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Around the AFC North: Can Cincinnati Bengals Build On Surprising Success of 2011?


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Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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The Early Case for the Steelers Success in 2012


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I've had one really great coaching success in my lifetime. I took over a girls basketball team that had not won a game the previous season and guided them to an undefeated season and a state championship. I wish I could say that our performance was solely the result of my coaching brilliance; that would be a nice fantasy but ultimately untrue. We did have pretty good talent. Half of the girls on our ten player roster would go on to play basketball in college; another three would have the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics as well. Nonetheless, maybe difficult to believe, there were other teams in our league that were more talented and experienced.

Our strength was that the difference between our #1 player and our #10 player wasn't that great. And my coaching philosophy as it relates to playing time could be summarized thusly; ‘what have you done for me lately'? Practices were fierce; with a heavy emphasis on fundamentals usually climaxed by a scrimmage between equally matched groups with the losers having to run suicides. The competition and challenges faced in practice was more daunting than what they experienced in games most of the time. I wasn't much of a stat person then (or now for that matter), so it wasn't until the end of the year that I went over our game statistics. I was amazed to discover that eight out of ten players had led the team in scoring at least once, and that nine out of ten had scored in double figures at least once.

Okay, so this is all very nice, but what's the point? How does this relate to the Steelers?

"Everybody with a helmet on is in the mix," - Mike Tomlin (2010)

I'm reading this piece on Steelers tight end Weslye Saunders and find myself wondering whether or not he'll make the team. It's important to understand the reasoning here; yes, Saunders has some ‘character concerns' that might torpedo his career. But you have to also consider that in spite of possessing prodigious talent he may not rise any higher than being the third tight end on the roster. That fact in combination with the character issues may indeed be enough to sink Saunders. Personally, I hope not.

The point is that Tomlin's quote, something that might normally be dismissed as a platitude, something you might feel obligated to say but, in most circumstances, really isn't grounded in reality, may be actually coming true in the case of the 2012 Steelers. They appear to be approaching a point where everyone who has a helmet by September will be in the mix, not to mention the fact that because of numbers there may be quite a few that could be in the mix but won't due to the fact that there aren't enough helmets to go around.

Think about it; the "Two dogs, one bone" concept, originally used to describe the competition for playing time between WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown is now the reality among most of the position groups on the team. Perhaps only at OLB and maybe Safety is there not a situation where there are too many dogs and not enough bones. Otherwise competition is breaking out all over the place: Hampton, McLendon, Ta'amu at nose guard, Keisel, Hood, Heyward at defensive end, Lewis, Allen, Brown, Frederick at cornerback, Miller, Pope, Saunders, Paulson at tight end. Do I really need to mention the situation at offensive line, running back, wide receiver, or backup quarterback? Even the long snappers, punters and place kickers are in the mix.

It should be expected that some of these competitions may not amount to much, but there is reason to be optimistic that many, if not most may well exceed expectations and result in some very hard choices for both the coaching staff and the front office. But regardless of the outcomes the concept is sound. There is good reason to expect that the dynamics and synergy generated will weed out the weak, make good players better and, perhaps propel superior players to greatness.

A good question at this point would be how do we know that this is, in fact, the dynamic that is playing out with Steelers? On Friday Post-Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette wrote that there is grumbling in Ravens country because nearly 20 players, including Ray Lewis had not been present at OTAs. Bouchette then compared the situation in Steelers camp where there is much hand wringing among the press and the fans (but not the team) concerning the absence of Mike Wallace. Is there any significance to this? Back to my basketball team.

We usually met briefly at the beginning of practice for announcements and to preview the day's schedule. One day one of the players announced that she would be missing the two games scheduled for the weekend because her family would be out of town. Her teammates responded with an outpouring of sorrow and regret. This lasted about five seconds. Then the conversation immediately segued into a lively discussion on who was going to get the absent girl's playing time. The girl looked on with a stunned expression on her face. Imagine that you are dying and your relatives are discussing how they are going to divvy up your possessions while you are still alive and present in the room. The message was clear; her teammates would mourn her, might even shed tears because of her absence, but it would be a very brief funeral, and there would be joy in the morning (more playing time for everybody). At the next practice the girl announced that she would not be accompanying her family on the trip, that arrangements had been made for her to stay with a neighbor and that she would be at the games. Nobody was getting her playing time.

One of the challenges of coaching youth sports is that many parents and players took a very casual attitude to practices. Before the season began I had prepared what I felt was an obligatory speech on the importance of making as many of the practices as possible. With this team I never had to make that speech. I did have to make a speech about not practicing when one was deathly ill or contagious or injured. But even when they couldn't practice they showed up; bundled up, feverish, miserable but present. This wasn't required but it was understood to be the standard.

Another speech I made was about grades. They improved or at least did not suffer because that was part of standard as well. Specifically, it was emphasized that sports participation would not be an excuse for poor or deteriorating performance in school. To the contrary, beyond injury or illness the one legitimate reason to miss or be denied participation in practices or games was due to poor academic performance.

All ten players attended college (I'm certain that at least nine graduated); one was class president in high school, one a valedictorian. All ten played varsity basketball for four different high schools with six serving as team captains.

The thing about creating intense internal competition that is counter-intuitive is that it strengthens group cohesion provided that the competition is seen as being fair, legitimate and comprehensive. It can't be viewed as artificial; a manipulated or ginned up conflict as a method of controlling players rather than advancing team competitiveness. It can't be viewed as being punitive. And no one can be viewed as being exempt, especially your ‘best' players.

When those conditions are met then every single player on the team is deeply invested in the team because each has a legitimate role. Instead of being viewed as a spare part, only to be utilized in an emergency or a practice body, fodder for the preparation of others, we have the alternative concept of starters and starters in waiting. The cynical among us might dismiss such a thing as coach-speak, a valid concern because it is much easier to say this than to actually practice it.

But if Tomlin is actually practicing this concept then some impressive things are beginning to happen; provided you know what to look for. One clue would be that of attendance. In such a system opportunity and the risks incurred with opportunities lost are a constant. Every player is pushing, being pushed or pulling in service of the larger purpose of advancing the team. Preparation is imbued with greater meaning standing in contrast to the Allen Iversonian philosophy of practice ("Practice!")

