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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
AccuScore: Defense gives Steelers edge

By Stephen Oh
AccuScore

In 10,000 simulated games the Pittsburgh Steelers won 68.9 percent of simulations over the Arizona Cardinals by an average score of 27-20. AccuScore simulations have pinpointed the key reasons Pittsburgh is favored and what it will take for Arizona to pull off the upset.

Keys for a Pittsburgh victory

Pittsburgh's pass pressure limits "Warner to Fitzgerald"
The Eagles' defense is good and showed in the second half of the NFC Championship Game that you can blitz Kurt Warner and largely shut down the Cardinals' offense. The Steelers' defense is much better than the Eagles' defense. The Eagles allowed 23 or more points seven times this season (regular season and playoffs) and allowed 30 or more three times. The Steelers gave up 24 or more points three times and more than 30 just once.

Unlike Philly, the Steelers' defense can pressure Warner while also stopping the run. The Steelers will learn from Philadelphia's mistakes. They will bring the heat to Warner and force him to dump more passes to his running backs and tight ends to avoid taking vicious hits. Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower are averaging four total receptions per simulation for just six yards per reception against the Steelers. The two had just two catches against Philadelphia as Warner had enough time (in the first half) to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had 43 percent of completed passes against Philadelphia. The Steelers are holding Fitzgerald to 29 percent of Warner's completions. The table below shows that if the offensive line can protect Warner and if Fitzgerald has more than 40 percent of the team's total receptions (37 percent chance), then the Cardinals chances jump to 44 percent (a +13 point boost).

Ben Roethlisberger shows Ken Whisenhunt he can be a prolific passer

Warner has the reputation as the more prolific passer, but Ben Roethlisberger in simulations is actually averaging better numbers.

Warner had a much better statistical season than Roethlisberger in 2008.

However, Roethlisberger had a far more difficult schedule this season. If you rattle off the Steelers' opponents this season (Baltimore twice, Philadelphia, Dallas, Tennessee, New York Giants), you get intimidated as a quarterback. If you rattle off some of Warner's opponents, you get the likes of the 32nd-ranked Seattle Seahawks twice, the 29th-ranked Jets pass defense and the 25th-ranked Dolphins defense.

Roethlisberger's opponent pass defenses had an average ranking of 11.4 versus 17.3 for Warner. For comparison's sake, the 11th-ranked pass defense was New England. The Houston Texans were No. 17. If you had a fantasy QB, would you rather have him face New England or Houston? Roethlisberger played 13 of 16 games against teams ranked in the top 16 against the pass. Warner played just seven games against the top 16. Roethlisberger's average passer rating was higher against the bottom half of the league than Warner's was. While Warner had the higher rating against top-16 opponents, he did not have to play as many games against top-10 defenses (four) as Roethlisberger did (eight).

Warner may have had a much better statistical season, but when Roethlisberger faces the 22nd-ranked Cardinals pass defense and Warner plays against the No. 1-ranked Steelers defense, it should not be surprising to see Roethlisberger's coming out with better stats in simulations.

Arizona's upset formula

It doesn't take a supercomputer simulation to tell you that if Roethlisberger has six turnovers like Jake Delhomme did in the divisional round, the Cardinals have a great chance of winning. Instead of focusing on highly unlikely scenarios, AccuScore has pinpointed three realistic statistical measures that, if all are achieved, would make Arizona the favorite to win.

Can Arizona's secondary continue to pick off opposing QBs at a high rate?
The Cardinals had 13 interceptions in 16 regular season games. They have seven interceptions so far in three playoff games. They have nearly tripled their interception per game rate (0.81 up to 2.33) in the playoffs. Using the AccuScore Custom Game Simulator, you can see how much Roethlisberger interceptions impact the outcome of the game.

It is unlikely that Roethlisberger will have multiple interceptions, but the first step for Arizona's upset is to force a Roethlisberger turnover.

Can Edgerrin James average 3.9 yards per carry?
James has had two games with 73 yards on 16 carries (4.6 ypc), and in three playoff games he has run well (68 yards per game, 3.9 ypc). The Steelers' run defense is one of the best, and James is only forecasted for 44 yards on 14 carries (just 3.1 ypc). In simulations in which James averages 4.6 ypc -- like he has twice in the playoffs -- the Cardinals actually win 50.7 percent of the time. However, there is just a 31 percent chance that James can run this effectively against the Steelers.

More realistically, if James can average at least 3.9 ypc (his overall playoff and regular season average) against the Steelers' run defense, the Cardinals have a considerably better shot (win 41.6 percent). If James averages 3.9 ypc and Roethlisberger has at least one interception, the Cardinals have a 49 percent chance of winning.

Can Kurt Warner avoid taking more than three sacks?
The Steelers had 51 sacks this season (more than three per game). Obviously, with each Warner sack, there are lost yards, a high chance of losing a fumble, increased chance of an injury, etc. If Warner is miraculously untouched and is not sacked, the Cardinals nearly pull even with the Steelers and have a 48 percent chance of winning. More realistically, the Cardinals need to hold the Steelers defense to two sacks or less to minimize the chances of a costly injury or turnover.

With reasonable pass protection for Warner combined with the Cardinals' picking off Roethlisberger at least once and James' having a good rushing performance, the Cardinals actually become the solid 58.8 percent favorite, winning by an average score of 26-23.

The upset formula for Arizona is:

[Roethlisberger 1+ INT] + [James 3.9 YPC] + [Warner <=2 Sacks] =

Cardinals 58.8 percent win, 26-23