.NET Q & A: Aaron Schatz, Part One

On February 1, Seahawks.NET was honored to participate in another phone interview with Aaron Schatz, the Editor-in-Chief of Football Outsiders, the cutting-edge website that endeavors to bring new statistical and analytical factors to the diehard fan's enjoyment of the game.

.NET: This is Doug Farrar with Seahawks.NET. We’re very pleased to welcome back Aaron Schatz - the Editor-in-Chief of Football Outsiders, and the Pro Football Prospectus annual volume. For those of you who are regular .NET readers and now listeners, Aaron joined us before the NFC Championship game and gave us some exclusive information and statistical analysis. Now, he’s back for another go before the Super Bowl between the Seahawks and the Steelers – Aaron, good morning and welcome.

Aaron Schatz: Good morning, good morning.

We discussed your work with Football Outsiders in the interview you gave us before the NFC Championship game - for those who may have missed it, can you give us a brief introduction for those who aren’t in the know?

Aaron Schatz: Football Outsiders is an attempt to do for the NFL what guys like Bill James and Rob Neyer and Baseball Prospectus have done for baseball, which was to create new statistics that give us better insight on why teams win and lose and how to build a Super Bowl champion. It’s not a gambling site or a fantasy site, although it helps people with those things. It’s more about why teams win and what they should do to build champions, combining stats with tape analysis and general commentary.

Let’s head straight to the matchups for Super Bowl XL - “Super Bowl Xtra Large”, as they say. The most interesting matchup for this observer will be Seattle’s running game and by extension their offensive line versus Pittsburgh’s front-seven. The Steelers were third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and their defense only gave up ten touchdowns throughout the regular season. Conversely, the Seahawks finished the regular season third in rushing yards per game and Shaun Alexander scored 27 rushing touchdowns. Based on your analysis including adjusted line yardage on both sides, who is the first to blink in this standoff?

Aaron Schatz: Um…neither? Shaun will get, I don’t know, 75 yards? In our ratings Seattle was third in rushing offense and the Pittsburgh second in rush defense.

In adjusted line yards – which is our attempt to just measure the offensive line and the front-seven, trying to sort of factor out the ability of the running backs to get long runs where they’re dodging cornerbacks – Seattle was sixth on offense and Pittsburgh was fourth on defense. They are very well lined up.

The weighted DVOA – which is a DVOA that lowers the strength of early season games that includes the playoffs – actually Pittsburgh’s rush defense is only ranked 12th. That is primarily because of two big games that they gave up to Edgerrin James and Rudy Johnson back in weeks 12 and 13. Other than that it’s basically been the same great rush defense all year.

Edge and Rudy can gain some yards on them and Shaun probably can as well, but I wouldn’t expect him to go nuts. I don’t expect him to be the MVP.

.NET: I would tend to agree. For those who don’t know, what is DVOA?

Aaron Schatz: DVOA is our main stat that we use that stands for Defense Adjusted Value Over Average although it’s adjusted for your opponent whether we’re measuring offense or defense, we just think it sounds better with those letters.

It takes every single play in the season and it breaks it down based on number of yards gained plus number of yards gained toward a first down. A three yard run on third-and-10 is bad and a three yard run on third-and-one is good and it compares it to the league average in those situations based on things like down and distance and opponent.

.NET: When Seattle throws the ball with Matt Hasselbeck and his cadre of receivers, what problems do the Steelers present?

Aaron Schatz: The problem is the confusion. The 3-4 defense is built upon confusion. You don’t know which linebacker is coming at which time, when it’s going to be two linebackers, when one of the linemen will be dropping back into coverage, when it’s going to be coming up the middle or they’re coming off the side. So that is the big confusion that Pittsburgh brings.

The thing about Seattle versus the Pittsburgh defense - people feel like the Seattle offense should be shut down by the Pittsburgh defense - is that Seattle just made it to the Super Bowl by beating the teams that ranked fourth and second in our defensive rankings for the season and now they’re playing the team that’s ranked third.

So it’s not like they haven’t played strong defenses in their last two games of the playoffs and done fine against them, but they haven’t seen the 3-4 defense with the complicated blitzing. While they have played 3-4 defenses earlier in the season and not just Dallas, obviously they whaled away on San Francisco and Houston.

San Francisco doesn’t count. Houston doesn’t count.

Aaron Schatz: They whaled away on San Francisco and Houston more than other teams whaled away on San Francisco and Houston (laughs). Even after you adjust for how bad San Francisco and Houston are Seattle did very well against them, but not so well against Dallas.

But Pittsburgh is another thing entirely. The confusion of the Pittsburgh scheme is much different from what Dallas tries to do or what San Francisco and Houston can do with theirs. San Francisco actually has some good defensive players. Houston only has one.