Some of this was brought home to me when I was watching the America's Game program on the '08 Steelers. Tomlin revealed himself to being a process person (as opposed to being event or game focused). He talked about wanting to "smell the roses". What flew over my head when I viewed this segment previously is how eerily similar his thinking is to Chuck Noll, and Vince Lombardi. These coaches all understood that there was no meaningful separation between the preparation for games and the games themselves. As such OTAs hold as much fascination and importance as the Super Bowl because in some respects in relation to the philosophy they are inseparable. It would appear that philosophy has also been effectively conveyed to his players.

Both Tomlin and Noll have been lauded for their preparation skills. We may tend to see these virtues in isolation; fortuitous individual quirks. But such qualities are absolutely essential to fulfilling the underlying philosophy and are a pretty good indication of whether the belief in that philosophy is sincere, as well as whether the talent and skills are present to pull it off.

I've been hinting for a while about the Tomlin Steelers; hinting because, frankly, it was all pretty foggy to me. I have also been writing with a bit more clarity about the Pittsburgh or Steeler Way. With this perspective let's look at some current events.

Consider the release of Farrior, Smith and Ward within the context of no one being exempt from the consequences of team building and competition. Did not the length and quality of their service, their value to the team, their vast accomplishments, and their immense popularity earn them some special consideration? In a word, no. This is not to say that they weren't highly respected and well-liked by management, but there were larger things at stake. The temptation would be to make certain compromises if for no other reason than it would be so much easier all the way around. What would be the harm of allowing for these guys to make an exit that would be more on their own terms? What would be wrong with a ‘victory lap' of sorts? The message is that competitive death comes to everyone, even to future Hall of Famers and Super Bowl MVPs. And if the grim reaper comes for Hines Ward or James Farrior or Aaron Smith then who the hell are you?

What will be interesting to watch is how the situation with Ray Lewis is handled by the Ravens. The easiest, least controversial, pain free way to proceed is to let Lewis decide. And we should all file away the fact that nearly two dozen players, including Lewis, blew off OTAs and how that works for them down the line.

The fun part is that there is a belief building within Steeler Nation that something special is going on, very much like the feeling in the early 70s when folks knew that something was building but they couldn't put a finger on it since it hadn't reached concrete fruition yet. What's fun about it is that we're likely to be the only ones who are clued into what's unfolding in plain sight. And even then many of us in Steeler Nation are somewhat misguided as to what is actually going on.

For example, it really isn't primarily about the draft. Don't get me wrong, those guys are really going to help even if only a few pan out as well as we might hope. But don't forget that this team finished 12-4, pretty banged up and without any of these new guys. And of the guys lost during the off season only Farrior and William Gay could be considered major contributors.

What this is about is the ongoing maturation of a coach (Tomlin), a GM (Kevin Colbert), a team president (Art Rooney II) and their understanding of life and winning that is manifesting in the development of this football team.

I have a friend who lives in New York City who likes to talk football with me a lot. He shared his take on the Steelers recently(he is an alien, not a member of the Nation). He was wondering whether we would be in the market for LaDamian Tomlinson because we needed a running back. Needless to say he didn't quite understand my response. ("We don't need a running back". And if we did it wouldn't be Tomlinson, though some of the more culturally immature in Steeler Nation might disagree). I was sympathetic to the fact that there was no way that he knew anything about Isaac Redman beyond the playoff game against Denver, and maybe that touchdown catch against the Ravens in 2010. He couldn't possibly know about Dwyer pushing Redman and Clay pushing Dwyer and Batch pushing them all and Rainey pushing Batch and Mendenhall refusing to accept the timetable of doctors and pundits.

What my friend doesn't understand is when the NFL Network does a piece on which is the most talented team in the league they miss the point. Front line talent can be trumped by team cohesion, depth of talent, diversity and the ability to execute in a consistent and reliable manner. I have sympathy for NFLN and ESPN. Even if you understood it how to you quantify it with a bunch of talking heads on a television program? How do the stat geeks render it to a chart? How does it apply to fantasy football?

The excitement about the promise of the Haley offense is based upon the hope that it would address and enhance just those issues. It's not about mostly running or mostly passing, its about a diversified attack. When you have nine basketball players on a team that are capable of scoring in double figures they can't be effectively stopped by an opponent, you can only hope that they are too inflexible to adapt or incapable of executing. If you figure out a way to stop Redman/Mendenhall, Wallace and Brown, that still leaves Miller, Sanders, Cotchery, Saunders, Pope, Dwyer, etc. (Let's leave Rainey, Batch, Clemons and anyone else who hasn't played a down in the league yet out of the discussion for now). How do you stop a flood with your bare hands? You don't.

The fatal flaw for Arians was the inability to adapt. We'll know soon enough about Haley. If the Steelers were able to win a Super Bowl with an offensive line that included, among others, Darnell Stapleton, a reserve center and Jeff Hartings, then they may be capable of pulling it off with Ramon Foster and Trai Essex. That, of course, is the worst case scenario.

My friend also doesn't understand the complimentary relationship between offense and defense. The new offense doesn't have to be that much better to place the team within championship territory. Maybe one touchdown this year when they had to settle for a field goal before, maybe one field goal when they had to punt before, maybe a few more first downs instead of a three and out. The extra points and rest could be enough to keep the defense at the top of the league standings even if there were something of a drop off in absolute terms. (My team had the top ranked defense in the league with a middle of the pack offense).

My friend doesn't understand synergy. So he, like many others will not know what is about to happen until after it does. Many with big reputations are gone and it will take some time before (Surprise) they recognize the Phoenix that has arisen from the ashes.

Things can go wrong (injuries, for example), and it is way too early to know the exact configuration the juggernaut will take, but Tomlin says the intention is to compete for the Super Bowl every year. This year in particular, believe it.



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Many Ohio-Based Contributions to Steelers’ Success Over Four Decades


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If you have been a fan of professional football in Ohio (Bengals or Browns) the last two decades have been tough times. If you are a 20-something football fan, especially if you are a Steelers fan, it might be tempting to think that Ohio does not, maybe never amounted to much of anything football wise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only have individuals and teams with Ohio roots been at least as instrumental in the development and success of professional football as Pennsylvania, but just as important the Steelers success over the past 42 years, including its six Super Bowl victories, would have been impossible without the input and guidance of Ohioans.

