Browns-Steelers: Number Crunch

FootballOutsiders.com's Doug Farrar isn't a Browns fan, but has his own reason to hate Pittsburgh, namely, their win over the Seahawks in the Super Bowl several years ago. Doug puts his personal enmity aside to examine Sunday's contest. Prepare for an in-depth analysis of new QB Bruce Gradkowski and the upcoming battle of "rivals".

DVOA Matchup: Browns at Steelers

The Bruce Gradkowski Story

Having always thought that Bruce Gradkowski would be an interesting third option for any good team, I wrote the text you see below in June of 2008 (back when I wrote for the linked site). I liked him as a better potential pickup than Charlie Frye (and Cleveland, we'd like a refund on that one), and I thought he showed some stuff in Tampa Bay under some difficult circumstances. He's got some limitations, but also some possibilities. Anyway -- read, enjoy, and at the end, we'll begin the Steelers preview.

Selected in the sixth round of the 2006 draft by Tampa Bay, the former Toledo quarterback became the seventh player in conference history to gain over 10,000 total yards. He passed for 9,225 yards and 85 touchdowns, adding over 1,000 yards on the ground. His career completion percentage of 68.2 broke Tim Couch's record as Division 1-A's all-time best, and he is the only quarterback in the history of the division to complete over 70 percent of his passes in consecutive seasons. The standard spread offense disclaimer applies, as the Rockets ran the spread, but we're less concerned with his college adjustments as his early pro career.

When Chris Simms suffered a brutal spleen injury against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3 of the 2006 season, Gradkowski was pressed into service and started very strong. In his first six games as a starter, he completed 113 of 212 attempts for 1,010 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. His streak of 186 attempts with only one interception was the best to start a career by any rookie. An injury to the thumb on his right (throwing) hand against the Panthers, and the team's own offensive ineffectiveness blended with Gradkowski's inexperience to produce less than stellar results. In his last five games as a starter, he threw 62 completions in 110 attempts for 631 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions. Tim Rattay started the team's final two games of the 2006 season, the Bucs finished 4-12, and Jon Gruden acquired Jeff Garcia as a veteran option for the 2007 season.

Gradkowski played little in 2007, as Garcia took command of the offense, and Luke McCown started when Garcia didn't. The Buccaneers were carrying seven quarterbacks on their books coming into the 2008 preseason, and Gradkowski was the first to get the axe. He was released on May 30.

We asked Matthew Postins, publisher of Scout.com's Tampa Bay site, BucsBlitz.com, for an extended scouting report in Gradkowski -- his positives and negatives, and what the future might hold.

From the start, I wasn't that impressed with Gradkowski. Now, he was certainly thrown into a horrible situation in 2006, having to start as a rookie. And while he had his moments, for the most part he seemed overmatched. Locals were quick to cut him some slack during the offseason due to his youth, but the real issue was his play in the 2007 victory over Washington. Gradkowski came off the bench to spell an injured Jeff Garcia and the Bucs won that game in spite of Gradkowski's shaky play. After the game, then-quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett made the comment that there were at least "four plays in that game that you would hope Bruce could make by now." The next Sunday, Luke McCown started ahead of Gradkowski.

While Gradkowski is certainly mobile and accurate, his biggest issues are arm strength and reading coverage. The latter issue can be improved. But the arm strength cannot. Gradkowski has problems throwing the ball accurately downfield outside of 25 yards, and that was a tremendous issue during his time in Tampa Bay, as the Bucs had former Seahawk Joey Galloway. Gradkowski's inability to accurately hit the speedy Galloway downfield hampered the Bucs offense in 2006 and during the Washington game last year. Reading Galloway's body language after Gradkowski underthrew him against Washington was all the proof I needed that Gradkowski's time in Tampa Bay was short.

Gradkowski was released because the Bucs have a bazillion quarterbacks and they're only taking five to training camp. Say what you want about Chris Simms, but at least he can hit Galloway downfield. Gradkowski is nothing more than a career backup who can spot start if he has time to prepare and improves his ability to read coverage.

There's no question that Gradkowski's flaws -- a tendency to rely on mobility when stability is more important, a inclination to lean on the dink-and-dunk due to arm strength concerns, and real problems with the complexity of the West Cast offense -- are common among spread offense quarterbacks. However, there are assets that separate him from those quarterbacks who find the spread-to-NFL transition hopeless. And when compared to current Seahawks third-string quarterback Charlie Frye, Gradkowski provides an interesting option.

