ColdHardFootballFacts.com breaks down Sunday's New England at Pittsburgh game (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
The Patriots (6-2) hit the road to face the Steelers (6-2) in a battle of the NFL's two preeminent powers of the past decade. The winner will have an inside track in the race for the AFC's No. 1 seed.
1. Love line play? You'll love the clash of Pittsburgh's DL vs. New England's OL. The Patriots visit Pittsburgh with the NFL's No. 2 scoring offense (27.4 PPG). The Steelers counter with the league's stingiest defense (15.4 PPG). But the down and dirty story behind those lofty rankings is the war of attrition in the trenches, where we'll witness one of the great clashes of 2010.
Pittsburgh's defensive front is one of the best in football, a story we discussed in great detail right here last week. Entering Week 10, the Steelers are No. 2 on our Defensive Hog Index, a critical indicator of postseason success. However, New England's offensive line is no pushover. They're No. 2 on our Offensive Hog Index and actually held the No. 1 spot all year until the team's loss last week at Cleveland.
It sets up a great showdown.
The Steelers enter the game allowing just 2.64 YPA on the ground. It's not only the stingiest run defense of 2010, but also puts Pittsburgh on pace to field the greatest run defense of the Super Bowl Era. The existing record is held by the famed 2000 Ravens (2.69 YPA). The New England offense responds with a ground game that's merely ordinary: their average of 4.12 YPA ranks 15th in the NFL. So the evidence here tells us the Patriots will have trouble establishing a run game.
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However, New England's offensive line is among the very best in football at protecting the passer. It surrenders a Negative Pass Play (sack or INT) on just 6.52 percent of drop backs (fifth). The Steelers are not as dominant rushing the passer as they have been in past years. They force a Negative Pass Play on 10.15 percent of drop backs (ninth). It's good, but not great.
Given the expected inability to run the ball, the Patriots need to be in peak form protecting quarterback Tom Brady to have success moving the ball against the league's stingiest defense.
2. The New England offense misses its Randy Moss binky. Do you need a prolific wide receiver to be a great team? The overwhelming evidence says no, prolific receivers do not make great teams.
The Patriots and Steelers themselves stand as evidence: New England won three Super Bowls when Tom Brady threw dink-and-dunk passes to a nearly anonymous collection of journeymen and castoffs.
Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls with Hines Ward as its top pass catcher. Great football player? Absolutely. Prolific pass catcher by modern standards? Not at all.
With all that said, there's no doubt New England's offense was more productive with Moss on the roster:
• The Patriots averaged 5.73 yards per play in four games with Moss; they average 4.99 yards per play in four games without Moss.
• The Patriots averaged 7.47 yards per pass attempt with Moss; they average 6.49 yards per pass attempt without Moss.
• Most importantly, the Patriots scored 32.8 PPG in four games with Moss; they scored 22.0 PPG in four games without Moss. That's a dramatic and sudden downturn in scoring sans Randy.
Of course, New England was 3-1 in four games with Moss. And they're 3-1 in four games without Moss, including victories over projected AFC playoff powers Baltimore and San Diego. So the Patriots here in 2010 -- as they have in previous years -- have shown they can win without a big-name wide receiver. Remember, the gritty, tough-it-out formula was the secret to their success earlier in the decade.
But there's no doubt the offensive production in New England has declined by every measure since Moss was traded. And there's no doubt that the deep threat Moss "opens up the field" and makes offenses more productive. It's no coincidence, after all, that Moss was the common denominator among the two most prolific offenses in NFL history, the 1998 Vikings (556 points) and 2007 Patriots (589 points).
3. Ben Roethlisberger deserves more credit for his incredible productivity. Most football fans and so-called experts obsess over those big gaudy numbers and 400-yard passing days that grab headlines. The fantasy football phenomenon fuels this obsession. But the truth is that passing effectiveness, not volume, is the singular secret to success in the NFL and always has been -- at least if you care about wins and losses on the field and not in your fantasy league.
Quarterbacks with a high average per pass attempt almost always win, regardless of how often they pass. And Roethlisberger is a perfect example of the importance of effectiveness over volume. He's actually one of the most prolific passers in NFL history if you look at the right numbers.
Big Ben averages an incredible 8.02 yards per pass attempt, the fifth highest mark in the history of football. If you want to know why the Steelers instantly became title contenders the day Roethlisberger became the starter, if you want to know why he's already won two Super Bowls, look at that number.
Sure, he's been blessed with a consistently strong defense and a team committed to the run. But those two factors don't win consistently if you can't exploit the opposition with a highly effective passing game. Just ask Green Bay Hall of Famer Bart Starr, the only quarterback with five championship rings. His career average of 7.85 YPA was the best of any quarterback in the 1960s. Or ask Cleveland Hall of Famer Otto Graham. He led the Browns to six straight championship games in each of his six NFL seasons, an unprecedented streak of success. His average of 8.62 YPA as an NFL passer is also unprecedented, the highest, the most effective mark of all time.
Roethlisberger went 26-4 in his first 30 games as a starter, a period during which he averaged an amazing 8.89 yards per pass attempt -- an incredible number. The wins were a direct result of his historic but misunderstood productivity.
He's in true Big Ben form here 2010, too, even after his four-game suspension early in the year. Roethlisberger has averaged an impressive 8.41 YPA and he's won three of his four starts.
Bottom line: passing effectiveness, not passing volume, is what wins games in the NFL. Big Ben is the best contemporary example of this law of football success.
The Patriots suffer a critical weakness that will ultimately prevent them from winning a Super Bowl and most likely will prevent them from winning on Sunday: one of the worst pass defenses in football today.
The Patriots this year allow opposing passers to complete 70.17 percent of their attempts. How inept is that effort? In the entire history of the NFL, only one other team has allowed opposing passers to complete more than 70 percent of their passes over the course of an entire season: the 2007 Lions (70.20).
The Patriots also rank No. 28 in Defensive Passer Rating (93.9), our preferred indicator to measure pass defenses. Basically, we apply the formula used to rate quarterbacks to measure the effectiveness of each defense. Defensive Passer Rating has a very high correlation to success on the scoreboard. And, right now, the Patriots field the worst pass defense in franchise history.
It's something a statistical miracle -- and a tribute to the typically smart situational football of Bill Belichick's teams -- that the Patriots are 6-2 despite being hamstrung by this terrible pass defense.
The Steelers present all kinds of trouble for New England's defense, especially in light of Roethlisberger's historic productivity.
New England is the rare team that has enjoyed great success against Pittsburgh in recent years. The Patriots have won five of seven meetings with the Steelers in the Tom Brady Era (since 2001), including a pair of wins at Pittsburgh in AFC title games (2001, 2004).
But those were much better defensive clubs in New England. The 2010 Patriots appear too vulnerable to shut down the Steelers or keep pace on offense against Pittsburgh's top-rated defense.
We expect Big Ben to have a Big Day in this battle of mighty AFC heavyweights.
Pittsburgh 27, New England 23
(Week 9 prediction: Kansas City 26, Oakland 24. Result: Oakland 23, Kansas City 20.)