Behind the Steel Curtain Interviews Pro Football Focus C.O.O. Khaled Elsayed about Early-Season Developments Across NFL

Pro Football Focus C.O.O. Khaled Elsayed agreed to an email interview exclusively with BTSC writer Neal Coolong. Elsayed and the PFF Staff compile play-by-play statistical analysis of each game, and provides some excellent insight into the success and failure of players at every position. Although some of the site is premium content (you have to pay for it), there are still free portions of it. 

The site has become one of the most popular NFL-related web sites, and is a must-read for the serious football fan. Check out the interview after the jump. 

BTSC: Let's start off briefly talking about the Steelers/Seahawks game. I remember telling friends at the bar PFF's grade for Seahawks CB Brandon Browner would be the lowest I've ever seen for a cornerback. -5.9 in pass coverage is particularly bad. Mike Wallace can do that to people though. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is quick to call Wallace a "one trick pony," probably in efforts to keep Wallace and the media grounded about how good he is. I tend to agree with Tomlin, I don't see Wallace as a pure No. 1 receiver in the sense he doesn't run all routes at all distances quite yet. Where do you think Wallace sits among the elite receivers in the game?

KE: I'd most certainly have him in the conversation of being in the elite receivers in the game - he's too much of a weapon not to. What he does, and how the Steelers use, him is extremely hard to deal with. You have to respect the possibility of him going deep on every play. But if you respect that too much he'll pick up easy chunks of yardage on comeback routes all day long. You're kind of damned if you, damned if you don't when it comes to how to cover Wallace. We'll probably see more of that this year, and it's interesting to note he's only been targeted on a ball thrown further than 20 yards once this year so far.

So he'd be firmly in my top ten because of what he offers.

BTSC: I really liked your piece from Sept. 22, "Race for Rookie of the Year." It's interesting to see rookies compared across both sides of the ball.

What stands out to me so far this season is the amount of rookies playing at a high level. Obviously, Cam Newton is playing great football right now, and so is Bengals QB Andy Dalton. Dalton's success is being bolstered by A.J. Green, which I'm not at all surprised about, but Denarius Moore is right there with him in terms of productive rookie WRs. I figured Cleveland DT Phil Taylor would be an impact guy right away, but so his his teammate, DE Jabal Sheard. Surprising to Steelers fans, Maurkice isn't the best Pouncey brother right now.

Considering the lockout, I don't think anyone expected so many rookies to be playing at such a high level. Do you think that's because 2011 will end up being one of the better drafts top to bottom in recent memory, or are veterans actually the ones affected by the time away from the team this off-season?

KE: It is peculiar when one class of rookies can come in and seem more NFL ready than last years. Especially with the lockout. I couldn't put my finger on why but this year we've just had some talents who have come in to the NFL and the adjustment period has been near enough instantaneous. Some of it is down to the skill sets of the players involved. You mentioned Newton and Green, and they have the kind of ability that can make up for those typical rookie errors you see. Others, like Von Miller in Denver, just look that good. While you can't evaluate an NFL draft class until a few years down the line, the kind of impact these rookies have made suggests to me the talent may just be a bit more NFL ready.

BTSC: I had ESPN on while working yesterday, and I don't know which analyst it was, but he completely dismissed Buffalo as having any kind of shot at beating New England this weekend, because, "the Bills are still the Bills."

I absolutely hate that kind of analysis. Not only is it not true, unfunny and ignorant, it cuts into one of the better storylines so far in 2011. Pro Football Focus has the Bills scored very highly after two games. Yesterday only served as a reminder to me why I don't watch ESPN for anything other than background noise, so I'll ask you, what are your thoughts on the Bills so far, and while it probably isn't likely, would a win over the Patriots make the Bills a legit team to beat in the AFC?

