Is Bruce Arians practicing fuzzy math?

Bruce Arians (Getty Images)

George Bush once accused Al Gore of using fuzzy math in coming up with some of his economic figures and Frank Tursic is wondering if we're seeing the same thing from the Steelers' offensive coordinator.

Fuzzy math doesn't deal with absolutes, but instead applies degrees of truth. When discussing sacks given up during the '08 season, Arians was quick to point out that of the 49 sacks only 19 were attributable to the offensive line. In his world fuzzy math dictates that 49 must indeed equal 19. Can this be true? Any sane person would conclude that trying to pin the remaining 61% of the sacks on the quarterback, receivers, and play calling is talking out the other end of his you know what.

But given that he is the OC and has insight into the play calls, assignments and blocking schemes he should know. Case closed. The question I have then -- do we as fans simply accept this as fact?

This analysis will attempt to determine if Bruce Arians was stating the truth or being disingenuous. For some, no matter what data I present will convince them otherwise. The mere fact it came from the OC is all the justification they need. Just remember, this is the same guy who stated the o-line graded out well after the Eagles debacle. All I'm asking is to have an open mind on this subject and let the data lead us to the conclusions.

To assist me with breaking down the data, I'll turn to JJ Cooper from Fanhouse.com. Cooper does a great job of breaking down and grading the Steelers' OL on a weekly basis. At the end of the year he does an overall summary. No, he's not a coach, but I would consider him an analyst who breaks down all the game tape with a very discerning eye. Using his end of year stats in conjunction with data from Stats LLC, the sacks break down as follows:

 SACKS ALLOWED

PLAYER COOPER STATS LLC FINAL
Chris Kemoeatu 7 7.5 7
Willie Colon 6.5 5.75 6
Justin Hartwig 5 6.5 5
Max Starks 4.5 4 4
Darnell Stapleton 4 5 4
Marvel Smith 3 3.25 3
Mewelde Moore 4.5 N/A 4
Cary Davis 2 N/A 2
Willie Parker 1.5 N/A 1
Play Call/QB 13.5 N/A 13

I adjusted the numbers provided by Cooper and Stats LLC to reach a final sack number that agrees with the 49 sacks surrendered for the year. Broken down by area we have 29 sacks assigned to the OL, 7 to the backs, and 13 to QB/play call which would include Ben holding onto the ball and receivers not reading "hot" or adjusting their routes.

The initial data doesn't support Arians' assertion. However, Cooper breaks down his analysis further to determine if the sack was due to the lineman being physically beaten or the result of an assignment/communication breakdown. Taking this into consideration we now have the following:

PLAYER PHYSICALLY BEATEN ASSIGNMENT ISSUE
Chris Kemoeatu 3 4
Willie Colon 5 1
Justin Hartwig 4 1
Max Starks 3 1
Darnell Stapleton 2 2
Marvel Smith 3 0
Total 20 9

So now the data points to 20 of the sacks being attributed to the OL when they were physically beaten. Hmmm…this looks remarkably close to the number Arians threw out there -- 19. It also seems to agree with the mentality the coaching staff uses in assigning sacks, otherwise how in the world could the OL have graded out so well during the Eagles game when Ben was sacked 9 times. Of course, the answer is they were all due to assignment breakdowns.

Here you see is the real crux of the matter. I'm pretty sure Arians' assessment is based strictly on the times his OL were physically beaten for the sack. However, no position relies on intelligence as much as playing o-line. Physical talent is important, but players must also possess intangibles such as toughness and mental acuity. That's why OL typically score the highest as a group in the Wonderlic test, averaging in the mid-20s or higher. However, in the Steelers case that's not really apparent except for Max Starks (35 Wonderlic). On the other end of the spectrum you have Kemoeatu who scored a 14. It's no wonder then that 4 of his 7 sacks were due to not understanding his assignment while Max is only credited with 1.

IMO sacks due to assignment breakdowns must be allocated to the OL as well. It is the appropriate and correct area to apply them. So, while Arians was generally being truthful, he was not providing the "whole" truth in this case.

I'm also not buying into popular sentiment that allowing the line to gel for another year will help solve their issues, As the saying goes you can't make chicken soup out of chicken ****. You do need a level of talent to work with and the Steelers have not used a premium pick on OL since 2002. People are quick to point to the Giants line as an example of a team that has won a Super Bowl with similar talent. However, if you examine a little closer I'll contend that's not normally the case either.

For this analysis I went back and reviewed the teams with the most regular season wins over the last 3 years and looked at how their 2008 OLs were generally constructed:

TEAM WINS PREMIUM MID LATE/FA
New England 39 2 1 2
Indianapolis 37 2 1 2
San Diego 33 1 2 2
Philadelphia 32 2 2 1
Tennessee 31 2 1 2
Dallas 31 4 0 1
NY Giants 30 1 1 3
Pittsburgh 30 0 2 3

NOTE: Premium=Rounds 1-2; Mid=Rounds 3-4; Late=Rounds 5-7 & Free Agency

It's apparent that successful teams apply more draft value and resources to their OL. Every team except Pittsburgh has at least one premium player on their starting roster. And while the Giants are similar to Pittsburgh, the difference is they have someone like a Chris Snee who was widely regarded as the top guard prospect when he came out in 2004. He's the team leader and glue on their line that possesses a superior level of talent. Pittsburgh meanwhile doesn't have an individual like that on the current roster, and to me that's a huge issue. At one time the Steelers had 3 former #1 picks playing on the interior and now we have 2 - 6th rounders and a FA. That's a huge disparity IMO.

Finally, on the issue of the line improving during the 2nd half of the season I would agree to a certain extent, but any Steelers fan should still have concerns.

The following table includes QB sacks and hits broken down over the first 8 and last 8 games and includes the playoffs.

  QB SACKS QB HITS
1st Half 29 48
2nd Half 20 41
Playoffs 8 14

While sacks did go down during the 2nd half of the season, the totals would still equate to 40 sacks and 82 hits over the course of a full season. The line also regressed during the playoffs, and while a lot of the sacks can be attributed to a single player -- Darnell Stapleton -- his teammates did struggle in pass pro.

PLAYOFF TOTALS

PLAYER SACKS HITS PRESSURES PENALTIES
Max Starks 1 3 2 0
Chris Kemoeatu 0 2 2 3
Justin Hartwig 0 0 4 2
Darnell Stapleton 4 1 3 3
Willie Colon 0 1 4 3

The main area of concern, as I see it, is an inability to protect Ben against top-10 pass rushing teams. In those games Ben was sacked or hit the following:

Eagles – 19 times
Giants – 11 times
Cowboys – 12 times
Titans – 14 times
Ravens – 11 times (9 - 2 other times)

The line can gel all you want, but in games against top competition this team lacks the talent on the line to protect Ben adequately. And those are the type of teams the Steelers will see in the playoffs.

Ben gets hit with such regularity that Arians was even quoted as saying "We don't get caught up with how many times Ben gets hit. If Ben gets hurt, that's a different story…" Tell me there isn't something criminal with those statements.

In summation, drafting a player like Kraig Urbik will help replace one weak link on the line, but they still need to add at least one premium player to the starting roster. Only then will I start to feel more confident in their abilities. Until that happens, I assume we'll be hearing a lot more fuzzy math from Arians during the upcoming season.

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