Steelers vs Bills: Is the defense worse or can stats explain the stats?


I awoke from a terrible nightmare Saturday evening. I looked at the time and panicked as I realized I’d missed the Steelers preseason game against Buffalo. So naturally I hopped on google and searched for information on how the game went. I found info; I couldn’t believe it and I looked for more, for something different. I scrolled and clicked from tab to tab like a manic Shelley Duvall flipping through Jack Nicholson’s pages in The Shining. The game was a nightmare, but it wasn’t a dream.

I know, a little dramatic. But a lot of reaction has been dramatic. The Steelers defense laid what can only be described as an epic turd on the defensive side of the ball last game. It’s preseason. It’s meaningless. That is what we tell ourselves anyway.

The game is meaningless in the sense that the winner or loser does not impact the record. But in all other senses it is not meaningless. For some players on the bubble it means literally everything. It also to some degree can predict performance. If the regular season is college then the preseason is the SAT’s. It’s not a perfect predictor, but it’s a lot better than random chance.

If a team wins the first half of every preseason game, they’re probably going to be a good team. If they lose the second half, they probably are pretty thin depth-wise. If they can’t score then they probably won’t have the top offense. If the other team can’t then they won’t have the worst defense, it might not be the best, but it’s very unlikely it will be bad.

The Steelers have shown some positive signs. With the exception of the first series last game the offense has had their way with opposing defenses. So it would be very unlikely that their offense would be terrible. They’ve shown a couple of troubling signs too.

First, they often lose the second half. The Steelers are not deep on offense or defense. Outside of inside linebacker and maybe wide receiver, arguably running back or even quarterback now, the Steelers are extremely thin in all ways.

Tomlin afterward said, as reported by, “Some of our young guys who we pushed through this game, quite frankly, who are fighting for jobs, are not executing enough detail to be strongly in consideration, and that’s disappointing. As we push toward the end of this thing, I like to see the arrow pointing up, fighting for jobs, and some of those guys, quite frankly, looking like they’re walking dead. We gotta analyze that, and keep those that are committed to fighting. But some of that stuff was quite disturbing.”

Second, and most obvious yesterday, the defense is not good. The Buffalo Bills came into the contest with a three way quarterback competition. The defense performed so badly that the Bills have no more clarity on the situation than they began with. Let’s talk a bit about just how bad the defense did.

The Bills scored 43 points, had almost 40 minutes in time of possession, and only punted once. That doesn’t really do justice to how awful the defense is. The Bills did whatever they wanted to the Steelers defense, throughout the game, with any and all personnel.

The Bills rushed for 156 yards on 35 carries. That’s a 4.5 yard average, and 3 touchdowns to go with it. When it came to the pass game, the Bills went 30 for 33 for 386 yards. There were no interceptions and 3 touchdowns through the air too. All the quarterbacks combined for a 142.9 passer rating. The Steelers only broke up one pass and that was from a 3rd string defensive end.

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It looked as bad as the stats suggest. The Steelers missed multiple tackles, often diving dramatically through the air only to barely brush the jersey of the ball carrier. The secondary was tripping all over the field like they were playing on ice. The defense parted like the black and gold sea for opposing running backs and players were constantly out of position.

If the quarterback could throw the ball past the line of scrimmage then it was pretty much a guaranteed catch, and not because we were giving up short passes in some type of LeBeauesque strategy but any and all passes. A defense cannot rely on bad passes and drops.

Many have stated that with how good the offense is, if the defense can even improve to mediocre the Steelers could be Super Bowl favorites. Well the offense might be worse with Pouncey’s injury and the suspensions we’re dealing with, at least short term. But the defense might actually be worse this year than last year.

It was clear to everyone that if this defense can do a little more then we could be in the big one. All offseason everyone was aware of that. With Ben’s age the time is now, we’ve got 4 to 5 years tops with the Super Bowl being fairly attainable with the current line-up.

And here we are looking at a defense that might be worse. If things do not improve this will be far more disappointing for Colbert and Tomlin than those 8-8 seasons.

Those seasons were understandable. Those were transitional years. This may still be a transitional phase but the pendulum swung up for a season and a half, for it to swing back down so quickly would be a profound let down.

There is one thing however that makes the predictive power of the pitiful defensive performance against the Bills less reliable, or less reliable than normal circumstances: the change to the Cover-2.

That is the one thing I’ve been clinging to for the past couple days, learning curve, learning curve, learning curve. At a certain point, all variations of the learning curve get steeper, they’re exponential. Let’s assume it is an S-curve. An S-curve is expressed as S(t)=1/(1+e-t).

What does that mean? It means if learning is on the x axis and experience is on the y axis then it will be low and flat at first, rising very little on the x-axis, then rise rapidly, and then level off again.

What does that mean? It means when learning something new, you will suck at first. Then things will start to click. You’ll get a series of eureka moments that will build on one another, one forming the base for the next. It starts to snowball until you pretty much get it. Then it’ll level off. You’ll pick up something more here and there but you’ll be competent and capable once it levels off.

So looking through the stats of Saturday’s game there is not much to be happy about. Not much positive. However, ironically, stats might actually make the stats less alarming or dire.

Tomlin also said, “We better get better, and get solid in a hurry.” But, we might. Social science suggests we will, or can at least help us not panic right now.

If this is a case of learning, of experience, then it was actually positive to do so awful. It is as important to know what’s wrong as it is to know what is right. Our only hope is that we reach the steep part of the curve before the season starts. But there’s hope Steeler nation, there’s hope.

Next: Another Steelers preseason loss: What they're saying

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