- Aaron Schatz
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Each week, Football Outsiders takes a look at every game on the NFL schedule with a mix of interesting numbers and in-depth statistical analysis. Much of the analysis is based on DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every single play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent. DVOA and Football Outsiders' other advanced stats are explained here. Unless listed otherwise, all rankings are of league-wide DVOA.
Some of this data, such as formations, blitzes and play-action tendencies, comes from the Football Outsiders game charting project. Please be aware this data is unofficial, although all Arizona and Pittsburgh games have been fully charted.
Super Bowl XLIII
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals, Sunday 6:28 p.m. ET
Three weeks ago, I noted that Carolina ranked first in the league running in short-yardage situations, but also first in the percentage of their rushing yards that came more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. When I wrote that, I said that no team since at least 1997 had done this on either offense or defense. After a couple of late-season statistical fixes, that's no longer true -- because the Pittsburgh Steelers accomplished the same two-fer on defense this season. The Steelers allowed only four runs over 15 yards all season, while the average team allowed 19 such runs.
During the regular season, the Cardinals had the best third-quarter offense in the NFL, while the Steelers had the best third-quarter defense in the NFL. (This is true according to both total points and our advanced DVOA ratings.) The difference between these teams came in the first half. Pittsburgh's defensive DVOA in the first half of games ranked second in the NFL. Arizona's offensive DVOA in the first half ranked 20th. Even if we remove the Week 13-16 period when the Cardinals suffered three huge losses, their offensive DVOA in the first half would still rank just 15th. This actually might be the biggest change for Arizona's offense in the playoffs -- they suddenly have been starting games hot, instead of finishing them hot. During the regular season, the Cardinals averaged 6.0 yards per play in both halves. In the playoffs, the Cardinals have averaged 7.7 yards per play in the first half and 4.0 yards per play in the second half.
Arizona averaged 17.2 yards per pass on deep passes, those that went more than 15 yards through the air (not counting passes intentionally thrown away). That was the highest figure in the league. However, the Pittsburgh defense was the league's best against deep passes, allowing 8.5 yards per pass. The Steelers were especially good against passes to the deep left, which is where cornerback Ike Taylor is usually stationed. Only six of 25 deep left passes were completed during the regular season by Pittsburgh opponents, for an average of 6.8 yards. That's generally the side where you will find Larry Fitzgerald. However, Fitzgerald also runs a lot of routes that have him crossing into the deep middle of the field, and Ike Taylor isn't so great covering those types of routes. We have Taylor listed as the defender on six deep middle passes -- including two by San Diego in the Divisional round -- and five of those six were complete for a total of 127 yards. (Note: Obviously, we're talking about a really small sample size here, so judge things accordingly.)
There's a lot of talk about each team's strengths, but one of the most intriguing matchups in the Super Bowl comes in which each team is weakest: special teams. When Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a touchdown against San Diego in the divisional round, it was Pittsburgh's first special teams return touchdown of the year. Combining kickoff and punt returns, our numbers estimate that poor returns cost the Steelers 19.7 points worth of field position compared to a team with average returns. However, the Arizona coverage teams were also the worst in the league, allowing a combined 22 points worth of field position compared to the NFL average.
Aaron Schatz is president of Football Outsiders Inc. and the lead author of "Pro Football Prospectus 2008," on sale online and in bookstores.
Championship Weekend: Numbers Crunching