Sunday, May 22, 2011

Statistical Analysis: 2010 Steelers 3rd Downs

Last year, we took a look at how the Steelers performed on 3rd downs. On the whole, it was a bit overwhelming. Here were some highlights from last year's analysis:
  • In 2009 the Steelers were 17th in the league with a 3rd down conversion rate of 39.4%.
  • The Steelers surrendered 23 sacks on 3rd down (11% of all 3rd downs).
  • The Steelers converted 61% of 3rd and 1 running plays.
  • The Steelers only ran twice on 3rd and 2, failing to convert both times.
Now, let's move on to 2010. For starters, let's see how the numbers compare with their counterparts from 2009. For the most part, the Steelers improved in key areas of 3rd down conversions.

If there is a better predictor of team success in the NFL than 3rd down conversions, I challenge you to find it. In 2009 and 2010, 6 of the top 8 teams in the league in 3rd down conversions made the playoffs. The Steelers went from a mediocre 39.4% to 43.1%, good for 6th in the league. This was a marked improvement from 2010, and it would be great to see the Steelers continue this trend. For reference, the Saints were first in the league in 3rd down conversions at 48.8%.

The Steelers protection didn't fare as well on 3rd downs, surrendering 26 sacks (11.8% of all 3rd downs). Of the 4 quarterbacks that took snaps for the Steelers, Roethlisberger was sacked 19 times in 165 3rd downs (11.5%), Batch 4 times in 31 3rd downs (12.9%), Dixon twice in 18 3rd downs (11.1%), and Leftwich once in 5 3rd downs (20%). On the whole, the Steelers surrendered 43 sacks last year, meaning that 60.5% of the Steelers sacks came on 3rd downs. Ouch.

Sticking with the negative results in the data, the Steelers faced a LOT of 3rd and long situations last year. In fact, almost half the time (108 of 221, 49%) the Steelers had 7 or more yards to go on 3rd down. The Steelers did manage to convert a third (36 of 108) of these situations. However, this doesn't make up for the fact that the Steelers were basically forced into passing situations half the time. The Steelers did run 5 times on 3rd and 7+, but none of those were successful. The obvious assumption here would be that these 3rd and 7+ runs came when Ben was not in the game and the Steelers were looking to protect their quarterbacks. Two of the five runs came without Ben at quarterback. One occurred with Dixon and one with Batch at the helm, the other three with Big Ben.

Even though there were more sacks in 2010, the 3rd down turnovers dropped, from 6 interceptions in 2009 to just 2 in 2010. Interestingly, they both happened on 3rd and 4 (One thrown by Ben and Batch each). Ben and Dixon each put the ball on the turf once as well, but those fumbles were included as sacks, so on the whole the Steelers slightly improved from 30 negative plays on 3rd down in 2009 to 28 negative plays in 2010.

The one other somewhat troubling stat that we saw when we looked into this year's data was QB scrambles. The Quarterbacks were definitely not as secure as we would like them to be in the pocket. Ben had 8 scrambles (6 of which he converted into first downs), Batch 4 (1 conversion), Dixon 2 (1 conversion), and Leftwich 1 (did not convert). What makes this significant is that of 181 called passing plays, the line did not hold on 39 (21.5%). Essentially, a Steelers QB was sacked or forced to scramble about once out of every five 3rd down pass attempts.

But it wasn't all gloom and doom for the Steelers 3rd down offense. Yes, they faced a lot of long-yardage situations, but they did do a lot of things better in 2010 than they did in 2009. First and foremost, their short-yardage offense was vastly improved. In '09 the Steelers only converted 61% of 3rd and 1 running plays. In 2010, the Steelers converted 17 of 20 3rd and 1 runs, good for an 85% success rate, a marked improvement from 2009. This was reflected in the run-to-pass ratio as well, as the Steelers only threw the ball twice on 3rd and 1. The biggest difference in 3rd and short was the addition of Isaac Redman to the backfield. "Red Zone" converted on 8 of 10 3rd and 1 attempts. Mendenhall converted 3 of 4, but his miss came on 3rd and goal at the 1 against the Saints when the Steelers could have taken a lead. Moore converted his only 3rd and 1 carry and quarterbacks were perfect on QB sneak attempts (Ben 4, Batch 1).

