Wilson: Sizing up the defense, part II

As promised – and only three weeks late – Steel City Insider.com's Ryan Wilson breaks down the statistics and takes an in-depth look at the Steelers' secondary. Some of the findings might surprise you.

Back in May I wrote a column on how good the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense was in 2005 and what we can expect in 2006. At the time, I focused on the front seven with promises of looking at the secondary in the near future. Well, that time is now my friends, so let's get to it.

As I've mentioned countless times, I also write for Football Outsiders, and here's the standard disclaimer for the purposes of this discussion: Four years and a crapload of play-by-play and game-charting data later, Football Outsiders has 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.

First things first, here's how the Steelers' ranked defensively since 2000:

Year   Overall   PassDef   RunDef
2000     9th      11th       5th
2001    12th      16th       4th
2002    11th      13th      13th
2003    11th      18th       6th
2004     4th       3rd       6th
2005     3rd       8th       2nd
Do you see a pattern? Pass defense good, Steelers good; pass defense bad, Steelers bad. OK, it's not quite that straightforward – some guy named Roethlisberger might have had something to do with all the recent success – but either way, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 2004 return coincided with a resurgent Steelers secondary that finished third and eighth in the NFL in pass defense the past two seasons. And this after the team averaged a 15th place ranking in the league under Tim Lewis.

Gone are Chad Scott, DeWayne Washington, Lee Flowers and Brent Alexander; in their place, the new and improved models: Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and Troy Polamalu. The jury's still out on Ricardo Colclough, Ryan Clark and Anthony Smith, but if nothing else they add quality depth to a unit that lacked quality starters only a few seasons ago.

So with all of this talent, how good was the secondary in 2005? Well, let's take a look:

Position   PIT Def Rank
No. 1 WR       3rd
No. 2 WR      10th
Other WR      15th
      TE      11th
      RB      30th
The table above shows how the Steelers' defense faired against various pass catchers, on a play-by-play basis, and there are several things worth noting. First, given Ike Taylor's development coupled with Deshea Townsend's steady play, it's no surprise the secondary ranked 3rd against No.1 receivers and 10th against No. 2 receivers. Also, the fact that Pittsburgh was near the bottom of the league versus running backs is an eye-opener. After some thought, however, it makes sense. The Steelers play a lot of cover-three, willingly giving up underneath completions while protecting against big plays down the field. The zone blitz has a lot of moving parts and if a running back should catch a swing pass for a six-yard gain, then so be it. It certainly beats a 60-yard touchdown pass at the expense of Hank Poteat.

Thanks to the game-charting data, we also have an idea of how well members of the secondary faired individually. The table below shows how successful Pittsburgh defensive backs were on passes thrown in their direction. (Here, "success" measures how often a defensive player is successful in keeping the pass receiver 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.)

Name        Success Rank
D. Townsend     12th
I. Taylor       27th
B. McFadden     27th
R. Colclough    55th
T. Polamalu     40th
C. Hope         44th
R. Clark        65th
Again, Townsend's name topping this list isn't at all shocking if you've seen him play the last two seasons, Palmer-to-Henry 66-yard passing plays aside. But Taylor's 27th ranking certainly is double-take-worthy. But here's the thing: Trying to quantify a defensive back's value is extremely difficult and sometimes requires more art than science. Unlike quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers – players who are often in camera view for the entire play – cornerbacks and safeties are seldom seen pre-snap, and often only come into frame when the ball is thrown downfield, making it difficult to discern the defensive schemes.

So just because a cornerback gets beat on a pass play doesn't mean he is entirely to blame. Maybe it was a zone scheme, or maybe another player blew a coverage. Without this information, the findings aren't as reliable as similar measures for the offensive skill positions, but it's still better than what is currently out there: speculation based on hunches. Either way, it's worth keeping these limitations in mind as we sift through the findings.

Back to Ike's ranking. Thinking back over the 2005 season, Taylor didn't give up many big plays – in fact, off the top of my head, the only long pass completion with Taylor in coverage I can remember, was the bomb from Kyle Orton to Bernard Berrian in the Bears Snow Bowl game. Again, going from memory, it seems that Taylor gave up a lot of completions of less than 10 yards in 2005, and this accounts for his middling ranking. For the most recent example, just look to the Super Bowl. The Seahawks had no problem nickel-and-diming Taylor to death with all those 7-yard out patterns at the beginning of the game. In terms of the methodology described above in creating these rankings, Taylor didn't grade out well, but none of this means he's only an average cornerback. I'm guessing if you ask LeBeau, he'd probably concede that Taylor was doing exactly what he was supposed to given the game plan. Furthermore, whenever Taylor signs his next contract, he certainly won't be paid like the 27th best cornerback in the NFL.

McFadden had a great start to his career when he intercepted a Byron Leftwich pass at the end of regulation during the Week 6 matchup with the Jaguars, but he was uneven – along with the rest of the team – during the middle third of the season (see the MNF game against the Colts, for example). The final five regular season games and the playoffs saw McFadden show marked improvement, and he'll have a chance to win the starting job in training camp.

According to the game-charting data, Colclough didn't grade out well, but in my mind, sporadic playing time and confidence are the two main culprits. If I had to point to one play that encapsulated Colclough's season, it would be the touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the Cincinnati – Pittsburgh game at Heinz Field. Colclough was in great position to make a play on the ball – maybe even intercept it – only to see it go through his arms into the outstretched hands of Houshmandzadeh. Close, but no cigar pretty much sums up his season.

Not surprisingly, safeties generally rank lower than cornerbacks in pass defense success rate and this has to do with the nature of the position. Strong safeties can often be found near the line of scrimmage playing the run before the pass and free safeties are almost always in zone coverage by definition. For Pittsburgh, Troy Polamalu falls into the former category (he ranked 40th) and Chris Hope into the latter (he ranked 44th). Ryan Clark, Hope's replacement, only ranked 65th among all safeties. We'll see if Clark's coverage skills become a concern as training camp progresses, but his counterpart in Washington, Sean Taylor, ranked 32nd last season. This indicates that in this instance, the personnel are more to blame than the scheme, since defensive coordinator Gregg Williams often uses both safeties interchangeably.

Unlike years past, the Steelers have youth and quality depth in the secondary, but figuring out exactly how good the defensive backfield is – at least individually – is no easy task. Still, that doesn't change the fact that as a unit, they have shown dramatic improvement under LeBeau, and their record bares it out. The storylines heading into August will be whether Taylor gets a new deal and if Clark can replace Hope. There is only so much the data will tell you; at some point you've got to figure it out on the field.

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