is bringing to that side of the ball.  But there are so many issues with injuries and defensive talent right now that I’d be a bit surprised if we can plug those holes in the ship and prevent our season from sinking.

I’ll keep an open mind for a few more weeks and am curious how we will fair versus Baltimore.  But if we have another month like we just had, I’ll start taking about fixes and the draft because the season will be lost.

Go Steelers.

NFL Power Rankings

1.  New York Giants (4-2)
2.  Atlanta Falcons (6-0)
3.  San Francisco 49ers (4-2)
4.  Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
5.  Houston Texans (5-1)
6.  New England Patriots (3-3)
7.  Green Bay Packers (3-3)
8.  Chicago Bears (4-1)
9.  Denver Broncos (3-3)
10.  Seattle Seahawks (4-2)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Raiders 34 Steelers 31

Pittsburgh   -3½    @Oakland    45    -200  +175
Projected Win Probability:  64.81%

Losing to Oakland was pretty ugly last Sunday and one that will sit with all of us for a while as the Steelers have an early bye next week.  In a season and schedule where getting 10 or 11 wins was doable but difficult, throwing away opportunities like last week are hard to swallow and could come back to haunt us.

For the second game this season, the defense failed to register ONE SINGLE STOP in the second half of the game.  Read that again.  No turnover, no punt, no turnover on downs.  Three drives by Denver (17 points) and now four drives by Oakland (20 points).  Six of those drives were 9+ plays, including all four last week.  You can’t win games like that, no matter how good your quarterback is playing (and Roethlisberger is arguably playing the best football of his career right now).

In this week’s press conferences, Dick Lebeau is talking about “trusting the system” and “don’t give up the big play” (although the Steelers only gave up one play over 18 yards last week).  Seems to me teams are dinking and dunking on us down the field more than getting big chunks of yards.  The players talk about “making a big play”.

I don’t know what to think.  When it comes to fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives, Tomlin/Lebeau have made opposing quarterbacks hall-of-famers on this stat since getting together in 2007.  Of the Steelers 30 losses, 19 have been classified this way by Pro Football Reference, including 13 that were comebacks (the Steelers HAD THE LEAD in the 4th quarter).

I have been trying to find perspective on this statistic.  Since 2007, the leading 4QC/GWD quarterbacks have been Eli Manning (21 of 59 victories), Peyton Manning (19 of 52) Drew Brees (18 of 57) and Ben Roethlisberger (16 of 47).  The Baltimore Ravens defense has allowed 4QC/GWD in 17 of their 34 losses since 2007.  The New England defense has allowed 11 in 22 losses.

Does that mean the Steelers blow games more than other good teams?  Maybe.  For good teams that lose 5-6 games a season, it’s not unrealistic to expect 50% of those to be some sort of 4th quarter comeback or game winning drive.  And the Steelers are 63% under Tomlin/Lebeau.  A little higher, yes, but not statistically abnormal either.

Maybe all this proves is that every good team loses games in the 4th quarter.  Not just the Steelers.  Not just Dick Lebeau’s defense or his system.  Do they suck when you watch them happen?  Yes.  Does is suck even more when it’s to Carson Palmer and the 1-2 Oakland Raiders?  Yes to that too.

If there is a concern it’s the fact both Oakland and Denver have not won a game besides beating us.  I’m not even sure how good our competition has been and if we are 1-2 vs. .500 teams (or worse). What’s going to happen when we see the Giants or the Ravens?

Just because it’s the bye week and I don’t feel like being miserable, I’m going to try and look at the glass half full.

Despite our up-and-down performances, I don’t think there’s another team in the league I’m super afraid of.  Who’s the best, really?  Atlanta?  Houston?  We lost to Houston last year 17-10 in their house and Atlanta scored TWO points in a playoff game less than 8 months ago.  San Francisco lost to Minnesota.  Green Bay is on pace to give up the most sacks ever.  The gauntlet of the NFC East isn’t particularly getting harder with issues in Philly and Dallas.