Additionally, one of the biggest gripes we had with the 2009 data was that the Steelers only ran twice (7%) on 3rd and 2. This changed in 2010 as the Steelers ran on 7 of 24 3rd and 2 situations (30%). Of these 7 runs, only 3 were successful. Isaac Redman was the workhorse on 3rd and 2, getting the call on 6 of the 7 runs and responsible for all 3 of the conversions. Statistically, this was a marked improvement over the play-calling in 2009, but we would still like to see the Steelers run closer to 50% of the time on 3rd and 2. Somewhat shockingly, the Steelers actually converted runs beyond 3rd and 1 in 2010, something they didn't do at all in 2009. In addition to the 3 3rd and 2s, they converted a 3rd and 3 and a 3rd and 6 on the ground. This was a substantial improvement over 2009 and we hope the trend continues in 2011.

When the Steelers did take to the air, which was a vast majority of the time on 3rd down (81.9% of all 3rd down attempts, 89.9% of all 3rd down attempts of 2 yards or more), they did a good job spreading the ball around. 11 different receivers had receptions on 3rd down last year. Counting only the times when the QB actually threw a pass (not counting sacks or scrambles), there were 142 pass attempts on 3rd down last year for the Steelers. In the 12 games he played, Ben Roethlisberger threw 108 passes on 3rd down, completing 70 (64.8% completion percentage) and converting 54 into first downs (50% of attempts, 77% of completions). On top of that, Ben threw only 1 interception on 3rd down, and that was in his first drive of the season. After that, Ben kept the ball out of opponents hands on 3rd downs. We'll take that every day of the week.

We could probably do another whole post about the frequency in which receivers were targeted on 3rd down last year, but we'll try to hit some key points here at the end of this article.

  • Running Backs were targeted 25 times, Tight Ends 19 times, and Wide Receivers 98 times.
  • Mike Wallace was the most targeted player (21.1% of all targets), followed by Hines Ward (17.6%) and Emmanuel Sanders (12.7%)
  • Wallace was also responsible for the most conversions (13), followed by Ward (12), and Sanders (9).
  • Mewelde Moore was the least effective running back, converting only 41.2% of the times he was targeted, catching only 76.5% of passes thrown his way, and converting only 53.8% of the passes he caught into first downs. Moore was the most targeted running back with 17 targets.
    • By contrast, Mendenhall caught all 3 passes thrown his way and converted 2. Redman caught 4 of 5 and converted 3, including the game-winning 9-yard touchdown in Baltimore to lock up the division.
  • Amongst receivers and tight ends: 
    • Antonio Brown converted the most of his targets (57.1%), followed by Sanders (50%) and Heath Miller (50%).
    • Brown and Miller both caught 71.4% of the balls thrown in their direction, followed by Wallace (60%).
    • Of those with more than 1 catch, Sanders converted 90% of his catches into first downs, followed by Ward (85.7%), and Brown (80%).

On the whole, the Steelers effort on 3rd downs in 2010 was vastly improved over 2009. We'd still like to see more runs on 3rd and 2 (and maybe even 3rd and 3). But the Steelers did a lot of things right. The interceptions were down. For as much trouble as the offensive line had with injuries, the sacks weren't astronomically higher than they were in 2009. If you're looking for what Isaac Redman has brought to this team, look no further than his ability to convert 3rd down runs. The Steelers improved their 3rd down running percentage by almost 20% thanks in part to Redman's efforts in short yardage. The one area where the Steelers do need to improve in 2011 is situational football. While they were better in short yardage runs, one of Redman's stops was in the Atlanta game which forced a field goal attempt which Reed missed. Mendenhall's miss on 3rd and short came on the goal line in New Orleans. There were 8 missed field goal attempts after failed 3rd downs, two of which were the result of sacks. Sacks also knocked us out of field goal range and in the Miami game, caused the half to end without us being able to get off a field goal attempt. Big Ben was pretty damn good as well, completing over 60% of the passes he was able to throw, moving the chains half the time, and throwing no interceptions after his first drive of the year. Better protection up front and better situational football will help the completion percentage go up, the sack percentages go down, and get us into more manageable 3rd downs so that we're not facing 3rd and long (7 yards or more) almost half the time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Steelers Draft in Historical Perspective

In the wake of the draft, everyone is weighing in with their opinions about which teams were the biggest winners and losers in the draft. But realistically, it's all speculation. Most of the criticism for the Steelers draft centers around not drafting a cornerback in the first round. However, that notion is built on the perceived need that people think the Steelers have in the secondary. Yes, the Packers torched us in the Super Bowl. Yes the Patriots dinked-and-dunked us to death last year. However, in the same breath you talk about Aaron Rodgers throwing for 304 yards and 3 TD in the Super Bowl, you have to remember the Steelers secondary holding Anquan Boldin and Derek Mason to a combined 1 catch for -3 yards in the Divisional round.

