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Six Points... on the start of the playoffs

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This week's Six Points looks ahead at the playoffs, instead of back at the Browns. Find out why the loss of Mendenhall might not be the team's most significant, why the Steelers have struggled on the road, and why those struggles might not matter this Sunday.

One rule of thumb when judging the impact of an injury: trust the locals. That is, to say, local fans and media. When reports surfaced that Rashard Mendenhall had indeed suffered an ACL tear and would be placed on IR, it was cited as a “big blow” on ESPN. In numerous playoff previews this week, national writers have cited the loss of Mendenhall as a major reason why the Steelers could stumble in this year’s postseason.

It was the same mentality that surrounded the team before the 2010 season, when right tackle Willie Colon has his season end in minicamps. National media made it out to be the last straw for a team that was already without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games. ESPN’s John Clayton, in an interview I did with him prior to that year’s draft, even referred to Colon as a “one of the better right tackles in the league.”

Yet, in Pittsburgh, it was ho-hum. Colon was out. Flozell went in. No one noticed and the team went to the Super Bowl.

The same sort of divide is taking shape this year. The national media is over-emphasizing the loss of Mendenhall, while the locals are A-OK with putting Redman in the starter’s role. I’ve personally been on the side of numerous fans (and some media) that have preferred the tough, rumbling style of Redman to the dancing, inconsistent Mendenhall.

Is Mendenhall the more complete back? Sure. He has the size-speed combination that allows him to be a total package: a physical back that has the speed to turn a broken tackle into a long run. He’s a strong blocker and he catches well out of the backfield.

However, he hasn’t fulfilled his potential in the four seasons he has been here. Supporters will point to his 2010 campaign, when Mendenhall racked up 1273 yards and 13 TDs. In reality, that season was more a product of opportunity than production – Rashard toted the ball 324 times that season, fourth-most in the league.

Football Outsiders had Mendenhall ranked 22nd in total value in 2010 and 26th in value on a per-play basis. That put him behind two players selected in the second round of his 2008 draft – Matt Forte (20th/20th) and Ray Rice (11th/19th) – and one player drafted in the third round – Jamaal Charles, who ranked first in total and per-play value. It should also be noted that five undrafted backs rated higher than Mendenhall.

I, myself, thought that the Steelers might miss the big-play threat Mendenhall provided when the injury first occurred, but then I looked at the numbers and realized that it was only a “threat” and not a reality. The fact is, Isaac Redman has as many 20+ yard runs (three) as Mendenhall, despite receiving half as many carries.

Of course, there’s a chance that Mendenhall’s potential isn’t being realized due to the state of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. There are some that say he could explode behind a better line or in an offense better suited to his skill-set (New England).

With that in mind, though, that makes Redman all the more valuable. His skill-set is best suited for this offensive line and this offense. Redman’s hit-the-hole mentality is perfect for the Steelers. He understands that tough-yards come first and big plays come second, because he realizes he’s not Barry Sanders.

Outside of simple runs, he has improved mightily this season as a blocker and a receiver, which is why he easily slid into the third-down back’s role when Mewelde Moore went down.

Simply put, the loss of Rashard Mendenhall isn’t as big of a deal as the national media will have you believe – much like the loss of Willie Colon back in 2010. Redman will hop in and do just fine.

Besides, Mendenhall’s injury might not be as important as two other losses - those two being rookie CB Cortez Allen and FS Ryan Clark. Mike Tomlin determined that Allen would be “questionable at best” against Denver, while Clark would be held out for health reasons.

Both players would have been key cogs against the Denver offense; Allen, because he’s adept at man-to-man coverage (something that has rattled Tim Tebow of late); and Clark, because he’s a forceful hitter and run defender who can both slow down Willie McGahee and make Tebow think twice about using his legs to make plays.

The long-term outlook for both is good as it stands today. Allen could be back for the second round, which would most likely be a rematch against the Patriots. Last time around, he spent much of the game shadowing TE Rob Gronkowski. Clark has no health issues outside of Denver, and will be 100% for the second round, whoever it is.

However, the loss of Allen, should he suffer a setback, would leave the team awfully thin at cornerback after Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Keenan Lewis. The first man up for Denver will be Bryant McFadden, who has been buried on the depth chart all season for a reason. He didn’t look too sharp in limited action in Cleveland.

While that would be fine against the offensively-limited Tim Tebow, it could spell disaster against a more potent team like New England.

There’s something wrong with this team away from home.  The Steelers’ difference in play may not be as dramatic as that of the Ravens, who were undefeated at home but .500 on the road, but their performance away from Heinz Field is still a legitimate concern.

At home, the Steelers have only one loss: a three-point defeat at the hands of the Ravens in week 9. In the other seven games – all wins – Pittsburgh played a close game (17-13 over Jacksonville), two games that weren’t as close as they looked (25-17 over New England, 14-3 over Cleveland), and a handful of blowouts (24-0 over Seattle, 38-17 over Tennessee, 35-7 over Cincinnati, 27-0 over St. Louis).

All told, the Steelers average 25.0 points per game offensively, while allowing just 10.0 ppg defensively. Pittsburgh outscored its eight opponents by 120 points inside the friendly confines of Heinz Field.

