Where is Troy Polamalu and what is going on with the Steelers' pass defense?
Many years ago, baseball analysts realized the importance of statistical analysis and developed sabermetrics. While your eyes can tell you some things, can you really see the difference between a .260 hitter and a .300 hitter? The season is 26 weeks long. If a player gets 25 at-bats a week, that is 650 at bats for the year. One hit every two weeks is the difference. A bloop single here, a bad hop there, and we're talking about the difference between making $2 million and $10 million a year. Unless you see a player every day, it can be difficult to discern such things. Statistics provide some of the details that clarify the picture.
Football is different. The game doesn't revolve around one individual matchup, pitcher vs. batter, the way baseball does. Football is the ultimate team game. Certainly there are one-on-one matchups that take place all over the field, but those matchups are augmented by schemes and formations. On offense, statistics tell us something about quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, but might not tell the whole story. Sunday night Ben Roethlisberger threw for 387 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers 39-26 loss to the New England Patriots. While superficially impressive, anyone who watched the game knows how meaningless those numbers are. Roethlisberger piled them up when the outcome of the game was already decided. They look nice, but had no impact on the game.
Defensive statistics are even less refined. Sacks, tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries provide some insight, but different schemes require different players to do different things. If Aaron Smith can occupy two offensive linemen, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are free to wreak havoc. Smith's numbers don't show up in the box score, but his contribution is obviously essential to the defense's success.
But team statistics do tell a story, and combined with Troy's total lack of impact plays, the conclusion is obvious. Troy Polamalu has disappeared and the Steelers defense can't stop the pass as a result. The perennial All-Pro and heart of the defense had an interception in each of the first two games but hasn't had one since. He was credited with one pass defensed in each of the first two weeks but none since. He hasn't recorded a sack, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble yet this year. A Steelers defense that didn't give up more than 17 points in any of the first five games has given up 20 or more in each of the last four and the pass defense has dropped to 26th in the league, giving up more than 250 yards per game.
Troy himself said he had a terrible game against the Saints and expected to play much better the following week in Cincinnati. Against the Bengals, Pittsburgh jumped out to a comfortable 27-7 lead. But during the second half the Bengals moved the ball virtually at will against a defense that rolled safety coverage toward Chad Ochocinco and allowed Terrell Owens to run free out of the slot against William Gay. Polamalu and Ryan Clark were nowhere to be seen as Carson Palmer drove them down the field three different times, the last ending the game when a pass was dropped on the Steelers five-yard line with less than two minutes to go.
This past Sunday Tom Brady threw on the Steelers at will. Brady carved up a secondary that again had no answer for a big receiver, in this case tight end Rob Gronkowski, running out of the slot. Brady threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns, all to Gronkowski, and the game was over in the third quarter. Receivers ran down the middle of the field uncovered all game.
Throughout his career Troy has been a star. He is the guy who makes game-changing plays ever week--the incredible interception against the Falcons in Week 1 or the great leap over the line of scrimmage to stop the Titans late in Week 2. That guy has disappeared. And like last year when his season-ending injury lead to the collapse of the Steelers pass defense, his disappearance is killing the team. Certainly the sub-standard play of Gay, Clark and Bryant McFadden has also contributed. But Troy is the key. If he doesn't improve the Steelers are again going to struggle down the stretch to make the playoffs.