When most "draft experts" look at the draft, they are looking at the immediate impact they think the draft class will have.

But before trying to place a grade on the Steelers draft, we need to take a look at how they have drafted historically to try to garner a sense of their drafting strategy. I think this will dispel a few of the common threads of thought that are going around about the Steelers shortcomings in this draft.

In the Mike Tomlin era, only 1 player has gone on to be an opening-day starter in the same year they were drafted. That player was Maurkice Pouncey. Sure, you could make an argument that Frank Summers was supposedly our "starting" fullback in an offense that only used a fullback in goalline sets or Daniel Sepulveda went on to be the starting punter. But neither of them were full-time starters like Pouncey. From this, we can glean that the Steelers haven't drafted players they need to start immediately, but rather players to build their core for the future. Heck, even when Pouncey was drafted we had Justin Hartwig on the roster as the starting center and many thought Pouncey would play guard his first year until Hartwig's contract expired.

Continuing in that same vein, let's look at the early round picks the Steelers have made in the Tomlin era.

2007 - Lawrence Timmons (LB), LaMarr Woodley (LB), Matt Spaeth (TE)

Timmons and Woodley were drafted even though the Steelers had a full roster of starting linebackers with James Harrison, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, and Larry Foote. Spaeth was drafted as the #2 TE with Heath Miller on the roster as the solid #1.

2008 - Rashard Mendenhall (RB), Limas Sweed (WR), Bruce Davis (LB)

With Willie Parker coming of the best year of his career (and a broken ankle suffered in Week 16), the Steelers used their first round pick on a running back. Once again, it was a position where they had a starter, but the pick was made with a focus on 2-3 years down the road. The next two picks are unanimously considered the biggest "misses" of the Mike Tomlin era. Nevertheless, they follow the same pattern: Sweed was drafted with Ward, Holmes, and Washington on the roster, but with the thought of grooming him to be a big-time target in the future. Davis had tremendous upside coming into the draft, but lacked the motivation and work ethic to survive in the NFL. The Steelers picked him to add depth to the OLB position, even though they had James Harrison, Woodley, Arnold Harrison, and Andre Frazier on the roster.

2009 - Ziggy Hood (DE), Kraig Urbik (OL), Mike Wallace (WR), Keenan Lewis (CB)

Even though Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel had been solid anchors along the defensive line, the Steelers knew the writing was on the wall, with both players over 30. They picked Ziggy Hood in the first round, not as an immediate starter, but as someone that could be groomed to replace Smith or Keisel when they inevitably retired. The Steelers added offensive line depth to a unit that needed depth with the pick of Urbik, but he never saw time in the startnig lineup. Mike Wallace is obviously the biggest steal of the Tomlin era as a 3rd round pick. But it's important to remember: Wallace was picked with Ward, Holmes, and Sweed on the roster. Sure, he beat out Limas Sweed in the preseason for the #3 WR role, but he wasn't drafted with the expectation that he would be a starter in his first season. The Steelers had lost CB Bryant McFadden to Arizona in free agency but trusted the depth on their roster (Willie Gay & Deshea Townsend) enough to wait until the 3rd round to pick a CB. Lewis went on IR early in the season and still has yet to develop into a starting-caliber CB.

2010 - Maurkice Pouncey (C), Jason Worlids (OLB), Emmanuel Sanders (WR)

Of the top 3 picks in the 2010 draft, only 1 seemingly addressed an immediate need. Shortly before the draft, the Steelers traded WR Santonio Holmes to the Jets for a 5th round pick (that they would eventually trade to Arizona for CB Bryant McFadden, which wound up being a great move. Talk about maximizing the value of a 5th round pick.) Pouncey addressed a hole in the middle of the line, even though many expected him not to start his first year. Worlids was picked for depth at the OLB position where the depth chart was basically non-existent behind Harrison and Woodley. Some thought the Steelers would target a WR to replace Holmes sooner, but with the emergence of Mike Wallace and the signing of Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle in free agency, the Steelers waited until the 3rd round and picked Manny Sanders. Once again, the Steelers showed a propensity to choose players that were not immediate starters (besides Pouncey), but rather those that were able to add depth to the roster and be groomed into starters down the line.

