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» AFC Championship Preview 2018

To stop Blake Bortles, the Patriots will have to stop throws in the short middle of the field. To stop Tom Brady, the Jaguars will have to get pressure with four even though Brady was among the best QBs in the league under pressure this season.

12 Jan 2018

AFC Divisional Round Playoff Preview 2018

by Rivers McCown (TEN-NE) and Scott Kacsmar (JAC-PIT)

The AFC South is the weakest division in the NFL. It's been that way for years, and it was expected to be that way again in 2017. There was some change, as Jacksonville was the first AFC South team to rank in the DVOA top 10 since the 2011 Houston Texans. But the AFC South teams still averaged -8.8% DVOA, the lowest of all eight divisions.

And yet, here we are with two AFC South teams advancing to the NFL's final eight. And now the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are the teams standing between football fans and the New England-Pittsburgh AFC Championship rematch that has seemed like destiny since the moment training camps first opened in July. Do they have any chance at all to keep us from Brady-Big Ben Again?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link.

Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA (which goes through the wild-card round) and anything else specifically noted.

Tennessee at New England



Titans on Offense
TEN OFF NE DEF
DVOA -2.1% (18) 10.9% (31)
WEI DVOA -5.3% (21) 3.2% (22)
PASS 1.4% (20) 16.8% (21)
RUSH 2.0% (8) 2.6% (30)
RED ZONE 11.0% (12) -18.7% (4)


Patriots on Offense
NE OFF TEN DEF
DVOA 27.3% (1) 5.1% (21)
WEI DVOA 27.4% (1) 1.3% (17)
PASS 47.1% (1) 19.0% (24)
RUSH 10.4% (3) -15.6% (7)
RED ZONE 27.2% (3) -9.5% (10)


Special Teams
TEN NE
DVOA 1.6% (13) 6.3% (3)
TEN kickoff +2.9 (12) +6.4 (4)
NE kickoff +0.8 (11) +8.4 (1)
TEN punts +3.0 (16) -0.6 (18)
NE punts +0.7 (13) +8.2 (4)
FG/XP +0.6 (15) +8.9 (6)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Vegas has made the New England Patriots a big favorite against the Titans. And rightfully so, perhaps, as New England has a history of making mincemeat of inferior opponents with an extra week to game-plan. One thing worth considering, though, is that while it's easy to talk about how down the AFC playoff teams were, that actually includes New England. The record is vintage Patriots, but they finished with the second-worst defensive DVOA in the NFL, ahead of only Oakland. They had the fifth-easiest schedule in the league, and they mixed in their share of clunkers.

I don't put much into the idea that the Patriots will be divided by the Seth Wickersham article about Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft. It's worth noting as a background distraction, but the only thing that is notable from an on-field perspective is the idea that Brady has slightly slipped. I know this is a hype-and-hate society, as Yahoo!'s Scott Pianowski loves to say, but it's possible for Brady to have both slipped and still be the best quarterback in the NFL. Such are the lofty standards when you are on the short list for greatest quarterback in NFL history.

WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL

The common thread in New England's losses this year has been a running offense that was able to eat clock. The Panthers averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 29 totes in Week 4. Both Kansas City and Miami were able to establish themselves on the ground in their upset wins against the Patriots. And in close wins against the Chargers and Bucs, the New England run defense also had a run defense DVOA in the positive double-digits. The Patriots are pretty smooth when it comes to defending running quarterbacks -- you've got to beat them at the line of scrimmage -- but it can be done, and has been a key factor of the many close games the Patriots have played (Deshaun Watson's many broken tackles in Week 3, for example).

However, despite Derrick Henry's big week against the Chiefs in the wild-card round, the Titans finished the regular season on a string of bad single-game DVOA scores on run offense. The Titans finished the regular season with four straight negative-DVOA games as a rush offense, three of them double-digit negative scores. Now, the Titans will be missing DeMarco Murray, who was a bit slower through the hole and a lot easier to bring down than Henry. That's probably a reason to believe in their run offense more in this game, given how much Mike Mularkey's staff believed in Murray despite his subpar year. Henry finished with a top-10 broken tackle rate among all running backs with more than 150 carries. The Patriots were in the bottom five of all defenses in broken tackle rate, so if Henry can push them around and generate yards in ways New England isn't used to allowing, perhaps that will keep the Tennessee's run game in control.

Marcus Mariota will be spoiled for choice. While New England was tenth in adjusted sack rate, Sports Info Solutions measured the Patriots with the worst pressure rate in the NFL. (It's improved since midseason, but only to 23rd.) Mariota's biggest weakness was against the big blitz; the Titans averaged 2.6 yards per attempt against blitzes with six or more rushers. But the Patriots only rushed six or more defenders on 2 percent of their snaps, tied for the lowest rate in the league. On a pure talent perspective, Tennessee's offensive line against New England's pressure package is a mismatch in favor of the Titans.

The cornerback/wideout matchups wouldn't seem to favor Tennessee, but both New England starting corners have had down years. Malcolm Butler was torched early, and Stephon Gilmore missed time with injuries and played hurt. The only position that New England defended at an above-average level in the passing game is tight end, where they were eighth in DVOA allowed at -11.4%. Even that asset, however, is somewhat up in the air as linebacker Kyle Van Noy may miss the game with a calf injury. His absence would likely put strong safety/sometimes nickelback Patrick Chung on Delanie Walker. The Patriots are most commonly a Cover-1 team -- both of these teams are more man-focused -- which means that if the Titans can win one-on-one, they'll be in a good position.

Except Tennessee's receivers haven't been all that impressive this year outside of Walker. Rishard Matthews has been hurt, but is Tennessee's best outside receiver and could do some damage in this game. But it seems like Corey Davis, despite the physical talent, has a few disappointing plays every game. Taywan Taylor could provide some speed and field-stretching ability. The middle of the New England defense is very soft, with throws targeting the short middle allowing a 34.2% DVOA, 30th in the league. There are ways for the Titans to attack in theory, but a lot of Tennessee's passing game stagnates in their base offense.