This team just needs to hang around and be ready when Baltimore comes to town.  That’s it.

And with the offense producing the way it is and with Roethlisberger playing at a high level, we should be able to do that even with the defense struggling at times.

I know there are problems.  I see them.  A lot of changes could be coming this off-season on the defensive side of the ball.  But those changes can’t happen now.  Tomlin and Lebeau aren’t going to panic and start making radical changes.  NFL Coaches just don’t do that.  They are pigheaded when it comes to sticking with their pre-season decisions on players, schemes, playbooks and plans.  Once the ball starts rolling in the season, that’s it.

We should be 2-1 and we’re 1-2.  I hate the loss in Oakland as much as anyone.  But there are possible wins all over our schedule and we just need to go get them.

Go Steelers!

NFL Power Rankings
Power rankings are based on who I believe would be favored on a neutral field if they played this week.

1.  Houston Texans (3-0)
2.  Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
3.  San Francisco 49ers (2-1)
4.  Green Bay Packers (1-2)
5.  New England Patriots (1-2)
6.  Atlanta Falcons (3-0)
7.  New York Giants (2-1)
8.  Arizona Cardinals (3-0)
9.  Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
10.  Chicago Bears (2-1)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steelers 27 Jets 10

at Pittsburgh     -4.5      NY Jets     43     -235  +195
Projected Win Probability:  68.13%

Similar to last season, the Steelers bounced back from a disappointing week 1 loss with a resounding home opener win.  However, unlike beating Seattle as two touchdown favorites in 2011, the Steelers dominated a more evenly matched 1-0 Jets team the final three quarters in route to a 27-10 victory.

Ben Roethlisberger and the new Todd Haley’s offense shined, peaking with a thrilling 10:13 touchdown drive in the 4th quarter that sealed the victory.  That was the Steelers longest drive since 2007 and helped bump the Steelers’ average time of possession to 35:51.  Roethlisberger played one of his more efficient games, generating a 150.3 deljzc rating and produced a very good 27 points on 9 meaningful possessions.  Just as important, Roethlisberger again for the most part avoided taking unnecessary punishments (3 sacks and 3 QB hits total).  That’s an acceptable total vs. a Rex Ryan coached defense in my opinion.

One area needing improvement is the run game, which still looks like a work in progress.  Similar to last week, the efficiency stats are poor (27 running back carries for 57 yards) but there was no panic with Haley’s playcalling.  In that final ten minute drive the team had 5 successful runes out of 7 attempts, which is cause for optimism.  This included three straight successful runs to finish the drive starting at 1st and 10 at the 13 yard line.  More than anything, when Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney talk about improving the run game, it is in these types of situations (leading and looking to grind out the game).

While I appreciate Isaac Redman’s work ethic, Jonathan Dwyer is showing superior running talent and has earned his split of carries (each had 12 rushes this week).  Dwyer has better success rate numbers over the first two weeks (52% vs. 26%) and fewer stops behind the line of scrimmage (2 vs. 5).  It will be curious to see how the touches get split moving forward, both now and when Mendenhall returns.  Knowing Mike Tomlin, the first fumble lost by either player could make a huge difference in play time as the season moves on.  Dwyer has greatly improved by losing weight and playing at 225 lbs. this season.  To me, that has always been his ideal play weight and helps him with speed and cutting ability.  Dwyer also looks like a type of back that could get better with more carries.  This is not a bash on Redman, but there is part of me that would like to see what happens if Dwyer is ever forced into a bellcow roll for four quarters.

Defensively, we still haven’t played a game with Harrison, Woodley and Polamalu on the field together (one of my keys to the season).  This week both Harrison and Polamalu were out and early in the game it looked troubling as the Jets put up a quick 10 points.  But the defense adjusted and locked down Mark Sanchez for the remainder of the game (at times in dominant fashion).  Good games by the secondary (Clark/Taylor) and Lamarr Woodley up front (1 sack and 2 hurries) contributed to the effort.

