The casual fan might look at the box score from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 34-16 preseason victory over the Atlanta Falcons and assume that Matt Ryan owned the Black & Gold's pass defense -- one of the most disrespected defensive backfields in the league.
However, a more discerning eye reveals that even though Ryan was on pace for almost 450 passing yards in the contest before he was pulled at halftime, his performance was all volume, no efficiency.
Two-hundred and twenty passing yards in one half is nice, sure, but Ryan completed only 52.4 percent of his 42 passes for a measly 5.24 yards per attempt. (Just to put that into perspective, the San Diego Chargers, who had last season's most efficient passing attack, averaged 7.76 yards per attempt on the year; Pittsburgh averaged 6.90, despite going without starter Ben Roethlisberger for four games.)
Ryan played a bad game, and you shouldn't be concerned about the Steelers pass defense just because of a preseason volume performance from the fourth-year signal caller.
After a three-week stretch last season that saw dubious quarterbacks like the-rookie Colt McCoy and Chad Henne author some efficient passing performances against Pittsburgh, I cautioned fans to recognize a crucial difference between passing defense and rushing defense:
Now, if the Steelers couldn't stop the run, I might be singing a different tune. Think about what can go wrong when you run the ball. Your back could fumble or you could lose, what, three or four yards on a busted attempt? By contrast, the downside on any given pass is COMPLETE AND UTTER DISASTER.
The frequency of interceptions per pass attempt is much higher than that of fumbles lost per rushing attempt, and such turnovers can happen through fluky means - a ball tipped at the line, a botched route by a young receiver - that are mostly beyond the control of the quarterback. Sacks, for their part, result in more lost yardage and more fumbles than failed runs, and they subject the centerpiece of your franchise to a physical beating.
Sure, passing plays gain more yards than plays on the ground, but that comes at a price, as they have comparatively enormous downside, too. So all things being equal, would you rather have a defense that ranks 25th against the pass and first against the run, like the Steelers, or a team that ranks, say, seventh against the pass and 28th against the run? Or how about a defense that ranks 26th against the run and fourth against the pass? What about 32nd against the run and 6th against the pass?
If it makes your decision any easier - it probably shouldn't have to, but hey - the second defense is that of the Indianapolis Colts. The other two belong to the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills, respectively. The Colts have long won in spite oftheir defense, not because of it, while the other two are systematically losing franchises. After all, passing defensive rankings can often be an indication of circumstance, but rushing defensive ranks are often an indication of deficiency.
And like I said, Ryan wasn't even efficient on Saturday night. What's more, that COMPLETE AND UTTER DISASTER I referenced last year did in fact transpire on Saturday night when Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons nearly took a tipped pass to the house (video). Several other plays nearly resulted in sacks, as Pittsburgh's pass rush was in midseason form, and Ryan nearly lost a fumble on a 16-yard scramble. That's what happens when you simply can't run against a defense. (Falcons starter Michael Turner averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in the first half.)
Forcing Ryan into inefficiency becomes all the more impressive when you consider the injuries to Pittsburgh's cornerbacks.
So don't be that casual fan, okay? Take a deep breath.
Just like last year, you can rack up a bunch of passing yards on the Steelers defense -- and they'll probably beat you anyway.