Saturday, January 31, 2009

Super Bowl Game Thoughts --- 2

The Arizona offense demonstrated its potency when it jumped all over a good Eagle defense and got a big lead early. It was just flat-out impressive when it put together a 9+ minute drive against that defense in the 4th quarter after the Eagles had stormed back to take the lead. The Steeler defense has its work cut out. They will need to hit the Cardinals really hard from the get-go; physical domination will adversely affect a passing offense. Anyway, the defense has carried the Steelers all year and hopefully will be up to the task in the Super Bowl.

You know that Whisenhunt has got a gimmick play or two up his sleeve to try and catch the Steeler D napping or in over-pursuit. I wonder whether the Steeler D has some idea on how/when to smell those out. Also, I wonder whether Dick LeBeau has a gimmick or two (aside from his blitz schemes of course) that will wreak havoc on Arizona's offense.

On the other side of the ball, the Steeler offense should take heart from how the Eagles managed to move the ball on the Cardinals. Also, the Cardinals pass defense surrendered the most TDs of any team during the regular season and during the post-season. So while the running game is important to control the clock and the flow of the game for the Steelers, I believe Roethlisberger will have his chances to win the game through the air regardless of the running game.

Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller are all key receivers, obviously, but Nate Washington and even Limas Sweed could have big games. Washington, like Holmes, seems to be a favorite deep target for Roethlisberger and should have his shots in the game given the track record of the Cardinals secondary.

And I have a hunch about Sweed. He dropped a sure TD late in the 2nd qtr of the Baltimore game and then complicated it by writhing around on the field (when he should have been hustling out even if winded) and costing the team a timeout. On that one play Sweed cost the Steelers at least three points (seven, really, by dropping the damn ball). But I was impressed by how he came back in the second half and tried to make amends. He made a big 3rd down catch as well as an awesome crushing block. I liked his spirit—instead of sulking/worrying/moping he just got back and made some plays when given the chance. Mostly, I can’t get over how wide open he got against a good Baltimore defense—if he can get by the Ravens secondary by that much I think he should be able to put some moves on the Arizona secondary too. I think he’s champing at the bit to prove himself and can make a couple of big plays if given the chance.

I hope Ben Roethlisberger has a great game. He has, despite his lukewarm stats this year, carried this team on the offensive side by putting together drives when it mattered most. Despite only being backed up by an average running game and inconsistent O-line play, Ben has successfully navigated this team through a brutal schedule this year. Yes, the defense has been dominant and primarily responsible for the team’s success, but without Roethlisberger’s quarterbacking they wouldn’t have made it this far. He deserves to have a great, winning, Super Bowl outing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Super Bowl Game Thoughts—1


I hope that the Steelers plan to use Mewelde Moore a fair bit on offense. I think it would be unwise to bank too heavily, or exclusively, on Willie Parker unless he is having an absolutely dominating evening right from the get-go. For the regular season, Moore gained 588 yards on 140 carries for an average of 4.2 yds per carry. By comparison, Parker gained 791 yds on 210 carries for an average of only 3.8 yds per carry. In addition, Moore had 40 receptions for 320 yds (8 yds per reception) while Parker had only 3 receptions for 13 yds (4.3 yds per reception). For the entire regular season therefore, Moore obtained 908 yds on 180 touches at 5 yds per touch, while Parker obtained 804 yds on 213 touches at 3.8 yds per touch. Also, Moore accounted for 6 TDs while Parker accounted for 5 TDs.

Parker was injured early in the season and was out for four straight games (against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cincinnati and the Giants. After Mendenhall’s season ended during the Baltimore game, Moore was the primary back for the Steelers for the remainder of this stretch and he ended up gaining 394 yds on 77 touches at 5.1 yds per touch (316 yds on 64 carries at 4.9/carry and 78 yds on 13 catches at 6 yds/catch).

Moore was used only sparingly in the last four games of the regular season and has been used even more sparingly during the playoffs. In the playoffs so far, Parker has gained 193 yds on 51 carries (3.8 yds/carry) and has one reception for -2 yds. Moore meanwhile has had 19 yds on 4 carries and 21 yds on 3 receptions for a total of 40 yds on 7 touches (5.7 yds/touch).

In the relatively little I have seen of the Steeler games this season, I thought that Moore has just looked a bit better than Parker. Turns out, the numbers bear that out. One of the reasons Arizona is in the Super Bowl is that Whisenhunt wasn’t shy about benching Leinart in favor of Warner or James in favor of Hightower (the former guys having bigger contracts than the latter guys and thereby supposedly having starter status by default) when he saw that the former guys were performing better than the latter guys. I think Mike Tomlin should take a page out of that book and give Moore more playing time. The Steeler offense has struggled this year and it could use all the help it can get.

