If you watched the Broncos-Steelers playoff game closely this past Sunday (and many of you did – the television ratings were enormous), you noticed that the Steelers made a very deliberate strategic decision on defense. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was willing to risk the possibility that Denver quarterback Tim Tebow would hit his receivers for big plays to keep his safeties in the box to prevent the Broncos’ running game from gaining traction. This strategy slowed the Broncos’ running game down, limiting it to fewer than four yards per carry Sunday after having gained 4.8 yards per play during the regular season. But it also exposed the Steeler cornerbacks and risked the possibility that Tebow would exploit opportunities down the field.
That strategic choice was made for three primary reasons, I think, each of them plausible on its face. The first is obvious – Denver is an excellent rushing team (ranking first in rushing yards per game) and relies on the run more than any other team in the NFL. On the other hand, the Broncos are a weak passing team (ranking 31st out of 32 NFL team in passing yards) and they rely on the pass less than any other team in the league. LeBeau simply decided to focus on stopping what the Broncos do best and are most comfortable doing and try to force them to beat them – if they were going to beat them – by throwing deep, the weakest part of their offense.
Secondly, the Steelers’ pass defense is outstanding. Pittsburgh’s pass defense allowed just 5.6 yards per attempt this season, which was the best in the league by more than half a yard (Houston, which was second at 6.2 yards per attempt, was closer to ninth in the rankings than first). Not a single quarterback before Tebow’s 316 yards on Sunday threw for more than 300 yards against the Steelers all year. The only pass play of more than 45 yards by a Steeler opponent all year was a 73-yard touchdown to Arizona running back LaRod Stephens-Howling on a wheel route – the ball traveled only about ten yards in the air. Nobody beat the Steelers deep this year.
The third reason behind Pittsburgh’s strategy was Tebow’s ongoing problems throwing the ball (he finished 27th out of 33 QBs in passer rating). More specifically, the key weakness in Tebow’s game has been his inability to go through his progressions, make the right read, and then make tight, accurate throws into coverage. He would hesitate (leading John Elway to tell him to “just pull the trigger” in the days leading up to this match-up) and then, when he did make the throw, he had trouble choosing the right target and then hitting his target (he finished last – by a lot – in passing accuracy among NFL quarterbacks).
As everyone in America now should know by now, Pittsburgh’s strategy didn’t work out very well.
On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Denver had possession on its 20 yard line. Tebow tucked the ball in Willis McGahee’s belly like he’d done all afternoon, but this time he pulled the ball back out – faking the zone-read option – and threw an 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas running a simple deep post versus one-on-one outside coverage from cornerback Ike Taylor, who didn’t get help from safety Ryan Mundy because he and the other safety, Troy Polamalu, were “down” (within a mere five yards of the line of scrimmage) and among the nine Steelers in the box expecting a run.
Before the play, the Broncos lined up with a lone running back and two tight ends. They motioned wide-out Eddie Royal into the slot. The Broncos had run the ball on 23 of 24 first down plays in regulation, often preceded by similar pre-snap motion out of the same personnel grouping. The Steelers were sure that the Broncos were going to run but the Broncos crossed them up.
As noted above, the general defensive strategy employed by the Steelers was a plausible one. But was this defensive call in that situation the right one tactically? Decisions like that need to be evaluated based upon the facts and data available at the time and not upon the end result because, as the poet Robert Burns famously put it:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
So was it the right defensive call for that play? Answering that question requires the analysis of three key issues.
The Game to that Point. The Broncos’ approach wasn’t a new one – run the ball consistently and then go play-action at an opportune moment seeking a big play. Once his team lost starting defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to first-half injuries, LeBeau perhaps became more concerned that his front seven could keep stopping the Denver running game, despite general success all-game. He kept bringing extra help into the box, and that extra help was Polamalu and Mundy. Meanwhile, the Broncos continued to pound it on the ground despite Pittsburgh’s refusal to stop stacking the box, a trend that paid-off with unexpected big plays downfield off of play-action against single coverage.
The Denver strategy required that Taylor handle Thomas one-on-one, but 204 yards and a game-winning touchdown later, it should be obvious that there was a problem. Moreover, by stacking the box as frequently as they did, the Steelers did not force Tebow to do the things that he, like many other young passers, has struggled to do: a) go through a progression and make the “smart” throw, b) make tight throws into narrow passing lanes, c) disguise his intentions from the safeties, one of whom (Polamalu) is among the best in football.
The absence of safety Ryan Clark (Mundy was his back-up) was a factor on this play. Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin was right not to dress Clark, who has sickle-cell trait, which makes exertion dangerous for him in high altitude. But Mundy didn’t just charge the line of scrimmage because he felt like it. He was coached to do this when the Steelers read rush, and did so consistently on first down in regulation. The primary alternative was to scheme like the Patriots did in their late-season victory over Denver. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots mostly chose to keep their safeties deep and allow them to react to the play call once they saw a handoff or a dropback.