The Patriots finished 31st in defensive DVOA, but are currently 22nd in weighted defensive DVOA. Five of their six worst games by pass defense DVOA came in the first six weeks. And because of New England's sterling red zone defense, it again all seems to come back to the run game. The Titans were second in the NFL with a 43.9% run offense DVOA in the red zone. To put points on New England, the Titans are going to have win decisively at the line of scrimmage.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

The Patriots have the best passing offense in the NFL by DVOA, but this isn't their traditional dink-and-dunk pass offense. Brady attempted 130 deep passes, more than any quarterback but Russell Wilson (135) and Ben Roethlisberger (131), and 841 of Brady's 1,599 DYAR came on deep balls. Combine this with the primarily Cover-1 tendencies of the Titans, who per Sports Info Solutions ran the fourth-most man coverage in the league, and you have a recipe for deep balls. That can be an easy win for the Patriots, or it could play out differently. Remember, though the research is new, that Cian Fahey has noted that older quarterbacks tend to lose arm strength late in the season. A bye should help, but the Titans are likely to make Brady beat them deep.

Man coverage against the Patriots leaves you with one real question: what do you do about Rob Gronkowski? The Titans were a tight end funnel in the regular season. Nobody allowed more receptions per game to tight ends, and they were 24th in defensive DVOA against that position. They were, in fact, quite fortunate that Travis Kelce was concussed in the middle of last week's game. None of Tennessee's single-coverage options are particularly appealing (not that any defenders are appealing options against Gronkowski), so the Titans may have to try to vary their coverages up at some point. Dick LeBeau and Brady have probably clashed so many times at this point that they can each call out the opponent's next adjustments anyway.

The real swing in this game might be that the Patriots also have the No. 3 run offense DVOA. Rex Burkhead's potential absence may be felt, but Dion Lewis came out of nowhere for the second time in three years to take over the backfield. The Titans actually have a pretty good run defense -- seventh in DVOA over the course of the season and without a positive DVOA allowed in a game since Week 10. Last week, they swarmed Kareem Hunt and made the Chiefs one-dimensional. If they can do that in this game as well, that's one step closer to the correct upset formula.

Burkhead and Lewis were keys in the passing game down the stretch, and the Titans ranked dead last in defensive DVOA against running backs in the passing game. The return of Chris Hogan could also shift some things in the New England offense. The Patriots didn't have a wideout who easily won against press coverage without Hogan. Brandin Cooks actually had a negative DYAR on his shorter targets. If Hogan can come back and provide some of that, it would go a long way towards keeping the Titans honest.

I haven't talked much about the Tennessee pass defense yet for a reason -- they're just not that interesting of a unit. The Titans regularly limit big plays, as they had a -22.1% DVOA on deep passes that ranked third in the NFL. None of their cornerbacks had particularly effective years. They were 12th in adjusted sack rate, but most of their high-sack games came against bad quarterbacks. Twenty of the team's sacks came in three games against Blaine Gabbert, Jay Cutler, and Jacoby Brissett.

Brady was played by teams as if he is functionally immune to blitzes. Only the Chiefs were blitzed at a lower rate than the Patriots. The Titans blitzed five percent more than the NFL average, but got a below-average pressure rate when they blitzed. So, how likely are the Titans to be able to have a game where the defensive line carries them to pressures on three- or four-man rushes? Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo are going to need to win against New England's offensive line to blunt the disadvantages that this pass defense faces. Casey, in particular, will be important as an interior disruptor, which is traditionally the pressure that bothers Brady the most.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams may be generally inconsistent from year to year, but the Patriots and Chiefs have been consistent exceptions over the past five years. New England only finished third in special teams DVOA this year, mostly because their punt coverage was average-ish and Steven Gostkowski missed a few kicks he would normally make. Special teams ace Matthew Slater has battled injury all season and will probably be as healthy as he has been all year in this one.

The Titans have no major weaknesses on special teams, but no real calling card either unless Adoree Jackson lines up for returns. (He did a few times against Tennessee.) Ryan Succop has been basically automatic inside the 40 for the last few years, and the Titans appear to have a lot of trust in him. With the weather expected to be pretty fair for New England in January, it wouldn't surprise us if Mularkey made some questionable tactical decisions riding with Succop just inside of New England's side of the field.

OUTLOOK

How you feel about the Titans in this game relies a lot on how much credit you are willing to give the Patriots for this season. New England certainly had more warts in this season than they normally have. In a vacuum, it's easy to look at what Tennessee does and see that it's a decent matchup for how the Pats play. If the running game can get going for the Titans, this has the potential to be a much closer game than the point spread indicates. In theory, the Titans have a good underdog game plan.

And then you see that the coaching matchup is Mike Mularkey versus Bill Belichick. That's what freezes me in my tracks from calling out the Patriots as especially vulnerable in this game. Because while I do think there are ways to beat the Patriots this year, it's hard to predict just how the Titans will do it if they are married to the traditional way Mularkey plays unless they average six yards per carry.

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh


Jaguars on Offense
JAC OFF PIT DEF
DVOA -0.2% (16) -6.4% (9)
WEI DVOA -3.9% (19) -0.6% (14)
PASS 13.3% (15) -6.9% (8)
RUSH -4.8% (12) -5.6% (18)
RED ZONE 9.3% (13) 9.1% (23)
Steelers on Offense
PIT OFF JAC DEF
DVOA 17.6% (3) -16.1% (1)
WEI DVOA 19.7% (3) -15.9% (4)
PASS 34.1% (4) -27.5% (1)
RUSH 3.1% (6) -2.8% (26)
RED ZONE 20.7% (5) -18.0% (5)
Special Teams
JAC PIT
DVOA -2.8% (24) 3.1% (9)
JAC kickoff -8.8 (30) +1.3 (10)
PIT kickoff -0.5 (15) +5.2 (7)
JAC punts -4.4 (21) -2.9 (24)
PIT punts +3.5 (7) +3.3 (15)
FG/XP -3.6 (22) +8.4 (7)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

Believe it or not, but this is Pittsburgh's first playoff game off a bye week since the 2010 season. The Steelers made the Super Bowl that year, as they also did in 2008, when they won it all after a first-round bye. Pittsburgh has only lost three of its last 26 games in regulation, and they were all games against the Patriots and Jaguars. To make it to another Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is likely going to have to slay those dragons.