The organization that would come to be known as the National Football League was founded in 1920 In Canton, Ohio. Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs was named the first league president. Several Ohio franchises represented the largest contingent of the original franchises with the Akron Pros claiming the first league championship.

Paul Brown

Brown was one of the most successful and influential figures in league history. The native of Massillon began his career coaching for his hometown high school team, influenced by the techniques of University of Pittsburgh head coach "Jock" Sutherland. Brown would then move on to Ohio State and would lead the Buckeyes to their first national championship. Brown basically founded both of the current NFL Ohio franchises; the Browns (named after him) in the 1940s and the Bengals in the late ‘60s.

Brown had a well-deserved reputation as an innovator. He introduced face masks to helmets on the professional level, intelligence tests as a form of player evaluation, classroom game preparation, game film libraries, the use of radio transmitters to communicate with players on the field, a messenger guard system for sending in plays and an offensive system that was the ancestor of the West Coast Offense (Bill Walsh was an assistant under Brown at Cincinnati). He also led the way in the desegregation of the sport breaking with the practice of excluding African American players when he signed Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis in 1946. This occurred a year before Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

What follows may be difficult for younger fans to comprehend, but the Cleveland Browns under Paul Brown's tenure were wildly successful during the late ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Beginning their existence in the All American Football Conference, they won all four league championships. They then shocked the football world when they joined the NFL in 1950 and in their very first game solidly defeated the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles. They went on to win the league championship that year, with Brown being the first man to win a National Collegiate Championship and an NFL Championship. During the seventeen years he was at the helm of the Browns (1946 - 1962) the team played in twelve league championship games, winning seven. In the eight years as the head of the Bengals he won two divisional crowns. And, if you were wondering, the Browns mopped the floor with the Steelers in those days the way the Steelers mop the floor with the Browns now.

Chuck Noll

One of the messenger guards on those ‘50s Browns teams was Noll who hailed from Cleveland. While technically Noll is considered part of the Sid Gillman and Don Shula coaching trees, he was clearly heavily influenced by Brown in his football evolution. He brought the attention to detail, innovative techniques, and, perhaps most importantly, the culture of winning to Pittsburgh. The results are now clearly apparent to all.

One area where Noll continued in the path trail blazed by Brown was in the advancement of minority, and especially African American talent. The Rooneys had their own honorable record in this regard, but Noll, in particular stood out as well. Long time Steeler scout and personnel evaluator Bill Nunn successfully incorporated historically black colleges and universities under the Steelers recruitment umbrella with spectacular results. Though he gave plenty of credit to the Rooneys for his position within the Steelers family, he reserved his highest praise for Noll, saying that he "did not see color." Marlin Briscoe (Denver) and James Harris (Buffalo) played the position for old AFL teams, but Joe Gilliam is credited with being the first starting black quarterback for an old line NFL franchise. Franco Harris was the first African American Super Bowl MVP and Tony Dungy was the first black to occupy a coordinator position in the NFL. Considering that Mike Tomlin is a product of the Dungy coaching tree, the influence of Noll resonates to this day.

Dick LeBeau

My grandparents lived in a small Ohio town southeast of Dayton named Xenia. Before the completion of the Interstate Highway system our route to Xenia passed through a small town by the name of London, which is the hometown of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LeBeau would play at Ohio State under the man who succeeded Paul Brown as Buckeyes head coach, Woody Hayes. LeBeau then went on to have a HOF career as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions.

But LeBeau's greatest contribution to the game may be the defensive innovation known as the Zone Blitz. Coach Dad has said that this defensive system was developed in response the run and shoot offense that was successfully functioning for division rival Houston at the time, as well as the West Coast Offense (Brown, remember). LeBeau's defenses are currently the state of the art in the NFL, and he is in the conversation for consideration as the best defensive coordinator in the history of the game.

Ben and Company

We can't leave this subject without some consideration to players who also have Ohio ties, having lived in the state or having played for one of its schools. Chief among this group is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Findley, Ohio and Miami (Ohio) University). This also includes James Harrison (Kent State), Cameron Heyward and rookie Mike Adams (Ohio State). A short list of former players with Ohio ties would include Jack Lambert (Kent State), Santonio Holmes (Ohio State) and Nate Washington (Tiffin).

As you can see, while we are in the habit of sneering at our next door neighbors, without some major contributions and influences the Steelers would hardly be the Steelers that we know and love. The Buckeye State has an extraordinary football tradition, and it is unlikely their teams will remain doormats forever.



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Mike Adam’s Success Could Determine Max Starks’ Future with Steelers

During the 2010 season rookie Maurkice Pouncey was the Steelers top center. In 2011 Marcus Gilbert was the top right tackle following a week one injury to Willie Colon. Heading into the 2012 season it seems first round pick David DeCastro is set to continue the trend by starting at right guard as a Continue

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Assessing the Steelers’ Drafting Success During the Kevin Colbert Era, Part II

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With free agency in full swing, it seems the perfect time to highlight one of the two reasons why the Steelers aren't fully immersed in the NFL's version of a live auction; they draft very well. In the second part of her series, BTSC writer Rebecca Rollett assesses past Steelers' drafts and compares them to an AFC rival, looking to determine who's been more successful. - nc

Part I of this series, which addresses the Round 1 picks of the 2001 - 2010 drafts, can be found here. There were a couple of comments to that article I wish to address before proceeding to Round 2. First, from Cols714, objecting to the information taken from the Cold Hard Football Facts article assessing the past decade of drafting:

...any system that has the Pats! ranked higher than the Steelers for drafting players is doing it wrong.

The Steelers do not sign free agents yet have been pretty much every bit as good as the Pats have been over the past decade.

The Pats are good at trading for draft picks but fail when it comes to actually turning those picks into players, which is the entire purpose of drafting.

So is he right? Here’s the information CHFF used to make their assessment:

Using information from the great folks at pro-football-reference.com – or, as we like to call it, "The Bible" – we broke down the 10 drafts from 2001-2010 looking for an impartial answer to who was the best. Who drafted the most stars, the most longtime starters, the most promising young players? Who had the most players from their drafts active in the league last year? Who was the best?