On the road, the Steelers were 5-3 with losses to three playoff teams – one close loss to Houston, two bad losses to Baltimore and San Francisco. Other than that, Pittsburgh has one close win over a playoff team (24-17 over Cincinnati) and a handful of close wins over sub-.500 clubs (23-20 over Indianapolis, 32-20 over Arizona, and a pair of 13-9 wins over Kansas City and Cleveland.)

In opposing stadiums, the Steelers offense averages 15.6 ppg, nearly a 10-point drop from their performance at home. Defensively, Pittsburgh’s ppg rises to 18.4, over a touchdown higher than at Heinz Field. In eight games on the road, Pittsburgh has been outscored by 22 total points.

Offensively, Pittsburgh is grinding out about 40 more yards at home then they are on the road. They’re also giving up more sacks in opposing stadiums. That’s not a surprise, as most teams generally suffer some sort of offensive decline away from home. Even with their road number (353.5 yards per game), the Steelers’ offense would still rank in the top half of the league.

On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh’s pass rush has done little on the road. In Heinz Field, the Steelers posted 28 sacks in eight games and finished every home game with at least three sacks. On the road, the Steelers produced seven sacks and failed to register a takedown in three of their eight games.

Yardage-wise, Pittsburgh is giving up about 40 yards more per game on the road than at home, strikingly similar to the decline felt by the offense. Even if we were to wipe out the home games and just use the ypg average from the eight road games, Pittsburgh would still rank third in total defense.

In reality, the problem is turnovers. When you read that statement, your mind might jump to the defense, which slumped through most of the season with an absurdly low number of turnovers.

One problem: the Steelers actually had more takeaways on the road (nine) than at home (six).

Offensively, there’s a startling difference. At home, the Steelers turned the ball over eight times in eight games – or a turnover per game. On the road, they turned it over 20 times. That’s an extra turnover and a half away from home.

What’s more, over half of those turnovers were of the damaging variety. One was returned for a touchdown. Another ten of them led to points on the following drive (3 TDs, 7 FGs). Excessive turnovers in Pittsburgh territory helped pad the scoreboard offensively in important battles against Baltimore and San Francisco. A handful of others prevented Pittsburgh from adding to its own point totals.

While there’s no excuse for the low sack totals by the Steelers defense on the road, they’re still limiting the opposing offense to the best of their abilities.

Unfortunately, turnovers committed by the offense are putting the defense in a slew of bad positions, forced to defend the end zone against offenses starting in Pittsburgh territory. Hell, if the Steelers defense hasn’t stepped up as much as it has, some of those stops and FG’s could have turned into touchdowns – which would have likely turned the Steelers from a 5-3 road team to a 3-5 team or worse.

Fortunately, Denver’s offense is as bad at home as Pittsburgh’s is on the road. My biggest critique of Tebow’s performance with the Broncos is that a team just can’t win on a regular basis – or in the playoffs – with an offense that peaks around 17 points per game (unless the team’s defense is as good as the 2000 Ravens or ‘85 Bears).

Since Tebow took over in week 7, he’s led the Broncos to an average of 18.5 points per game, which is bottom-ten in the league.

Of course, that point total isn’t entirely accurate, as it includes touchdowns scored by the Broncos defense and special teams. If we remove those points (there were three such occurrences), Tebow’s offensive production falls to 16.5 points per game.

It gets better (for the Steelers, but not the Broncos).

In his five home games as a starter, Tebow and the offense are averaging an anemic 13.2 ppg. Again, removing defensive scores (there was one at home), that production drops to 11.8 ppg. For perspective, the league’s worst offense (St. Louis) is averaging 11.1 ppg (after removing D/ST scores).

I think Kevin McAllister from Home Alone said it best: “Woof.”

To conclude this week’s Six Points, here’s a six-pack of Steelers to watch out for this weekend:
RB John Clay – Redman may be the starter, but Clay is likely in line for his fair share of carries. With Redman just being thrust into a starter’s role, his stamina will no doubt be tested, especially with the team playing in the mile-high air of Denver. Isaac is going to need a breather, and it will be Clay that takes advantage when he does.

NT Casey Hampton The Big Snack will need to be on his game against the Broncos. The best way to beat a mobile passer is to bring pressure right in his face. If Hampton can consistently push his way through the middle of the Broncos line, Tebow will get rattled.

FS Ryan Mundy – Mundy will step in for Ryan Clark, who will be acting as a mentor for the duration of the playoff game. Mundy’s improvement has led to him being featured in the team’s “big-nickel” packages, where the team uses a safety (Mundy) instead of a cornerback as the nickel defender. He doesn’t hit as hard as Clark, but he’s sound in coverage and is a willing tackler.

LB Lawrence Timmons – If the Steelers decide to put a “spy” defender on Tebow – which wouldn’t happen all time – Timmons is likely their guy. He’s fast enough to keep pace with Tebow, and strong enough to take the big quarterback down one-on-one in the open field.

QB Ben Roethlisberger – He apparently suffered a setback with his ankle in week 17, which is a problem because he hasn’t looked like himself since the injury. How hurt is he and how bad will that injury affect the overall offense?

SS Troy Polamalu – He’s a big-time player and he’s healthy for this year’s playoffs. Don’t expect a postseason flameout like in 2010 (when he was playing injured). 

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