It is a challenge the Steelers are eager to accept. Ben Roethlisberger was clamoring for the Jaguars even before last weekend's slate started, because he knows the headline from the Week 5 meeting was his career-high five interceptions. The game was an oddity in many ways, as we'll get to later, but the undeniable facts are that it was Pittsburgh's worst game of the year and Jacksonville's only victory against a 10-win team in the last five seasons.

Jacksonville is in a rare position to pull off a road sweep, much like it did by beating the Steelers twice at Heinz Field in the 2007 season. Of course, these opportunities are rare since there aren't many instances of two playoff-bound teams meeting in the regular season with the road team winning the first matchup. The Jaguars are the 21st team since 2002 to win the first road matchup before a playoff rematch on the road. The road team is 10-10 at completing the sweep.

NFL Playoff Rematches Where Road Team Attempted Road Sweep (Since 2002)
Home Road Year Week REG Final Round POST Final Notes
IND DEN 2003 16 L 31-17 AFC-WC W 41-10
SD NYJ 2004 2 L 34-28 AFC-WC L 20-17 OT
SEA STL 2004 5 L 33-27 OT NFC-WC L 27-20 Division foes
CIN PIT 2005 7 L 27-13 AFC-WC L 31-17 Division foes
PHI NYG 2006 2 L 30-24 OT NFC-WC W 23-20 Division foes
NE NYJ 2006 10 L 17-14 AFC-WC W 37-16 Division foes
PIT JAC 2007 15 L 29-22 AFC-WC L 31-29
MIA BAL 2008 7 L 27-13 AFC-WC L 27-9
SD IND 2008 12 L 23-20 AFC-WC W 23-17 OT
NYG PHI 2008 14 L 20-14 NFC-DIV L 23-11 Division foes
IND NYJ 2009 16 L 29-15 AFC-CG W 30-17 IND: rested starters in 2H
Home Road Year Week REG Final Round POST Final Notes
ARI GB 2009 17 L 33-7 NFC-WC W 51-45 OT ARI: rested starters
PHI GB 2010 1 L 27-20 NFC-WC L 21-16
PIT BAL 2010 4 L 17-14 AFC-DIV W 31-24 Big Ben suspended for Week 4
CHI SEA 2010 6 L 23-20 NFC-DIV W 35-24
PIT NYJ 2010 15 L 22-17 AFC-CG W 24-19
DEN SD 2013 15 L 27-20 AFC-DIV W 24-17 Division foes
HOU KC 2015 1 L 27-20 AFC-WC L 30-0
MIN SEA 2015 13 L 38-7 NFC-WC L 10-9
CIN PIT 2015 14 L 33-20 AFC-WC L 18-16 Andy Dalton injured in Week 14
PIT JAC 2017 5 L 30-9 AFC-DIV TBD

In these last 20 matchups, the home team closed the scoring gap by an average of 10.6 points from the first matchup. Only four home teams saw the margin get worse, which is almost impossible in this case given that the Steelers lost by 21 points to the Jaguars in Week 5. It was only the second time in the Roethlisberger era (since 2004) that the Steelers lost a home game by more than 17 points. The worst loss was a 31-7 beating against the 2006 Ravens, another team with a superb defense and a "hide the quarterback" (old Steve McNair) offense.

This is one of the classic "offense vs. defense" matchups, and in the playoffs, there's not much of an advantage there. Since 1986, top-five DVOA offenses are 44-43 in the playoffs against top-five DVOA defenses. It sure helps to play at home, where the offensive team is 25-11 (.694). If we think of this as a strength vs. strength matchup where the units cancel each other out, then this game could very well be decided by what the Steelers' slumping defense does against a quarterback whose natural state looks like slumping.

WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL

If you watched the playoff game against Buffalo last week, then you know that Jacksonville has a pretty limited offense. Those days of winning a playoff game by throwing for fewer than 100 yards on 20-plus passes are pretty rare, but Blake Bortles pulled it off last week. Four wide receivers are on injured reserve, and Allen Hurns has missed six games and spent much of the others in the witness protection program. Keelan Cole led the team with 748 yards in the regular season, but didn't have a catch on his lone target against the Bills. They broke the glass on Marcedes Lewis in London when he caught three touchdowns against the Ravens, but he has mostly been an antique collecting dust this season. The running backs have had some receiving production, but Leonard Fournette only ranked 20th in receiving DYAR this season. No one's going to confuse him for Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara.

Before we get down on Bortles, we should highlight the one area where he is statistically quite good. He has been an effective scrambler in this league. Bortles' average of 6.32 yards per carry is the fourth highest in NFL history (minimum 200 rushes), trailing only Michael Vick (7.00), Bobby Douglass (6.47), and Randall Cunningham (6.36). Quarterbacks are destined to dominate that list when you set the minimum attempt threshold so low, but it's still impressive for Bortles, who has also decreased his sack percentage each season. I would point out that a lack of winning in his career has helped keep the yards-per-carry average high, because you're not going to add many kneeldowns for negative yardage at the end of the game when you win 11 of your first 45 starts.

But Bortles can run, and run he did against the Bills for 88 yards, or one more than the 87 he passed for. Bortles may have to scramble a lot again this week, but the Jaguars would prefer to run the ball more conventionally as they did in Week 5 when they compiled a season-high 231 rushing yards. That's also the season-worst total for the Pittsburgh defense, which had some issues with long runs this year after backs broke into the second level (ranked 30th) and open field (also ranked 30th). Pittsburgh's tackling leaves a lot to be desired. The Steelers allowed a broken tackle on a league-high 14.1 percent of their plays according to Sports Info Solutions. Jacksonville may not be high on playmakers, but its skill players did break tackles on 12.1 percent of plays, ranked fifth in 2017.

