I think it is clear that Bryant McFadden was universally welcomed back to Pittsburgh after William Gay had quite a difficult time filling in for him last year. Thousands of fans were ecstatic that the Steelers could get him back for only a fifth round pick. Although, you have to wonder why, a player who played so well for Pittsburgh in a Superbowl campaign, was given away, after only a year, for so cheap.
Personally, I hate seeing players depart from Pittsburgh after having a good year. I do not hold it against them that they wanted to "get that money man", but I still hate seeing them leave. Generally, I will follow their progression with their new club for a few years after leaving. Over the last few years, it was difficult to see Alan Faneca tear it up with multiple Pro Bowls for the Jets, Joey Porter get double digit sacks in Miami, and Plaxico Burress help the Giants topple the undefeated Patriots in the SB. Okay, maybe that last one was not difficult to watch at all, but not having those guys playing for us was. Therefore, when McFadden was yanked away by Pittsburgh West I kept a good eye on him out there. And to put it gently, McFadden had a really awful year. So, after that type of year, why would the Steelers have any interest in Bryant? And why did he have such a horrible year?
Let's dive into it after the jump.
First and foremost, lets think about the style of defense that B-Mac plays. He is not a cover corner that can just shut a player out like Darrelle Revis. So he will not be the guy who stays with a WR throughout his route or be the guy to stay inside the receiver's shoes down field. No, he is a physical corner that likes to hit. His strengths are re-routing receivers and tackling in the open field. This is quite evident when you see that the career completion percentage against him is 60.9%. Last year the league average was around 61% and I would say a good comp% is 55 and under (about 40 DBs under that mark last year). Conversely, look at his YAC/Rec, which is absurdly low at 4.5, and consider that he has only missed 6 tackles in his professional career. To put a reference on how silly both of those numbers are, contemplate that Revis's YAC/Rec was over 10 last year and consider that no other CB, that was targeted over 100 times last year, had less than 5 missed tackles to B-Mac's 3. To conclude, McFadden is a sure-tackling, physical DB who is dependent on a good pass rush to force the QB to throw sooner.
Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals run a 3-4 defense. It is important to note that the Whiz brought the 3-4 to the desert and has attempted to model his defense after Pittsburgh's defense. However, they do not run exactly the same system, primarily because Arizona does not have Dick LeBeau's brilliant mind. Therefore, I initially presumed that B-Mac struggled so much on his new team because of a bad pass rush. In 2008, the Steelers had a God-like 51 sacks and 91 QB hits, numbers that could make any CB's job easier by keeping the QB off his game. However, when I looked up the 2009 Cardinal's numbers I found that they had 43 sacks and 77 QB hits, good for the 6th best QB pressuring team in the league. I believe we can safely conclude that it was not a lack of pass rush that hampered his game.
All statistics can be misleading if you do not consider how those numbers were accumulated. In my hypothesis, I believe that B-Mac's deficient year can be accredited to two differences between the Steelers defense and the Cardinals defense. First of all, lets take a look at who was racking up all of those sacks for both teams. In 2008, these Steelers had 2 or more sacks: James Harrison (16), LaMarr Woodley (11.5), Aaron Smith (5.5), Lawrence Timmons (5), James Farrior (3.5), and Travis Kirschke (2). In 2009, Cardinals with 2 or more sacks included Calais Campbell (7), Darnell Dockett (7), Bertrand Berry (6), Clark Haggans (5), Chike Okeafor (4.5), Kenny Iwebema (2), Will Davis (2), Alan Branch (2), and Adrian Wilson (2). If we group all of the sacks together we can see that the Steelers had 38.5 sacks from LBs (specifically 27.5 from their OLBs) and 11.5 from their defensive line. Comparatively, the Cards had 12.5 sacks from LBs and 26 sacks from their DL.
That shows quite a difference in where each team is expecting their sacks to come from. The Steelers depend on their fast OLBs to get around the edge and hit the Quarterback as quickly as possible. On the other side, the Cardinals want their defensive line to push its way through the OL and collapse the pocket around the quarterback. How does this affect the play of a CB? Well, there is no way I can prove this, but I believe an OLB can get to the QB a lot faster than a DL. The faster the defender gets to the QB the less time the WR has to break free from the CB and get down field. Ergo, McFadden thrived when the Steelers OLBs got to the QB quickly and struggled with the more methodical pocket-collapsing Arizona defense.
My second belief is that it appears that the Cardinals do not run a zone blitz or that they do not run a zone blitz as creative as the Steelers. I saw an interview with Peyton Manning once, I believe it was right before that epic playoff game in 2005, where he stated that he hated playing the Steelers defense. He explained that when he played them he always had to take an extra second or so to read the blitz and make a throw. He explained that LeBeau hid his blitzes so well that it made his job harder. Before a play starts, a good QB can pick out parts of the field that may be open based on what the average defense is presenting. However, since a zone-blitz disguises who will blitz and who will drop back a QB really has no idea where the soft spots in the zone will be. The QB has to take that extra split second to decide post snap where those spots are, which gives a blitz more time to get there. Clearly, any CB, specifically a weaker cover-corner like McFadden, would benefit greatly from the LeBeau zone blitz.
We are happy to have McFadden back in the black and gold, and I am sure he is just as happy to be back. Here is to hoping he has a better year back in our system...or at least a better year than William Gay had.