Former Clemson LB Leroy Hill talks about his first year in the NFL and playing in the Super Bowl…
Aaron Schatz: Well, Seattle has no offensive weaknesses whatsoever. Seriously – that’s why they’re here. They have a great offensive line, great fullback, great running back, great quarterback, great receivers. (Joe) Jurevicius was the best third receiver in our rankings. (D.J.) Hackett was the #1 receiver with fewer than fifty catches. Jerramy Stevens is finally meeting his potential, and if you need a blocking tight end, you have Ryan Hannam. So, there are no offensive weaknesses.
The problem is that Pittsburgh’s defense is obviously super-strong and balanced as well. If Pittsburgh has defensive weaknesses, it may be that their secondary is not as good as we think – but it’s not that big a deal because the front seven is so good. The defensive line – you know that defensive linemen in a 3-4 do not get stats, but those guys are really good. (Pittsburgh DE) Aaron Smith had eight sacks in 2004, which is unheard of for a lineman in a 3-4 defense.
The biggest thing here is that the Pittsburgh passing game is playing so well, and Roethlisberger is so talented, and he’s getting so many yards per attempt. The secondary is Seattle’s weakness – they’ve been playing better of late, certainly in the playoffs, but that’s still clearly the team’s weakness. That’s the battle that will decide the game. I think that Seattle will be able to get their points, but not as many as they’re used to from the Pittsburgh defense. So, it comes down to whether Roethlisberger can pass enough on the Seattle defense to win a shootout.
Strangely enough, a low-scoring game favors Seattle, because their running game is better, and they’ll do a better job of running out the clock. Pittsburgh likes to get a lead and run out the clock – they run better with a lead. They gain more yards per carry with a lead. You take the quality of their running game away from them if you keep it close through the fourth quarter.
.NET: The thing I’ve noticed from Seattle’s defensive perspective is that in the Washington and Carolina playoff games, Seattle was able to get pressure with four, and sometimes three – which meant that Lofa Tatupu could use his reading ability back into zone, Seattle could run their various zone cover schemes, and that made their defense infinitely more effective. I think this was the secret behind the secondary’s improvement. How do you see them being able to do that against Pittsburgh?
Aaron Schatz: This offensive line is better than Washington’s or Carolina’s. Nobody’s 43 years old – nobody played for the St. Louis Cardinals on this offensive line (laughs). Pittsburgh’s line has been sort of inconsistent this year – part of that was that they had a rookie (Trai Essex) playing left tackle some of the time when Marvel Smith was injured, but Marvel Smith is healthy now. And (guard Alan) Faneca, despite being a Pro Bowler…I saw some games this year where he was just getting run over, but a lot of the time, that’s when he had Essex playing next to him. So, while I think he was inconsistent, he’s obviously played well in the playoffs.
This is not the offensive line that Seattle has faced in their last couple of games. This is one of the better offensive lines in football. Not as good as Seattle’s offensive line, or Denver’s…but then again, Denver’s right tackle got smashed last game, so maybe they’re not as good as we think!
.NET: So, Seattle may be looking at a situation where they have to bring Leroy Hill, or Lofa Tatupu, or Marquand Manuel?
Aaron Schatz: If they want to get pressure, I think they’re going to have to. But Seattle doesn’t blitz quite as much as other teams – they’re not going to go insane with seven guys at the line, or anything like that. If they do that, they are screwed, because Roethlisberger will find the open man.
.NET: Who might take this Super Bowl by surprise?
Aaron Schatz: Ned Macey did a good article, which people will find on FoxSports.com, about possible unsung heroes. Heath Miller, the tight end for the Steelers, because of the fact that Seattle will have to cover a lot of guys, and Miller’s been breakout in the second half of the year. (Seattle fullback) Mack Strong is not only an awesome blocker, but he can get some yards as a receiver. The blocking aspect, by the way, is another important reason that Seattle should be able to score points against Pittsburgh. Teams started to neutralize the Pittsburgh blitz by leaving guys in a max protect (blocking scheme).
Indianapolis forgot to do that, and Denver did it with their worst blockers – guys like Tatum Bell and (Roc) Alexander. If Seattle has Ryan Hannam blocking or even Jerramy Stevens, and if they’ve got Mack Strong staying back to block and pick up blitzes, they’ll be better off than Indy and Denver had been against Pittsburgh.
.NET: Why is Seattle so vulnerable to larger tight ends?
Aaron Schatz: I think it just goes back to the fact that the secondary is the weakness. It’s hard to cover everybody when they all go out (on pass patterns). Leroy Hill has not been as good against the pass as he has against the run. Tatupu is great against both, but Leroy Hill is much better against the run.
.NET: Okay, Aaron…it’s time for the bazillion-dollar question: Who do you think will take home the Lombardi Trophy, and why?