The highlight of Jacksonville's rushing in Pittsburgh was Fournette's 90-yard touchdown romp to put the Steelers away with 1:47 left. Pittsburgh played eight defenders in the box (and all 11 players in tight) looking to stop the run, but safety Sean Davis took a terrible angle to the back, and Fournette had an easy run. That's a nice play that allowed Fournette to finish with a season-high 181 rushing yards, but is there anything about that play that is really significant or repeatable for this week's game? You're not going to get that defensive look in the first half or in a tight game. Also, Fournette could have gone down at any point after a 2-yard gain to run out the clock, but he went for the big score instead. So to say Fournette destroyed the Steelers' run defense that day would be rather misleading. Prior to that run, he had 27 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown. Maybe the Jaguars would sign up for a repeat of that, because it shows that they were able to stick with the run and got some production. However, just seven of those 27 carries were successful plays, a success rate of 26 percent. For reference, Detroit's Ameer Abdullah ranked dead last in rushing success rate this season at 35 percent, so 26 percent is really bad. Further, backup Chris Ivory hasn't been very efficient for Jacksonville. He runs hard, but he finished 44th out of 47 backs in success rate (38 percent).

     

Even though Jacksonville ran the ball more than any offense, Bortles used play-action passing 21 percent of the time, which ranked 11th this season according to Sports Info Solutions. It helped since the Jaguars averaged 9.0 yards per play (ranked fourth) with play-action compared to 6.0 yards per play (ranked 19th) without it. This could be a very good matchup for the Jaguars to use play-action, with the Steelers expecting to stop the run against a quarterback who threw 14 passes in the first matchup and didn't break 100 yards a week ago. Pittsburgh's defense also allowed 9.6 yards per play on play-action passes, which ranked 30th among defenses. On other plays, the Steelers were much stronger at 5.7 yards per play (ranked sixth).

Passing is still the key to attacking this Pittsburgh defense, which has fallen off dramatically since the bye week. Through Week 9, the Steelers ranked third in DVOA, but since Week 10, Pittsburgh fell to 21st in DVOA. That drop of 18 spots in the rankings ties Detroit for the largest fall in the second half of the season.

What could be causing this? Injuries and the schedule are often good answers. Cornerback Joe Haden was injured in Week 10 in Indianapolis and missed five games. He actually hasn't charted too well this year, and certainly not better than Artie Burns, who has had his own share of struggles in this defense. According to Sports Info Solutions, Haden allowed 7.3 yards per pass (ranked 52nd), compared to 6.5 yards per pass for Burns (ranked 30th). Burns had a non-contact knee injury in practice this week, but could play. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt left Wednesday's practice with his arm in a sling, which isn't great news.

The most devastating injury was obviously when linebacker Ryan Shazier injured his spine in Cincinnati in Week 13. He's one of the unit's very best players and his loss has had a big impact, but the team is also rallying to support him. He's not the best defender on the team, because that is still Cameron Heyward, who made his first All-Pro team with a career-high 12 sacks. Heyward didn't play in Week 17 when the Steelers allowed DeShone Kizer to post his first 300-yard passing game in a near-upset by Cleveland, but the rest of the starting defense did, and that's a troubling sign.

Early in the season, the Steelers feasted on Kizer in his first start (Week 1), and also got Case Keenum in his first start for the Vikings in Week 2. They lost to Mike Glennon (at Chicago) and Bortles despite little production from either of those passers. They also got to play against Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco, but both of those quarterbacks had it much better the second time around when the Bengals and Ravens forced the Steelers into wild comebacks in Weeks 13 and 14.

Starting with that Week 10 game in Indianapolis, the Steelers began surrendering big plays at an alarming rate. Since Week 10, Pittsburgh has allowed five touchdown passes with at least 30 air yards, or two more than any other defense. Overall, Pittsburgh has allowed eight touchdown passes that gained at least 30 yards since Week 10, or three more than any other defense. Oddly enough, the Jaguars allowed five of those plays down the stretch too, but Pittsburgh was doing this against the likes of Brett Hundley (Packers) and Jacoby Brissett (Colts).

In fact, the Steelers have allowed the following scoring totals in their last four home games: 28, 38, 27, and 24. It's one thing to give up 27 points to Tom Brady and the Patriots, but when Hundley, Flacco, and Kizer are averaging 30 points per game in your building, then something is rotten in the Keystone State.

If Bortles can get the Jaguars to 24 points in this game, then that should give them a great shot to get the road win. It sounds like a lot for a struggling offense, but we have seen similar or lesser quarterbacks do that to this defense. Bortles will just have to scramble to make a few things happen on third downs, and the Jaguars need to finish in the red zone, where the Steelers are 32nd in DVOA against the run.

WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL

It is understandable why Roethlisberger would want a shot at redemption against Jacksonville's defense. Jacksonville won 30-9 in Week 5 after two of Roethlisberger's five interceptions were returned for touchdowns in the third quarter. The performance even led Roethlisberger to say, in jest, that "maybe I don't have it anymore."

Well, since that calamity, Roethlisberger proved he still has something in the tank. Since Week 6, Roethlisberger had 1,000 passing DYAR, which ranked third behind only Philip Rivers (1,144) and Tom Brady (1,062). He didn't play in Week 17, but Roethlisberger was the only quarterback to throw for at least 200 yards in every game he played this season (minimum six starts). He had his third 500-yard game against the Ravens in a memorable 39-38 comeback. From Week 6 on, Roethlisberger's numbers were back on point with 8.15 yards per attempt and 22 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. The Steelers' only loss was against New England after it looked like Roethlisberger threw the go-ahead touchdown pass to Jesse James. The fake-spike-to-interception was as regrettable as any pass in his career, but Roethlisberger only threw multiple interceptions in one other game this season besides The Five-Pick Day.

Despite the fierce pass rush from the Jaguars (55 sacks), Roethlisberger was actually protected fairly well in Week 5. He was sacked twice on 57 passes. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Roethlisberger had the lowest pressure rate (18.4 percent) of all quarterbacks this season, and his pressure rate against Jacksonville (15.8 percent) was his sixth-lowest game of the season. The Jaguars also blitzed him one time in the game, but it led to the first of those five interceptions, which was snatched by All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey.

