Football, the Metagame, and Why You'll See #7 Soon

One common term in discussion of gaming strategy is "the metagame." Metagaming involves the use of external information to make internal strategic decisions. Sometimes, this involves knowledge of your specific opponent. You might notice, for example, that your chess opponent has played the same opening moves in every game you’ve played together. One metagame strategy you might employ would be to select an opening which would anticipate this opening and counter it early.

Discussions of the metagame get more interesting when you consider not just one opponent, but an entire gaming community. Here, you’re not just making moves that counter one person’s tendencies, but you’re considering the tendencies of the entire community.

Football offers more opportunity for metagaming than chess because football more fully involves both strategy and tactics. Without diving into a picky distinction between these two terms, I’ll just say this: football, unlike chess, involves important strategic decisions that have to occur well in advance of the actual game. In fact, many of these decisions occur before an entire season’s worth of games, and have a profound affect all of those games.

In this article, I’m going to make some claims about football’s current metagame, and use those observations to argue that the Steelers are positioning themselves for a large amount of success in the next few years.

This morning on ESPN radio, I heard one of the Mikes ("Mike and Mike in the Morning") say that "the running back position in this league is evaporating." This observation is as good a starting point as any when describing the current state of football. I’m tired of hearing that it’s a quarterback league, but it’s hard to argue. But why? We can point to rule changes over the last few decades, but that doesn’t really account for changes in the last few years. That doesn’t explain why the league had three 5000 yard passers in 2011.

Rather, you have to look at the way teams played defense. Teams like the Steelers built up their defenses with a "stop the run first" mentality. This was a metagame decision – to counter power run games, they developed a massive, hard to move nose tackle, and bruising, tough, run-stuffing linebackers. They dared teams to try and beat them through the air, counting on incompletions and interceptions to limit their opponent’s effectiveness.

As we saw in 2010 against the Packers, this strategy, like all strategies, has a weakness that other teams could exploit. Teams with a highly accurate passer can focus on high-percentage passes to counter defenses like the Steelers’. With tall, athletic pass-catching tight ends, teams can count on yards after the catch to keep them moving quickly down the field. To my mind, this strategy explains a lot of the Patriots’ signing moves recently. They locked up Gonzalez and Hernandez until 2019, but have let a lot of traditional wide-outs pass quickly in and out of their roster.

Look around the league, and you’ll see a lot of teams trying to imitate this system. This is the current metagame, the tendencies of the teams in the league.

As I said, however, every strategy has its weakness. Looking at the Steelers’ drafting and roster choices in the last few years, I think the Steelers’ current metagame strategy has the potential to surprise a lot of their opponents in the next few years.

Let’s start with the defense. What’s the best way for a defense to stop the Brees-Brady type offense? There are several important pieces. You want tall, athletic corners who can surprise a team by joining in on the occasional pass rush. You want an unpredictable ballhawk for a safety. For your linebackers, size isn’t as important as the ability to rush the passer and limit the yards that tight ends can get after the catch. Your linemen have many of the same responsibilities – the running game hasn’t disappeared from the game, after all – but they also need to contribute to the pass rush and get their hands up in the air.

With this logic, some of the Steelers’ moves make sense. It helps explain why the Steelers are comfortable developing Chris Carter at OLB, even though he isn’t a big man. It explains the importance of the development of Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, and why they’re all tall and athletic. It helps explain why the Steelers drafted Sean Spence, a player not noted for his size, but for his abilities in coverage. If I’m right about this strategy, expect any safety or linebacker the Steelers draft in the near future to have shown more aptitude for stopping tight ends than for stopping a big, bruising running back.

Now consider the offense. This is the perfect time for the Steelers to be reinvigorating their running game by investing in the offensive line. One of the best ways to defeat Drew Breeses (Brees’s? Breezes?) of the world is to keep them off the field. Nothing accomplishes this quite like an effective, methodical run game that chews up the clock.

This is why I think the Steelers are setting themselves up for a lot of success in the near future. Their metagame decisions reveal a team that’s not only trying to account for the flavor-of-the-month offense, but is also planning an offense that will power through the defenses that are being installed around the league. If the Steelers are as ahead of the curve as I think they are, Steeler Nation could be seeing a lot of success in the next few years. I won’t make extravagant promises about this year, as I think there are a few more pieces for the Steelers to put into place. But it won’t take long.

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