.NET Q & A: Aaron Schatz, Part Two

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: As we’ve discussed before, the one factor in line yards as far as position is that the play-by-play doesn’t list cutbacks and if you start right they just have you going right even if you cut back.

Aaron Schatz: I’ve been watching and we’ve been charting games, and it’s really hard to tell why they mark certain things tackle or guard or left end. In football, we’re stuck with statistics that are not as descriptive as we would like. We don’t have access to the coaches’ tape that gives us an endzone angle so that you could really chart how offensive and defensive linemen do in the running game, so we go with what we’ve got.

Moving along to Pittsburgh’s offense – what makes Ben Roethlisberger so special in comparison with most second-year quarterbacks, and where are the chinks in the armor?

Aaron Schatz: Well I’ll start with the chinks in the armor. He holds onto the ball a little too long and he takes sacks. He gets hit a lot, but he’s so big it doesn’t matter. He’ll get hit and get out of it a lot of the time. He’s more mobile than people give him credit for, but he will go down. Pittsburgh was 23rd in adjusted sack rate, which is sacks per pass play adjusted on down and distance.

But the thing about Roethlisberger is that people have talked about how he’s come out this year and been so amazing – he was this good last year. This guy has been this good for two years. His rookie year compares to the greatest quarterbacks of the last 25 years. If you look at similar rookie years you get Tom Brady’s first year as a starter, Joe Montana’s first year as a starter and Brett Favre’s first year as a starter. There’s no quarterback that’s comparable to him at this point in NFL history, because he gets so many yards per attempt, but throws so few passes and he’s so young.

Other quarterbacks, if you look at the top 20 since 1978 in yards per attempt, Roethlisberger’s two seasons are ninth and tenth. But he has far fewer pass attempts than anyone else in the top 20 and the only other player in the top 20 that was under the age of 27 was Dan Marino in 1984. So there really is nobody like Roethlisberger in NFL history and he really is as amazing as all of the accolades that are given to him.

Obviously it helps that he’s gone to a team with a good offensive line and running game and good defense and everything, but he really is that good. He’s the best quarterback from that draft.

The system gets maybe too much credit in my mind. It’s long been my opinion that if his name was as easy to spell as Eli Manning’s you wouldn’t be hearing about Eli Manning.

Aaron Schatz: Well it actually is easy to spell, because we just called him “Big Ben” and we stopped trying to say Roethlisberger (laughs).

If you plug in a Manning or (Phillip) Rivers in that system, do they do as well?

Aaron Schatz: Nobody knows about Rivers. I have no clue how good Rivers is because he hasn’t played, but Manning is just not accurate.

Manning is an interesting combination. He gets a lot of yards per completion, but he’s very inaccurate. That’s a combination that is much more like a quarterback from the mid-80’s or the early-90’s than like a quarterback of today where a lot of people run a lot of that “west coast offense” type stuff. He’s unique, too.

Roethlisberger’s the guy who’s going to the Hall-of-Fame, not Eli Manning. I’m sure that Manning will have a nice big career and he might win a Super Bowl, but Roethlisberger is the guy.

The other thing though is that this ridiculous rate of converting fourth-and-long where during the playoffs Pittsburgh has converted 47% of third downs when they have six yards or more to go is not going to continue. It can’t.

Not only is that far better than they did during the season, but the best team in the NFL in that situation this season was Indianapolis. They converted 41% of the time and no one else was above 36%, so there’s no way that Pittsburgh is going to continue to convert half of their third-and-longs. It’s just not going to happen.

.NET: From the Seattle perspective, let’s hope that’s the case - they only have to do it for one more game. WR Hines Ward is “Big Ben’s” number one man. How do you rate him in comparison with other elite receivers?

Aaron Schatz: Definitely one of the top receivers in the league. He runs great routes, has great hands and strength. The one thing where he stands out, although not as much this year as in years past, is he catches a really high percentage of balls thrown his way. There are fewer incompletes to him.

