I wrote this article after the Ravens win over the Steelers, but never posted it. Still think it's pretty relevant, so I'm dropping it in here now.
After week one’s performance in which the Ravens controlled the Steelers on both sides of the ball, a few things jumped out at me. First and foremost, it’s unlikely any team will thrash the Steelers this season as badly as the Ravens did. I have to believe a large part of why the Ravens were able to do what they did was due to an emotional outburst, taking out four years of frustration in one three hour stretch.
Second, the Steelers offensive line is very bad. After charting the second half of that game, I counted nine blown blocks and three unblocked rushers applying pressure or making plays in the backfield out of 37 total plays. That’s a near 30% failure rate, when the league average in 2010 was under ten percent. While this may be a statistical aberration, the Steelers OL is a weakness. To make matters worse, Willie Colon was placed on IR this week due to a torn triceps. While it’s unlikely that this line will play that poorly all year, it is likely the performance of the line will hold back their offense from being as great as it can be with their strong players at the skill positions.
But third and probably most importantly, Troy Polamalu looked old and slow. This was evident watching the entire game, but no play demonstrates it quite as clearly as Ed Dickson’s 3rd quarter TD catch. To be fair, the throw and catch were both great, placed where no DB would have a play on it. But notice how badly Polamalu gets burned on this play. It’s not about Dickson getting behind him. It’s that after Dickson was already behind him, Dickson – a tight end, not a receiver – pulled away from him.
Last year, I wrote a blog article arguing that Polamalu should be the league MVP. The premise was that over the previous two seasons (we were only 14 games into the ’10 season when this was written) the Steelers defense has been far more effective with him playing than without. Refreshing the numbers by adding in the five games played at the end of the season doesn’t change much.
(Apologies for the format, I still don't know how to do tables on this thing...)
With Polamalu Without Polamalu
Avg Pts Allowed 15.9 21.5 (35% increase)
Avg Yds Allowed 280 301 (8% increase)
Avg Def DVOA -21.8% -0.2%
Avg 1st downs 16.8 17.0 (1.5% increase)
Avg Turnovers 2.2 1.0 (54% decrease)
W/L Record 17-5 6-7
Win % .772 .462
This data includes all 2009 and 2010 games
* This figure does not include the Superbowl, for which I didn’t have defensive DVOA (which would almost certainly cause the -21.8% to go down, but should not impact it enough to come close to the -0.2%)
And so I believe it’s fair to at least raise the question, “What happens to the Steelers defense if Polamalu is no longer able to play at the level he once did?” It is of course not fair to assume that the Steelers defense will be as bad in 2011 as they were in week one, even if Polamalu turns out to be a shell of his former self, or misses significant time due to injury. People don’t call week one “National Overreaction Week” for nothing.
But Polamalu has suffered several injuries over the last few years. Eight seasons of launching your 220 pound body into opposing offensive players like a missile will tend to wear down many people. Polamalu has missed games due to injury in four of the last five seasons. So while it wouldn’t surprise anyone to find that this game was nothing but a fluke and he performs at the high level we all expect for the rest of the year, it would probably be just as unsurprising to find that he truly has lost a step.
So what happens if you take a sure-fire Hall of Fame player out of a defense and replace him with an average over-the-hill player?
In the Football Outsiders Almanac, the age of the Steelers defense was specifically discussed. “Eleven of the 12 oldest defenses since 2000 had defensive DVOA below zero percent. There’s virtually no correlation between average age and defensive DVOA.” They point out that any slight trend seen tends to favor older defenses. Increasing age does not automatically result in decreasing productivity.
However, they too pointed out that the Steelers defense was far different without Polamalu than with him. And while his leadership, intelligence and play recognition will always mean he will be capable of making plays, a loss of his overall talent could be difficult for the defense to overcome.
The numbers above don’t lie. The Steelers defense is certainly not as bad as it looked this past Sunday, when the Ravens averaged 6.3 yards per play and scored 35 points with a 29.4% Steelers VOA on defense (ranked 27th in the league). But if the defense is missing the Polamalu the league is used to seeing wreak havoc, and the Steelers are fielding an average defense as a result, then the Steelers are likely closer to fighting for a Wildcard berth than they are the Super Bowl contenders that many believed them to be just before they stepped onto M&T Bank stadium’s turf last Sunday afternoon.