If Parker has a huge Super Bowl and carries the Steelers to a resounding win, and thereby makes me look like an ass for my aforementioned concerns, no one will be more pleased than I. But for now, the numbers are what they are and they bear some mulling over.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Definitive Super Bowl Primer (Revised and Reposted)


Since it is officially Super Bowl week, it is time for me to dust off this relic from last year. I have made a few small changes to it, so it is still old and unimproved but with a couple of more cliches.
So here goes....I proudly repost The Definitive Super Bowl Primer.
As we all know, the game can be won or lost long before the kickoff. The players can’t afford to get distracted by all the hoopla surrounding the game in the two weeks leading up to it. There will be plenty of time to party after the game is over. For now it is all about focus. The team that is better prepared, better disciplined, better coached and that has the better game plan will win.

But once the ball is kicked off, you can throw out all the notes, the film, and the Xs and Os because it basically comes down to execution. Football is a simple game of blocking and tackling, that is all. Which means neither team can afford to make mental mistakes, have blown assignments, or miss tackles. It is all about execution---that is what playoff football is all about, and the team that executes better on game day will win. If you gotta take it up a notch in the playoffs, you gotta take it up two or three notches in the Super Bowl.

And what it all comes down to every year is that, while offense can win you games, defense wins championships. The front four on the defensive line have to get pressure on the QB and hurry him, knock him down, disrupt the offensive rhythm, get into his head, send him a message that they will be in his face all day. The DBs have to jam the receivers at the line and throw them off their routes, and if the receiver makes a catch the defense has to make sure to limit the all important YAC---yards after the catch.

And of course, you have got to stop the run. Stopping the run is all about gap control by the linebackers. You cannot afford to over-pursue the play---you’ve gotta stay with your assignment. It is all about discipline and execution---that’s what playoff football is all about.

And on the offensive side of the ball, you gotta make sure you establish the running game. If you can run the ball, that takes the pressure off the QB and opens up the play-action pass, which means the defense can’t just pin their ears back and rush the QB. Plus you can bleed the clock and have the opposing defense sucking wind by the fourth quarter. The team that wins the TOP ---the Time of Possession—battle will usually win the game.

Therefore, particularly in big playoff games where both teams are good and evenly matched, the battle is always won in the trenches. The unsung heroes are always on the offensive line. If the O-line can give the QB time to look to his second and third reads, it will make the secondary vulnerable to big plays and make for a long day for the opposing defense.

But all the offense in the world is no good if you cannot protect the football. As always, turnovers will kill ya. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win championships. The team with the better turnover ratio will usually win the game.

But protecting the ball is not enough to win; you gotta have great special teams play too. The special teams always play a huge role (or an uuuuuge role, if you’re Al Miracles) in determining the outcome of the game. A blocked punt or blocked field goal, or a muffed punt, or pinning the opponent inside their 5-yard line can completely turn the momentum around. Plus, special teams can determine the outcome of that most basic of all football ‘game-within-the-game’ chess-matches---the field position battle. In all big games, field position will eventually determine the outcome of the game. Good field position can lead to an easy score and bad field position can lead to an ill-timed turnover. [Speaking of special teams, since John Madden is doing this game there is a decent chance (if there is any wind during a punt attempt it is almost certain) you will hear about the time Giants punter Sean Landeta completely whiffed on a punt during a windy playoff game against the Bears at Soldier Field in 1986]

Anyway, you gotta remember that both teams have made it to the Super Bowl not by fluke but because they are good, battle tested teams that know how to win. That is why they are playing for the WORLD championship. So in the end it will come down to who wants it more. Who has the desire, the hunger, the stick-to-it-iveness, and the refuse-to-lose mentality? Which team is able to enforce its will on the other?
Finally, will the X-factors emerge on the biggest stage? Of course, one can never forget the intangibles.

But in the end, it comes down to the superstars and the play-makers; great players make big plays in huge games on the grandest stage----that’s what playoff football is all about. The team that makes more plays will win.

All that having been said and done, nobody can contest this fact----when time runs out, the team that has scored more points will be the champion.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The NFL and the running game--Update


After week 15 of the NFL regular season I had written about how important the running game was to success in the NFL. The measure I used was rushing differential (the difference between running yards gained and running yards allowed to opponents by a team)---teams with a positive rush differential almost invariably had winning records while teams with negative rush differentials had losing records. At the time, there were four teams that were outliers to this trend i.e. that had negative rushing differentials but had winning records. They were Tampa Bay, Denver, Arizona and Indianapolis.

