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Steelers-Bengals pregame stretch...

November 6, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode

Steelers need fast starts

How important is a halftime lead or deficit in determining success of failure in the NFL?

Of course, it depends on the size of your lead or deficit. In general, NFL teams up by 3 points at the half win 68 percent of the time and those up by 7 points at the half win 76 percent of the time. Meanwhile, teams that trail by 3 points at the half win 44 percent of the time and those that trail by 7 points at the half win 36 percent of the time.

Here’s a chart illustrating the exact figures:

But an analysis of the 59 games in which Mike Tomlin has coached the Pittsburgh Steelers shows the halftime score appears to be much more important than in your average NFL game.

During the Tomlin era, the Steelers are:

30-6 when leading at the half, .833 (NFL average .720)

5-1 when tied at the half, .833 (NFL average .500)

4-13 when trailing at the half, .235 (NFL average .390)

So, the Steelers win much more often than the average NFL team when they’re ahead and halftime and lose much more often than the average NFL team when they’re behind at the half.

What could that mean?

We tried to come up with several scenarios of teams that might match those stats, but neither of them seem to exactly fit the Steelers:

+ A running football team that excels at draining the clock with a lead but struggles to catch up when behind? (Why not: The Steelers have been pass happy under Tomlin and OC Bruce Arians.)

+ A run-stuffing defensive team (offenses are much more likely to run in the first half) that can tee off on the quarterback with the lead but sometimes gambles and loses when trying to make up a second-half deficit. (Why not: This fits the Steelers defense of 2008 and 2010, but in 2007 and 2009 the Steelers had a defense that had the reputation of not being able to hold a late lead.)

Then we thought about this:

+ A coaching staff that does an excellent job game planning during the week (resulting in a lot of halftime leads), but has a hard time making adjustments at halftime (resulting in very few second-half comebacks)?

Aha! That makes perfect sense!! Of course, we don’t have anything but anecdotal evidence about the Steelers’ game planning or halftime adjustments, but who are we to let a lack of information get in the way of a good theory?

Which brings us to this: Could the ability to overcome halftime deficits be the difference between the Steelers being good and being great?

In 2008, their last Super Bowl season, the Steelers beat the odds and won 50 percent of the time (three of six games) that they trailed at the half:

2008; Week 16, trailed Titans 7-10, lost 31-14; Week 15, trailed Ravens 6-3, won 13-9; Week 11, trailed Chargers 7-5, won 11-10; Week 8, trailed Giant 9-7, lost 21-14; Week 4, trailed Ravens 13-3, won 23-20; Week 3, trailed Eagles 10-5, lost 15-6.

However, it hasn’t happened since (and it happened only once in 2007, Tomlin’s first season). With last week’s loss to the Saints, Pittsburgh fell to 0-4 in games it has trailed at the half over the past two seasons:

2010: Week 7, trailed Saints 6-3, lost 20-10; Week 4, trailed Ravens 10-7, lost 17-14. 2009: Week 14, trailed Browns 13-3, lost 13-6; Week 12, trailed Ravens 14-7, lost 20-17.

Of course, this is all just an amateur statistician playing with numbers, but it bears watching, right?

Here are all 59 halftime scores from the Tomlin era and final results in reverse chronological order:

2010 season: 3-6 Saints L; 17-16 Dolphins W; 7-3 Browns W; 7-10 Ravens L; 28-6 Bucs W; 13-3 Titans W; 3-3 Falcons W.

2009 season: 17-10 Dolphins W; 20-10 Ravens W; 21-14 Packers W; 3-13 Browns L; 10-6 Raiders L; 7-14 Ravens L; 17-7 Chiefs L; 9-6 Bengals L; 7-3 Broncos W; 10-7 Vikings W; 17-7 Browns W; 21-13 Lions W; 21-0 Chargers W; 13-3 Bengals L; 7-7 Bears L; 7-7 Titans W.

2008 season: 17-7 Cardinals W; 13-7 Ravens W; 14-10 Chargers W; 17-0 Browns W; 7-10 Titans L; 3-6 Ravens W; 3-3 Cowboys W; 10-10 Patriots W; 10-7 Bengals W; 5-7 Chargers W; 17-14 Colts L; 10-6 Redskins W; 7-9 Giants L; 10-7 Bengals W; 20-14 Jaguars W; 3-13 Ravens W; 6-10 Eagles L; 7-0 Browns W; 21-3 Texans W.

2007 season: 7-21 Jaguars L; 7-20 Ravens L; 24-17 Rams W; 7-10 Jaguars L; 13-17 Patriots L; 17-7 Bengals W; 0-0 Dolphins W; 7-13 Jets L; 9-21 Browns W; 35-7 Ravens W; 21-6 Bengals W; 7-21 Broncos L; 7-0 Seahawks W; 7-0 Cardinals L; 14-6 Niners W; 12-0 Bills W; 17-0 Browns W.

Getting’ Ziggy with it

If you’re looking at the tackle or sack totals to judge how Ziggy Hood is doing in the place of Aaron Smith, don’t bother. A 3-4 defensive end is not supposed to make tackles (Smith has averaged 3-4 per game for his career) or record sacks. As one of the most thankless jobs in professional football, a 3-4 end is required to fill gaps, engage blockers and allow the inside linebackers to make the tackles and the outside linebackers to make the sacks. If the opponent is held under 100 yards rushing, Hood is doing his job. If Lawrence Timmons has 15 tackles, Hood is doing his job. If LaMarr Woodley has a multi-sack game, Hood is doing his job.

The pick

Obviously, we’ve got no clue about this Steelers team. Last week, we thought they were going to lose, but picked them to win – and we were right, um, and wrong. This week, we think they’re going to lose and we’re picking them to lose. Yes, we know the Bengals are the Bungles again. Yes, we know Carson Palmer has played so poorly for so long there’s talk that he’ll be released in the offseason. Yes, we know Cincinnati has forgotten their run game. But all bets are off in a divisional game. The Saints were able to shut down the Steelers offense with five safeties in the defensive backfield so the Bengals certainly can with two of the best corners in the game. And the Steelers defense is likely to be even more timid after another round of heavy-handed fines from the NFL and some verbal jawing with the commissioner in the media. We don’t like any of it … Bengals (+5) 28, Steelers 27.

Prediction record

Last week: Pittsburgh +1 INCORRECT

Season straight up: 3-4, .429

Against the spread: 2-5, .286

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