So it appears the CHFFs people used exactly the information Cols714 was suggesting—in other words, how well the Patriots turned their picks into players. One point CHFF may have missed is how much benefit the Patriots ultimately extracted from their picks. Because if you develop a player who then leaves in free agency he is "active in the league" but you may not have maximized his value for your own team. On the other hand, if you develop a player and then keep him too long, that might not be the best strategy either.

So out of curiosity I tried an experiment. The 2010 Steelers went to the Super Bowl and lost. The 2011 Patriots went to the Super Bowl and lost. I took the Super Bowl roster for each team and, for lack of a better quick option, added up the total of the Trade Value Chart points for each player. Since both teams had so many UDFAs I assigned that value as one. After all, if the value of the last pick in the draft is two, someone who isn’t picked at all is surely worth less. (Since a UDFA doesn't have any draft cost at all, I suppose it should be zero, but a UDFA does take up roster space eventually, possibly pushing off someone else with draft value.) I didn’t distinguish whether the player was drafted by the Steelers/Patriots or by another team, just the value of the place they were picked. Here are the numbers:

2010 Pittsburgh Steelers: 10,214.9

2011 New England Patriots: 11,396.5

Using this entirely unscientific method, we come to the conclusion the Steelers win. They made it to the Super Bowl for a lower draft investment cost. Maurkice Pouncey, our 2010 No. 1 pick, wasn’t on that roster, but adding in his 900 points (vs. 1 point for Doug Legursky, who replaced him) still leaves the Steelers the winner at 11,113.9.

It's admittedly rather a silly method. But in the course of doing it I noticed something rather interesting. All but two of the Steelers’ 2001-2010 first-round picks were on the Super Bowl roster (or, in Pouncey’s case, would have been if he hadn’t been injured.) Only five of the Patriots’ 2002-2011 picks were. What happened to the others?

2002 pick: Daniel Graham, TE: left in FA, currently signed with TEN

2003 pick: Ty Warren, DE: released in 2010, now with DEN

2004: The Pats had two first-round picks. Vince Wilfork was one. The other was Benjamin Watson, TE, released in 09 and now with CLE.

2005 pick: Logan Mankins

2006 pick: Lawrence Maroney, RB: Traded to DEN early in the 2010 season, now a free agent

2007 pick: Brandon Meriweather, S: Released Sept 2011, signed with CHI

2008 pick: Jerod Mayo

2009: no pick, traded down

2010 pick: Devin McCourty

2011 pick: Nate Solder

Of the other five picks, two (Meriweather and Maroney) had character concerns; in Maroney’s case it shortened his career. The Patriots got a lot out of Graham, Watson and Warren and then released them.

To take up Col714’s point again, Steelers teams are largely composed of players they draft or pick up as UDFAs and develop themselves. The 2010 Steelers Super Bowl active roster had four players on it picked up in free agency, out of the 44 active players that night. The Patriots had seven players drafted by other teams on their roster, and more of their UDFAs were picked up from other teams as well. I don’t think you can say this definitively proves his point. But, as another poster noted, CHFF is based in Boston...

And before I leave this topic, I did a little more Googling and found the following article, published in Forbes magazine in 2009. In summary, they evaluated how well teams draft based strictly on how large a percentage of their draft choices were still on their roster. They gave a slight edge to players who made the Pro Bowl. (The years in question were 2006-2008.) Their conclusion? The top three teams, from the best down, were the Texans, the Colts, and the Giants. The bottom three teams, from the worst up, were the Patriots, the Rams, and the Steelers. There you have it, folks. Here was their conclusion:

The bottom line: Drafting NFL-caliber players is very important, but it doesn't necessarily equal success on the field. Finding other strategies to plug the gaps, like the Patriots and Steelers have done, is essential. So don't judge your team's success at the end of draft day. Wait to see how it all plays out--and watch for what your team does to boost draft deficiencies.

On to the next comment, from SteelCityRoller. It was long, impassioned, and very interesting, but I edited it to the essentials for brevity's sake:

The biggest argument against the point system for grading picks, is Tom Brady vs. Ryan Leaf. Some guys possess all the natural gifts, but no ability to control them, or evolve. Some lack the physical talents, but make up for it with intelligence, devotion, or good, old-fashioned heart. (Lookin at you, Hines) I’ve learned the most important aspect of a player to judge...is the person inside the meat suit. Sometimes the human being gets buried in piles of college highlight clips and media speculations...Character is just as important as any measurable physical ability. ..I think we owe that to Mr. Rooney and Coach Noll, carried on through Coach Cowher, and now mantled by Coach Tomlin and Mr. Colbert...we leave no stone unturned when finding "our" guys.

I love what SteelCityRoller has to say, and agree with a great deal of it. The problem is that you can look at what a person has done but you can’t look into their heart or know for sure what they will be like after they get a large contract, thus making judgments about character more difficult than you might think. You can weed out the obvious troublemakers, but sometimes a person that looks like a high-character pick doesn’t turn out to be quite what one expected.

And unfortunately, in the end football is a business, and winning trumps a lot of things. I love high-character guys, and I think the Steelers draft them if they can. Life isn't alway fair, though, and the high-character guy doesn’t always have the physical tools it takes to succeed at the highest level.

In regards to grading by pick points, SteelCityRoller is absolutely right on a case-by-case basis. Brady/Leaf is the classic argument against just that. And honestly, since it is the example every single person making the argument uses, it must be a fairly rare exception. As a general rule, there must be some validity to the value collectively assigned by the people paid to make these decisions. Obviously, they don’t always get it right, but the numbers show they generally do.

Advanced NFL Stats has crunched the numbers, and as I discussed in the earlier article, they clearly demonstrate the first one or two quarterbacks taken in the draft are vastly more likely to be successful in the NFL. Not all of them are going to succeed, for a variety of reasons, but the majority of the top-end quarterbacks currently in the league are the first or second quarterback picked in their class.

You might luck out and get Matt Flynn in the 7th round (although only time will tell whether he actually does well as the starter on a different team) but it's highly unlikely. 21 QBs were drafted during the 7th round between 2001 and 2010. Three of them have turned out to be serviceable enough to be the starter. That’s about 14%.

So maybe you hit on one the first time you draft, but by the percentages you may have to draft as many as 9 or 10 before you get a good one. You’re certainly going to have to develop them. And development involves a cost. You can only carry so many guys on your roster, and while the time of your coaching staff, training staff et al isn’t a zero sum, it is finite, and to a certain extent time you expend on one guy takes away from time you can spend on another guy.

