Pittsburgh Steelers


Intended to be anecdotal and also suitable for families, I didn’t expect to get a lot from this book.

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As many drinking stories as have accumulated with respect to Bobby Layne, I was worried that all I would get would be anecdotes. But no, a careful reading of this small book yields some real information on the history of play in the NFL. For example, this bit from his chapter on defenses (1):

During the early 1950’s, the big years for the Detroit Lions, the defenses were not as complicated as today. The flanker back, who is really an end, revolutionized pro football. Until this innovation, and I don’t know who started it, defenses were mostly the same. Nearly every team played a 5-2 with four guys deep to take care of the passes.

Of course there were adjustments but basically the five men up front were keyed to stop any inside running plays. The two linebackers were responsible for the outside and short passes, while the four men in the backfield played tight to help out with a tackle or be ready for a pass.

Later, in a chapter called “Coaching”, he talks about the difference between the rush coming from a five man versus a four man line(2):

Even in the past five years, play has changed considerably. There used to be nothing but five man lines, with two linebackers, and four deep men. The day of the five man line is gone, simply because the offense introduced a new receiver with the flanker back.

There used to be tough, agile ends – guys like Bill McPeak, now coach of the Redskins; Norm Willey of the Eagles and Ed Sprinkle of the Bears, who could escape the blockers by force and guile. It was the end’s job, in those days, to put pressure on the quarterbacks.

With the coming of the four man line, the ends disappeared altogether. Guys like McPeak, Willey and Sprinkle would be linebackers today. The four man line is made up of the biggest men on the team. Besides being big, today’s four defensive linemen are usually so tall, you’d think they would be playing basketball instead of harassing quarterbacks.

In today’s game, you will see those tall linemen charging up the middle. The toughest job for a quarterback is to see over or under them, so he can spot his receivers.

There are sections where he discusses the increasing specialization of the NFL “no such thing as a triple threat back in professional football” and the single wing “good offense, but it takes as much out of you as the opposition”. He makes it clear he prefers to call plays, talks about the art of play calling, gives his opinions of the GOAT, as far as QBs go (Sammy Baugh. Joe Schmidt is his linebacker GOAT). Overall, not as much coaching info as a coaching guide, but it’s arguable that Bobby Layne was the one of the best QBs of the 1950s, and the opinions of such an expert do carry some weight.

It’s useful on a coaches or fan’s bookshelf. Just enough technique to be useful.

Notes and References

1. Layne and Drum, pp 52-53
2. Layne and Drum, pp 118-119

Bibliography

Bobby Layne and Bob Drum. “Always on Sunday”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1962.

I’ll continue posting my odds, though this has not been the best season for them. Jacksonville continued to be best modeled by their median point spread, as opposed to their playoff formula. Philadelphia outperformed any reasonable prediction of their play once Wentz went down.

My system gives an edge to New England. Philadelphia played a tougher schedule but lacks playoff experience by my system. There is no home field in the Superbowl.

Super Bowl Playoff Odds
Home Team Visiting Team Score Diff Win Prob Est. Point Spread
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles 0.586 0.642 4.3

The first round is over and in terms of predicting winners, not my best (by my count, 1-2-1, as we had Jax and Bills in a de facto tie). I was pleased that the model got Rams and Atlanta correct, and the Sunday games all came down to the wire. One or two plays and my formal results would have been impressive. Still, back to the predictions for this week.

To add some spice, we will predict results for New Orleans normally, and also as if Drew Brees is elite. Values in parentheses are the elite numbers. With elite status or no, Minnesota is still favored in this data set.

The only home team not favored is Philadelphia. We discussed this in part in this article.

Second Round Playoff Odds
Home Team Visiting Team Score Diff Win Prob Est. Point Spread
Philadelphia Eagles Atlanta Falcons -0.878 0.294 -6.5
Minnesota Vikings New Orleans Saints 1.231 (0.484) 0.774 (0.619) 9.1 (3.6)
New England Patriots Tennessee Titans 1.674 0.842 12.4
Pittsburgh Steelers Jacksonville Jaguars 1.915 0.872 14

I haven’t followed this team closely, but some people I associate with are huge Pittsburgh Steelers fans. So for them, we’ll drop this set of SRS quick hits.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2004-2013
Year Team W L T SRS OSRS DSRS MOV SOS
2004 PIT 15 1 0 9.00 1.77 7.23 7.56 1.44
2005 PIT 11 5 0 7.81 3.32 4.49 8.19 -0.37
2006 PIT 8 8 0 3.42 1.40 2.01 2.38 1.04
2007 PIT 10 6 0 5.21 2.46 2.75 7.75 -2.54
2008 PIT 12 4 0 9.80 -0.29 10.09 7.75 2.05
2009 PIT 9 7 0 1.69 0.70 0.99 2.75 -1.06
2010 PIT 12 4 0 10.22 1.40 8.82 8.94 1.28
2011 PIT 12 4 0 5.29 -2.71 7.99 6.12 -0.84
2012 PIT 8 8 0 -0.65 -2.16 1.51 1.38 -2.03
2013 PIT 1 4 0 -8.30 -8.05 -0.25 -5.60 -2.70