Even with the injuries, Pittsburgh had the personnel to be successful in Denver, but they did themselves an injustice in choosing to stack the box so frequently, isolating their corners in man coverage and leaving opportunities for big plays downfield. That said, success in that setting doesn’t typically happen against dominant pass defenses like Pittsburgh’s. Consider that there have been 44 playoff games since 1990 featuring a defense that, like the Steelers, ranked first in the league in yards per attempt during the regular season. In those 44 games, the opposing quarterback only managed to muster an average of 6.3 yards per attempt.
Tebow’s 15.0 YPA was more than four yards better than anyone else’s playoff performance against a top-ranked defense and his 11.95 YPA before the game-winning pass was still significantly higher than any other playoff quarterback going against the top-rated pass defense. Tebow’s success to that point in the game throwing the ball (including a 30-yard touchdown to Eddie Royal and two completions of over 50 yards to Thomas, all of which required throws down the field), evidenced the weakness of the Pittsburgh strategy. Not making a tactical adjustment (dropping the safeties as New England had) on account of that success in regulation meant the Steeler season ended prematurely and in failure on the first play from scrimmage in OT.
The Tebow Factor. Tim Tebow’s college exploits and heroics are well-known, but his future as an NFL has been hotly debated, even in Denver and within the Broncos’ organization. Some media reports even claimed that back-up Brady Quinn, who hadn’t played in two years, was likely to play against Pittsburgh. Yet after coming on at halftime of a home game against my San Diego Chargers in the fifth week of the 2011 season and nearly leading the Broncos back from a 16-point deficit, Tebow was 7-4 as a starter in the regular season with six comeback wins late and three overtime wins. Simply put, all Tebow does is win.
Accordingly, despite his obvious weaknesses as a quarterback, and particularly as a passer, added caution by the Steelers was warranted in overtime.
The Specific Situation. In overtime, the typical matrix one might use to evaluate risk and reward is skewed. One mistake can end a season in defeat. Given the nature and size of the risk, especially in light of the limited reward available to Pittsburgh on the play, the Steelers should have been a little less aggressive on defense on that first play of overtime.
It’s clear to me that the Steelers made a strategic error in crafting their defensive game plan. Worse, they made a tactical error by not making adjustments to their defensive schemes on account of Tebow’s success throwing the ball against them in regulation and due to the risks associated with playing overtime. These mistakes, coupled with some exceptional play by Tim Tebow and the Broncos, mean that the Steeler players will be at home this week-end while the Broncos continue their playoff run against the New England Patriots. We shouldn’t expect Bill Belichick to make those same mistakes.
This football geek-speak is interesting to those of us who care about such things, but is there anything it can teach us about investing and financial planning? I think so. Indeed, I think that there are at least five key lessons we can learn in this regard.
- Plan and Plan Well. Both the Steelers and the Broncos crafted their game plans with great care based upon the resources they had available to them. Investors should do the same while recognizing that not all such plans are created equally. The Broncos had (by the nearly unanimous judgment of those “in the know”) fewer resources than the Steelers but won the game anyway, largely on account of a better plan. Investors also need a comprehensive plan if they expect to succeed and it needs to be a good one.
- Execute the Plan. Denver had a superior plan, but the players still needed to execute it and execute it well. Tebow had to hit his receivers when he “took his shots” downfield, for example. That he did so gave the Broncos the opportunity to win in the end. Investors need to continue to execute their plans even when it seems hard to do so. It’s easy to panic and fall prey to our emotions in tough times, to get lazy, or to become short-sighted. Good investors execute their plans carefully all the time.
- Don’t Expect Miracles. Tim Tebow has an amazing record for leading comebacks. Yet the Broncos still executed a well thought-out game plan throughout the contest to try to win the game without heroics. As Denver found out over the last three games of the regular season, late-game miracles are no sure thing. They are wonderful when they happen, but they should not be counted upon. Investors shouldn’t expect miracles either.
- Make Adjustments. As noted above, I don’t think the Steelers’ game plan was as good as it could have been. But even if it was the right strategy overall, their failure to adjust to the situation in overtime turned out to be fatal to their championship hopes this year. Investors need to be ready to make adjustments to their plans in accordance to their circumstances and the challenges they face.
- Manage Risk. The Pittsburgh defense didn’t manage its risks properly. Investors need to if they hope to succeed. If the risks in a given situation are much higher than the potential benefits, that disparity is a recipe for disaster. During the credit crisis, because various risks had not come to fruition and were deemed highly unlikely, the consensus assumed that they wouldn’t – to devastating effect on individuals, institutions and to the world economy. If one’s risks are enormous (losing a playoff game on one play or running out of money in one’s old age, for example), one must protect against those risks or face catastrophe. Playing such aggressive defense in the first quarter bears some risk, but with most of the game still to play, the potential downside is much less catastrophic. In overtime, that same approach meant far higher risks but no greater potential reward. No investor should suffer the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense this past Sunday.