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An example of advanced statistics missing the forest for the trees

A Football Outsiders article comes to a valid conclusion for all the wrong reasons. Suggesting the Steelers run defense sagged in 2013 is fair, but blaming the nose tackle for that exclusively is myopic.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Cian Fahey of Football Outsiders (and a variety of other sites) penned a piece telling us what we "know" about Dick LeBeau's defense. Cameron Heyward is the only "viable" option on the Steelers' defensive line. Ziggy Hood should only be retained if he is to compete for a back-up role.

Apparently the nose tackle is the most important position in that defense, and everything the Steelers do is predicated on stopping the run.

That's why the nose tackle has been on the field for less than half the Steelers' defensive snaps over the last five years.

The article tears Steve McLendon apart, and through the process of elimination, assigns him blame for the Steelers' dip in advanced statistics - defensive DVOA in particular. Writes Fahey, "The Steelers ranked 20th in defensive DVOA last season. It was the first time in five years that they weren't ranked in the top 10 in either pass or rush DVOA. A major reason for this is the drop-off in quality on the defensive line."

One who actually watched the Steelers play over the last two years could argue the defensive line was better in 2013 than it was in 2012, and those same Steelers-familiar analysts could come close to letting a chuckle slip over the idea Casey Hampton in 2012 was better than McLendon in 2013.

One thing the helicopter analysts like Fahey always want to overlook, for as quick as they are to tell us what they know about LeBeau's defense, is the fact two rookies started at two critical positions - inside and outside linebacker. No rookie started in LeBeau's defense during the entire five-year stretch of time the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in pass or rush DVOA.

And no rookie has started for his defense since he took over in 2004, but two of them did in 2013. I'd be curious to hear the response if one posed the notion that perhaps inexperience at the linebacker position contributed to their sagging defensive totals more than the nose tackle, who was rarely on the field for the big runs the team allowed in 2013.

One might even argue the inside linebacker position manned by Vince Williams for a large chunk of 2013 is actually the most important position on the field, and in the past, it's been on the field all three downs.

One characteristic of LeBeau's defense in 2013 which isn't pointed out by advanced statistics - therefore, unknown and discarded by freelance hacks - is the fact he resorted to having his strong safety play alongside the mack inside linebacker for much of the season.

The nose tackle, for those who understand the zero technique position, occupies blockers, thus not allowing them to leave the line of scrimmage and engage linebackers on the second level. When those linebackers cannot get to the line of scrimmage to engage the ball carrier, yards can and will be gained.

The absence of James Harrison hurt the team's run defense comparatively speaking, and the inclusion of Williams and rookie Jarvis Jones limited the team's explosion. While McLendon wasn't Hampton in his prime, and nose tackle may be a position the team would like to address this offseason, the lack of an experienced buck inside linebacker, playing Troy Polamalu out of position and inconsistent play from its defensive ends were all bigger problems than the nose tackle was.

And if you watched this team play and from that, learned what LeBeau's defense is, you wouldn't miss the defensive forest for the nose tackle trees.