 

The bigger loss of productivity on the Steelers, so far, has been on the offensive side. They won their last game, so perhaps the doldrums will begin to abate, and the team will begin to score more consistently. If they had as rock ribbed a defense as in 2008, then they would likely be in the playoff hunt despite the poor offensive showing (see the 2005 Chicago Bears as an example), but the defense is just ordinary at this point.

Which of these players was drafted at a premium?

Sebastian Vollmer, drafted in the seond round in 2009.
Wikimedia image.

Derrick Burgess
Second round choice by Philadelphia in 2001.
Wikimedia image by BrokenSphere.

In my  mind, the answer is “both of them”.

One of the meatier passages in War Room comes in chapter 14, where Bill Belichick discusses the thought processes behind his selection of Sebastian Vollmer in 2009:

“Sebastian Vollmer is a good example”, he says of the Patriots’ starting right tackle, one of the team’s four second-rounders in ’09. “There’s no way he was really a second-round pick. Based on film or really based on the player he was at the end of the ’08 season. You know, East-West game and all  that. We knew there would be an undertow of Vollmer. And it was just a question of, ‘When’s this guy going to  go?’

“He should have been a fourth or fifth-round pick, by the film, by his performance. But  you saw him as an ascending player and he had rare size, and  there were a lot of things that you had to fix and all that. But it was clear the league liked him. Now,  the question is always, “How much do  they like him and where are they willing to buy?’ I’m sure for some teams it was the fourth round. For some teams it was the third round. But we just said, ‘Look we really want this guy. This is too high to pick him, but if we wait  we might not get him, so we’re going to  step up and take him.’

“And sometimes when you do that  you’re right and sometimes when you do  that  you’re wrong and everybody looks at you like, ‘Damn, you could have had him in the fourth.’

The Patriots aren’t the only team that practices the overdraft or the premium draft. If the Eagles really like someone, they tend to take them a round ahead of where he is commonly valued. Odd that teams that maintain plenty of draft picks practice this.  Offhand, I can recall the Eagles doing this for Derrick Burgess (generally viewed as a fourth rounder). The Steelers have done this as well;  they drafted Casey Hampton a full round above his common valuation.

In the 2012 draft class, players who appear to be attracting premium attention (we’re a day before the draft, mind you) are Ryan Tannehill (late first by talent, thought to be going to Miami at #8), Stephon Gilmore (drafted #3 in a mock draft by Greg Cosell), Fletcher Cox (mid first talent, seen as high as #5 in respectable mocks), Kevin Zeitner (mid second round talent, often in mocks with Pittsburgh in the first round), Chandler Jones (appearing in the first in some mocks), and Mark Barron (some people claim he’s the #7 now, often ranked as a mid first rounder).

If you feel you need the player, sometimes you have to just go out and get him.

Playoff experience is a potent effect, enough to overcome Denver’s advantages in home field and tougher schedule.

Steelers: Super Bowl last year, Away, SOS = -0.84, Pythagorean = 71.8%

Broncos: Last in playoffs 2005, Home, SOS = -0.23, Pythagorean = 35.3%

Typically in playoff games, you don’t see huge differences in offensive stats, because the teams that make it in the modern NFL tend to be good offensive teams.But Denver is nearly as bad this year as Seattle was last year (Seattle actually was worse, with a Pythagorean of 32.7%).  Treating this as a regular season game, instead of a playoff game would give PIT a 76% edge. Instead, using the playoff formula, PIT would be favored by 54%.

On a wet April weekend, what better way to spend some time than looking for an exotic football front? And in this, Rob Ryan seldom disappoints.

We’ll be looking at some Rob Ryan fronts that can be found on NFL.com video  of the week 14 game between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, 2009. This is when Cleveland began a 4-0 tear to end the season.

I’ve seen Rob Ryan stand up the defensive ends in what initially looks like a 4 man front but not the tackles, until now:

And in this front, you see a 2-4 nickel front, looking a bit like a 3-4 with the LDE of a 3-4 having been replaced with an extra defensive back.

And what would a Rob Ryan survey be without a couple shots of no down lineman (cloud) defenses?