It's hard to throw five interceptions without catching some unlucky breaks. Both of the passes Jacksonville returned for touchdowns were tipped balls, and a third interception was thrown when Roethlisberger's receiver slipped. The Steelers can't live on third-and-17 prayers thrown into harm's way again in this matchup, but I think Roethlisberger had the right mindset about that performance. If you play long enough in the NFL, games like that one where the ball bounces terribly against you a few times are bound to happen. He just can't put the team in position for it to happen again against this opportunistic unit with All-Pros at different levels.

I wanted to fix some of the narrative behind the Week 5 matchup. One of the biggest complaints has been that the Steelers went needlessly one-dimensional. Le'Veon Bell only had 15 carries for 46 yards while Roethlisberger had 58 dropbacks. That's a bad mixture, but it should be noted that Bell had 10 catches (for only 46 yards), which can serve as an extension of the running game. So Bell still received his 25 touches, but he just wasn't very effective that day.

     

As for the ratio of runs to passes, the Steelers were balanced in the first half. Before the two-minute warning, the Steelers had 10 runs and 12 called passes. In the final two minutes of the half, of course you are going to see the hurry-up offense and mostly all passing. Roethlisberger threw 10 passes in the final two minutes, including a spike, while only handing off once. That skews the numbers. In the third quarter, the complaints pick up some support. After getting to a first-and-goal at the 5, Roethlisberger threw three passes and the Steelers kicked a field goal to take a 9-7 lead. Yes, they actually led before the back-to-back pick-sixes happened. Suddenly, it was 20-9, and it probably wasn't wise to abandon Bell, but his next two carries were gains of 1 and 2 yards. It was a lousy third quarter all around for the offense. Then, after Jacksonville's long drive to take a 23-9 lead with 6:43 left, it's natural to see a lot of passing again. The Steelers called 13 passes in a row to start the fourth quarter, and then just ran out the clock after it was 30-9 in the final two minutes. So you can nitpick over some calls in the third quarter, but I don't think the imbalance was all that unreasonable with the way the game was playing out.

This time around, the Steelers actually could learn something from Buffalo by taking it conservatively, especially early in the game. The Bills stuck around for 60 minutes because they did not make any real big mistakes against this defense. With Brown returning from a serious calf injury and the stars not playing since Christmas, there could be some early rust for Pittsburgh to shake off. It's easiest to shake that off with a good dose of Bell on the ground. That doesn't mean to avoid the pass entirely, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley has done in the past, but getting Bell going early should be paramount to a good day for Pittsburgh's offense. Showing that Brown can play at full strength might be an attractive option, but I'm not sure starting the game with a bomb for Brown against Ramsey would be a good idea. That happened in Week 5 and Brown caught the pass for a 49-yard gain. It was all downhill from there of course.

This isn't a matchup that requires a real deep dive into the season-long statistics. We know the Steelers bring arguably the most talented offense in the league with five Pro Bowlers into this matchup. Martavis Bryant can still make some freakishly athletic plays when given a chance. JuJu Smith-Schuster was phenomenal as a rookie, and actually finished first in DVOA among wide receivers. He has become more involved in the offense than he was back in Week 5, and Bell has also gotten stronger as the season has gone on. The only real question mark is how Brown will be after the calf injury, but let's not forget he had 10 catches for 157 yards in the first matchup. However, the Steelers have enough playmakers to attack the Jaguars without having to force the ball to Brown.

Patience and ball security are key for the Steelers this week. Don't give Bortles any short fields, and don't get greedy against this defense. The Jaguars are 30th against the run on first down and 24th on second down. They are also 29th against the run in the red zone. Pittsburgh must effectively use Bell on those early downs to keep third down favorable. If the Steelers can do that, then they should score enough points to win this game. Jacksonville has held nine opponents to 10 or fewer points, but that's another way of saying the Jaguars are 2-6 when they allow more than 10 points this year. I'll eat my keyboard if the Steelers score a net negative amount of points on offense again.

SPECIAL TEAMS

On what should be a very cold day in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have the advantage on special teams. Chris Boswell has been a fantastic kicker, making 35-of-38 field goals this season. Josh Lambo was shaky with the Chargers (go figure), but he has made 19-of-20 field goals for Jacksonville this year. He has 10 missed extra points in the last three years, and Heinz Field is still arguably the toughest kicking environment in the NFL.

The return units aren't much to write home about this year. Jaydon Mickens had a punt return touchdown for the Jaguars this year, while Corey Grant handles the kick returns. Pittsburgh has tried just about everyone at kick returns, including some wild adventures with Martavis Bryant. In Week 17, JuJu Smith-Schuster proved he can do just about anything by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown against the Browns. The Steelers have three kick return touchdowns in the Roethlisberger era (since 2004), and he wasn't even active for two of those games to enjoy it. So that's not a likely play again this week. It would also seem reasonable that Eli Rogers should return punts instead of Antonio Brown in his return from injury. Brown averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return this season.

OUTLOOK

Simply put, Roethlisberger cannot screw this game up more than Bortles can for Jacksonville. That's what happened last time, and the Jaguars were glad to let the game script play out in hiding Bortles. They should not be able to do that this time around, and Bortles will have to make plays with his arm against this defense. That shouldn't just be ruled out given the struggles of the Pittsburgh defense down the stretch, but it doesn't look too optimistic if last week's game is any indication.

While Bortles must step up, Roethlisberger can't decide to play hero ball against the top pass defense in the league when the situation isn't even calling for it. An early interception and lead for Jacksonville could produce a snowball effect again.

In the divisional round, the team favored by 7 or 7.5 points is 20-5 straight up. Then again, the Steelers were favored by 7.5 in Week 5 too, and we know how that one turned out. If Roethlisberger wants to have the John Elway ending to his career (with Bell as his Terrell Davis), then he better hope this isn't the 1996 portion of that story. That year the Jaguars, fresh off a playoff win over the Bills, walked into Denver and stunned the heavily favored Broncos before nosediving in New England the following week.

The AFC sure isn't a conference for originality. Let's see if the Titans and Jaguars can write a new story.


STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using
a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 12 Jan 2018

27 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2018, 1:56pm by JMM

Comments

1
by contrarycomet :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 1:49pm

"The Titans have no major weaknesses on special teams, but no real calling card either unless Tyreek Hill lines up for returns. (He did a few times against Tennessee.)"