Frye's slow release time got him booted out of Cleveland after he took five sacks in less than a half against the Steelers in September of 2007 -- an opening that allowed for the ascent of Derek Anderson -- and it was Anderson's ability to get rid of the ball quickly behind Cleveland's smaller, more athletic offensive line that provided great dividends, With the acquisition of left guard Mike Wahle, the Seahawks are transitioning to a similar line. They require fast linemen who can pull and adjust quickly to what's going on around them, and timing is a key issue. Frye might have a future behind five behemoths, but if he couldn't catch his breath behind the Browns' line, he doesn't stand much of a chance against those defenses the Seahawks may face. Gradkowski can roll out, make the quick throw, and keep time in an offense used to a quarterback without a rocket arm.

Okay -- let's get to the carnage. How can Romeo Crennel avoid going O-for-Pittsburgh in his Browns career before it ends?

2. . re also above average in field goal and punting value, according to our specific numbersOverall Efficiency

TEAM

TOTAL
DVOA

RANK

LAST
WEEK

OFFENSE
DVOA

OFF.
RANK

DEFENSE
DVOA

DEF.
RANK

S.T.
DVOA

S.T.
RANK

PIT

21.5%

5

5

-1.1%

21

-23.7%

2

-1.1%

23

CLE

-18.3%

25

24

-15.7%

27

6.9%

17

4.3%

4

Cleveland defense vs. Pittsburgh offense

TEAM

OFFENSE
DVOA

RANK

LAST WEEK

PASS
OFFENSE

PASS
RANK

RUSH
OFFENSE

RUSH
RANK

PIT

-1.1%

21

21

0.6%

19

-3.0%

20

TEAM

DEFENSE
DVOA

RANK

LAST

WEEK

PASS
DEFENSE

PASS
RANK

RUSH
DEFENSE

RUSH
RANK

CLE

6.9%

17

16

11.3%

16

3.3%

22

Here's the more reasonable matchup. Pittsburgh's offense has been hamstrung by three issues all season: First, Ben Roethlisberger's tendency to stand in the face of danger for far too long and take far too many sacks. Second, the ability of the Steelers offensive line to aid Roethlisberger in those takedowns. Third, a rushing attack that wouldn't even put the fear into Cleveland's problematic defense. More and more, you'll see five-wide sets and other trickeration in the red zone, and more and more, efficiency takes a hit. Through Week 16, they're 16th in red zone DVOA and 27th in goal-to-go efficiency. These are not your father's Steelers.

On the other side, Cleveland currently ranks third in red zone defensive DVOA and 17th on goal-to-go defensive efficiency. If the Browns can keep the rushing attack honest and force field goals, they might have half a chance. Of course, they'd have to score a few touchdowns first, and they may have forgotten how…

Cleveland defensive DVOA vs. receivers

TEAM

vs. #1 WR (Rank)

vs. #2 WR (Rank)

vs. Other WR (Rank)

vs. TE

(Rank)

vs. RB (Rank)

CLE

-0.8%

17

42.0%

31

-28.1%

6

-5.0%

11

-4.2%

9


Cleveland offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

TEAM

OFFENSE
DVOA

RANK

LAST

WEEK

PASS
OFFENSE

PASS
RANK

RUSH
OFFENSE

RUSH
RANK

CLE

-15.7%

27

27

-25.9%

31

-4.2%

21

TEAM

DEFENSE
DVOA

RANK

LAST

WEEK

PASS
DEFENSE

PASS
RANK

RUSH
DEFENSE

RUSH
RANK

PIT

-23.7%

2

2

-26.0%

1

-20.7%

2


Here's where things get difficult. Not only do the Steelers have the NFL's best defense, they've been this good all season. They were third against the pass per DVOA in the first half of the season, and second from then on. First against the run in Week 1 through 9, and ninth ever since. They've got two legit superstars -- linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu (the latter would be my NFL MVP vote, as much as it pains me to say so), and a dynamite supporting cast. Imagine Shaun Rogers with about seven Rogers-quality players around him? Well, maybe in the next era. Gradkowski's in for a war here.

Pittsburgh defensive DVOA vs. receivers

TEAM

vs. #1 WR (Rank)

vs. #2 WR (Rank)

vs. Other WR (Rank)

vs. TE

(Rank)

vs. RB (Rank)

PIT

-5.8%

10

-17.9%

4

-37.2%

3

-14.7%

5

-10.0%

6

How will the game go?

The real question is how long the Steelers will play their starters. They'll want to get their offense in gear before the playoffs begin, and this is the last test. The Browns are playing for jobs, for pride, for an uncertain future. With nebulous motivation against a superior opponent, the chances for anything but a blowout against the starters are not too good. But this team could compete against Byron Leftwich and the Replacements in the second half if it goes that way. Either way, the Browns owe their long-suffering fans a quality performance before what looks like drastic offseason changes take place.

Doug Farrar is a Staff Writer for Football Outsiders, a Panelist for the Washington Post, and a contributor to the Seattle Times and Scout.com. Feel free to e-mail him here.

 

The OBR Top Stories