This is a defensive front from the Pittsburgh-Atlanta game. Look at it for 2 seconds. Is it a 46 or not?

So what is it?

It’s easy to confuse until you see the DB lined up over the slot receiver. The linemen  aren’t spaced the way a 46 would be, but.. I suspect you can get a 46 effect out of a 34 front by pinching the ends into the offensive guards.

I spent a lot of time looking at other teams and wasting that time. No fronts of interest to speak of. Now, Pittsburgh tends to show a lot of 34 looks, but there is so much motion in  their linebackers that  they tend to keep someone like me engaged. For example, what’s happening here?

Some things to note: the front is shifted to the weak side of the formation. LDE is over the guard,  the NT appears to be in the “A” gap, and the RDE is outside the LT.  The result was that Matt Ryan ended up being intercepted by Troy Polamalu.

I’ve had this book a while, but really haven’t had a chance to show it off.

Hail Victory” is an oral history of the Washington Redskins, written by Tom  Loverro, a writer for the Washington Times. It’s smaller than Pete Golenbock’s oral history of the Cowboys, by a few hundred pages, and as a consequence, coverage of certain periods can be spotty.

But to give an example of the kinds of insights this book does have, here is a quote from page 180 talking about the beginnings of the 1982 season.

Gibbs made it clear he was going to use youngsters over veterans who didn’t produce. He cut running back Terry Metcalf, whom  he had been close to from their days in Saint Louis. He made backup linebacker Rich Milot a starter, as well as rookie cornerback Vernon Dean. He cut receiver Carl Powell, a top draft choice, in favor of unheralded Alvin Garrett. He brought in veteran defensive end Tony McGee to replace Mat Mendenhal and shore up the pass rush.

I bought “Hail Victory” initially to help answer the question of George Allen’s five man line back in 1972, but it was no help there. It’s going to be a terrific help as I chase down information on my next element of interest, Bobby Beathard. And he’s interesting because Washington is the ultimate counter example of the group “A” teams I’ve been so fascinated by recently.

What’s a  group “A’ team?  It’s one of the four I’ve circled on this plot:

I’m thinking now there are clusters of teams with draft strategies. The four in group “A” are New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. I spoke about their apparent habits here. The groups “B” and “C” are unstudied so far. Group B  teams are Denver and Indianapolis. Group C teams are Minnesota and the New York Giants. Left of group B are a cluster of 8 teams, that might as well be named group D for now. And down by its little lonesome, right at the 6.5 player/year line, is Washington.

My guess is that Bobby Beathard, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins, is the ultimate counterexample for the type “A” team.

Some things to note. Bobby was quarterback in college, and then a scout before he entered the NFL. He scouted for Kansas City in the later 1960s, was the director of player personnel for the Miami Dolphins during their peak, and in 1978, when Jack Kent Cooke was the majority owner of the Skins, he became their general manager.

There is an excellent interview of Bobby Beathard on the site Burgundy and Gold Obsession. There is a section from that interview that really stands out, and it’s the same kind of emphasis  that Bill Billick  has attributed to the Belichick era with New England. Bobby is responding to a question in this excerpt (emphasis is mine).

There should be a relationship where the personnel people and the coach are really together. We knew exactly what type of player each Redskin position coach wanted. We knew what kind (offensive line coach) Joe Bugel wanted, we knew what kind (linebackers coach) Larry Peccatiello, (defensive coordinator) Richie Petitbon wanted. I think on our first Super Bowl team we had 26 kids who weren’t drafted, we just signed them as free agents. It didn’t matter who we brought in. Those guys coached the dog out of them. When I was with (head coach) Kevin Gilbride in San Diego, he’d make up his mind before he even got to minicamp, `I don’t want that guy, I don’t want this guy, I don’t want that guy.’ And it became impossible to satisfy him with anybody. The exact opposite was Joe and his staff. Having a staff like that really helps the organization.

What’s very intriguing is this emphasis on the “back end” of the draft, or in this case, post-draft free agents. It’s also the notion that the coaches tell the scouts what kind of players to get, and the scouts go out and  get them exactly those kinds of players. The fit helped make the Redskins of the 1980s successful. And in another form, it’s the same back end emphasis you see in the type “A” teams.

With regard to the best possible athlete versus need question, Bobby said this:

Sometimes you get into that situation when you have the philosophy which we did, you have to take the best one on the board, regardless of position. We always hoped when we picked there would be two or three good players available at different positions, so you’d at least get to take closer to your need. But if there’s just one there, and he’s outstanding, and you have a great grade on the guy and the next athlete on the board doesn’t have that kind of grade, you have to go with the highest-graded player.

And that seems to be a common theme, BPA of course, but need when there are two or three attractive alternatives.