Heh. Late season trade?

8
by Vincent Verhei :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 4:48pm

Tyreek Hill, Adoree Jackson. Potato, rutabaga.

3
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 2:18pm

I haven't read the article yet, but I want to post this to see if it prompts interesting conversation here as well. The following is taken directly from a post by PF_SU at Patsfans, which suggests that that field position isn't the primary driver of the disparity between NE's defensive DVOA and ppg. It's a bit long, but worthwhile, IMO.

----------------------------------

Since week 5, excluding kneel-downs, there have been a total of 4473 drives league wide. The top-five in points allowed per drive are:

1) Jacksonville Jaguars - 1.19
2) Minnesota Vikings - 1.21
3) New England Patriots - 1.21
4) Los Angeles Chargers - 1.24
5) Philadelphia Eagles - 1.31
LEAGUE AVERAGE - 1.76

72.9% of all drives in the league have started between the 11 and 39 yard line of the offense. The Patriots D has the highest percentage in the league of drives starting in that area at 89.8% (114 of 127 drives, 7 came inside the offense's 10 and 3 between the 40 and 49 yard lines and 3 inside Patriots territory). The other teams of the top five in overall points per drive are at:

1) Jacksonville Jaguars - 73.7%
2) Minnesota Vikings - 76.8%
3) New England Patriots - 89.8%
4) Los Angeles Chargers - 76.3%
5) Philadelphia Eagles - 73.5%

So going by that it would seem that the Patriots defense's overall points per drive number has to be significantly benefitting from that good starting position, right? Then let's take a look at where the Patriots rank in terms of points allowed per drive in that specific area (11-39 yard line):

1) Minnesota Vikings - 1.07
2) Jacksonville Jaguars - 1.11
3) New England Patriots - 1.18
4) Baltimore Ravens - 1.28
5) Los Angeles Chargers - 1.30

So, even if it can't be denied that the Patriots D benefits from field position, it's not like they aren't performing very well if you perform a peer comparison by isolating the numbers to that specific area.

Next, breaking down the 11-39 yard line numbers further into two categories. One is between the 11-24 yard lines, and the other is between the 25-39 yard lines.

In terms of percentage of all drives starting between the 11-24 yard lines, the top-five are formed by:

1) Cincinnati Bengals - 36.6%
2) New England Patriots - 36.2%
3) Miami Dolphins - 35.9%
4) Los Angeles Chargers - 35.3%
5) Arizona Cardinals - 33.3%
LEAGUE AVERAGE - 29.6%

Again, the Patriots rank very high in terms of percentage of drives starting there. So which teams are in the top-five in points allowed per drive?

1) New Orleans Saints - 0.56
2) Baltimore Ravens - 0.80
3) Cleveland Browns - 0.92
4) Arizona Cardinals - 0.94
5) Minnesota Vikings - 0.97
LEAGUE AVERAGE - 1.41

So where are the Patriots?

19) Jacksonville Jaguars - 1.38
20) New England Patriots - 1.46
21) Buffalo Bills - 1.47

That's right, the Patriots in terms of points allowed on drives starting between the 11 and 24 yard lines are not only below average, the figure is also significantly higher than both, the overall points per drive number and points per drive number on drives starting between the 11 and 39 yard lines. Which means, when the Patriots D gets terrific field position, they aren't really making anything out of it.

On the flip side, this means that their points allowed per drive numbers for drives starting between the 25 and 39 yard lines has to be terrific. And this is absolutely correct:

1) Jacksonville Jaguars - 0.93
2) New England Patriots - 0.99
3) Minnesota Vikings - 1.11
4) New York Giants - 1.39
5) Cincinnati Bengals - 1.39
LEAGUE AVERAGE - 1.74

They, like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings are massively better than league average on drives starting between the 25 and 39 yard lines (and 44.5% of all drives in the entire league have started in that area). The difference of the top-three teams to league average here is much bigger than the difference between the top-three teams (which happen to be the same in both cases, coincidence?) and league average for overall points allowed per drive:

Overall
1) Jaguars: -0.57
2) Vikings: -0.55
3) Patriots: -0.55

Drives starting between 25-39
1) Jaguars: -0.81
2) Patriots: -0.75
3) Vikings: -0.63

To conclude:
1) Does the Patriots D enjoy good starting field position? Absolutely.
2) Do they make the most out of the good starting field position? When speaking about drives starting between the 11-24 yard lines, absolutely not, which is a tad disappointing.
3) Is the good starting field position a main driver of the defense's good points allowed figure? No.

4
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 2:35pm

*sigh*
Let's parse this a little.

For drives starting inside the 11.

12 drives, 609 yards, 22 net points (3 TDs, 1 FG (one missed FG), one safety): 50.8 yards per drive, scoring 33% of the time, net 1.9 points per drive.

Kansas City accounts for 21 points and 3 of these drives. They converted TDs on three 90+ drives in that game.

From the 11-39:
149 drives, 5034 yards (33.8 yards per drive), 23 TDS, 20 FGs, 8 missed FGs. 1.48 pts/drive.

Outside the 39:
9 drives, 176 yards (19.6 yards per drive), 1 TD, 1 FG, 1 missed FG. KC again counts for this TD.

NWE allowed 21 drives outside of the 11-39. KC scored all four TDs (in four opportunities) in this context. Non-KC teams scored 2 FGs and missed 2 FGs.

Bend-don't-break is part of it. Some of it is FG luck (22/32 isn't great). Some of it is playing a bunch of sub-KC offenses. It wasn't all bad. They played NO, ATL, PIT, KC, and the Chargers. But then, they also played Houston, Denver, and six games against BuffaJetsiami. Yes, they played the Watson Texans, but they also played the Peterson Saints.

5
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 3:13pm

Yes, they played the Watson Texans, but they also played the Peterson Saints.

They did?

And "sigh"? What is there to sigh about? Particularly when your "parsing" seems to change the dialog completely, even going so far as to lose the point by lumping the largest sample into one? Did you notice that these figures are from week 5 and beyond?

If you feel context can be added, be my guest. But arrogant dismissals aren't useful.

