How Close Were the Steelers to a Championship?

via Broncos Wire

Part 1—Quarterback

In this series I am going to indulge in the sort of pointless speculation we’re all forced into at this time of year if our team doesn’t make it to the final game. I thought it might be interesting to compare the Steelers to the teams who did make it. So this will be a bit of statistics and a bit of narrative/commentary. I’m going to try to avoid too much “Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are ‘It might have been.'”

Coming into the 2015 season there was a lot of buzz about the Steelers offense, including Ben Roethlisberger. After a somewhat slow start in 2014 they exploded onto the scene with three extraordinary games, setting a number of team records. Although Le’Veon Bell’s injury at the end of the season was a disappointment, the critical components of the offense were all set to return, and there was no reason to think they wouldn’t more or less pick up where they left off.

As for the Broncos, the early returns were that the offense looked rather shaky and the defense looked dominating. As Kyle Montgomery of Mile High Report wrote after the second preseason game:

While a 19-12 game isn’t sexy, it might be a sign of things to come for the Broncos. Maybe, with this defense, the Broncos don’t need Peyton Manning to put “Star Wars numbers” or even Star Wars points. Maybe 19 points is enough.

Maybe this new-look, quarterback-sacking, zero-passing-yards-allowing, no-touchdowns-surrendering Broncos team can be fun to watch too.

The post ended with a poll, as follows:

Through two preseason games, Peyton Manning has zero touchdowns, one interception, and has been sacked three times. Are you worried?

In case you are wondering, the most popular response (39%) was “Yes, a little.”

For Panthers fans, the preseason didn’t provide a lot of hints of how the team would play in the ensuing months. As Edgar Salmingo, Jr. of Cat Scratch Reader said after the third preseason game:

If tonight’s game is any indication, life for the Carolina Panthers after Kelvin Benjamin will not be pretty.

Missing their number one wide receiver, the Carolina Panthers first-team offense had two “three-and-outs,” were stuffed at the goal line four times, and quarterback Cam Newton coughed up a near “pick-6” interception.

Injuries are always an issue in the NFL. As Mike Tomlin says, it is a game of attrition. All three teams had to deal with injuries to critical players. But at the quarterback position the Panthers were spared—Cam Newton barely missed a snap all season. In fact, this was the case even when he probably should have. As Sporting News reported on December 6th:

The NFL will tell you how much it cares about concussions and player safety. That may be true, but they won’t take the game out of players’ hands.

The hit Cam Newton took on Sunday against the Saints is just the latest example. Newton took a helmet-to-helmet hit. He had his bell rung, shook off the cobwebs and … stayed in the game. Three plays later the Panthers scored to go up 20-16 in the third quarter.

Newton, who took a few seconds on his knees to compose himself, didn’t leave the field until after the drive ended. He jogged to the locker room while Derek Anderson warmed up on the sideline. But that didn’t happen right way; Newton or the Panthers or the trainers waited before, as Fox confirmed, he’d been checked out for a possible concussion.

Backup QB Derek Anderson had all of seven attempts during the entire course of the 2015 regular season and two attempts in the NFC Championship game. In the meantime, Cam Newton was presenting a case for league MVP.

The Broncos played Peyton Manning for the first nine games of the season, and during that time he threw nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, a rate absolutely unprecedented in his storied career. He was pulled from the Week 10 game after attempting 20 passes and completing four of them to the opposing team. This was only one less “completion” than he had to his own teammates (5).

It was revealed that he had a tear in his plantar fascia, and he sat out the next six games. He was brought back in to replace a struggling Brock Osweiler in the season finale and played the rest of the game, and has played the entirety of the post-season up to this point.

The Steelers offense, after showing what they could do in a Week Two trammeling of the San Francisco 49ers, looked like they were set to fulfill their preseason promise. But in Week Three Mark Barron of the Rams took out Ben’s knee, and it was back to the drawing board for the next four weeks.

