Wilson: Sizing up the defense

How good was the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense in 2005? The rankings say they were the fourth best unit in the league, but blogger Ryan Wilson takes a closer look at the unit, in particular the front seven in this installment.

I spend more time than I care to admit scouring the web looking for stuff to write about, especially this time of year. Well, like manna from heaven -- or maybe, like a two-by-four to the back of the head -- I found my angle: Jim Wexell's column on James Farrior and this thread discussing the state of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. So that's what I'll do. Today I'll look at the front seven and in the next week or so, I'll discuss the secondary. It'll be just like Ghost Hunters, but instead of ghosts it'll be Pittsburgh's defense. Okay, so it's nothing like Ghost Hunters. Anyway …

Before we get started, a little refresher: I've mentioned before that I also write for Football Outsiders. The site started, in part, because Aaron Schatz wanted to see if the old football axiom, "You have to run the ball to be successful," was actually true. (It's not.) Four years and a crapload of play-by-play and game-charting data later, we have all kind of measures for how good or bad a team is compared to every other team in the league. I'll save you the math class, but I'll use some of the stats here to support my points (and if you're a glutton for punishment, here's a quick overview of all the gory details). Let's get to it.

First things first: Pittsburgh's defense was better in 2005 than it was in 2004. On a play-by-play basis, the Steelers ranked third in the league in total defense last season (eighth against the pass, second against the run); in 2004, they ranked fourth (third against the pass, sixth against the run). No, Farrior didn't put up numbers like he did in 2004, but that was his best season ever in the NFL. Plus, guys like Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor more than made up for it.

And yes, Pittsburgh's defense had a knack for starting games very slowly (the Cincy game at home comes to mind), but on a play-by-play basis – and I'm sure this will shock some people – the Steelers were the third best defense in the NFL in the first half; in the second half, they were eighth best. And because I know you're skeptical, here's the breakdown by half for the top-10 defenses in 2005:

Team  1st half  2nd half
CHI      1st       1st
WAS      2nd       7th
PIT      3rd       8th
TB       4th      15th
DEN      5th      11th
KC       6th      20th
BAL      7th      10th
NYG      8th      12th
IND      9th       6th
JAC     10th       4th

Historically, defensive performance is quite variable from one year to the next, but given Pittsburgh's low roster turnover, I don't expect much drop-off.

Along the defensive line DE Aaron Smith and NT Casey Hampton return, but DE Kimo von Oelhoffen is now in New York. Brett Keisel replaces him, with Travis Kirschke and Rodney Bailey (at least for now) providing depth. At linebacker, we've got Joey Porter and Clark Haggans on the outside with Farrior and Larry Foote on the inside.

How good was this unit in 2005? Well, they were fourth in Adjusted Line Yards. ALY is a defensive front seven statistic that represents the performance of offensive lines against each defense, adjusted for the quality of offensive opponents. In English, the Steelers' front seven only allowed 3.66 yards per running play, when accounting for the quality of the offense. In 2004, Pittsburgh ranked first (3.38 yards). So technically, yes, the run-defense isn't what it once was, but that's kinda like saying the Steelers weren't as good in 2005 as they were in 2004 because they only won 11 regular season games.

The Front Three So what can we expect in 2006, with Kimo out and Keisel in? Last season, with the help of volunteer readers, Football Outsiders game-charted almost every NFL regular season game to get even more data on individual players, team tendencies, and a bunch of other interesting stuff. We put most of the findings in our book, Pro Football Prospectus 2006. Shipping this summer!

Sure, it's a shameless plug, but I'll spill the beans here on a few of the Steelers for the sake of discussion:

We know what Hampton and Smith can do, but what about Keisel? Last season, von Oelhoffen had a Stop Rate of 92 percent, which ranked fourth in the NFL among defensive linemen. (Basically, Stop Rate measures how often a player "stops" the ball-carrier from gaining 45 percent of needed yards on first down; 60 percent of needed yards on second down; and on third or fourth down, simply preventing a new first down.) Smith's Stop Rate was 86 percent – good for 18th in the league. Keisel, in limited playing time, had a Stop Rate of 85 percent. None of this is particularly earth-shattering – many people suspected as much based on what they're eyes were telling them last season – but now at least we have some context. Keisel is known as a pass-rushing demon, but he was surprisingly effective against the run too.

Now if the Steelers had instead opted to obtain Orpheus Roye from the Browns to replace Kimo, then you would be well within your rights to demand that everybody in Pittsburgh's front office be drug-tested. In Cleveland's 3-4 scheme last season, Roye mustered an 81 percent Stop Rate, good for 31st in the league. Ouch. If last year's performance is any indication, Keisel shouldn't be much of a drop-off.

The Linebackers I couldn't disagree with Wex's story about Farrior falling back to earth last season, especially after looking up his game-charting stats. Farrior certainly didn't have a bad year, it was just a departure from 2004. According to the game-charting data, on passing plays, Farrior made his average stop 6.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, good for 72nd in the league among linebackers. (Note: passing plays also include sacks). On running plays, Farrior made his average stop 2.4 yards past the line of scrimmage, which ranked 12th.

Here's a table for the rest of the linebackers:

Name        PassStop (rank)  RunStop (rank)
J. Farrior      6.4  (72nd)     2.4  (12th)
L. Foote        5.2  (39th)     2.9  (41st)
J. Harrison     3.4  ( -- )    -0.1  ( -- )
C. Haggans      3.7  (18th)     2.4  (15th)
J. Porter       0.2  (4th )     3.3  (62nd)
Some thoughts:

  • Foote's numbers aren't spectacular, but the fact that they are virtually identical to Odell Thurman's should raise some eyebrows. And because I love giving Ray Lewis the business, consider his craptacular numbers from last season: Passing plays - average stop 9.3 yards past the line of scrimmage – good for 113th in the league; running plays - average stop 4.0 yards past the line of scrimmage, which ranked 95th. And this guy wants a raise. Jeebus. Yeah, I'll take Foote.
  • In limited playing time, James Harrison racked up some pretty impressive numbers. It's worth noting that these totals are while he played outside linebacker. Just keep that in mind as you continue to pimp him for Foote's job on the inside.
  • Haggans and Porter are good and unbelievable, respectively, against the pass, but most of that has to do with the number of quarterback sacks than with either player being particularly good in coverage. Haggans fares better than Porter against the run, but Porter does lines up opposite the left tackle, usually the opposing team's best offensive lineman. (In the Super Bowl, Dick LeBeau wisely dropped Porter back into coverage more than usual, instead of letting Walter Jones get his big mitts on him, effectively taking him out of the play.) Of course, Haggans plays on the strong side, meaning that he has to deal with the right tackle and a tight end on most occasions.
  • So what does all this mean? For the last two seasons, the Steelers' defense has been among the best in the league. And given they only lost two starters, it's reasonable to think they'll continue to play well. No, Brett Keisel isn't as good against the run as Kimo von Oelhoffen, but he's a lot better than I originally thought.

    The linebackers are solid, and even though Foote doesn't remind anybody of Kendrell Bell (and to me, that's not necessarily a bad thing), he's a very good at his job, knows his responsibilities, plays smart and is seldom out of position.

    Remember, things could be a lot worse. In the next week or so I'll take a look at the secondary.

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