Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Fall of Troy

Where is Troy Polamalu and what is going on with the Steelers' pass defense?

Years ago, baseball analysts realized the importance of statistical analysis and developed sabermetrics. While your eyes can tell you some things, can you really see the difference between a .260 hitter and a .300 hitter? The season is 26 weeks long. If a players gets 25 at bats a week, that is 650 at bats for the year. One hit every two weeks is the difference. A blob single here, bad hop there and we're talking about the difference between making $2 million and $10 million a year. Unless you see a player every day, it can be difficult to discern such things. Statistics provide some of the details that clarify the picture.

Football is different. The game doesn't revolve around one individual match-up, pitcher vs. batter, the way baseball does. Football is the ultimate team game. Certainly there are one-on-one match-ups that take place all over the field, but those match-ups are augmented by schemes and formations. On offense, statistics tell us something about quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, but might not tell the whole story. Sunday night Ben Roethlisberger threw for 387 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers 39-26 loss to the New England Patriots. While superficially impressive, anyone who watched the game knows how meaningless those numbers are. Roethlisberger piled them up when the outcome of the game was already decided. They look nice, but had no impact on the game.

Defensive statistics are even less refined. Sacks, tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries provide some insight, but different schemes require different players to do different things. If Aaron Smith can occupy two offensive linemen LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are free to wreak havoc. Smith's numbers don't show up in the box score, but his contribution is obviously essential to the defense's success.

But team statistics do tell a story, and combined with Troy's total lack of impact plays, the conclusion is obvious. Troy Polamalu has disappeared and the Steelers defense can't stop the pass as a result. The perennial All-Pro and heart of the defense had an interception in each of the first two games but hasn't had one since. He was credited with one pass defensed in each of the first two weeks but none since. He hasn't recorded a sack, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble yet this year. The Steelers defense which didn't give up more than 17 points in any of the first five games has given up 20 or more in each of the last four and the pass defense has dropped to 26th in the league, giving up more than 250 yards per game.

Troy himself said he had a terrible game against the Saints and expected to play much better the following week in Cincinnati. Against the Bengals, Pittsburgh jumped out to a comfortable 27-7 lead. But during the second half the Bengals moved the ball virtually at will against a defense that rolled safety coverage toward Chad Ochocinco and allowed Terrell Owens to run free out of the slot against William Gay. Polamalu and Ryan Clark were nowhere to be seen as Carson Palmer drove them down the field three different times, the last ending the game when a pass was dropped on the Steelers five-yard line with less than two minutes to go.

This past Sunday Tom Brady threw on the Steelers at will. Brady carved up a secondary that again had no answer for a big receiver, in this case tight end Rob Gronkowski, running out of the slot. Brady threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns, all to Gronkowski, and the game was over in the third quarter. Receivers rand down the middle of the field uncovered all game.

Throughout his career Troy has been a star. He is the guy who makes the game-changing, the splash plays ever week--the incredible interception against the Falcons in week 1 or the great leap over the line of scrimmage to stop the Titans late in week 2. That guy has disappeared. And like last year when his season-ending injury lead to the collapse of the Steelers pass defense, his disappearance is killing the team. Certainly the sub-standard play of Gay, Clark and Bryant McFadden has also contributed. But Troy is the key. If he doesn't improve the Steelers are again going to struggle down the stretch to make the playoffs.


Guillemineg said...

great piece. Even NBS noted Troy was completely duped on three plays, reading run when Brady was passing at will and visa versa.can't blame one player entirely (neither line, banged up as they are, helped Pittsburgh much, especially on 2 consecutive sacks that deflated the Steelers early in 1H). But you could see the poor decisions and lack of impetus in Plamalu all night.
terrific work, nice link for SBN.

The Hammer said...

Thanks for the nice words.

C-Mac said...

Brady went after William Gay all night. He watched film and it wasn't hard for him to see that this guy can't cover anybody. Gay is in man coverage in the slot most of the time, so it is hard, but he never gets it done. He is the weakest link in that secondary - by far.

Pete said...

Great spot on and insightful analysis! You touch on an interesting point about Aaron smith occupying two blockers so Woodley and Timmons can wreak havoc. Since Smith has been out, the Steelers' points per game allowed has increased from 12 to 23. Last year, the same thing happened, but Polamalu was out at the same time, so everyone thought it was a combined effect or that the loss of Troy may have had the greater impact. Maybe, Aaron Smith is the true MVP of the Steelers defense?

The Hammer said...

Yep. In my preseason analysis I didn't think Gray would make the team, but he had a good camp and Lewis melted down in that game against the Broncos so he won the nickel job. After a good first few games he's been brutal but I don't see the point in having him in man coverage out of the slot. Just isn't good enough.