As it turned out, it was more a case of foreshadowing than anomaly with Tampa Bay and Denver. While neither team ended up with a losing record (TB 9-7; Denver 8-8), both teams ended the season badly, ended the regular season with negative average rush differentials (TB -4; Denver -29.7) and both missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the team that came charging from behind to win the AFC West and knock Denver out of the playoffs was San Diego, which improved its average rush differential from -6.7 in week 15 to +5.3 by the end of the regular season.

So at the end, only two playoff-bound teams had negative average rush differential for the regular season---Arizona and Indianapolis (AZ, -36.7; Indy, -43.3). As we know now, Indianapolis was bounced in the first round of the playoffs by San Diego and not coincidentally ended up being out-rushed in that game 167-64 by the Chargers.

As we also know now, the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. A team that had an average rush differential of -36.7 for the regular season ended up in the Super Bowl---so this running game theory is full of shit, right? To borrow a phrase from an ex-IU coach, not so fast my friend. The team that couldn’t run the ball or stop the run during the regular season ended up with a +26 rush differential in the first playoff game against the Falcons, a +70 rush differential against the Panthers in the second playoff game and a +5 rush differential against the Eagles in the conference championship game.

This last edge against the Eagles may not seem like much but I cannot stress enough how key that was to the Eagles loss. And so, with a view not to rub salt in CPP’s wounds but rather to see what the Steelers should watch out for against the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, let’s revisit a couple of key stats from the NFC conf championship game. The Eagles had a total of 67 offensive plays in that game; they rushed the ball 18 times and dropped back to pass 49 times. Before I go any further--- I would guess that in the entire history of the NFL, QBs who attempt more than 45 passes in a game end up losing those games 90% of the time. Nothing good happens when you chuck the pill that many times. But getting back to the game, Philly gained 97 yards from their 18 rush attempts! When you are gaining at 5.4 yards a carry, in the playoffs no less, why would you not run the ball 35 freaking times?! Even when it looked like Philly was getting blown out, they were only down 21-6 in the first half---that’s just two scores and far from time to panic and start flinging the ball around, especially with another half of play to go. And as good as Warner and LFitz looked, it was even more important that Philly should have run the ball and bled the clock. Instead, Philly ended up with 49 pass attempts, and with McNabb going 28 of 47 with 2 sacks.

Most importantly, when McNabb got the ball down 7 with about 3 minutes to go, he had already dropped back to pass 41 times in that game. I don’t care how versatile your offense is---if a defense has seen you attempt a pass play 41 times, there is little it cannot anticipate. Throw in the fact that the Arizona D had not been physically worn down by a sustained running game and that the Philly O-line had been on their heels 41 times in that game, the Arizona D had a distinct mental and physical advantage at the end of the game when McNabb was trying to throw the Eagles into the Super Bowl.

McNabb had 19 incompletions. If half of those plays had been running plays, Philly could have milked 5 more minutes off the game clock. And shown the Arizona D about ten fewer passing plays---one of which may have come in handy if needed late. And seeing that Philly averaged 6.8 yards per pass play versus 5.4 yards per running play, there is no reason to believe their offense would have been significantly less effective, even ignoring all the unmeasurable advantages the running game brings.

Arizona, conversely, had 29 rushing plays and 30 passing plays. Even if you remove the 3 “trying to run out the clock” rushes at the end of the game, Arizona still had a 26-30 run-pass balance. I know it looked like Warner and Fitzgerald killed the Eagles (and they did) but just as key was Arizona’s running game, especially in the first half. I am worried about Arizona in the Super Bowl for precisely this reason--their running game has come alive. Add that fact that their talented D is playing with confidence and they have a lethal passing game, and it makes for some unsettled nerves (or should I say some ‘Yoicks!’) amongst the Steeler faithful.

One last thing about the Arizona-Philly game. In 67 offensive plays, Philly got the ball to Westbrook only 14 times. That was unconscionable. That was probably the reason Philly lost.

I liked the fact that the Steelers ran the ball 26 times against Baltimore even though they got only 54 yards out of it. I hope they run the ball in the Super Bowl too---but more of all that in the next post.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dubya's legacy


A description of the scene as the Bushes left Washington after President Obama's inauguration (from the NYTimes liveblog of the event):

The Bushes Depart | 12:56 p.m. The helicopter steps are folded up. The blade begins to rotate. The Obamas and Bidens are standing still, holding each other’s hands, as they watch the helicopter rev up. We now have lift-off; the Bushes have left the Capitol at 12:55 — almost half an hour ahead of time. The Obamas wave.

The helicopter is swinging out over the Mall first instead of heading directly to Andrews. Surely the Bushes can’t hear the crowd below, but the chant is one that sports fans jeer to the opposing team: “Na Na Na Na/Na Na Na Na/Hey Hey Hey/Good-bye.”


Yeah, that about sums it up.


President Barack Obama


(Pic from The Guardian, UK).

