Saturday, February 04, 2006

Super-Sized Preview
By Zach

As I staggered home drunk at 2 am last night, I think it finally hit me. “Holy crap, the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl.” Also, “holy crap, I need a cheeseburger,” but I’m not going to write about that. Well, maybe another day.

If you’ve been reading Sportszilla for a while, you’ve learned that of late I’ve had a certain love/hate relationship with the Seahawks. Growing up, they were clearly my third favorite team, behind the Sonics and Mariners. Neither of my parents cared much for football, and while I tried to watch the Hawks every week, it’s hard when at least six games a year are blacked out because they couldn’t sell enough tickets. Plus, in the formative sports years of my childhood (1991-1998) the Seahawks went: 7-9, 2-14, 6-10, 6-10, 8-8, 7-9, 8-8, 8-8. Nothing is harder to root for than mediocrity.

Since I moved to New York, the connection has gotten stronger. In part, I’m sure it has something to do with the team’s success. But it’s also because it’s the easiest way for me to stay in touch with my hometown. There’s no way I could watch even half of the games the Mariners or Sonics play. I can, however, watch every single Seahawk game…though that’s not always a good thing.

Anyhow, enough vanity: onto the game preview. All stats are from Football Outsiders unless otherwise noted.

In my opinion, the biggest keys to this game will be the following:

Pittsburgh’s conversion rate on third down, especially third-and-long.
What Troy Polamalu spends most of his time doing.
How Seattle covers Antwaan Randle El, Cedric Wilson, and Heath Miller.
Robbie Tobeck’s play against Casey Hampton.
Who outsmarts whom: Lofa Tatupu or Ben Roethlisberger.
How much time Matt Hasselbeck has to throw

Let’s look a bit closer:

Pittsburgh’s conversion rate on third down, especially third-and-long.

As Aaron Schatz pointed out, the single biggest reason for Pittsburgh’s offensive success this postseason has been the ridiculous rate they’ve converted on third-and-six or greater. During the regular season, when Ben Roethlisberger played, they converted those situations into first downs 27% of the time. The league average was 28%, and the league high was Indianapolis at 41%. In the postseason, the Steelers are at 47%. And it’s not just third-and-long. On third-and-five or less, they converted 57% in the regular season, the league average was 54%, and the league high was 65%. Pittsburgh is converting those at a 68% clip.

Now, in any one game, anything can happen. But I would be surprised to see that kind of success against a good Seahawk defense. Heck, I’d be surprised to see that kind of success against just about any defense.

Pittsburgh’s mediocre rushing attack (#11) tends to leave them in a lot of third-and-medium or third-and-long situations. If their conversion rate in those situations reverts back to the norm, the Seahawks should be in good shape.

What Troy Polamalu spends most of his time doing.

One of the main strengths of the Pittsburgh defense is that Polamalu can line up in a wide array of positions and still manage to make all the plays a safety should. While Matt Hasselbeck is as smart as any quarterback in the league, the Seahawks would be well served to force Polamalu’s hand and make him commit to one aspect of the game, either the run or the pass. If Seattle can run the ball effectively, Pittsburgh will be forced to walk Polamalu up to the line to provide run support. If the Seahawks can pass effectively, especially over the middle, the Steelers will have to think long and hard about committing him to pass coverage. Either way, if Seattle can keep Polamalu from blitzing with any frequency, they’ll be in good shape.

How Seattle covers Antwaan Randle El, Cedric Wilson, and Heath Miller.

The secondary is clearly the weakness of the Seahawk defense. Marcus Trufant is a fine cornerback, and Michael Boulware is a nice safety, but a variety of injuries forced guys like Jordan Babineaux, Marquand Manuel, and others. However, Seattle will have Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon healthy for this game.

In their first two playoff games, the Seahawks faced a pair of fantastic receivers in Santana Moss and Steve Smith. In neither case, however, did the Seahawks have to worry much about the other receivers. Washington did have Chris Cooley, but the Panthers had no other threats in the passing game.

Hines Ward is a very good player, and he’ll get his numbers. It’s the other guys who, in my opinion, will decide the game.