But even more of a concern is this: all three of those 7th round quarterbacks were drafted by a different team than the one benefitting from their services. Yes, the Packers got some value out of Flynn, but assuming he continues to play well, the team who will benefit from the development time and costs the Packers put into him will not be the Packers. This is true if you continue through the list of quarterbacks taken after the first round between 2011 and 2010. (You can find the list in the previous article.) The two outstanding quarterbacks on that list, Matt Schaub and Dree Brees, were both drafted by different teams than they currently play for. (And Brees should probably not even be on the list, as he was the 2nd quarterback chosen in his draft and was picked at #32, which is now a first-round pick, just.)

In other words, not only are late-round picks a crap shoot, but you might actually find and develop someone who will leave in free agency not long after they have really begun to blossom. First round picks are as valuable as they are for a reason—because you have a much better chance of getting a quick return on your investment. This would argue, as many people have, that the best strategy is to take fewer, higher-round picks.

This, however, ignores something I will attempt to address now—why is the Steelers’ record so much less impressive in the second round? I noted CHFF didn’t even mention this, so either most teams struggle a lot more in the second round, or they missed it. Thanks to PaVaSteeler and ProFootball Reference, I had the data to look at this, and so I did. Here are the top five teams and the bottom five teams, with Pittsburgh in the middle, in a handy table:

TEAM #pks ProBowls YrsSAvg CAV avg.

Best

Player

Worst

Player

SD 9 .88 4.8 36.5 Drew Brees, QB None
JAX 10 .3 4.4 29.6 Maurice Jone-Drew.RB Eben Britton, T
SD 8 .38 4.1 28.9 Marcus McNeill, T None
CHI 7 .43 3.6 27.1 Charles Tillman, DB None
BUF 11 .36 3.2 23.5 Aaron Schoebel, DE James Hardy, WR
ATL 8 .5 5 23.3 Alge Crumpler, TE Jimmy Williams, DB
PIT 8 .25 2 19.5 Antwaan Randle El, WR Limas Sweed, WR
BAL 10 .1 2.1 14.3 Antony Weaver, DE Dan Cody, DE
DEN 12 .17 1.5 14.2 Clinton Portis, RB Terry Pierce, RB
TAM 8 0 2.3 13.9 Barrett Ruud, LB Dexter Jackson, WR
MIN 13 .15 1.7 12.5 E. J. Henderson, LB Willie Howard, DE
KC 9 0 1.9 11.2 Kawicka Mitchell, LB Eddie Freeman, DE

The columns are: Team Name, the number of picks they had from 2001 - 2010, the number of pro bowl appearances by players drafted in the second round, divided by the number of picks (and hence it is always a fraction;) the total number of years players were/are starters, divided by the number of players; and the total of Pro Football Reference's Weighted Career Approximate Value for each player, divided by the number of players.

Pittsburgh looks to be solidly in the middle, given the numbers, but in fact they are #9 out of 32. (If you're wondering why there are two entries for San Diego, it's because I calculated it both with and without Drew Brees. I thought he might have been skewing the figures unduly, but even without him they are #2, right below, yes, Jacksonville.) New England, in case you're wondering, really is right in the middle, at #15.

Let's look at the Steelers' 2nd round from 2001-2010:

2001: Kendrell Bell

2002: Antwaan Randle El

2003: Alonzo Jackson

2004: Riccardo Colclough

2005: Bryant McFadden

2006: no second round pick

2007: LaMarr Woodley

2008: Limas Sweed

2009: no second round pick

2010: Jason Worilds

The Steelers had no second round picks in 06 and 09 because they traded down, for Anthony Smith and Willie Reid in 2006 and for Kraig Urbik and Mike Wallace in 2009. Since in both years you can see one as a reasonable pick and one as a fail, it sort of cancels itself out. (In fairness, the Wallace pick weights it toward the overall success side.)

Here is how I view these picks—feel free to disagree as always:

Hits: Kendrell Bell, Antwaan Randle El, Bryant McFadden, LaMarr Woodley

Fails: Alonzo Jackson, Riccardo Colclough, Limas Sweed

Jury is still out: Jason Worilds

One of those picks, Alonzo Jackson, was considered by CHFF to be the worst (Steelers) pick of the decade. (Looking at the figures, I went with Limas Sweed.) All in all, assuming Jason Worilds continues to develop well, they hit on better than 50% of their picks, hit on one big star, (two if you consider Wallace as part of the 2nd round record,) and had several major fails. Who could they have taken instead?

Hindsight is always 20-20, but it is interesting to look at what players, both at the same position and as a so-called "BPA" of any position a team could have taken. I won’t go with players taken well below where the Steelers picked, because it becomes harder and harder to predict success for players taken in the lower rounds, but here are players who would have been available to the Steelers at their second-round spot. I’m going to confine myself to the unsuccessful draft picks, and assume the Steelers had stayed put in the two years they traded down.

2001, 2002: N/A

2003: They could have had Lance Briggs instead of reaching for Jackson, who wasn’t really an OLB in the first place. They could also have taken Jason Witten, TE, or Asante Samuel, CB. (The Pats got Samuel in the 4th round.)

2004: Also on the board was Bob Sanders, picked by the Colts at #44. They could have also had Jared Allen, DE, who didn’t go until the 4th round.

2005: N/A

2006: If the Steelers had stayed at their pick (#57) they could have had Devin Hester, DB, Brandon Marshall, WR. or Elvis Dumerville, DE. Hester was taken at #57 and both Marshall and Dumerville were taken in the 4th round.

2007: N/A

2008: I think you could argue the best WRs in this class were gone by the time the Steelers picked. But there were a few left who would have given the Steelers more value than they got out of Limas Sweed, notably Mario Manningham and Early Doucet. Since this was the year the Steelers selected Mendenhall, even with BPA they wouldn’t have selected a second back. But they could have gotten either Jamaal Charles or Ray Rice instead of Limas Sweed.

2009: I guess there’s no point to arguing the Steelers should have stayed put. Mike Wallace is worth it.