Good luck, Mr. President!


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Steelers - Ravens quick thoughts


It was altogether fitting that the defense scored the game-sealing TD. And Polamalu in particular, given all the pre-game hype about the Baltimore safety Reed's pick-sixes.

And lest I am remiss, Ben Roethlisberger made a couple of brilliant plays that proved to be as game winning as Troy's pick-6.

The Ryan Clark -Willis McGahee collision pretty much summarized the Pittsburgh-Baltimore series. I hope both of them are OK.

I am glad that the Steelers stuck with the run despite not getting much out of the running game.

The Steelers should have put this game away by Q4. And they should really put more plays in for Mewelde Moore.

All that having been said, I now have a legit rooting interest in Super Bowl 43 and for that I am very grateful and happy.


Eagles-Cards Halftime Thought


The Cardinals look lethal on offense. Still, it could've been a lot worse for the Eagles. They are within one big play of being back in it.

The Eagles have had 29 offensive plays. 10 runs and 19 passes---this ain't gonna cut it. As good as Warner and LFitz look, you gotta play keepaway. Buckhalter has looked good running and Westbrook has been decent. Also, Westbrook has touched the ball 6 times out of 29. That number should be more like 16. The O-line is giving Donovan time. So heck, line up Westbrook at WR and throw it to him deep if thats what it takes.


This and That


I flew back from India a few days ago and, boy, are my arms still tired.

From the “Lessons I am reminded of every year” Dept:

  • It is not as bad as after the outbound trip though --- jetlag is worse, a whole lot worse, when you travel 11 time zones east than when you travel the same time zones back west.
  • Also, no matter how seasoned a traveler you are there is no planning for/adjusting to jetlag when a kid is involved. If your kid’s awake you’re gonna be awake, so you aren‘t getting over your lag till the kid gets over his/hers. Bank on it.
  • And you truly realize how tough your kid is only after you watch her take in stride, I mean like a total freaking trooper, a 27-hour transit that includes a 15-hour flight.

I was gone for 18 days and managed to miss 3 weekends of late/post season NFL action---nice scheduling job there, huh? I had a tough time keeping up with the news too as I couldn’t find a reliable high-speed internet connection close to where I was. I realized more than ever how much I’ve come to rely on The Internets for my daily intellectual sustenance.

There was a ton of TV to be had if one was in the mood for it. I had about 110 channels of shit on the TV to choose from (reminds me---I haven’t listened to Pink Floyd in a long time) but most of them were “Breaking News” and none of them carried the NFL playoffs (not even a mention of scores) so basically I had nothing to watch. It’s pretty amazing really---there are the BBCs and CNNs and their ilk, the CNBCs and their ilk, the ESPNs and their ilk. And all these channels have the prototypical talking heads babbling in typically vacuous and invariably hyperbolic tones about the overblown crisis du jour, accompanied by flashing “Breaking News!!“ graphics and annoying sidebars and bottom-crawls, and all, of course, interrupted every ten minutes or so for five minutes worth of commercials. Yay! It was like I never left!

Getting back to the NFL:

I’m surprised that the Eagles made the playoffs, but not at all surprised that they beat the Giants. I believe I called that one a while ago.

I’m also not surprised that the Giants are about to make Eli Mediocre the highest paid QB in the league. I mean, a QB who has never posted a rating of 90 or above for any season, who has never thrown more than 24 Tds in any season, who in his best season to date had a completion rate of 60.3% and ranked 14th of 32 QBs----if he doesn’t deserve top money, who does? Goes to show you that the #1 success strategy in modern times still remains “Be born a fortunate son”.

I am somewhat surprised that the Chargers made the playoffs. They always had a run in them but I didn’t think the Broncos would completely go into the tank like they did. I am not surprised that the Chargers beat the Colts though---the Colts were living on the edge all year.

I am very surprised that Arizona’s still playing. I don’t see them getting past the Eagles’ D though.

I am not at all surprised (and not at all pleased either) that the Steelers are having to play the Ravens for the AFC title. I don’t like it. The Ravens are a tough out for the Steelers on any occasion. Now they have a QB, Flacco, who’s got some serious mojo (like he sacrificed chickens to Jobu, mojo) going on. And their emotional leader, Ray Lewis, is possibly playing for his last hurrah SuperBowl-wise, so he’ll be something desperate and will bring all his killer instinct (ba-dum-tissshhhhh. Thank you, thank you). I don’t like this matchup at all. I just hope the Steelers do not give up on the run at any time during this game. If they keep running regardless of their effectiveness, and if the D does its job and keeps it close, I think the Steelers will wear them down and prevail in the 4th Qtr.

I will not complain if the Steelers get up on the Ravens by 3 TDs in the first half and then cruise home the rest of the way.