Maybe most important was how physical the Steelers played throughout.  For right or wrong, big helmet to helmet collisions to Shawn Green and Mark Sanchez (the latter illegal) effected momentum in the game.  In this regard the game was very Mike Tomlin-like and very Steelers-like.  Not sure we can keep it up for 16 weeks and remain healthy enough for the playoffs, but that’s what we do.

In fact, looking forward to our game at Oakland next week, one of the most important keys to the game will be to keep the physical intensity high.  The Raiders are a big, athletic team and if we aren’t prepared mentally or have a letdown after the Jets, could be trouble.  As for many west coast trips, I would hope the coaches simplify the game plan this week and concentrate more on fundamentals (protect the ball, clean tackles, avoid penalties) than complicated schemes to stop an inferior team.  If Roethlisberger plays a clean, even conservative game and avoids taking a pounding.  If the defense prevents the big plays like they are taught to do.  I don’t see Carson Palmer grinding out long drives nor putting up 24 points that it will take to beat us.

This game will only get away from us if the team isn’t focused and looking too forward to the upcoming week off.  It will only get away from us if we give them cheap points via interceptions, fumbles or special teams breakdowns.  So far Haley’s offense hasn’t allowed that to happen.

I hate to be so confident, but this is a game we shouldn’t lose and my expectations are even higher than what Vegas is telling me (Steelers are favored -4).  I see a huge coaching advantage (Haley vs. Oakland defense and Lebeau vs. Carson Palmer) that should be exploited for our benefit.

Go Steelers!

NFL Power Rankings
Power Rankings are based on who I would think would be favored on a neutral field if they played this week.

1.  San Francisco 49ers (2-0)
2.  Green Bay Packers (1-1) 
3.  Houston Texans (2-0)
4.  Baltimore Ravens (1-1)
5.  New England Patriots (1-1)
6.  Atlanta Falcons (2-0)
7.  Philadelphia Eagles (2-0)
8.  Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1)
9.  Denver Broncos (1-1)
10. New York Giants (1-1)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Broncos 31 Steelers 19

at Denver    -2.5    Pittsburgh     45½     -140  +120
Projected Win Probability:     43.56%

The Steelers opened up their 2012 season as underdogs for the third straight year Sunday night and underachieved for a second straight time in a disappointing 31-19 defeat to the hands of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

Similar to last season, I doubt I will write individual game-by-game articles this year, but had some time this week and thought I’d make some comments about the team’s Sunday night performance.  After a few days to let the results sink in and get inside the numbers, I am actually more discouraged than I was immediately following the loss.

Looking at the glass half full, Roethlisberger and the offense did have the ball with 3:00 left in the game, at their own 20 yard line, two timeouts needing a touchdown to win it.  Plenty of time and optimism considering the Steelers had scored on four of their previous five possessions (two of which were touchdowns).  Up to that point, Roethlisberger had scratched and clawed behind an injured offensive line to accumulate a 105.3 deljzc rating, despite an uncharacteristic 5.84 YPA.

Things were not to be however as Roethlisberger threw a pick-six in his third attempt and eliminated any chance of victory.

I was somewhat encouraged by Todd Haley’s first game playcalling.  He stuck with the run even with frustrating execution (67 yards on 23 running back carries), something Arians probably never would have done.  I do think that helped Roethlisberger stay upright most of the game (2 sacks up until that last, meaningless drive).

Execution on offense, in general, was poor and if not for Ben Roethlisberger’s heroics on third down could have led to a really bad looking game.  First down execution, in particular, was horrible producing only 79 yards on 26 plays.  Amazingly, we still had a 73.1% drive success rate, but that is an exception and not to be expected.

