Digesting the Steelers

Happy Friday, friends.  I’ve been sick lately with a cold for the last few days, so I decided that going a little light today was better than nothing, since I wasn’t able to go heavy.  On Sunday afternoon, the Broncos play the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I respectfully dislike the Steelers, but I disrespectfully hate their idiot fans.  You probably know a few, but I know a lot of them, living two hours from Pittsburgh, and they’re just insufferable.  The Steelers fan knows nothing about football, and all they can say is “Six rings.”  Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of the yahoos will be at the game on Sunday, due to some piker Broncos fans selling off their tickets (to a playoff game!!!!!!!) 

I don’t really love the Broncos’ chances in this game, but making the playoffs is an accomplishment worthy of using your tickets on.  I don’t know, I’m the guy that says you should support your team even if you don’t like a specific player or a coach, and around here, I feel like that makes me old-fashioned sometimes.  In fantasy football, we can all pick which players to like!  <vomits/>

Thoughts on the Game

1.  The Steelers are tremendous in pass defense, so if this is the game that anybody is looking for a Tebow breakout, it’s probably not going to happen, and it would be foolish to try that hard to make it happen.  Pittsburgh plays mostly zone coverages, and their LBs are all excellent in coverage.  As much as guys like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are known as pass rushers, they’re just as good in coverage.  The very best passing offenses can have success against Pittsburgh, but obviously, that’s not the Broncos.  They’ll need to have success in the running game and have that lead to success in the play action game.

2.  More than in recent years, you can run the ball some on the Steelers.  ILB James Farrior and NT Casey Hampton are starting to fade, so the middle is the best place to go, as long as you can get a hat on ILB Lawrence Timmons, who is excellent.

3.  The Steelers defense is elite primarily because of Troy Polamalu, who is one of the best ever at being able to spot a subtle presnap clue to the offense’s intentions, and then getting to the spot early.  He reads offenses presnap like Peyton Manning reads defenses, and it’s like having a 12th defender out there.  Polamalu has the freedom to just go to where he thinks he needs to go, and that makes Ryan Clark (who won’t be playing) very important.  It’s on Clark to see what Polamalu is doing, and adjust accordingly.  That is, if the called play is Cover-2, and Clark is supposed to take a deep half, if he then sees Polamalu run toward the line of scrimmage, he has to adjust to being single-high, and playing the deep middle.  It will be interesting to see if the Steelers can count on Ryan Mundy to play the Clark role.

4.  Going away from Harrison is a really good idea.  He’s as good a three-way OLB as there is in the NFL.  Von Miller should study tape of how Harrison almost never gets out of position in the run game because he’s coming too hard on a pass rush.  I’d almost like Harrison as a player, but he refuses to stop leading with his helmet, and I can’t like any player who takes that ignorant an approach to the game.

5.  I want to mention offensive play-calling for the Broncos, because it’s been a key topic of discussion here lately, and since I know a fair bit about the subject, I thought I should weigh in.  There is a contingent of people, who seemingly want to blame the offense’s struggles entirely on Tim Tebow, who opine that Mike McCoy’s play-calling is above reproach.  There’s another group, who seemingly want to completely exonerate Tebow from all blame, who say that McCoy‘s play-calling is terrible, and he’s a bum, and he should be fired.

I think that both groups are blinded by absolute marriage to their Tebow position, and it’s making them wrong about the play-calling.   The answer is in the middle, like in most things.  McCoy calls a defensible game every week, which takes into account Tebow’s strength as a runner and current shortcomings as a pocket passer.  McCoy clearly knows that his offensive line is above-average in the run game and below-average in protection, and that’s also got to be a major consideration.  This team needs to be very run-heavy, and it is.  From a scheme perspective, I have no quarrel at all with what McCoy is doing.

From a play-calling perspective, I think that McCoy has fallen a bit too in love with running straight up the middle against stacked boxes, and it's gotten too predictable, from formations and personnel groupings, when that's going to be the call.  I’ve heard varying stories about how much freedom Tebow has to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage, (I tend to trust John Fox’s claim that he has a lot) but at a minimum, he should be allowed to count the guard box and the tackle box, and adjust a run-call to the most advantageous area.   A lot of times this season, the Broncos have run into a bad count on first and second down, gotten stuffed, and set up a tough-to-impossible third down.

I also think McCoy loses some opportunities to run and/or throw successfully by not using enough extra WRs outside, and forcing the defense to match them with extra CBs.  If teams won’t match them, then fine, we’ll throw to the WRs, and let the LBs chase them.  I don’t think that changing up the personnel groupings has been explored quite enough this season.

