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An Injury Comparison of the 2011 Steelers and the 2010 Packers, Part 2: Defense

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"The Standard is the Standard."

Mike Tomlin's frequently-invoked statement expresses his belief that you don't make excuses for less-than-optimal performances. And this is admirable, but perhaps not entirely realistic. I think that there is probably a tipping point for injuries beyond which a team can no longer function at a consistently high level, and I believe that the Steelers had reached this point by the Wild Card game in Denver, if not before.

Some have raised the objection that the 2010 Packers sustained multiple injuries and yet not only performed at a high level but won the Super Bowl. I believe that there are reasons for the different outcomes between these two teams. In these two posts I have attempted to defend the position that although the 2010 Packers had a significant number of injuries, including 15 players on IR by the end of the regular season, the 2011 Steelers sustained more damaging injuries, although the total number of games players missed due to injury was somewhat lower.

The first post deals with the offense, and can be found here. I proved, at least to my own satisfaction, that the Steelers had not only a larger number of injuries to offensive players, but that the injured players were more critical in most cases to the team. (If you read that post and felt that I didn't prove anything, because it inexplicably broke off in the middle of a table, please check it out, because I fixed the mysterious problem that randomly excised about half the post, including most of the analysis.)

Here is what I found when I compared the defenses:

The starting defense for the Packers was as follows. (Please pardon the confusion in defensive linebacker positions—the NFL Gamebook noted some of the positions differently at the beginning and end of the season.) Starters are in bold:

GB Roster,
Week 1
Missed to
Injury Status,
Super Bowl/
GB Roster,
Super Bowl
NT B. J. Raji 0
NT B. J. Raji
RDE Cullen Jenkins 5 RDE Cullen Jenkins
0 Off waivers 10/10 RDE Howard Green
LDE Ryan Pickett 2 LDE Ryan Pickett
0 Rookie, started in Week 2 DE C. J. Wilson
DE Justin Harrell 15 Placed on IR 9/13 N/A
DE Mike Neal 14 Placed on IR 10/25 N/A
DE C. J. Wilson 1

LOLB Clay Matthews 1 LOLB Clay Matthews
ROLB Brad Jones 10 Placed on IR 10/27 ROLB Brad Jones
ROLB Frank Zombo 3 Q/PLAYED ROLB Frank Zombo
LILB A. J. Hawk 0 P/PLAYED LILB A. J. Hawk
RILB Desmond Bishop 1 Q/PLAYED RILB Desmond Bishop
BLB Brandon Chillar 8 Placed on IR 11/30 N/A
MLB Nick Barnett 12 Placed on IR 10/15 N/A
LB Eric Walden 0 Q/OUT N/A
LB Brady Poppinga 10 Placed on IR 10/25 N/A
LCB Charles Woodson 0 Injured at end of 1st half, OUT LCB Charles Woodson
RCB Tramon Williams 0
RCB Tramon Williams
CB Sam Shields 2 CB Sam Shields
CB Pat Lee 4
CB Pat Lee
CB Jarrett Bush 0 long-time Packer CB Jarrett Bush
CB Josh Bell 16 Placed on IR 8/10 CB Josh Bell
SS Morgan Burnett 12 Placed on IR 10/7 N/A
FS Nick Collins 0 FS Nick Collins
S Charlie Peprah 2
S Charlie Peprah
S Derrick Martin 11 Placed on IR 10/10 N/A

Total Games Missed 129

Added to GB Roster After Week 1
Missed to
Injury Status,
Super Bowl/
GB Roster,
Super Bowl
DE Jarius Wynn 0 Signed after Week 1 DE Jarius Wynn
LB Robert Francois 0 Signed off PS LB Robert Francois
LB Diyral Briggs 0 Off waivers 10/10 LB Diyral Briggs
LB Matt Wilhelm 0 Off waivers 10/10 LB Matt Wilhelm
FS Anthony Smith 6 Signed mid-season, placed on IR 12/18 N/A
S Atari Bigby 0 S Atari Bigby
Total Games Missed 6

Total Defense Games Missed 135

The 2010 Packers defense went through quite an upheaval. But I think one could make the case that their three best players, B. J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and CB Charles Woodson played the whole season. (Woodson, named a starter to the 2011 Pro Bowl, was injured late in the second half during the Super Bowl and did not return.)

Of the week one starters, the injury that occurred at the latest point in the season was to Brad Chillar at the end of November. All of the other Week 1 starters that were lost for the season to injury were IR'd prior to November. They were replaced by players that had been on the active roster for Week 1, with the exception of DE C. J. Wilson, who started in Week 2. So all of the players that were injury replacements saw considerable time as a starter prior to the post-season.