This drafting strategy of choosing depth over immediate starters has run through the whole Mike Tomlin era as head coach. It was manifest again this year when the Steelers opted to take a defensive lineman (Cameron Heyward) in the first round, rather than addressing what some thought were more immediate needs (offensive line or cornerback). But when you look at the Steelers current roster, the pick makes a lot of sense. On the offensive line, Flozell Adams (who was surprisingly solid last year at RT) said he wants to return as long as he can start. Willie Colon is a free agent coming off a season spent on IR. Max Starks is coming off an injury-shortened season and Jonathan Scott probably won't garner much attention in free agency. Tony Hills showed more last year than we've seen from him in the past, but the writing is probably on the wall for him unless the Steelers fail to re-sign Jonathan Scott. Either way, the Steelers have depth at the tackle position and drafted not an immediate starter but someone who can learn the NFL game and be groomed into a starting role in a few seasons.

So, despite the criticism from some scouts and "experts," the Steelers 2011 draft falls perfectly in line with the manner in which the Steelers have drafted in the Mike Tomlin era. But the positions and depth chart situation are not the only factors to consider when evaluating a draft class. Another measure of comparison is to look at where the draft picks are coming from, specifically which schools, conferences, and levels of play. Since the Mike Tomlin era offers such a small sample size, we expanded the length of time for this portion of the analysis to include the entire Kevin Colbert era, from 2000 to present.

When one looks at the draft choices Kevin Colbert has made, the first thing that jumps out is the number of players he has drafted from major conferences. In Colbert's 12 drafts, 77% of his picks came from BCS schools with 97% coming from Division 1 schools. Only 3 players during Colbert's tenure were picked from non-D1 schools: Ricardo Colclough (2004), Willie Colon (2006), and Cortez Allen (2011). In this sense, the selection of Allen (CB-The Citadel) was somewhat of a departure from Colbert's normal patterns, but it was also the type of pick he had made in the past (Colon was a 4th round pick in 2006).

When one looks at Colbert's drafts round-by-round, selections in the first 3 rounds are almost exclusively from BCS schools. In fact, only 3 selections in the first 3 rounds (Ben Roethlisberger--2004 1st Round, Colclough--2004 2nd Round, Emmanuel Sanders--2010 3rd Round) were not from BCS schools. In this trend, the selections of Cameron Heyward (Ohio St), Marcus Gilbert (Florida), and Curtis Brown (Texas) make perfect sense and don't deviate from the trend of selecting players from BCS schools over 90% of the time in the first 3 rounds.

It should have come as no surprised that the Steelers selected a player from the Big 10 and a player from the SEC. In Colbert's 12 drafts, he has selected 20 players from Big 10 schools (the most of any conference) and 14 from SEC schools (second most of any conference). Of the 20 Big 10 players Colbert has chosen, 4 have been in the first round (Burress, Holmes, Mendenhall, Heyward) and 5 have been from Sweater Vest U (Holmes, Heyward, Rodney Bailey, Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington). Here's a look at the rest of the conferences the Steelers have drafted players from:

Big 10 - 20
SEC - 14
ACC - 12
Big XII - 10
Pac 10 - 9
Big East - 8
Mountain West - 6
Conference USA - 4
MAC - 4
Sun Belt - 2
WAC - 2
Independent - 1
FCS Schools (formerly D-1AA) - 2
Non-D1 schools - 1

As you can see, the Steelers have clearly targeted players from the six BCS conferences with the weight on players from the Big 10, SEC, and ACC. 

After the 3rd round, Colbert's track record for drafting from major programs is not as set in stone. 25% of his 4th round picks, 39% of his 5th round picks, 25% of 6th round picks, and 38% of 7th round picks have been from non-BCS schools. Of the 3 4th rounders not taken from BCS schools, 2 of them (Colon and Allen) were from non-FBS programs. The third was Ike Taylor.

The 5th round could be considered the round in which Colbert "targets" players from non-BCS schools, as he has picked a player from a non-BCS school almost 40% of the time in the 5th round. This year, the Steelers picked Chris Carter (OLB-Fresno St), adding to the ranks of players from non-BCS schools the Steelers picked in the 5th round.

Looking at the 2011 draft as a whole, the Steelers drafting strategy was consistent with what we have seen from both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert in their time in Pittsburgh. The Steelers drafted players at positions where they needed depth and stuck to their draft board, taking a number of players that are high-character guys with great work ethics. Now, this isn't to say that the 2011 draft class is going to be as legendary in Steelers history as the '74 class. But the Steelers front office stuck to their guns and came out with a talented crop of players.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 Draft Class

After over a month of going team-by-team putting together previews, mock drafts, and everything else, the draft season has come to a close. On somewhat of a bittersweet note, with the conclusion of the draft, the NFL is more or less officially suspended until the owners and players can figure out some kind of collective bargaining agreement.

