Almost exactly a year ago, after the Steelers’ season had ended but before Milledgville became a household word, I wrote a post asking a simple question:
“If Big Ben was going to miss, say, four regular-season games due to injury, and you could have any quarterback in the league replace him, who would it be? And remember, that quarterback will have the same o-line issues that Ben has had for years. Manning, Brady and Rivers are all obvious choices, I think, but here’s my guy … Aaron Rodgers.”
Ignoring the eerie foreshadowing (in case you hadn’t heard, I have a gift of sorts; I also predicted Sepulveda going to the Steelers in the fourth round … oh, and I also went to college with Mike Tomlin), in terms of NFL quarterbacks, Rodgers is as close as you can get to Roethlisberger. In fact, the only difference is that Rodgers is a couple inches shorter, a tad more mobile, and every story written about him this week won’t include the word “redemption.”
Before getting to just how similar these players — and offenses — are, let’s run down the list of other potential candidates:
1) Tom Brady. Gretz mentioned it on the last podcast and I don’t disagree: Dreamboat is the best quarterback in the league and possibly the best to ever play. He’s accurate, elusive in the pocket (not to be confused with elusive in general, or something other than club-footed when it comes to making plays outside the pocket), and extremely smart. Which why it was mind-blowing to watch the Jets defense systematically dismantle the Patriots. (And I’m quite confident that all the Rex Ryan bluster leading up to that game was some sort of psychological coping mechanism. Because there’s no way he thought New York was winning that game.)
Even though everybody knew the game plan to beating Brady — Merril Hoge spelled it out to us a few weeks ago — there’s a huge chasm between repeating it to yourself and actually executing it when the time comes. New York did that with great effect by locking up the Patriots’ undersized and slow receivers, and pressuring Brady.
And while that performance against the Jets was certainly an aberration by Brady’s standards, I can’t help but wonder if that would be a typical Sunday for him behind the Steelers offensive line.
I’ve said it before, but Roethlisberger is too dumb to die. That’s a joke inasmuch as I think Ben’s slightly smarter than he looks. (The soft bigotry of low expectations? Perhaps. Either way, let’s just call it a compliment and move on…) But he absorbs so many hits — and seems so unaffected by them — that you figure he’s either more coordinated punch-drunk, or, like the brontosaurus, it takes pain a couple minutes to travel from various parts of his body to his brain.
Let me put it this way: how long do you think Brady would have lasted if Haloti Ngata had broken his nose on the first series of the game? Exactly.
2) Peyton Manning. The other half of the “NFL’s best QB” duo. And much like Brady, I don’t think Peyton’s ginormous brain or his super-quick release would do him much good behind Pittsburgh’s offensive line. It’s not that the Steelers front five are so bad that only the willfully ignorant could survive, it’s just that no matter how quickly Brady or Manning get the ball out of their hands, at some point, they’re going to get hit. Ben can withstand it; Branning can not. That’s what it boils down to.
3) Drew Brees. After Rodgers, Brees is second on my list of “Guys who could have the most success in the Steelers’ offense.” He’s more elusive than Brady or Manning; you could argue that he’s also tougher and more decisive, too. Brees is short, which is mitigated by the proficiency of the o-line in New Orleans, so that would be a concern in Pittsburgh.
4) Philip Rivers. Bill Cowher’s favorite quarterback from the 2004 class — at least those were the rumors leading up to the draft. I may be in the minority, but I’d rank Rivers behind Rodgers and Brees here. I’ve seen more mobility on a statue (in fact, if Brady, Manning and Rivers had a footrace, I’d expect Rivers to lose by a wide margin), but the guy can take a hit. That’s a prerequisite for the Steelers QB gig.
Fire away with your thoughts.
Over the weekend I spent some time comparing the 2010 seasons for Big Ben and Rodgers, and more generally, the Steelers and the Packers. Football Outsiders main man Aaron Schatz brought it up on Bill Simmons’ podcast the day after the conference championships: these teams couldn’t be more evenly matched. It’s uncanny, really.
First, courtesy of NFL.com, side-by-side comparisons (click to make bigger):
And Football Outsiders confirms the parallels time and again:
Ben ranks second in the league in value per play (DVOA), and seventh in total value (DYAR). Note that DYAR is a cumulative statistic, so seventh overall is impressive given that Ben took a month off.
Mike Wallace was the NFL’s best wideout, according to Football Outsiders, and Greg Jennings was third.
Looking at the entire offense, again, not much difference passing or running.
And in terms of pass protection, the Packers’ and Steelers’ offensive lines are in the bottom third in the league (21st and 29th, respectively).
One of the storylines we’re sure to be beaten about the head with this week is that Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers have a long history, are the forefathers of the zone blitz, and that the two defenses will mirror each other on Sunday. The thing is, defensively is where the Packers and Steelers are most dissimilar. That’s not to say they don’t play the same style, just that Pittsburgh puts up better numbers than their Green Bay counterparts in one important area: stopping the run. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers were first against the rush and second against the pass; the Packers were first against the pass and 16th against the run.
By now, we all know how this works; guys like Tom Brady and Drew Brees give the Steelers’ D more trouble than traditional down-the-field offenses like the Raiders, Bengals or Jets. I’m guessing Rodgers falls into the former category; even though he’ll occasionally hold the ball, he gets it out quickly, too. I re-watched the 2009 Packers-Steelers game and one thing that immediately struck me was that Pittsburgh blitzed on virtually every down. And despite the pressure, Rodgers often got the ball out on time, and more importantly, was accurate.
(Worth noting: there was no Troy Polamalu in that game — or Bryant McFadden. Just healthy doses of Joe Burnett, Deshea Townsend, Tyrone Carter and William Gay. Make of that what you will.)
This season, both pass defenses are top-5 against opposing offense’s Nos. 1-2 receivers. The Packers are also top-5 against No. 3 receivers (Pittsburgh ranks 18th), less effective against tight ends (22nd; Steelers are fifth), but top-5 against pass-catching running backs (Pittsburgh’s 15th).
When it comes to blitzing, again, not much difference (see blue numbers in the table below). The Steelers had 48 sacks in 2010, good for an adjusted sack rate of 8.3; the Packers had 47 sacks and an 8.2 adjusted sack rate.
But things diverge when you compare the rush defenses.
Most of the talk this week will be about the passing games. But this could very easily come down to old-school Steelers football: run, run, and run some more, and hope the defense can hold up.
Losing Maurkice Pouncey doesn’t make this any easier, but even after he went down in the AFC Championship game, the Steelers’ offensive line had its best run-blocking performance of the year. Timing, as they say, is everything.