Of the 10 defensive players that were placed on IR, (15 players total were IR'd in 2010) seven of them are no longer Green Bay Packers. Four of the IR'd players were Week 1 starters, and two of them returned in 2011.

So now let's look at the 2011 Steelers and see what that looks like.

PIT Roster,
Week 1
Missed to
Injury Status,
Wild Card Game/
PIT Roster,
Wild Card Game
NT Casey Hampton 3 Injured in game, OUT NT Casey Hampton
NT Chris Hoke 10 Placed on IR 12/8 N/A
NT Steve McLendon 0 Took over for injured Casey Hampton NT Steve McLendon
DE Aaron Smith 12 Placed on IR 10/22 N/A
DE Ziggy Hood 0 P/PLAYED DE Ziggy Hood
DE Brett Keisel 2 P/PLAYED (injured during game, OUT) DE Brett Keisel
DE Cameron Heyward 0 Took over for injured Brett Keisel DE Cameron Heyward
DE Al Woods 0 added from PS inactive
DE Miguel Chavis 16 Waived/injured after training camp N/A
LOLB LaMarr Woodley 6 P/PLAYED LOLB LaMarr Woodley
LILB James Farrior 2 LILB James Farrior
RILB Lawrence Timmons 0

RILB Lawrence Timmons
ROLB James Harrison 4 P/PLAYED ROLB James Harrison
LB Jason Worilds 4 LB Jason Worilds
LB Larry Foote 1 LB Larry Foote
LB Stevenson Sylvester 1 LB Stevenson Sylvester
LB Chris Carter 8 Placed on IR 1/4/12 N/A
LB Mortty Ivy 0 (on and off the PS) inactive
LCB Bryant McFadden 3
LCB Bryant McFadden
FS Ryan Clark 0 OUT N/A
SS Troy Polamalu 0 P/PLAYED SS Troy Polamalu
RCB Ike Taylor 0 RCB Ike Taylor
CB William Gay 0 LCB William Gay
CB Keenan Lewis 0 Injured hamstring in Week 17 game CB Keenan Lewis
CB Cortez Allen 1 OUT N/A
CB Curtis Brown 4 Placed on IR 12/23 N/A
S Will Allen 0 S Will Allen
S Tuff Harris [16]

Waived/injured during training camp -

not counted in total

S Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith 0 Activated from practice squad 12/8 S Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith
Total Games Lost to Injury, Defense 77

If we compare these numbers to the 2010 Packers, some interesting differences emerge.

The total number of games missed by Packers defensive players was a good bit higher—a total of 135 games for Green Bay vs. 77 games for the Steelers. But despite the significantly greater number of games missed by Green Bay players, there were factors that I believe made the difference between a team that won the Super Bowl and a wounded squad that limped into the playoffs, literally, and were immediately toast.

The defensive line has always been one of the great strengths of the Steelers, and it really took a hit in 2011. The longtime anchor of the D line, Casey Hampton, struggled with injuries during the season. His replacement, Chris Hoke, who had an astonishing 17-1 win tally when replacing Hampton, was injured as well and was eventually IR'd. This meant that 2nd year UDFA Steve McLendon saw a lot of game time, including having to play almost every snap in the Wild Card game, as Hampton was injured early on and was out for the rest of the game. McLendon is small for a NT, and it showed, as he had some difficulty securing the middle. B. J. Raji was the Packers' 2009 1st round pick, won the starting job in 2010, and played every game. He is considered to be a premiere nose tackle.

The DE position for the Steelers also took a hit as long-time LDE Aaron Smith went down for the second year in a row with a significant injury and was placed on IR. RDE Brett Keisel had a banner year, but was injured during the Wild Card game. The young replacements for the two men, Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward, played well in their absence. The main problem was lack of further depth, meaning that the D line could not be spelled during the Wild Card game. This is not ideal under any circumstances, and particularly not in a high altitude game where the primary defensive strategy was to shut down the run.

The LDE for the 2010 Packers played every game, including the Super Bowl. The RDE missed five games due to injuries, and a backup, Howard Green, was signed off waivers in early October. Green ended up as the starter in the Super Bowl, and had a very significant play, as he hit Ben Roethlisberger's arm as he attempted to complete a pass and forced a fumble that was returned for a TD.

The Steelers have had arguably the best OLB tandem in the NFL for the past few years, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. The two men played very few games together during 2011, a circumstance that could be seen as a large part of the reason that the Steelers had a historically low number of forced fumbles and interceptions, many fewer sacks than usual, and a seriously bad TO/TA ratio of -13 for the season.