But for one last time, we got to enjoy the splendor of the NFL. Here's a look at the Steelers 2011 Draft Class. We're really excited about all these guys. Hopefully the lockout ends soon and they can start learning the playbook.

Cameron Heyward
(DE-The Ohio State University)
The Buckeyes used Heyward all over the line last year, at DE and DT and he had success all over the field. Penn State fans know the name well as he totally dominated their entire offensive line the last two years. Cameron was born in Monroeville and his father was the legendary Pitt runningback "Ironhead" Heyward. He has connections to the area and was absolutely thrilled on draft day to get the call from the Steelers. He will play the 5-technique (DE in our 3-4 defense), which is not the most glamorous position in the game, but as we've seen in the past when Aaron Smith got hurt, it is invaluable. While some have scrutinized the Steelers for not drafting a cornerback in the first round, Heyward fills a long-term need on the defense. Currently, Ziggy Hood is the only member of the defensive front that is under 30 years old. The Steelers needed to add youth & depth to the D-line in this draft, and they did that with the addition of Heyward. Aaron Smith is on his last legs, and the Diesel only has a few years left. Keisel gives them the luxury to groom Heyward to be the long-term partner of Ziggy at the DE position.

Marcus Gilbert
In the second round, the Steelers added depth to the offensive line. Even though they weren't able to get Mike Pouncey in the first round, they drafted Gilbert, one of Maurkice's best friends from Florida. Gilbert has some solid pass-blocking skills from his experience at Florida, but as the Gators didn't run the ball much, his run blocking could use some work. Thankfully, we have enough depth on the offensive line that Gilbert won't be asked to step in as a starter from Day 1 (whenever that may be). The ideal scenario would be that Gilbert could sit for a year behind Flozell Adams and learn the position then be able to step in at right tackle and lock down the position for the next 10-12 years.

Curtis Brown
Some in the media didn't like that the Steelers waited until the 3rd round to draft a corner, but with the depth of the draft, this was where the corner position had the most to choose from. The Steelers responded by picking a corner in the 3rd and 4th rounds. New secondary coach Carnell Lake called Brown Texas' best cover corner last season. That category includes Aaron Williams, a corner/safety that some thought the Steelers might target in the first round. 

Cortez Allen
(CB-The Citadel)
It is not often that the Steelers go outside of Division I in the draft. In fact, Allen was only the 3rd player since 2000 the Steelers selected from a non-Division I program. The first was CB Ricardo Colclough and the second was OT Willie Colon. Allen brings great physical attributes (6'2, 200lbs, 4.5 40-yard dash). Coming from a Division I-AA school, Allen is still a bit raw on the skill end, but he should have time to learn and will likely earn a roster spot on special teams. Keenan Lewis was prone to taking backbreaking penalties, particularly when lined up as gunner in punt coverage. A lot of them were stupid penalties like running out of bounds. Allen will likely challenge Lewis for the gunner role in camp and can earn his way on to the team that way.

Chris Carter
(OLB-Fresno State)
To be honest, I don't know a whole lot about Carter, but the Steelers addressed another need here. Since Thaddeus Gibson (Last year's 4th round pick) got scooped up by the 49ers in free agency after not making the 53-man roster, the Steelers OLB depth consisted of Harrison, Woodley, and rookie Jason Worlids. Adding Carter as a project player gives them someone to develop for depth and play special teams in the short term. If Carter works out, he could challenge Worlids, last year's 2nd round pick, for the future spot opposite LaMarr Woodley when James Harrison retires.

Keith Williams

Williams might not be the most developed prospect the Steelers landed in the draft, but at 6'4" 318 lbs, he is a monster of a human. He's another high-character guy with a great work ethic. He definitely would have benefitted from a full off-season of work with offensive line coach Sean Kugler to improve his technique. As we learned last year, Kugler hammers good technique into these guys and he's the perfect coach for a guy like Williams who has the work ethic and nasty edge to be a Steelers lineman but needs to improve his footwork & hands.

Baron Batch
(RB-Texas Tech)
Batch might be the most heralded 7th round draft choice in Steelers history and he hasn't even put on a jersey yet. Batch has done some amazing community service work while at Texas Tech, including a trip to Haiti. He has a blog that he updates weekly with some amazing stories about his life experiences. He has gathered quite the following of Steelers fans. To be honest, this is a great kid and the kind of "high character guy" that the Steelers organization is built around. He's going to get his shot in training camp to be a contributor on Special Teams and he might even get to compete for the role of 3rd Down Back, depending on if the Steelers re-sign Mewelde Moore or not.