If you want to argue the Steelers haven’t drafted as well in the second round as one would expect, and I still think it is a reasonable argument to make, what is the problem? First, let’s find out what Advanced NFL Stats has to say about positions other than QB, where we’re already discovered there isn’t much chance of finding a top one in the second round. In an April 2009 article, "Career Success by Draft Order," they show a steep downward trend, using several different measures. In fact, this drop is quite steep prior to pick #16 and drops more slowly after that. Perhaps the question is how the Steelers do so well in the bottom of the first round, rather than why they aren’t more successful in the 2nd round.

Here are some other thoughts, by position:

DEs: There is a distinct drop-off after the first round, but there is also a reasonable chance of picking up a starter in the later rounds.

WRs: This, from their article, says it all:

As temperamental as they may be, top WR draft picks really do turn out to be stars far more often than later picks. They seem to be a lot like QBs. There is a real scarcity of talent at both positions, and it is difficult to predict with much certainty which ones will pan out. A team's chances of finding a highly productive player are still better with a top pick.

RBs: Like QBs, the first two RBs in a draft are much better on average than the rest. But their conclusion was interesting enough to warrant printing the whole thing:

Top picks solidly outperform subsequent picks. The top two RBs taken tend to almost be in a class to themselves, then there is a steady decline in expected performance until the 8th RB taken, at which point there is very little to be expected from a pick.

So do teams need a superstar #1 pick RB to win, or can they find a premier runner deep in the draft? Which conventional wisdom was right? My theory is it's neither.

I think most people still grade RBs in terms of total yards, whether it's for a single game or for a season. Even though it should be well known now that winning leads to running, rather than vice versa, commentators and analysts continue to count 100 yard games or 1000 yard seasons as measures of RB effectiveness.

But even below-average RBs on winning teams with good passing games and good defenses will tend to accumulate large chunks of total yards due to frequent carries. Even a RB who was a 5th round pick on a great passing team will appear much better than he truly is. I believe that might explain the perception that solid RBs can be found anywhere in the draft.

The better RBs really do come from the top picks. It's just that they're not that important, or at least they're not as important as they were in the 1970s before the NFL became a passing league. Plus, our understanding of which RBs are truly the very good ones is distorted by analysts who insist on total yards as the best measure of RB performance.

DBs: The data seemed to show a better chance of picking up a good DB later in the draft than most other positions.

LBs: Like the data for QBs, the data shows a sharp dropoff after the first couple of LBs taken in a draft.

The continuing theme in this series is that the best players really do come from the top of the draft. No surprise there. But the top players have more than just an incrementally higher chance of great success, but double or triple the chance. The scouts and GMs do have an ability to recognize the players with the most potential at every position we've looked at so far.

As I looked at their conclusions, it seems the Steelers have proceeded wisely in the past decade in many ways.

They didn’t mess around with late-round QBs except as back-ups, although taking a chance on the third QB in the 2004 draft might not have been playing the numbers. I have the sense, though, that Ben was their guy, even had they had the second pick. Or else they were really lucky to be picking their QB in a year with three top QBs instead of the usual one or two.

Picking a bunch of DBs in lower rounds and letting them sort themselves out made more sense than spending top dollar for a DB, except in the case of Troy Polamalu, who is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. They have been exceedingly lucky (or exceedingly thorough) in picking up some excellent WR talent in later rounds.

They took mainly high-round DEs and LBs, supplemented with flyers on late-round prospects or UDFAs that occasionally paid off.

The one place you might fault them, according to the Advanced NFL Stats conclusions, would be picking a first-round RB, but given their identity as a "smash-mouth" team its hardly surprising they felt the need to pick high on this. And had they taken advantage of Mendenhall’s receiving capabilities more he might now appear as even more valuable a pick.

So to return to the question of the second round, what’s going on? I’m hardly an expert, but I have a theory. As we’ve already seen, in most positions the first couple of players taken, or at least the ones taken in the upper part of the first round, are the creme de la creme. They are much more likely to excel. By the time you get to the second round there tend to be a lot of "top talents" that slipped out of the first round, combined with lower round talents who raised their stock at the combine or other official events.

I wonder if, in the case of players that slip, there’s a touch of hubris—the Steelers staff feel they know more than the majority of the scouts. Or they are prepared to gamble a bit more, feeling they have a coaching and development staff superior to other teams.

Certainly they get it right more often than not, on balance. But perhaps there is a weakness in their scouting. I noted with interest a comment from Kevin Colbert in re DT Amini Silatolu:

Any small-school guy, they have to prove they can do it at the next level because we can't see them. They're missing a step along the way. The further down you go in college football - Division III, II, I - the harder it is to prove you're worthy of NFL competition because you're not at that level as you're preparing for the next step.

Maybe he is really interested in Silatolu, and trying to throw the opposition off-track. But probably not, as that doesn’t seem to be his style. I think the Steelers are genuinely less comfortable with small-school talent, and you can see why. Certainly you would have to allow for more development time, if nothing else. But I suspect this is where most of the real bargains are to be found.

I wonder if the Steelers ought to invest in more scouting staff, and spend more time at small schools. Antonio Brown was not someone on the Steelers’ (or anyone else’s) radar, and they only found him because they noticed him when they went to a small school to scout a different player altogether. So perhaps if the Steelers want to increase their percentage of late-round hits they need to greatly expand their coaching staff and flood the small schools with personal visits.

After all, that’s just a variant on how they first became successful in the 70s - they were scouting the small HBCs no one else was looking at. But really, this should be a discussion for the next article. We will look at the Steelers’ supposed lack of success in the later rounds (as per CHFF) and see whether it is actually true. And what is a reasonable measure of success? How many misses are you allowed when you have a big hit? To be continued...



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain


Assessing the Steelers’ Drafting Success During the Kevin Colbert Era, Part I

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Note: Those of you familiar with Momma's Mock Drafts may wonder if this article is part of that series, but alas, this is actually a serious article. So if you came for the pictures, ladies, Mike Tomlin is all there is for today.

I wrote a series of articles last fall taking a look at the Steeler drafts from 2007 - 2009. I based my assessment on the talent identification part of the equation, whether it necessarily benefited the Steelers or not. In other words, Kraig Urbik was the second Steelers pick in the 2009 draft, although he was picked in the third round after the Steelers traded down. Given that he has turned into a serviceable guard, or better, I gave the Steelers’ scouting staff props for finding him, even though the Steelers themselves cut him and his guard services have only benefitted another franchise.