6
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 3:20pm

From week 5 is an odd end point.

The Pats started with 4/5 opponents with good (+DVOA) offenses.

They finished with 3/11. I'm not sure what selecting only for amateur opponent offenses yields, exactly. Other than two of them remain in the AFC playoffs.

Looking at the yearly stats indicates that drives from the 11-39 so dominate New England's season numbers that anything outside that window tells you little about their performance. Even worse, a single game dominates both sides of that window.

New England in a nutshell: Almost all drives were long. Very few short or very long drives. None of these scored, except for KC, who always scored TDs.

10
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 5:31pm

From week 5 is an odd end point.

Not really. The first four weeks were marred by an incredible amount of miscommunications and blown coverages that bore no resemblance to how the team played from the Tampa game on. I suspect you'd have a hard time convincing anyone who followed the team closely that it's an arbitrary divide.

ETA: One other thing about this point of demarcation, you won't get an argument from me or anyone else that the defense was terrible during that time. Nor is there any disagreement between points allowed, DVOA, the "eye test", etc. about how terrible they were in September. When the point of this discussion is to gain insight into the gap between points allowed and DVOA, it doesn't add much to wrap in the time when there was no gap. It could be that insight into hidden weaknesses can be found in the first four weeks, but that is a different argument that requires its own support.

Looking at the yearly stats indicates that drives from the 11-39 so dominate New England's season numbers that anything outside that window tells you little about their performance.

Then it's a good thing the comment above doesn't do that. If you think it did, I'd encourage you to give it another pass.

7
by nat :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 4:29pm

Simpson's Paradox alert! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simpson%27s_paradox

(All data for game 6-16)

The Patriots D was worse than average on drives starting inside the 25.

They were also worse than average on drives starting on or outside the 40.

But when you combine the two regions - that is, everything that isn't in the 25-39 range - they were 5th in the league.

WHAT? How could that be?

It's the Simpson Paradox: they were worse than average in both ranges, but benefit from having very few really bad drive starting points. As poor as they were inside the 25, that stat was still better than most teams would have outside the 40.

This shouldn't take away from their excellent performance in the 25-39 range. But it does show exactly how they did benefit from excellent field position to get at least part of their excellent points/drive ranking.

9
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 5:17pm

It certainly shows how the overall figure can be affected by disproportionate distribution within the ranges, but special teams as the primary driver would be a more compelling explanation if inside-the-25 was where the area of emphasis was.

A more apt special team explanation that could be buried in the figures above is that NE has an unusually high number of 25-29 starting points in the 25-39 range, which would naturally suppress the overall number. I don't know if that is true of not (or even where to find that data), this type of context is one of the reasons I brought the comment over.

11
by nat :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 6:07pm

I didn't see any mention of special teams in your original comment nor in my comment.

Avoiding turnovers deep in your own territory is a great way to give your defense good average field position. (The occasional pick-six and fumble-six "helps" too. Meh.)

Solid kick and punt coverage can help avoid defending a short field, too. As can an offense that routinely flips field position.

12
by Anon Ymous :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 7:41pm

I didn't see any mention of special teams in your original comment nor in my comment.

You are right, sorry for my sloppiness. Either way, it doesn't explain the 25-39 success, since NE grades our well even on per drive metrics, so we still end up with a sizable gap between points allowed and DVOA.

16
by RobotBoy :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 3:21am

Interesting numbers albeit fairly small sample sizes. I think at FO did an analysis along the lines of 'bend don't break, fact or fiction' for the Pats and found a small but significant correlation between Pats giving up fewer points than defensive DVOA would suggest in recent years.
I would agree one thousand percent about how bad the D was the first four weeks and how that skewed the numbers (which is why weighted DVOA is particularly useful for the analysis). It wasn't just the passing game, either; almost all the games mentioned by the author (except the Dolphins clunker) as signs of Pats run-game vulnerability are from early in the season. The Pats also have behemoth Alan Branch back. I really would be surprised if the Titans are able to line up consistently in heavy formations and have positive plays.
Which isn't to say that the game is a foregone conclusion but I do think the Titans need lucky breaks, plural, to win this one.

18
by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 5:49am

What is your point with this wall of gibberish? Are you getting at something with this? I glanced at the "conclusions" and it looks like a whole lot of work for no payoff

19
by David :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 7:03am

Whilst it is the height of rudeness to put words in other people's mouths, I believe what the OP was trying to say was "Pats rule, others drool!"

20
by Anon Ymous :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 9:26am

Why must people on this site be such assholes? Rather than ask me what I get out of posting interesting stats on a site ostensibly designed for their discussion, what do you get out of being a prick?

The point is both simple and obvious: if NE were a bad defense that benefited from field position and did OK in the red zone, you'd expect to see the points/drive to improve in direct correlation to field position. Or, perhaps be roughly equal if we assume NE is really terrible and allows drives from anywhere to enter the red zone at similar rates.

But that is not what we see, so that explanation seems to be insufficient. So what is the other factor? This isn't a complaint about DVOA, it is an attempt to use it in conjunction with other information to further insight.

21
by CaffeineMan :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 11:12am

This is an interesting topic whether it has to do with the Pats or not. Thanks for posting on it.

23
by nat :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 12:07pm

Agreed about the pricks.

I disagree with your analysis. Still, it's thought out and clear enough to be much more than gibberish. Thanks for giving us something to think about, and enough detail to work with.

IMHO, where your ideas go wrong is the expectation that to gain from good field position you need to have better results as you get better field position, and need to be better than average with good field position. The first concept is only partly true: your field position distribution needs to replace difficult situations with easier ones. If the whole distribution shifts, then it's the tails that matter, not the middle ranges so much.

The second idea is further off. In fact, if we think the Patriots D is bad but benefiting from field position, then we would expect them to be below average for drives inside the 25, but to have more of them.

Finally, if your theory is correct that the D is unusually good at defending mid-length drives, and is enough so to explain the points per drive, then why doesn't this show up in VOA? Field position as a cause explains the points vs VOA disconnect. I don't see how your theory does.

Anyway, thanks again for an interesting topic.