Overall, the offense (despite better playcalling) looked very similar to last year.  The offensive line play was very poor and injuries look to be part of the season again (although both Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster are expected to return week 2).  The lack of athleticism on the line continues to lead to too many guys on the ground.  That’s when injuries occur and I see nothing to suggest a change moving forward.

The real concern for me was on defense.  Peyton Manning, despite a year away from the game, improved his record to 7-1 vs. a Dick Lebeau defense.  He looked as good as ever, producing a 150.9 deljzc rating, and scoring on his last four possessions (3 touchdowns).  After starting strong in the 1st quarter, the Steelers defense was beat every time for the remainder of the game.  In fact, in those four drives, the Steelers only generated two 3rd and longs (stopping them on the second to force a field goal).  They literally weren’t even close to getting Manning off the field.

It was a bit demoralizing how easily Manning sliced through the defense.  His no huddle attack caught the Steelers with bad personnel grouping (particularly Casey Hampton at NT).  This forced Woodley to drop into coverage over 50% of his snaps on the field.  Combined with James Harrison’s injury, the pass rush looked anemic at times.  Chris Carter and Lawrence Timmons looked overmatched on the weak side and Larry Foote, although he filled up the stat sheet, didn’t make a real difference.

The secondary played below average as well.  Starting corners Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis allowed 12 of Manning’s 19 completions without a pass defended between them.  And both missed a tackle as well.  Ryan Clark’s absence hindered Polamalu’s ability to make impact plays and Manning seemed particularly adept at countering any improvisation Polamalu tried to do during the game.  Ryan Mundy played his usual below-average game covering the deep half.

While this wasn’t the 35-7 shellacking the Steelers got last year at Baltimore, it wasn’t as far off as some believe if not for some clutch 3rd down passes by Big Ben.

Next week is the Steelers home opener versus the visiting J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets.  They are coming off an “everything bounced our way” destruction of Buffalo and have a lot of confidence.  It will be a good test although Vegas already has the Steelers early 6 point favorites.

To improve, the Steelers must do a better job on 1st downs offensively and not get exposed with no-huddle attacks on defense.  Better use of defensive personnel will help (less Casey Hampton please) and both James Harrison and Ryan Clark are expected to play.  I hope the team is up to the challenge.

Go Steelers!

NFL Power Rankings
Power Rankings are based on who I would think would be favored on a neutral field if they played this week.

1.  San Francisco 49ers (1-0)
2.  Baltimore Ravens (1-0)
3.  New England Patriots (1-0)
4.  Green Bay Packers (0-1)
5.  Houston Texans (1-0)
6.  Denver Broncos (1-0)
7.  Atlanta Falcons (1-0)
8.  Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1)
9.  Chicago Bears (1-0)
10. Dallas Cowboys (1-0)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

2012 Steelers Season Preview

The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers
Season Preview

 The Steelers organization hobbled into the 2012 off-season after an injured December and an embarrassing playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos.  Change began with the firing of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians (replaced by Todd Haley) and retirements of past pro bowlers Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith.  And while the organization did its normal magic with the salary cap, free agency and draft, the lingering absence of Mike Wallace throughout camp kept negative attention on the team.

For all these reasons, the national media seems a bit down on the prospects of the Steelers repeating their 12-4 season a year ago.  Sports Illustrated has gone so far to degrade them to 8-8 and missing the playoffs.

I can’t deny there are real concerns with the roster this season that may or may not become so problematic to affect our record.  Preseason injuries to first round pick David DeCastro and third round pick Sean Spence highlight two positions that I think will be noticeably weak on game days:  offensive guard and right inside linebacker (“Buck”).  Spence was never projected to play strong side inside linebacker, but his loss further thins the group’s depth and will likely mean more snaps for Larry Foote.  While I have accepted Foote’s reacquisition in 2010 for depth purposes, I am greatly concerned at the idea of him getting 75% or more snap time on the defense.  Maybe Dick Lebeau will surprise me and scheme away from four linebackers at times, but history has shown him to sometimes be stubbornly loyal to slower veterans that understand his system.

