I'll focus on our nation's capitol. The division-leading Pittsburgh Steelers will be in Washington DC on "election eve" to play their third NFC East opponent. They intend to break a trend. Losses in their other two NFC East games, to the Giants and Eagles, have left a sour taste in their in their mouths.
Each of these previous matchups has been a "knock down, drag out" type of physical game that are so often a lot of fun to watch. This game is likely to be no different.
The Steelers were beat in both games with their own brand of football. Strong, pressure defense, and make just enough plays offensively to support that side of the ball.
The Eagles sacked "Big Ben" Roethlisberger eight times, and the Giants got to him five times. Even more notable, to me, though, is that the Steelers didn't get as much as a "whiff" of Giants quarterback Eli Manning, while they did get to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb for three sacks. Notable because the Steelers average almost 4.5 sacks against every other team they have played.
The Giants are the third best team in the NFL in sacks allowed, with a less-than-one-per-game average. The Eagles are 11th, with less than two sacks allowed per game. The Redskins average two sacks per game, good for only 16th in the NFL.
The Steelers boast the league's top-ranked defense: No. 1 in pass defense , No. 3 in rush defense, and tied for No. 3 in points per game allowed. The Giants and Eagles were able to exceed those averages in passing yardage, but only the Giants achieved more in points and rushing.
Does any of this tell us anything?
Not really. We can compare stats all we want, but this is the NFL, and the game isn't played on a stat sheet. What stats can do for us is show trends, to some extent.
But the only trend I count on is what teams do, not necessarily the numbers as a result.
The Steelers are very aggressive at the point of attack. Employing a 3-4 defensive scheme and led by Defensive Guru Dick LeBeau, the Steelers use more speed at linebacker than most 3-4 defenses. They load the proverbial "box" on every play. What they do with the linebackers is what makes them difficult to decipher.
Casey Hampton clogs up the middle as well as any nose guard in the NFL. Add to that his ability to split double teams, and he must be accounted for on every play. This creates opportunity for the linebackers to attack the offensive backfield, resulting in sacks and hits on the running backs behind the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers' leading sackers are linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley both have eight sacks. The next one in line is also a linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, with three. The only lineman with any sacks at all is end Aaron Smith,, with two. See a trend here?
Interestingly, all this pressure hasn't helped them with turnovers much, with only six interceptions, one has to wonder if the sacks might have as much to do with the quarterbacks they have faced as it does with just how well they rush the quarterback. I would also note that the Steelers send at least five rushers on a large majority of plays.
This is as much "run blitzing" as anything, but the fact remains that the Steelers are not afraid; they will commit many bodies at the line of scrimmage.
The Redskins' defense happens to be playing pretty well, too. Currently ranked sixth overall, 11th against the pass and against the run, the Redskins do things a bit differently. The Redskins' defense is ranked 28th in sacks, averaging just over ONE per game. While they rank just behind the Steelers in turnovers, the Redskins' defense isn't based on pressuring the quarterback in the same way.
The Redskins don't blitz often, and when they do, they rarely arrive before the ball is thrown. The Redskins have achieved their goals by playing sound at the line of scrimmage with their front seven, excellent coverage from their defensive secondary, and good tackling. Yards after contact are hard to come by against the Redskins.
So what can either team do offensively to make enough plays to win? The MILLION DOLLAR question.
The answer won't be known for sure until they play the game, but it's likely to be one the many intangibles within football that is so difficult to quantify.
Roethlisberger has made a living of making big plays by extending the play with broken tackles and an amazing ability to find an open receiver downfield, with adept movement in and around the pocket. He has also been prone to mistakes from this as well, throwing four interceptions last week.
Redskins' quarterback Jason Campbell has been remarkably stingy with the ball all season. Yet to throw an interception (the only starting QB without at least two INTs who has also thrown at least 65 passes), Campbell has taken a request from Redskins' Head Coach Jim Zorn to heart.
Zorn has said publicly that all he asks of his quarterback is: "No matter how bad the play is, just give me the chance to call another play." And Campbell has done just that.
Converting nearly 40 percent of their third downs, the Redskins have been able to consistently win the time of possession battle. This has added up to fourth-quarter domination, with defenses waring down, Clinton Portis, the league's leading rusher, has been able to keep drives alive in the fourth quarter with deadly ease.
The Steelers have been able to maintain offensive balance, averaging just over 27 attempts per game in both rushing AND passing. Success has been the issue. The Steelers are only 17th in passer rating at 87.6. Averaging under four yards per carry, the running game hasn't been up to par either. What they do well is obvious though, make big plays with "Big Ben"'s arm.
The Redskins on the other hand, have the second-highest-rated quarterback in the NFL and average nearly five yards per carry.
This sounds an awful lot like a low scoring, hard-hitting game; testing each team's toughness, with the last team standing getting the win.
Sounds good to me. In fact, it sounds a lot like just another NFC East game. Maybe the Rooney's should petition the league office to change their divisional alignment. The Steelers would fit in well with the Giants, Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles. And we all get to see two more great games every year.
So, on Monday Night Football, the Steelers and Redskins will surely come out swinging. Who can take the shots best wins, and it should be 60 minutes of the best football of the Week Nine.
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