Week 1 Advanced Stats and Michael Thomas Reaction
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Well, folks, Monday Night Football is here. There are two games on Monday night in Week 1, with the marquee matchup being the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the New York Giants in the early contest. Ben Roethlisberger makes his return to the field after missing most of last season with an elbow injury, while the Giants will finally have their full arsenal of weapons on the field at the same time for Daniel Jones.
The Giants have a tough task ahead of them here. Last season’s Steelers defense was one of the best in football, ranking third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and points allowed per drive. The Steelers tied for first in yards allowed per play, and they forced a turnover on an incredible 19 percent of their opponents’ possessions. All that despite facing opponents who had the fifth-best average starting field position in the NFL.
While the Steelers are unlikely to repeat that ridiculous turnover rate on the season as a whole, they have a chance to create some against this New York offense. Daniel Jones showed more upside last season than many thought he had entering the 2019 NFL Draft, but he also threw 12 interceptions and fumbled a league-high 18 times, even though he only played in 13 games.
The Pittsburgh pass rush remains devastating, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree coming off the edges and Cameron Heyward pushing the pocket from the inside. The Giants added a new piece to their offensive line with No. 4 overall pick Andrew Thomas, but he’s a rookie playing his first game going up against one of the best pass rushing groups in the league. The Giants will also likely start former Patriots and Cowboys swing tackle Cameron Fleming on the right side of the line, where he’ll have to go up against Watt. That is… not an ideal matchup for him.
Jones, then, seems likely to be under consistent pressure for much of the evening. His athleticism and escapability looks like his best skill, but that’s a club you want to have in your bag to use in case of emergencies — not one you want to have to pull out 42 percent of the time, as he did last year. (Jones was faced on 41.9 percent of his rookie-year dropbacks, the third-highest rate in the league.) Jones’ tendency to put the ball up for grabs also does not work particularly well against the turnover-seeking Pittsburgh secondary, led by Minkah Fitzpatrick.
He’ll likely find it tough to throw on Pittsburgh’s corners even when he does get ample time in the pocket, as well. There were 101 cornerbacks who played at least 250 passing snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Among that group, Steelers starters Joe Haden and Steven Nelson ranked 12th and 17th in passer rating allowed on throws in their direction. Slot man Mike Hilton was also in the top half of the league, at 43rd.
The Steelers typically play Haden on the left, Nelson on the right, and Hilton inside, which means Nelson will see a lot of Darius Slayton (61 percent of his snaps on the offense’s left/defense’s right side last year), Hilton will do battle with Golden Tate (86 percent in the slot), and Haden will work against Sterling Shepard (moves around more than the other guys, but those other rates are super high) for much of the evening. Tight end Evan Engram, meanwhile, will have to try to find room against Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Terrell Edmunds, and Fitzpatrick. The Steelers had the league’s third-best DVOA on throws to tight ends last season. So, precisely none of those matchups is a favorable one for the G-Men.
You might be thinking, well, the Giants should just try to lean on Saquon Barkley and the running game. Perhaps they will (new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett would almost certainly like to), but Pittsburgh’s run defense is just as good as its pass defense. In particular, the 2019 Steelers were excellent at limiting explosive runs, which is the key to Barkley’s success. Pittsburgh ranked first in the NFL in open-field yards per carry allowed last season, per Football Outsiders. Barkley, meanwhile, ranked only 38th out of 45 qualifiers in success rate, after ranking 40th out of 47 as a rookie. He gets most of his production from breaking long runs, breaking 24 runs of 15 yards or more as a rookie and 18 more last year despite playing injured for much of the year.
While the Steelers defense had some unsustainably positive results last season, the offense had the reverse. As we wrote in our story predicting which non-playoff teams from last season could make the postseason this year:
The Steelers scored on only 28.6 percent of their possessions last season, the third-worst rate in the NFL. Of course, that happened with Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline. In four of the previous five seasons, the Steelers ranked inside the top 10 in percentage of possessions that resulted in a score, and they were inside the top five in three of those campaigns. It’s extraordinarily likely that their offense is among the most improved units in the league in 2020 — assuming Roethlisberger can play more than a game and a half.
The Steelers also still have one of the league’s best offensive lines, and their pass-catching corps looks better than it did this time last year. Diontae Johnson took a step forward over the second half of last season, and even James Washington flashed some skills. They also brought in Eric Ebron at tight end, and drafted enormous speedster Chase Claypool in the second round. Roethlisberger has no shortage of options to whom he can throw the ball.
On Monday night, they should be well-positioned for success against a Giants defense that was not up to snuff last year and hemorrhaged defensive backs throughout the offseason. While James Bradberry is now in town after signing a huge contract, DeAndre Baker was cut after his run-ins with the law and second-round pick Xavier McKinney hit injured reserve. The Giants will supplement Bradberry with Corey Ballantine, Isaac Yiadom, and newly-signed free agent Logan Ryan at corner, with Jabrill Peppers and Julian Love at safety. It’s not an inspiring group.
It would be one thing to have a weak secondary and a dynamic pass rush, but that Giants don’t have that. Their best front-seven defenders are at their best against the run. That’s true for all of Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, and Dexter Lawrence. Lorenzo Carter and Markus Golden are not instilling fear in the hearts of opposing offensive lines.
Given the relative weakness of the Giants’ defense both up front and on the back end, the Steelers should be able to protect Roethlisberger for long enough so that JuJu Smith-Schuster has time to do his work in the slot, and so that Johnson, Washington, Claypool, and Ebron can get open down the field. If Ben is well-protected and if his arm is as healthy as he claims it is after last season’s elbow surgery, then he should be able to pick the secondary apart.
James Conner is likely to find slightly tougher sledding against New York’s run defense, which ranked seventh in the league in DVOA last season. The Pittsburgh offensive line is typically able to impose its will on opposing defenses, but with star guard David DeCastro out for this game, that will be considerably more difficult. Still, Conner is a very capable receiver out of the backfield and should have matchup advantages against the Giants’ linebackers if he can draw them into open space. The Giants ranked 24th in DVOA on passes to opposing running backs last season, and while they added Blake Martinez in free agency, Martinez has been vulnerable in coverage throughout his career.
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