Harrison started the season rather slowly, due to the lingering effects of back surgery, but was rounding into classic form by the time he was injured in Week 4, ironically by a helmet-to-helmet hit from an offensive lineman that was neither flagged nor fined. He was then out until after the Steelers' late bye week. Harrison was on the injury report frequently at the end of the season, fighting back and neck problems. He also missed a game due to suspension from, naturally, a helmet-to-helmet hit. He injured a toe in the final season game and was listed as probable for the Wild Card game. He registered three tackles and no sacks during the Wild Card game.

LaMarr Woodley took up the slack in his absence, until a hamstring injury in the Week 8 game vs. New England kept him out most of the rest of the season and appeared to render him ineffective when he did play. Although he was in for part of the games on 12/4 and 12/19 and started the Wild Card game, he never registered a single sack and only 5 total tackles during those three games.

Because of the injuries to Harrison and Woodley, LB Lawrence Timmons had to be pulled from his natural position at ILB and play OLB for most of the season. DC Dick LeBeau felt that Timmons' versatility was one of the reasons that the Steelers were able to continue to field a good defense while struggling with so many injuries. But Timmon's stats in every category were significantly reduced from 2010—about a 33% reduction across the board.

The 2010 Packers once again were luckier. Their best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, played the entire season, and played so well that he was the runner-up to Troy Polamalu for DPOY in 2010. He set a Packers record for most sacks in the post-season (3.5.) Matthews forced a fumble on Rashard Mendenhall during the Super Bowl that was recovered by Green Bay on the GB 33, thus stopping a scoring drive that looked to put the Steelers in the lead. Their other OLB was IR'd in early October, and he was replaced for the remainder of the season with his backup. Both Brad Jones and Frank Zombo were on the 2011 roster, although both were back-ups on the depth chart, at least by the end of the season.

The ILB position was more problematic for the Packers. They lost three ILBs for the season, the latest one not until the end of November. None of the three men played for the Packers in 2011, although two of them signed with other teams, the Rams and the Bills. I suspect that those two, Brad Poppinga and Nick Barnett, were at least partially cap casualties. Their replacements were A. J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. Both are still Packers, and Bishop was the one who recovered the Mendenhall fumble that Clay Matthews forced in the Super Bowl.

ILB was a revolving door as well for the Steelers in 2011, partly because of the problems at OLB which required Timmons to move outside. Although James Farrior had a terrific 2010 season, he was considerably less effective in 2011. I suspect that part of the reason for that was the weakened D line. But one feels it would have helped if, as was apparently the plan, he had been able to rotate with Larry Foote during games. Instead, both had to play. Altnough there was a pair of young LBs, Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester, that were rotated in, Carter missed 8 games and was IR'd eventually. Sylvester has never quite transferred his special teams prowess to the regular defense. Farrior was also injured part of the season, further thinning out the depth chart.

The 2010 Packers also lost several DBs, but the only really significant loss in my opinion was SS Morgan Burnett. All of the season-ending injuries occurred by early October except the one to Anthony Smith, who was signed mid-season in the first place. Again the replacements were on the Week 1 roster.

None of the IR'd DBs except Burnett still plays for the Packers. S Derrick Martin lucked out, because he's back at the Super Bowl this year, on the Giants squad, although he's third on the depth chart at SS. CB Josh Bell was cut by Green Bay and was not signed by anyone else. No one that has been a Steeler fan for any length of time would be willing to view S Anthony Smith as a great loss. He now plays for the Titans.

The DBs for the Steelers were hardier, right up until December, although CB Ike Taylor broke his thumb in training camp and had to play in a cast for the first part of the season. Troy Polamalu was on the injury report for 50% of the season with 5 different injuries, but he actually played at least part of all 17 games.

The first to go was 2011 3rd round draft pick CB Curtis Brown. He was the top special teams tackler and had also rotated into the defense at times. Next was the 2011 4th round draft pick, Cortez Allen. Allen had seen significant time on the defense as well as special teams. CB Keenan Lewis injured his hamstring during the Week 17 game, although he was able to play in the Wild Card game. The team's top tackler, FS Ryan Clark, did not miss a single game until Denver, but was not allowed to play because of his medical issues at high altitude.

If we compare the two defenses overall, we can see that while the Packers lost almost twice as many players for the season, the timing of the injuries was much more favorable. Furthermore, the significance of the injured players was in most cases considerably less.

Looking at the situation both teams found themselves in at the end of the regular season, it isn't all that surprising that the fates of the 2011 Steelers and the 2010 Packers were so different. The 2010 Packers were a team that was rounding into excellent form, and they were relatively healthy by the playoffs. The 2011 Steelers struggled all season long with injuries to significant players. By the playoffs they had numerous and often serious injuries to a majority of their starting players. Late-season injuries had also decimated their depth at most of those positions. In my opinion, in many ways it is more surprising that they ended the season at 12-4 than that they had an early exit in the playoffs.