Author: Scott Spreitzer - Wednesday, December 09, 2009
The good news is the Pittsburgh Steelers get to play the Cleveland Browns this week, a team going nowhere except to the NFL draft lottery (and high up). Pittsburgh is 9-3 ATS the last 12 meetings and has already won 27-14 at home.
The bad news is that the defending champs are desperate for a victory, sitting at 6-6 and riding a miserable 0-4 SU/1-3 ATS run. The overall stats are impressive, ranked 7th in total offense and 5th in total defense. Yet, clearly not all is well in the Steel City and there is something missing.
Coach Mike Tomlin has noticed, reading the riot act to his players following Sunday's stunning 27-24 collapse to the lowly Oakland Raiders. Tomlin promised possible sweeping changes to the lineup for their next game in Cleveland Thursday night. Tomlin said there is an "undesirable pattern of behavior" in losing games in the fourth quarter and that he will take an "aggressive look at potential changes" in his lineup and his schemes. "I think it's appropriate we give some guys an opportunity and see if they can play," Tomlin said.
Specifically, the secondary has been a mess. They are still without star safety Troy Polamalu but it goes deeper than that. Veteran cornerback Ike Taylor possibly could lose his starting job as Tomlin wants to give rookie cornerbacks Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis more time, perhaps even starts. Why? It wasn't just the late TD allowed to the anemic Oakland Raiders. Bruce Gradkowski burned the Steelers for three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers are yielding 297.3 yards per game, but 105.1 of those have come in the fourth quarter. 43 percent of the points they have allowed this season have come in the fourth quarter. They also allowed a TD on the final play in a loss to the Bengals, lost 20-17 in OT at Baltimore, and gave up an 11-yard TD pass to Oakland with nine seconds left. It was the fifth time in six losses that the Steelers couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter. And guess what: Tomlin's background is as a defensive backs coach, so these problems in the secondary and don't reflect well on him.
That's a great example of why overall stats don't always tell the whole story. The Patriots are in a similar boat, ranked second in total offense, 11th in total defense. Like the Steelers, many teams long for that kind of balance and high rankings.
Yet, the Patriots have more problems and holes to plug than the stats suggest. There is virtually no pass rush, a young secondary has been shredded and appears to be regressing, the running game isn't consistent, and their red zone offense is not very good for a team ranked second in total offense with so many weapons. That's a lot of holes to be looking at in December. That Pats are on a 6-3-1 run under the total as oddsmakers have overvalued their offense with respect to totals. Another telling stat: They average 32 ppg at home (6-0 SU 4-2 ATS), just 19 ppg on the road (1-5).
The Baltimore Ravens have decent overall stats, too, but if you watched their Monday night loss at Green Bay, you can see they are not playing their best football of the season, on a 2-3 SU, 1-3-1 ATS run. A struggling Ravens offense was just as cold as the Green Bay weather, turning the ball over twice in the red zone. Running back Ray Rice fumbled inside the 20-yard line in the first quarter, and quarterback Joe Flacco threw a season-worst three interceptions, including a costly one in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens dropped one game back of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the final AFC wild-card spot and find themselves in a logjam with three other 6-6 teams in the AFC: the Dolphins, Jets and Steelers. This is the time of the season where one needs to look beyond stats at four other key factors: Weather, scheduling, injuries and coaching.
With the weather getting cold and sometimes windy in northern cities, that can help good running teams (Bengals, Jets, Ravens, Titans, Jaguars) and could be a detriment to teams that rely more on the pass (Steelers, Patriots).
Injuries change from week to week, but this is the key stretch run for playoff bubble teams. The Ravens, Pats and Steelers have problems in the secondary, for instance, while the Bengals just got workhorse RB Cedric Benson back from an injury.
Coaching is important for teams that have been in big games before and know how to keep a club focused and calm. This is why the Dallas Cowboys are going to be so interesting to watch this month. They have a recent history of folding late in the season and Coach Wade Phillips has a lousy big game record. The Dallas media are already on him about it and he got a little snippy at a press conference this week.
He had to defend a comment about his players being "winners" when Dallas reporters asked, "Why do you say they are winners? None of them have ever won late in the year." It was a fair question. It may not seem much right now as Dallas is in a prime spot to make the playoffs and win the division, but the pressure is clearly on.
And the schedule is rough for the Cowboys: Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles. Don't be surprised if the heat gets turned up even higher on Phillips with a few more losses. The Ravens and Steelers have to play each other, which could have huge Wild Card implications. The Jaguars? They begin a tough three-game stretch against the Dolphins, Colts and Patriots. So this AFC Wild Card race is, as Frank Broyles used to say with his Arkansas drawl, "Wiiiiiiiiiiide open."
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