But with this assessment I will look at how well the Steelers have drafted in the Kevin Colbert era, considering only how well the picks have done for the Steelers. Since Colbert was hired at the beginning of the year in 2000 I decided it was fair to give him a year, since the 2000 draft picks may not have had his stamp on them quite yet. It’s too early to properly assess 2011—it’s actually probably too early to properly assess 2010 either, but it’s a convenient stopping point. So we will be looking at the drafts from 2001 - 2010.

The first question to consider is whether the Steelers actually do draft well, at least relatively speaking. The second question is whether there is a better way to draft, or whether it’s really a crap shoot no matter what you do. Because ultimately that’s the interesting question. If the Steelers are better than average at their draft choices, that would explain their continued success, even in a small market. But perhaps they aren’t actually better than average, but their policies and coaching after they draft players makes the difference. And if the latter is true, is it possible to also tweak their drafting process to make them even more successful?

So first let’s look at how well they draft overall. In their assessment of the previous decade, which conveniently enough is from 2001 - 2010, Cold Hard Football Facts gave the Steelers a B grade and placed them ninth among the 32 teams. Here’s what they had to say:

Pittsburgh (B)

Pro Bowlers: 9 (t-4th)

Draftees Active in 2010: 35 (25th)

Players with 50+ Career AV: 3 (t-13th)

Players with 20+ Career AV: 18 (t-11th)

Best Pick: S Troy Polamalu (No. 16 overall, 2003)

Worst Pick: LB Alonzo Jackson (2nd round, 2006)

Summary: The Steelers had the best group of first-round picks in the decade, with two likely Hall of Famers (Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu) along with stars like Maurkice Pouncey, Santonio Holmes, Laurence Timmons, Rashard Mendenhall, Heath Miller and Casey Hampton. They were also one of the least successful in rounds three through seven, interesting since they have such a sharp eye for top talent.

This is really interesting. Let’s look at "the best group of first-round picks in the decade" and where they were picked:

#11 - Ben Roethlisberger

#15 - Lawrence Timmons

#16 - Troy Polamalu

#18 - Maurkice Pouncey

#19 - Casey Hampton

#23 - Rashard Mendenhall

#25 - Santonio Holmes

#30 - Heath Miller

#30 - Kendall Simmons

#32 - Ziggy Hood

Only three times during the decade were the Steelers drafting in the top half of the draft, and one of those was a trade up, to #16 for Troy Polamalu. What is the expected difference in players in the first and second half of the first round?

According to the Draft Value Chart, here are the values of those picks:

#11: 1250

#15: 1050

#16: 1000

#18: 900

#19: 875

#23: 760

#25: 720

#30: 620

#32: 590

The supposed value of the #1 pick overall is 3000. This chart is unofficial and is for trade value, not an assessment of the value of a player taken in that spot. But even though it isn’t really meant to value the players themselves, you could argue there is a relationship to where a player is taken and how likely they are to succeed in the NFL. A higher likelihood of success obvious increases the value of the pick.

But apparently, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, just being picked in the first round correlates with a high degree of success:

Of the 287 players drafted in round one over the past nine years, 85% are still playing, which is 20% better than the rate for second rounders. The average "one" plays for 9 years, which is nearly triple the league average. They make up 40% of the league's team captains and they were 140% more likely to make the Pro Bowl in the last decade than players taken in round two.

This may be at least partially a function of how much patience a team is likely to have with a player in whom they have invested a great deal. First-round "busts" are notable for a reason—because they’re fairly unusual, especially in the upper part of the first round. And some of that is possibly attributable to the team that drafts them as much as to the player himself. A given player may ultimately not be a good fit for the system the team runs, or the coaching staff they employ. The team may just suck in at least some areas in their player development. Serious injuries are always a possibility as well.

But to return to the question of whether you can determine the likelihood of a player having a successful career depending on where they were drafted, Advanced NFL Statistics has an answer, or rather, a number of answers. They broke down the chances of a successful career by position, and here is a sample, taken from one of the articles about quarterbacks. (You can find the full articles, bristling with charts and graphs and other impressive things, here.)

There are large drop offs in performance from the 1st QB taken to the 2nd, and from the 2nd to the 3rd. Then from there until the 9th or 10th QB taken, it's pretty random. It appears that if your team doesn't get one of the first two QB picks, it might as well take a chance on a later pick. Chances fall off quickly after the first two QBs that a team will find a franchise player.

Ben Roethlisberger is an exception, since he was taken after Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers. And Roethlisberger is far and away the most successful QB who was not a #1 or #2 QB in their class during the 2001 - 2010 drafts, at least to this point.

During the 2001-2010 drafts 128 quarterbacks were drafted. Of those, 27 have been drafted in the first round. I’ve heard of all but three of them, or about 11%. All four of those players were drafted prior to 2005. Since I wasn’t even a football fan until partway through the 2009 season, this indicates as well as anything else these players have made a reasonable impact and/or had a reasonable lengthy career.

Conversely, of the remaining 101 QBs drafted in rounds 2 - 7, I had only heard of 22 of them, or just over 20%. Of those, here are the QBs with a significant number of starts, or, in the case of Matt Flynn, about to get a significant number of starts: (the number in parenthesis is where the player was taken in among all QBs in that year, the second the actual draft position, so Drew Brees was the 2nd QB taken in the draft, in round 2 at pick #32, which was in the 2nd round at the time)

Drew Brees (2) 2/32

Jimmy Clausen (3) 2/48

Chad Henne (4) 2/57

Tavaris Jackson (5) 2/64

Kevin Kolb (3) 2/36

Colt McCoy (4) 3/85

Matt Schaub (5) 3/90

Kyle Orton (7) 4/106

Curtis Painter (11) 6/201

Matt Cassel (12) 7/230

Ryan Fitzpatrick (13) 7/250

Matt Flynn (12) 7/209

So is there a decent amount of correlation between where a player is taken in the draft and how likely they are to succeed? The "value" of pick #224 is 2. The "value" of pick #1 is 3000. Baron Batch was taken by the Steelers in 2011 at #232, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll assume the value of #232 is still 2. Is Cam Newton, the 2011 #1 overall pick, 1500 times as likely to succeed in the NFL as Baron Batch? Is Andrew Luck (or Robert Griffin III, possibly) 1500 times as likely to succeed as whoever is picked last this year?