Aaron Schatz: Yeah…I’ve been bouncing back and forth because I hate picking games. I have to for the New York Sun and for FoxSports.com. I was going to go with Pittsburgh for a long time, thinking that Roethlisberger was more likely to keep up the third-down conversion rate than Seattle’s secondary was to play as well as they’ve been playing. I’ve changed my mind in the last couple of days, just thinking about all the different things Seattle can do on offense. I do think (Seattle will) score a good amount of points. Roethlisberger is so out of his gourd on third down that even if he’s still great, he’ll have to come back to earth somewhat.
I ended up picking Seattle by 3 points for Fox, but I really think it’s a toss-up. This is the first game I think is a toss-up since I started doing this. I started doing my numbers in late 2002, before Football Outsiders existed, and I thought Tampa Bay was going to destroy Oakland. I thought the Patriots were much better than Carolina, and I thought the Patriots were going to destroy Philly far more than they actually did. This is the first time it’s a toss-up for me, so I hope I’m not getting a bunch of e-mails saying, “Ha ha, you picked Seattle”, because I think there’s a 52% chance Seattle will win, but somebody’s got to be the slight favorite...
.NET: You’re gong to get a bunch of e-mails either way…you know that (laughs).
Aaron Schatz: (laughs) No kidding!
.NET: Some people have been using the “No Respect” angle, comparing Seattle to the 2001 New England Patriots. Since you’re a Patriots follower, I would like you to pop this bubble, please.
Aaron Schatz: No…WAY. This Seattle team is absolutely not…the 2001 New England Patriots were a flukey team. Obviously great coaching, great clutch play and a lot of luck, built with a lot of veteran free-agent pickup guys who really played far above their abilities. I think their Super Bowl win over St. Louis was the greatest fluke in NFL history, more than Super Bowl III with Namath. The Patriots were so good when they won their next two Super Bowls, it’s hard to explain to people that the first Patriots team was really a fluke, with the older veterans and such. And I say this as a Patriots fan…that night was one of the greatest nights of my life.
Seattle has been building up to this for a long time. They have so much talent at so many positions, it’s not like they went out and picked up a bunch of bargain-basement free agents. They went out and picked up a couple who helped the front seven, but they’ve also done it with rookies and with Grant Wistrom being healthy. Wistrom was not exactly bargain-basement – he was a big name free-agent pickup who just happened to be injured in his first year (with Seattle). This is not at all a 2001 Patriots situation.
.NET: So…(jokingly)…Seattle actually deserves to be here?
Aaron Schatz: (laughs) Well, New England deserved to be there, too! I mean, if you win the games, you deserve to be there. Nobody wants to be the best…you want to be the champion. If you’re the third- or fourth-best team and you’ve lucked you way into the Super Bowl? Believe me, you’d rather have that than being at home thinking you have better numbers than anybody else.
That being said, Seattle was the best team in the NFC this year. They were one of the best teams in football, and they have been for the last couple of years. Last year was a down year, so people thought they were headed into a ditch. A lot of teams who are having a string of good years will have a down year in the middle where they have some injuries and some bad luck. That’s what happened to Seattle last year - it’s just that Seattle’s division was so bad that they managed to win it during their down year.
Last year for Seattle was sort of like Pittsburgh in 2003 (when the Steelers finished 6-10). The next year, they came back and finished 15-1, and everyone said, “Oh – we thought Pittsburgh was on the decline!”
.NET: What does Aaron Schatz do in the off-season? Once this game is over, and you sleep for a month…
Aaron Schatz: I have to write this speech I’m giving in New York, and then I’m coming home and shutting off my brain for a week and a half. Then, we start writing Pro Football Prospectus 2006. Everyone’s already started on their research essays, and we’re going to get in stores two weeks earlier this year to help people with their fantasy drafts in mid-July.
I have a lot of ideas for improving our stats, and I hope I’ll get to a lot of them – I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to run into a time crunch again, but hopefully we’ll have some of those improvements in the book. There’s an upgraded version of DVOA, and some stuff with penalties – we’re doing a lot of research into penalties. One of the early things seem to indicate that penalties are evenly the fault of the penalized team, the other team, and the (officiating) crew, because some crews call more penalties than others.
I’m going to improve the fantasy projection system so they’re better than last year…and then, we’ll write a big book, and it will be out in mid-July – Pro Football Prospectus 2006.
.NET: It sounds like a must-read. Aaron, thank you very much once again for your time.
Editor's Note - Many thanks to Associate Editor Scott Eklund for his help in transcribing this interview.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aaron Schatz is the Editor-in-Chief of FootballOutsiders.com, Lead Writer and Statistician for the “Football Prospectus” annual volume, and an NFL analyst for FoxSports.com. He has also written for the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Globe, The New Republic Online and Slate, and has done custom research for NFL.com and a number of NFL teams. Before creating Football Outsiders, he spent three years tracking search trends online for the internet column, “The Lycos 50”. He has a B.A. in economics from Brown University and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathryn, and daughter, Mirinae.