At guard, the loss of Decastro means the reinsertion of Ramon Foster at right guard.  Foster was rated one of the lowest starters in the league by Pro Football Focus a year ago and I expect similar problems again.  Likewise, Willie Colon’s position switch to left guard as he attempts to come back from an Achilles tear is rife with uncertainty.  On some plays in preseason he looked woefully slow versus quicker 3-techniques.  The likely poor play at both guard spots will put pressure on Pouncey to try and do too much (like last year).  Overall, the middle of the offensive line is probably the weakest part of the team.

These are real concerns heading into week 1 of the season, before the grind starts to wear down and expose even more depth and roster issues.

Fortunately for the Steelers, this isn’t 1974 when being strong “up-the-middle” on offense and defense was almost a prerequisite for winning.  Today’s game is as much played outside the hash marks as in and on that front, the Steelers appear to have winning talent.

On offense, it will start and end with Ben Roethlisberger, his health, and his ability to run Todd Haley’s new system.  Last year the offense was woefully inconsistent with their ability to produce points.  Untimely turnovers, missed field goals and bad clock management contributed to an unheard of 16 trips into the red zone that produced zero points.  That’s a statistical anomaly that will not happen again, regardless of the offensive coordinator change (to put that into perspective the Steelers had only 18 trips into the red zone produce zero points in the THREE PREVIOUS SEASONS).

I fully expect some hiccups early in the season as Roethlisberger adjusts to the new play calling of Haley.  And with Wallace’s late arrival, there could be some mix ups in routes/passes.  But all signs point to a better offense and better points per possession than in 2011.  With Haley committing much needed practice time to the running game and screen game and with a healthy and talented stable of receivers, this should be an extremely balanced and potent attack that could hit stride following the team’s week 4 bye.

I can’t remember a time I was as positive about the skill positions as I am now with the Steelers.  Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Rashard Mendenhall, Emmanuel Sanders, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey, Jericho Cotchery, Wesley Saunders and Jon Dwyer all deserve touches.  All are legitimate NFL talents in my opinion.  All are under 30 except Cotchery (who just turned 30).  When people say the Steelers are “old”, it isn’t this group they are talking about.  While I understand both Wallace and Mendenhall aren’t under contract in 2013, that could benefit the Steelers this year as both look to increase their free agent value.

I am extremely anxious to see what Todd Haley does with all these “toys” and think the Steelers offense could be a much better unit than the nation media anticipates, even with the concerns on the offensive line.

The Steelers might need all the points they can get some weeks because the defense looks to be held together with duct tape, string and Dick Lebeau’s 74 year old mind.  The starting 11 on paper is still as strong a unit in the NFL.  While I have growing concerns with Larry Foote, this team is stacked with name recognition players:  Brett Keisel, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Lamarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.  And when these guys play together and have Lebeau’s guidance, good things normally happen.

It’s the other parts to the puzzle, the national “unknowns” that have question marks:

I am excited at the progress of the young cornerbacks:  Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown.  I am encouraged by undrafted Steve McLendon at nose tackle.  I am hopeful that first round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward start providing some impact plays.  I am concerned at the backup OLB spots if Jason Worilds or Chris Carter have to play multiple games.  And I am downright scared if we lose Clark or Polamalu for an extended time.

Excited - Encouraged - Hopeful - Concerned - Scared

 I don’t know how many or how deep on that list we go this year, but I suspect we will face more than Steeler Nation wants to.  The key to our season and playoff success could be more a matter or when than if.

Last season, the team played only the first 4 games with James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu healthy.  They generated a Lebeau-low of 15 turnovers.  And they still schemed a rather successful statistical season around that (4th in defensive passer rating, 8th in drive success rate, 3rd in points/possession).