But that may not be a fair question. Perhaps it makes more sense to ask "Is Cam Newton, the first QB to be taken in the 2011 draft, (draft value 3000) 366 times more likely to succeed than Greg McElroy, the last QB to be taken in the 2011 draft? Because the draft value of pick #208, where McElroy was taken, is 8.2.

There were 14 QBs taken in the 2004 draft after Ben Roethlisberger. Of those 14, I’ve only heard of one of them, Matt Schaub. Their supposed draft values are 1250 (Ben) and 140 (Schaub.) Has Ben proven to be about nine times as valuable as Matt Schaub? Probably. After all, the Steelers have been to three Super Bowls since 2004 and won two of them. In the final assessment things may change. Ben may get injured in the pre-season and never play again, while the Texans surge into NFL dominance and pick up a couple of rings. But although Ben is almost certainly not nine times better a QB per se as Matt Schaub, the combination of him and the Steelers have gained a lot more than Schaub and the Falcons/Texans so far.

Although I focused on the quarterback position for this segment of the series, it seems appropriate to me, given all the hoopla over quarterbacks this year. The Steelers drafted three quarterbacks between 2001 and 2010, and got it right for the one that mattered the most. This, despite the fact they are the only team during these years to successfully pick up their franchise quarterback after the second quarterback in the draft was gone.

The Steelers have clearly done very well in the first round, despite the generally low spot they pick at. They moved up once, for Troy Polamalu. They spent their highest pick in the decade on a quarterback and got it right. They moved down once and got a Pro Bowl nose tackle. The majority of the time they were picking in the lower half of the round, and that does make a difference. The Wall Street Journal article shows you expect some reasonable level of success from any first-round pick, but the Cold Hard Football Facts folks still determined the Steelers to have drafted the most successfully in the first round of any team during the ten years in question.

Well, that’s enough for the moment. The next article will deal with Round 2. The Steelers don’t do nearly so well in Round 2, as I expect most of you know. We’ll look at the players they chose, why they went wrong, who they might have picked instead at the same position, and whether they ought to call up BTSC for suggestions : )



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain


Championship Game Analysis Looks at Physical Giants Receivers and a Plan of Success for New England

Working off-schedule is kind of nice.

Without much of a news budget scheduled until march (draft madness, baby), we're pretty much going to freehand most of the writing. I see that as a good thing. Being serious get old after a while.

I'm gonna stay off-schedule, and just give you some of my uncensored, random thoughts on the match-ups this weekend. I shared my feelings on the Brady v. Flacco match-up coming up, I'll try to dig into the NFC game a bit too.

I have two older brothers, and I've often thought about what it would be like if both of us were (chuckle) head coaches in the NFL.

Everyone talked about the Harbaughs exchanging information in regards to upcoming opponents. I dismissed this as having anything of value because coaches do that all the time. Raheem Morris, the former Buccaneers coach, worked under Mike Tomlin on Jon Gruden's staff in Tampa Bay in 2005. You think they don't share information as well? Does the fact they aren't blood relatives make that scenario any more or less likely?

If anything, when I think of either of my brothers being at that level with me, I think more of the times I had to be the center while one completed the Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to the other, or the times they'd play goal line stand, where I had to get in the end zone from a yard out against both of them.

I may give them some of my honest opinion, but I'm going to throw a red herring or two in there as well.

"Nah, don't worry about Ninkovich, run away from him, what happened against Denver was an aberration. And that bit with Hernandez in the backfield? Don't worry about it, there's no chance all they were doing was putting it on film so you think they'll run out of that formation next week. Sell out for the run, Ray Lewis can cover him in the open field, no problem."

It may not necessarily be with Hernandez, but look for the Patriots to stretch the Ravens defense out much like what Houston did. Granted, they don't have Arian Foster, and they aren't the greatest run-blocking team, but their linemen are quick and athletic, and setting up play-action off getting Baltimore's linebackers moving horizontally will open up a lot of room down the seam.

Clearly, the story in this game is Baltimore's defense vs. New England's offense, so the other side on both teams needs to come up with a few plays. With the Ravens offensive line falling apart, and the Patriots defense playing above the sum of its parts (which still isn't much), this will come down to Baltimore's ability to keep Flacco upright long enough to eventually hit one of the deep passes they insist on throwing. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Ravens would simply pepper the Patriots with even doses of Ray Rice and TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, but I'm done trying to apply common sense to Baltimore's offensive game plan.

Rest assured, though Tom Brady will not throw straight into tight high-low coverage multiple times the way T.J. Yates did. Remember that when you hear Ravens fans crying about the lack of coverage in their secondary. However, it may not matter, because if the Ravens defense is as good as everyone says it is, there's no reason they cannot dial up the kind of pressure needed to stop Brady.

As for what Brother John is saying to Brother Jim about the Giants:

"Make Nicks beat you. It's ok to cut him loose to eliminate Cruz. He's really not that strong, and can't really make big plays in traffic. He'll fumble, too, if you hit him square in the chest, so emphasize stripping the ball over putting him on the ground. Whitner can play on his own in the deep secondary, so tell your corners to go for the pick."

Donte Whitner nearly single-handedly cost San Francisco a win when they had no business losing. Yes, turnovers have been San Francisco's bread-and-butter all season, but there comes a point you need to recognize when an offense simply has a physical advantage over you. Whitner's lame attempt to go for the ball on the 7-foot-5 Jimmy Graham missed horribly, and Graham went for a 66-yard touchdown.

The Giants are going to try to run deep posts and digs on Whitner and take advantage of the good size and excellent strength of their receivers. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Giants are added to the "best receiving corps in the game" conversation before this season is over. Nicks and Cruz are easily the strongest pair of receivers in the league, and they're emerging as the best playmakers as well.

Look for this to be a brutally physical match-up. San Francisco has the most aggressive defense of the remaining playoff teams, but as the Saints proved, over-aggression can be a problem in big games. Also, like the Saints proved, five turnovers means little, because, in the end, the team that goes the hardest for the longest is going to win. A true battle of attrition. And you know Mike Tomlin likes that.



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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