25
by Anon Ymous :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 2:17pm

First off, I don't want to take credit for formulating anything, this was someone else's work that I thought might be worthwhile here.

The second idea is further off. In fact, if we think the Patriots D is bad but benefiting from field position, then we would expect them to be below average for drives inside the 25, but to have more of them.

This is an excellent point, and I can see why a superficial contrast might not be so upon further inspection. It still doesn't explain NE's excellent rate stats from 25-39, but duly noted.

Finally, if your theory is correct that the D is unusually good at defending mid-length drives, and is enough so to explain the points per drive, then why doesn't this show up in VOA?

I don't have a theory, per se, just random observations that don't seem to jibe with the prevailing theory. I don't know why it doesn't show up on VOA, that's pretty much what I'm trying to figure out.

Your comment above gives me an idea, though. Is it possible that the proclivity to allow scores on longer potential drives while stopping shorter potential drives tallies a disproportionate number of successful plays per point? Could it be a variant on the 2012 Jets who didn't score much, but tended to have longer scoring drives and quick 3-and-outs for non-scoring ones?

If so, that would go a long way toward marrying the two sets of data.

27
by JMM :: Sun, 01/14/2018 - 1:56pm

I want to shine a light on your "tails matter" comment. I recall a discussion a couple of years ago about the relative performance of two different running backs. There was much back and forth using stats to support both of them in turn. When I had the time a bit after the thread became inactive, I looked at, and charted, both backs for the time period. The difference was one of the backs and what amounted to a handful of longer runs. These would be tough to capture in the aggregate stats that folks were quoting, but it seemed to me to the only real difference.

This gives me a chance to point to one of my favorite math/stats books: "Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin" by Jay Gould.
From the cover notes:
Few would question the truism that humankind is the crowning achievement of evolution; that the defining thrust of life's history yields progress over time from the primitive and simple to the more advanced and complex; that the disappearance of .400 hitting in baseball is a fact to be bemoaned; or that identifying an existing trend can be helpful in making important life decisions. Few, that is, except Stephen Jay Gould who, in his new book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, proves that all of these intuitive truths are, in fact, wrong.

"All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning, our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence," says Gould. "This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average."

In Full House, Gould shows why a more accurate way of understanding our world (and the history of life) is to look at a given subject within its own context, to see it as a part of a spectrum of variation rather than as an isolated "thing" and then to reconceptualize trends as expansion or contraction of this "full house" of variation, and not as the progress or degeneration of an average value, or single thing. When approached in such a way, the disappearance of .400 hitting becomes a cause for celebration, signaling not a decline in greatness but instead an improvement in the overall level of play in baseball; trends become subject to suspicion, and too often, only a tool of those seeking to advance a particular agenda; and the "Age of Man" (a claim rooted in hubris, not in fact) more accurately becomes the "Age of Bacteria."

2
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 2:15pm

Lol Titans.

Pats by 20?

13
by roguerouge :: Fri, 01/12/2018 - 9:23pm

I'm nervous about this team's defense, no question. Low pressure rate and CB difficulties are a bad combo, and trifecta of having trouble against the run is even worse. I think it will haunt them next week, but the Titans can run the ball with Henry better than Murray, but their receivers are not playoff caliber and the coaching staff will have to abandon its philosophy and unleash Mariota in the shotgun early and often to get anything out of their passing.

If I had to guess--Titans cover by passing a lot in the second half down 14-21 points, Pats unable to stop them, but they come up just short, 7-10 back.

14
by t.d. :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 12:54am

I think the Titans' best (maybe only) chance is if Jonathan Cyprien does to Gronk what he did to Kelce, and I'm frankly shocked that there wasn't any talk of suspending him this week (it was clearly helmet-to-helmet, and it was clearly a guy leading with his head, just the kind of thing they're trying to legislate out of the game). I think Brady would look ordinary without Gronk (probably like Alex Smith did without Kelce), and even with him has looked merely adequate for about half the season (except, of course, in the game he needed to get HFA for the AFC playoffs). Hard to see the Titans pulling off the upset, but, of course, I'd have said that last week

22
by dbostedo :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 11:59am

Well Kelce was a runner at the time, so helmet-to-helmet doesn't mean anything. Spearing would be an issue and could be a fine or suspension, but this one isn't that obvious I don't think. Cyprien was almost on his knees when the hit occurred, and Kelce leaned down into him to absorb the blow (as he was also being hit by another player).

So it's possible Cyprien was not trying to lead with his helmet, but his position and Kelce's caused it to be that way. Watching the replay a few times, I'm not sure what Cyprien was trying to do other than run full speed into Kelce to make a play. His head is actually fairly upright as it hits Kelce's. You can see the contact really well at 52 seconds into this clip : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JioitJXCjB4

24
by dank067 :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 1:13pm

Agree 100% with you. It's football, there are going to be times heads smash together, especially when defenders are converging on a runner from opposite directions.

It's gotten tiring to see so much discussion this season of teams intentionally taking out players, or suggesting it's a strategy teams might employ. It's not that there aren't dirty and dangerous players out there, or that dirty plays don't happen, I just hate the conspiracy-minded nature of that view. Yes, you have your Gregg Williams types, but 99% of the league has far more integrity than that, and I hate how it leads to a lot of totally unfair demonization of players who at the end of the day are playing an inherently dangerous game for our enjoyment.

26
by Anon Ymous :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 2:24pm

Cyprien was almost on his knees when the hit occurred, and Kelce leaned down into him to absorb the blow (as he was also being hit by another player).

Furthermore, it looks like Cyprien committed to his approach before Kelce started going down, so I don't see how intentionality could ever be inferred here.

15
by t.d. :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 1:05am

It also appears that the 'Antonio Brown will be fine for the divisional round' talk was a smokescreen, though of course that could benefit the Steelers (part of why they lost to the Jaguars the first time, back when the Jags run defense was truly atrocious, was because they insisted on passing, even when the Jags had shown their corners were better than the Steelers receivers, and ignored Bell)

17
by The Ninjalectual :: Sat, 01/13/2018 - 3:24am

Not a mention of Eric Decker? Is he hurt or something? He is Tennessee's second best WR after all