Even with my hopes, concerns and fears, there is a part of me that says Lebeau and Tomlin will again easily scheme a top-10 defense.  That we’ll get enough mileage out of our 30-year old defenders and one or two young players will surprise more than anticipated.

And when you start putting together the likely statistical picture of this team, there is no way you get an 8-8 team like Peter King predicts.  There were too many negative, odd stats that should be corrected positively for the Steelers that will counterbalance the pessimisms the national media sees.

This team WILL score more in the red zone.  This team WILL generate more turnovers and not be minus 13 in turnover ratio.

Those two facts alone will make up a lot of other weaknesses.

All-in-all, the Steelers remain a title contender that when hitting on all cylinders is as balanced as any team in the NFL.  The top-end potential of the offense, defense and special teams is easily top-10 in all categories.  Key stats like passer rating differential, drive success rate and Football Outsiders DVOA continue to paint a picture of a solid and well put together team that will win more games than they lose.

Las Vegas likes us for 10 wins.  I say we finish one better at 11-5 and contend for a divisional championship and first round bye in the playoffs.  Mike Tomlin has overachieved in regular season win totals three out of the last four seasons and I see another successful campaign for him and the team.

Success in the playoffs will be much trickier to predict and I hope we can avoid health issues and/or a bad matchup that would lead to another embarrassing playoff exit.  The fact the regime of Tomlin/Roethlisberger has already lost to Del Rio/Gerrard and Fox/Tebow in the playoffs is bad enough.  When and if this team makes the playoffs, I will have higher standards regardless of peripheral issues.

It’s now time to sit back and let the story of the 2012 Steelers season write itself.  I’m excited and anxious as the season draws to its start.

Go Steelers!!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2012 Preseason Playoff Predictions

Based on my NFC and AFC predictions below here is how I predict the playoffs happening:


New England (1)
Pittsburgh (2)
Houston (3)
San Diego (4)
Baltimore (5)
Denver (6)


Green Bay (1)
New Orleans (2)
Philadelphia (3)
San Francisco (4)
Chicago (5)
NY Giants (6)

Wildcard Round
New York Giants 23 @  Philadelphia 24
Chicago 27  @  San Francisco 20

Denver 21  @  Houston 27
Baltimore 24  @  San Diego 20

Divisional Round
Chicago 17  @  New Orleans 35
Philadelphia 27  @  Green Bay 31

Houston 17  @  Pittsburgh 29
Baltimore 24  @  New England 27

Conference Championships
New Orleans 38  @  Green Bay 33
Pittsburgh 30  @  New England 31

Super Bowl 44
New Orleans Saints 31
New England Patriots 25

2012 AFC Predictions

AFC EAST (vs. AFC South and NFC West)

New England Patriots 11-13 wins
Over 12 (-120)  Under 12 (-110)
Over 12 (-115)  Under 12 (-115)

I’ll stick right with Vegas on this one and think the Patriots grab another 12 win season and the AFC East title for the 9th time in the last ten seasons.  The Patriots year will again hinge on a questionable pass defense (particularly at critical points in the game) and how the offense handles the occasional aggressive press-man defense that can get to Brady.

Buffalo Bills 7-9 wins
Over 7½ (-165)  Under 7½ (+135)
Over 8 (-105)  Under 8 (-125)

Buffalo might not be a bad play on the over this season depending on how you feel about the Jets.  With the questionable NFC West and AFC South on the schedule, if the Jets falter there are opportunities for both Buffalo and/or Miami to surprise and exceed expectations.  Buffalo made a splash in free agency getting Mario Williams and now have as talented a defensive line as any in football.  The secondary will have to be opportunistic and Fitzpatrick avoid the midseason slump he had a year ago for Buffalo to get above .500 and threaten the playoffs.  They also have to stick together through a rough first half schedule and then make their run on an extremely easy last 7 games (MIA, @IND, JAX, STL, SEA, @MIA, NYJ).