I don’t quibble at all with a lot of running and play-action, because this team needs to do those things.  I just think that the running game has gotten less flexible recently and needs to be more responsive to what the defense is doing.  I also think that more play-action on earlier downs is a smart thing to do, in the service of staying on schedule. 

Is McCoy’s play-calling crippling the Broncos’ offense?  No.  Could it be better at times?  Yes.  I think we all need to remember that McCoy is only slightly more experienced as a play-caller than Tebow is as a QB.  McCoy has 20 games of regular-season experience, and Tebow has 14 starts.  If you’re inclined to think of either as a finished product, I think you’re making a mistake.  The hilarious thing to me is that the people who want to throw Tebow overboard now are the ones who defend McCoy, and the ones who see a good future in Tebow are the ones who want McCoy strung up.  It’s very likely that both are learning as they go, and that both have some upside over what we’ve seen so far, as they gain further experience.

6.  As for Tebow, I’m going to need him to throw that in-cut on time and count on the receiver to get open.  As Phil Simms mentioned last week, Tebow needs to have a better sense of what “open” is in the NFL.  This has been the Broncos’ best pass play over the last month or so.

The yellow throw-line coming 4 yards short of the receiver on a 13-yard throw is a function of the play-design software I use, and it’s not meant as a commentary on Tebow’s throwing tendencies. (Laugh, damn it.)  This play is simply a quick play-action pass with the action going right, and Tebow comes back left to throw the in-cut to the X receiver. The Broncos are counting on the X to get separation off his cut against a single man-to-man defender.  The receiver is going to cut at a specific depth, and this should be a muscle-memory throw for the QB.   If the FS drifts to near the catch point, which he shouldn’t (if the play-fake is effective), Tebow can go to the slot guy in the flat, or he can decisively run the ball to his left.  All are fine options, but lately, Tebow has been holding the ball and waiting for some secondary opening, which hasn’t been coming because the defense is given time to recover.

Simms showed a couple times last week where Decker wasn’t real open on that in-cut, but he was open enough to get the ball to him, and Tebow didn’t throw it.  Tim needs to trust the receiver to get to his spot, and if the FS is out of the play, he needs to throw the ball.  Sometimes these timing plays get intercepted on a great play by the CB or a bad play by the WR, and dumbasses blame the QB, but Tim’s job there is to make the quick FS read, throw the ball to a spot, and trust the plan.  That’s what John Elway meant by pulling the trigger, and I couldn’t agree more.

7.  Retired for the aforementioned Mr. Elway

8.  I think it’s really interesting to see what tack the Steelers will take with their defense.  Asking them to do what the Bills and Chiefs did would be like asking a leopard to change his spots.  The Steelers like to rush aggressively, and I’m not sure that mush rushing suits them.  I can tell you right now that man coverage doesn’t suit them as well as zone does either.  I would expect that the Steelers will line up and do what they always do, and the Broncos will plan to beat that kind of approach.  In an interesting way, I think the Broncos will have a better pregame read on what the Steelers will do defensively than they’ve had on anybody all season.  We’ll see how much it helps.

9.  As for the Steelers offense, it’s a little bit vulnerable right now.  The injuries at RB and on the offensive line threaten to prevent the Steelers from running very effectively.  They’re actually a pretty pass-heavy team, so that may not make a huge difference, but being one-dimensional is never preferred.  Losing Rashard Mendenhall hurts, but I think the bigger loss is Mewelde Moore, who is one of those Kevin Faulk-type of guys who contribute something on every play when they're on the field.

10.  The danger with the Steelers is outside.  Their WR corps is excellent, led by Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who both caught passes for over 1,100 yards, and who both averaged more than 16 yards per catch.  The sub-package guys are the diminishing Hines Ward, and Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.  TE Heath Miller also caught 51 passes this year, so you can’t forget about him either.  This group presents a serious coverage challenge for any team, and the Broncos are going to need a great performance by the back 7 in coverage Sunday.

11.  As for Ben Roethlisberger, he’s looked like he’s not quite himself since he injured the ankle in the first Cleveland game on December 8th.  It’s been a month since then, but Roethlisberer admitted to a setback in last week’s game, and he didn’t look very good.  I think that this will be a game where the Broncos need to just say the hell with it, and heat the QB up.  Roethlisberger is at his best when he breaks contain, and he hasn’t been able to do that at all in recent weeks.  Make him a sitting target, come after him from both edges, and hope that the coverage holds up.  If you let him improvise, it definitely won't.

That’s all the time I have for today, friends.  Have a nice weekend, and let’s root for the Broncos on Sunday. The first playoff appearance in six years is exciting, even if your team is 12th with a bullet in terms of the talent levels of the 12 remaining playoff teams.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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