While I’m not a huge fan of either Antwaan Randle El (77th ranked receiver) or Cedric Wilson (62nd ranked receiver), Heath Miller worries me quite a bit. Seattle has give up some big receiving days to tight ends this season, and Miller has had some big games late in the season. Neither Boulware nor Manuel are particularly large, and LeRoy Hill has a ways to go as a pass defender. If the Seahawks can get a solid pass rush (and they did lead the league in sacks this season, and were sixth in adjusted sack rate), they could force the Steelers to leave Miller in to block, which would make me feel a lot better. The Steelers, by the way, are 23rd in adjusted sack rate on offense, despite being near the bottom of the league in total sacks. This is, of course, because they rarely pass.

Robbie Tobeck’s play against Casey Hampton.

Hampton is in many ways the key to Pittsburgh’s defense. His ability to swallow up blockers as the nose guard in the 3-4 defense frees up guys like Farrior, Porter, and Foote to make tackles. While this means that Hampton doesn’t get the kind of stats that would otherwise lead to greater recognition, opposing linemen certainly know who he is.

The reason this matchup is so crucial is because runs up the middle will be a battle of strength-on-strength. The Seahawks were second in the NFL in adjusted line yards for runs over guard or center, while on defense the Steelers were third in stuffing those runs. Hampton is a large (pun intended) part of that.

Meanwhile, Tobeck will be heading to the Pro Bowl, but his style of play is similar to that of Tom Nalen, in that he’s more of a finesse center than a mauler. Seattle will probably have to double Hampton on most plays, but the key will be whom they have to use. If All-Pro Steve Hutchinson is forced to help Tobeck most of the time, that could limit what the Seahawks can do on toss plays, because Hutchinson is very good at pull-blocking. If the Seahawks can get away with using Chris Gray to help, they’ll be in better shape to move the football on the ground.

Who outsmarts whom: Lofa Tatupu or Ben Roethlisberger.

This, in my mind, is perhaps the most important matchup of them all. Tatupu is heading to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in part because he’s helped quarterback the Seahawk defense all season long. He adjusts the front seven based on the reads he gets, and will even audible to blitzes. Roethlisberger, on the other hand, has emerged as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in just his second season.

Seattle blitzed less than the league average this season, but were tremendously successful when they did bring extra rushers. As noted above, the Steelers are not a great team in pass protection, in part because Roethlisberger tends to hold the ball too long.

However, as noted, Tatupu is a rookie, and is playing in the biggest game of his career. There’s a decent chance he may be overaggressive, in which case Roethlisberger and the Steeler offense could exploit that youthful exuberance by running extensive play action passes, traps, or other deceptive plays in an attempt to catch Tatupu out of position. If he can sniff those plays out, the Seahawks stand a much better chance of keeping the Steelers out of the end zone.

How much time Matt Hasselbeck has to throw

Another battle of strength vs. strength, as the Seattle offensive line is widely considered one of the best in the league, while Pittsburgh has perennially had great success in the pass rush. Confusion is their stock and trade, as on any given play they could bring one, two, or even three linebackers, a safety, a cornerback, or drop a lineman into coverage. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the inventor of the zone blitz, which he’s employed with great success. The Seahawks may choose to leave extra blockers in to protect Hasselbeck, betting that with enough time their receivers can get open. That’s certainly the gameplan I’d endorse, and Indianapolis tried using just their five linemen to block and struggled all game long.

Hasselbeck is a very good, smart quarterback, and is playing great football at the moment. However, like all quarterbacks, if pressured he can be forced into mistakes. The Seahawks must prevent such situations, even if it means going to a max-protect scheme. If you take away the effectiveness of the Pittsburgh pass rush, you can start attacking the weakest part of their defense, the secondary.

Of course, these are just some of the key matchups in the game, but if either team can dominate these six, they should be in good position to win.

Oh yes, I suppose you want a prediction. Well, I’m a Seahawk fan. I’ve never seen my teams win a championship. I bet you can guess who I’m picking.

Seattle 28
Pittsburgh 17


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