New York Jets  6-8 wins
Over 8½ (-135)  Under 8½ (+105)
Over 8½ (-150)  Under 8½ (+120)

I like the under bet on the Jets this season and think the pressure cooker of New York, Sanchez, Tebow, Holmes and Ryan is just too much to overcome.  How the Jets stack up in the division could be decided early with a home contest vs. Buffalo and a road game at Miami sandwiched around a tough road game at Pittsburgh.  The Jets could easily lose all three of those games if not prepared and that could derail the entire season.

Miami Dolphins 5-7 wins
Over 7½ (+160)  Under 7½ (-200)
Over 7 (+105)  Under 7 (-135)

While the betting odds are terrible, going the under seems a no brainer to me even with the favorable schedule.  I really question where the threats are for this team on offense and any struggles early could mean quarterback changes and a disruptive season.  While I do think the defense is extremely talented, it will be a tough task for them to carry the team with a likely turnover prone quarterback situation.

AFC NORTH (vs. AFC West and NFC East)

Pittsburgh Steelers  10-12 wins
Over 10 (-110)  Under 10 (-120)
Over 10 (-115)  Under 10 (-115)

Vegas has handicapped the Steelers dead on 10 wins, while I am a bit more optimistic and see them as a very solid 11 win team this year.  I like the changes so far this off-season and if not for the contract stalemate with Mike Wallace would be even more bullish about their 2012 season outcome.  When you gamble on the Steelers however, you are gambling on health.  If Roethlisberger stays reasonably healthy and the Steelers defense keeps the big three of Harrison, Woodley and Polamalu on the field (something they had only the first 4 games last year), then there is no way this team is a 9 win or worse team.  Sweeping their prime time games (@DEN, @TEN, @CIN, KC and BAL) is doable and will put the Steelers as strong, national AFC favorites.

Baltimore Ravens  9-11 wins
Over 10 (-105)  Under (-125)
Over 10 (+100)  Under 10 (-130)

I don’t like the Ravens to repeat as a 12 win team and think they have a better chance or disappointing this season than most.  The loss of Terrell Suggs takes a lot away from this defense in my opinion and I’m not convinced the young talent behind him is capable of being even half the disruptive force he was on the weak side.  Suggs’ huge impact in the Steelers matchups alone can’t be overlooked since those games decide the division.

Cincinnati Bengals  6-8 wins
Over 8½ (+160)  Under 8½ (-200)
Over 8 (-120)  Under 8 (-110)

Another tempting bet ruined by the bad vigorish.  The Bengals will greatly struggle this season with the rise of competition level.  While they have a lot to be optimistic about moving forward and are finally home growing a talented group of players, this offense is not ready for the gauntlet of the NFC East and Pittsburgh/Baltimore twice.  Unless either Baltimore or Pittsburgh falls off the map due to injury, Cincinnati will again be the bridesmaid.  If Dalton has any sophomore slump as defenses adjust to him, the Bengals will struggle to improve last season’s 1.66 points per possession (20th) and 64.2% drive success rate (24th).

Cleveland Browns  3-5 wins
Over 5½ (+120)  Under 5½ (-150)
Over 5 (-130)  Under 5 (+100)

It is possible Cleveland will be underdogs in all 16 games this season.  With new ownership watching over the shoulder of Holmgren on down, this could be a season that instigates another cyclical change of power.  Much of the Browns season will hinge on their early matchups with Ohio rival, Cincinnati.  If they can exceed expectations and split those contests, maybe they can find a win or two elsewhere on the schedule.  This is one of the most solid under bets in the sportsbook right now.

AFC SOUTH (vs. AFC East and NFC North)

Houston Texans  8-11 wins
Over 10½ (-117)  Under 10½ (-113)
Over 10 (-130)  Under 10 (+100)

Houston looked like the AFC team to beat before Matt Schaub went down with an injury last November.  But there have been significant changes to the offensive line this offseason and losing Gregg Knapp as quarterbacks coach might not be insignificant.  It will be interesting how this team handles success and high expectations.  They were a statistical juggernaut in 2011 when Schaub was at the helm (top 7 offense, top 5 defense) and I question whether they can maintain that type of excellence again this season.