KE: I like the Bills. I liked them last year a lot more than most. You'll remember how close they came to upsetting the Steelers, and they gave the Ravens a real good run for their money. They've quietly gone about giving their HC time to mould things into what he wants and they're starting to reap the benefits. Good running game spearheaded by a guy who is probably the most underrated/ underpaid back in the league, Fred Jackson. He's a great every down type running back - does everything so well. Even the defense is getting performances out of players like Chris Kelsay that I really never saw coming from him. Definitely a team on an upward trend.

That said it's too much to ask of their defense (nearly any defense) to slow down the Patriots offense. It's not that the ‘Bills are the Bills', but rather the ‘Patriots are the Patriots'. Tom Brady was playing with a point to prove last year - after that defeat to the Jets, he seems to be more determined than ever to destroy the competition. They've added some pressure up the middle and off the edge. So I don't think the Bills will win, but they will score some points, and could seriously pose a threat to the playoff spots if they keep playing the way they are.

BTSC: Last thought on the Bills...with the exception of the Steelers game last year (which they essentially beat Pittsburgh but didn't get the win), their most talked-about games are always shoot-outs. The Patriots need to worry about stopping Buffalo from scoring, because they are comfortable in coming back from three TD deficits, and beating them 38-35 in the last two minutes. I think this game will show the true colors of the Patriots defense. If they are who everyone says they are, they'll make stops in the second half, and not count on idiot plays by Mike Tolbert to let their offense win it for them down the stretch.

Let's dip into the NFC a little bit. Philadelphia spent a lot of money trying to Packer-proof their defense. While Aaron Rodgers is playing very well, what's impressed me (and PFF as well, it seems) is their offensive line. I don't see a high level of natural skill in James Starks, yet, he's one of the most productive backs play-for-play in the league. If the NFC Championship game everyone expects does take place - Eagles at Packers - I think the Packers win by dominating up front more than just having Rodgers throw 45 times. Thoughts?

KE: What we saw against Atlanta from Philadephia was some pretty sizeable holes for Michael Turner to run through. They have a defense that is built to get up field and by it's nature is very boom or bust (especially given the standard of linebacker play). So it's all well and good trying to get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, and having a set of defensive backs who can match up with the Packers receivers, but you're forgetting how good the Packers can be when they run the ball. Josh Sitton earned every penny of his new deal, and Scott Wells has made a tremendous start to the year. It's not often you'll see someone move Shaun Rogers the way he did in week one. Even T.J. Lang has settled in very nicely which makes it right now, the best interior line in the league. Given how they could dominate, and the troubles the Eagles had with the tight end in week two, it would be hard to see them stopping the Packers if they were to meet in the post season. But we're a long way from that. Right now I wouldn't put the Eagles down as one of the best two teams in the NFC.

BTSC: To you, then, who are the two best teams in the NFC? Who are the best in the AFC, and where do the Steelers fit in?

It's the Packers and the Saints. I just think when the Saints get going they'll be hard to stop. Offensively they're missing Colston and a healthy Lance Moore yet moving the ball well. Drew Brees is primed for a big year, and Pierre Thomas looks healthy. If he can stay healthy that could be a huge difference maker. The Saints were essentially a missed field goal away from the #1 seed in the NFC last year, so they deserve more press because they didn't stand still like a lot of teams - they got better.

In the AFC I almost typed the Patriots and Colts, as a force of habit. Obviously it won't be Indianapolis this year, but New England have to be the team to beat at this moment. After that I'm quite high on the Houston Texans, but it will probably be Monday before I stick or twist on that. I want to see what they can do against a very good offensive team before I say they could be legit. Their offense is certainly good enough, and they may have the best offensive line in the league right now. But I need to see that defense tested. If they falter then I'm kissing some backside here and saying the Steelers. So they had a shocker against the Ravens, this team didn't get bad overnight. They got back on track against Seattle and will get better the healthier James Harrison gets, and upon Big Ben finding his rhythm completely. You can't under estimate how important a winning culture is for a team, and the Steelers are maybe the team when it comes to knowing how to win.

You can follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled and PFF at @ProFootbalFocus

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