The injuries at the position had, however, begun in the preseason. Veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski began training camp on the PUP list, and after many weeks of no improvement in his condition the Steelers were forced to place him on injured reserve. Because of the timing, and because Landry Jones had continued to struggle over an extended preseason, the Steelers created a major tempest in Steeler Nation by signing Michael Vick.

The saga of course continued, with Vick being injured himself during his second full game, forcing the Steelers to play Landry Jones anyhow.

So let’s look at how the various quarterbacks did statistically. The first chart compares the NFL QB rating for all of the quarterbacks who played significant snaps. The second shows the QBR:

NFL Passer RatingQBR

It always fascinates me to see how differently the NFL Passer Rating and the ESPN QBR view Ben Roethlisberger. It seems the NFL Passer rating generally undervalues Ben in comparison to the QBR. I find this to be true of the evaluation of Pro Football Focus as well. Ben spent the season as either the top-ranked or one of the top-ranked quarterbacks.

Peyton Manning spent a lot of the season as one of their worst-graded quarterbacks who played a reasonable portion of the season, or close to it. In their latest grading, which includes the post-season thus far, Roethlisberger is in sole possession of first place, as Carson Palmer’s last few games knocked him out of the top spot. Then comes Tom Brady, then Cam Newton. Peyton Manning is No. 30, just ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer. (They like Brock Osweiler, putting him at No. 20.)

It’s an interesting question as to what the Super Bowl would look like should the starter go down, whether we’re talking about the actual participants or a Steelers/Panthers theoretical contest. There is no question that of the three teams, the Broncos would be in the best situation if their back-up had to come into the game. The Steelers saw what happened the last time they had to use Jones*. They weren’t even dressing Vick anymore. And while Derek Anderson is a wily vet, he isn’t a very good one, and Osweiler, as an up-and-coming talent with a great deal of game experience in the offense would be a shoe-in for Best Backup.

This is hardly a fair comparison, though.

Back in 2012 John Elway spent pick No. 57 on Osweiler, right after signing Peyton Manning to a massive contract. At the time he declared Osweiler their quarterback of the future. I think it is fair to say that none of the other backups are in consideration for that role. Whether the Steelers ever thought this was a possibility for Landry Jones or not, I’m pretty sure they don’t think so now. Anderson is much like Gradkowski—a vet who couldn’t hold a starter job for any length of time. And Michael Vick isn’t Michael Vick anymore.

Returning to the starters, I was interested in the substantial uptick the QBR evaluators saw in Cam Newton’s game during the playoffs, and the downturn in Manning’s. I checked PFF to see how they graded the last three games for Manning and Newton, and here they are:

  • Week 17: Newton: 87.0.  Manning: 60.0
  • Divisional Round: Newton: 86.9.  Manning: 63.2
  • Conference Championship: Newton: 87.9.  Manning: 62.0

And for kicks here are Ben’s numbers:

  • Week 17: 92.8
  • Wild Card: 92.7
  • Divisional Round:  92.7

(Bear in mind the PFF grades are cumulative, whereas the NFL Passer rating and the QBR are each game as a separate entity.)

Time to cut to the chase. Assuming Ben Roethlisberger could play the entire game, there is no reason to believe he would not have quite a good chance to lead the Steelers to victory, despite what seems a ferocious Panthers defense. After all, the Denver defense looked a lot more ferocious when playing the Patriots (!) than when they played the Steelers.

And how do I think Manning will do? Well, unless the Broncos brain trust figures out some way to keep the Panther’s defense off of him, I don’t think he is going to fare particularly well. This doesn’t mean the Panthers are a shoe-in, as Denver has a pretty good defense of their own. But I tend to be in the court of those predicting a fairly low-scoring offensive contest. If there is a lot of scoring going on, I’m guessing it is in the main by the Panthers.


*in re the discussion about Best Backup and all that, when I first looked at the numbers I thought perhaps one of the most under-rated injuries of the Steelers 2015 season was to Bruce Gradkowski. However, when I had a look at his career stats he honestly wasn’t putting up any better numbers overall than Vick or Jones. Which makes me dead curious to see who starts Training Camp on the QB roster…


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