Tennessee Titans  6-8 wins
Over 7 (-150)  Under 7 (+120)
Over 7 (-150)  Under 7 (+120)

The Titans of 2011 were as average as any team could be and I see nothing to change that going forward into 2012.  Hasselbeck led a pretty anemic offense (1.65 points per possession) and the defense relied too much on fumble recoveries (4th) to bank on them to keep things close again.  This is a boring team and it’s only a matter of time before Locker gets his chance, likely at the cost of a few victories.

Indianapolis Colts 5-7 wins
Over 5½ (+180)  Under 5½ (-220)
Over 5 (-130)  Under 5 (+100)

 There are winnable games on this schedule (Vikings, Jacksonville, Browns, Titans, Bills and Dolphins at home) and it will come down to really how ready Andrew Luck is for primetime.  The Colts aren’t as bad as their 2-12 record suggests and think they can be a tough out at home when their still decent pass rush can cause teams problems.  The Colts time in the AFC South cellar is a lot shorter than some think.

Jacksonville Jaguars 4-6 wins
Over 5½ (+130)  Under 5½ (-160)
Over 5 (-130)  Under 5 (+100)

Unlike the Colts, Jacksonville’s schedule is stacked against them with most of the easier opponents on the road and an extremely tough home schedule (CIN, CHI, DET, NYJ and NE out of division).  They won’t be favored in any of those contests and that means a team with little heart to start with and questionable quarterback play has to find wins on the road.  I don’t see that happening and see a team primed for a top-5 pick.

AFC WEST (vs. AFC North and NFC South)

San Diego 9-11 wins
Over 9 (-125)  Under 9 (-105)
Over 9 (-115)  Under 9 (-115)

San Diego burned me last year picking them “over” but I’m going to continue to bet on the best offense and quarterback in the division and hope the league’s 28th ranked forced turnover defense corrects itself.  For all that went wrong with San Diego last year and them still ending up 8-8 seems to portend a nice bounce back season.  Early September road games against OAK and KC will determine how good San Diego’s season will be as they can establish a clear stranglehold on the division by their week 7 bye week (they play DEN at home week 6).

Denver Broncos 8-11 wins
Over 8½ (-165)  Under 8½ (+135)
Over 9 (-120)  Under 9 (-110)

A bet against Denver is a bet against the health of Peyton Manning.  With his neck recovery still “ongoing” it’s only reasonable to hinge the team’s entire success to that outcome.  On paper, Denver looks to have a chance at the division title.  But the ingredients could yield all sorts of results.  Hosting the Steelers opening week on Sunday night is a huge litmus test for their season.  I think the Steelers are out for revenge and if Manning falters could be the beginning of a lot more questions than answers.

Kansas City Chiefs 6-8 wins
Over 8 (-110)  Under 8 (-120)
Over 8 (-115)  Under 8 (-115)

I really like the under on Kansas City’s win total this season.  I don’t think this is a skilled team and I have no faith that Romeo Crennell is the answer or long term coaching solution.  Kansas City is blaming too much of their 2011 season on injuries for my liking and think their failures are more systemic than many think.

Oakland Raiders  5-7 wins
Over 7 (+105)  Under 7 (-135)
Over 7 (+100)  Under 7 (-130)

Oakland continues to go through changes in the wake of Al Davis’ passing.  Oakland was as bad as any defense in football last season and woefully inconsistent.  Combine that with an inconsistent and turnover prone offense and you get a recipe for a big setback from their 8-8 season a year ago.  Carson Palmer’s 16 interceptions in 10 games are bound to improve but Palmer still hasn’t shown any glimpse of his former pro bowl self.  With another new coaching staff this team could be headed towards more rebuilding in the near future.