.NET: I think the two times Seattle played San Francisco, the 49ers were down to their eighth and ninth starting cornerbacks.

Aaron Schatz: They were like that at every position. You didn’t think things could get worse for San Francisco this year. As far as (Pittsburgh’s) strengths in coverage, it’s really weird. We’ve run some numbers that make Ike Taylor look like he’s great and others that make him look just terrible, so I’m really having a hard time deciding how good he is really.

One thing is that teams do seem to throw his direction more than they do Ricardo Colclough or Deshea Townsend although part of that is Townsend is on the field sometimes and then Colclough comes on the field for a little bit. The other coverage thing is that (Troy) Polamalu just makes plays all over the field, but they use him against the run often and with Shaun Alexander there I assume they’d use him against the run a lot.

.NET: That kind of goes into a question I was going to ask anyway – Does Pittsburgh’s ability to blitz effectively and cause confusion cover up weaknesses in the defensive backfield? Also, I noticed when the Steelers were playing the Colts, they would do things like bring two linebackers up to the line to blitz and drop a defensive tackle into coverage. You’re a Patriots fan, and I would be interested in your thoughts about the complexity of (Bill) Belichick’s defense versus (Dick) LeBeau’s.

Aaron Schatz: I would say they’re equal in complexity. LeBeau is the guy who invented the zone-blitz.

When we do ratings against different receivers Pittsburgh was third against number ones, they were good against seconds, thirds and tight ends. So all that pressure they bring, if there are problems in the secondary, the scheme and the pressure makes that not a problem because quarterbacks are off their game and they have to throw the ball away a lot.

The one weakness is that because they like to bring the outside linebacker so much – unlike a lot of teams with good linebackers who are very strong against running backs in the passing game – Pittsburgh is very, very weak against running backs in the passing game because the outside linebackers are pass-rushing so often.

Now, Seattle doesn’t like to throw to their running backs – I think they were something like 29th in the number of passes thrown to running backs this year – but Mack Strong can catch the ball if they want to send him out into the pattern. And while Alexander isn’t known as a receiver and had a terrible percentage of catching balls thrown in his direction this year he actually grades out as average as a receiver in our ratings the last three years. He’s probably not as bad as he’s looked this year. If they want to send these guys out into the pattern they should be able to get some chunks of yardage, but I wouldn’t build a game plan around dump-off passes to running backs or anything like that.

.NET: I wonder if they might throw Maurice Morris in there situationally.

Aaron Schatz: Maybe. I like Maurice. The thing is I think if they bring in Maurice they have to make it look like they aren’t passing. Shaun is the dangerous one. He’s the one that will make Pittsburgh have to play the run.

.NET: In your defensive Adjusted Line Yards rankings, you have Seattle first in the NFL and Pittsburgh fourth. More specifically your rankings show the Steelers linebackers and secondary having the edge in pursuit and tackling with Seattle’s advantage being perhaps their underrated line. FO’s Michael David Smith just wrote a great article about Seattle’s interior line. How would you describe the standout attributes of each defense?

Aaron Schatz: Because Seattle is not quite as good at running DVOA as they are at line yards, that does indicate there are some longer runs against them as opposed to Pittsburgh who is really strong in all of our run defense stats. I don’t think it’s just the front-four. Leroy Hill, in particular, is very strong against the run. He’s stronger against the run than he is against the pass. Seattle’s defense was number two in preventing runs around the right end.

.NET: You talked about Leroy’s stop rate last time and I remember it was way up there.

Aaron Schatz: Yeah, it was really high. Pittsburgh’s strength is straight up the middle. Pittsburgh’s defense in line yards is third in runs up the middle and guards, fifth and sixth on tackle runs, but 13th right end and 16th left end.

The problem is that, strangely, Seattle has had fewer yards per carry on the left side than the right side this year because of defenses stacking things against (Walter) Jones and (Steve) Hutchinson. When I spoke to Tony Parrish of the 49ers for the interview I did for FOX this week he said, “You have a right-handed quarterback and a right-handed running back - they’re just going to be a right-handed running team.” That while the right side of the offensive line is underrated and that’s part of it, part of it is that they just like to run to that side.

If they want to take advantage of any weakness in the Pittsburgh run defense it would probably be going around right end rather than left end.

Editor's Note - Many thanks to Associate Editor Scott Eklund for his help in transcribing this interview.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

Aaron Schatz is the Editor-in-Chief of FootballOutsiders.com, Lead Writer and Statistician for the “Football Prospectus” annual volume, and an NFL analyst for FoxSports.com. He has also written for the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Globe, The New Republic Online and Slate, and has done custom research for NFL.com and a number of NFL teams. Before creating Football Outsiders, he spent three years tracking search trends online for the internet column, “The Lycos 50”. He has a B.A. in economics from Brown University and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter, Mirinae.

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