In the book Pro Football Prospectus 2005, I did a comparison (of Ward and) Eric Moulds. They had the same number of catches, but Moulds used something like 30 more passes to get those catches and all of those incomplete passes were plays that they could have handed the ball to the running back and gotten four yards. While that’s not all Moulds’ fault, incomplete passes are more the fault of the receiver than you would think, given that incomplete passes are not even counted for receivers in the standard stats.

.NET: You have metrics that analyze the performance of receiving units minus the number one man - will the Seahawks finally have to gameplan for more than one wideout in a playoff game? They had (Santana) Moss and two roster spots. They kind of had Steve Smith and two roster spots. They could switch their coverage so specifically it could give a lot of relief to their defense. How do the two, three and four guys for Pittsburgh matchup?

Aaron Schatz: Better. (Cedric) Wilson and (Antwaan) Randle El were actually not that great in our ratings during the year, but part of that is the four games where Roethlisberger wasn’t in the lineup, which is also why I think Ward’s catch-percentage was down this year.

Wilson, in particular, has come on during the playoffs and these guys were better than last year and they’re definitely than the second receivers for Washington who are just horrible or Carolina who didn’t even have a tight end. At least Washington also had a tight end, but Pittsburgh also has a very good tight end so they cannot play box-and-one on Hines Ward.

No basketball defense here. Let’s talk about the Pittsburgh running game versus Seattle’s run defense. Based on the numbers you have, what might people be surprised to note about this battle?

Aaron Schatz: This is the biggest misconception, and why a lot of people have Pittsburgh favored instead of seeing this game as a pick’em. The Pittsburgh running game isn’t nearly as good as people think, and Seattle’s run defense is one of the best in the league.

Pittsburgh runs and they run and they run and they run and they ran more than any other team. They don’t run more in first half than other teams, but in the second half, when they get a lead, they stop passing. Other teams will mix in the pass a little even if they’re running out the clock - I mean, Pittsburgh just stops passing and they run all the time.

But their running game is not actually that good. They were 11th in DVOA and what is really interesting is to look at the split between the two halves. Pittsburgh in the first half had the second-lowest yards per carry in the league. The only team that averaged fewer yards per running back carry in the first half was Arizona.

They do much better in the second half, but (Jerome) Bettis doesn’t gain a lot of yards. He averages less than three yards when he runs the ball on first-and-ten. Of course, he’s good in the short situations, but in general he is not picking up big yards.

Willie Parker is quite inconsistent. He had a couple of big games against some bad run defenses like Cleveland and Cincinnati, but he also had a lot of games where he was getting just 50 yards on 17 carries and I think he’s averaging less than three yards a carry in the playoffs.

Seattle is the number seven run defense by our ratings and number one in the adjusted line yards meaning the front-seven. Seattle ranks fourth in preventing conversions on runs on third-and-short and Pittsburgh’s offense is only 12th despite the presence of Bettis. This is definitely a matchup where Seattle wins big-time.

The only place where they may not is around left end where Seattle’s defense is 15th and Pittsburgh’s offense is fifth. The one way I can see them gaining a couple of big gains on the ground will be to send Willie Parker around left end.

.NET: Parker is the guy who is not from Detroit so nobody’s talking about him this week, but what are his primary strengths and what does Seattle have to watch out for?

Aaron Schatz: Well he’s shiftier and he’s faster and so he breaks more long ones. If he can get past those initial blocks, he’s going to be faster and shiftier down the field, but because of that he’s sort of inconsistent.

He’s kind of a boom-or-bust, DeShaun Foster kind of guy. It’s the reputation that Shaun Alexander used to have, not really deserved. Willie Parker started the year with those two 100-yard games so everybody was talking about him, but he wasn’t really that good for the rest of the season.

He’s good, but he’s not as good as he looked after the first two weeks.

.NET: So he’s not really an A-level running back?

Aaron Schatz: I wouldn’t want to make him my only starter. He’s good as part of a package. He’s good as part of a package. It’s a good combo, but it’s not as good as people think because Seattle’s run defense is better than people think.

Which means a lot of third-and-longs. Which means that if Pittsburgh continues to convert third-and-longs like they have been, Seattle’s in trouble. If they go back to normal, then Seattle is doing pretty well.

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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