Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Statistical Analysis: Running the Ball

Pictured: Mendenhall running right. We did this a lot under Arians.

One of the hardest statistical categories to quantify is offensive line success. Even with something as simple as "sacks" can be hard to pinpoint who is responsible - was it a blown block? was it an overload blitz? did the QB hold on to the ball too long? "Blocking" stats can be even harder - how much of it was the RB and how much was the OL?

One of the best metrics I've seen is the one Football Outsiders uses. They have an Adjusted Line Yards stat that credits the OL differently for different yardage runs.

Somewhat shockingly, the Steelers ranked 3rd in the league last year in Adjusted Line Yards. I'll admit, I was a bit surprised when I saw this, but when I looked at some of the other stats in the table, there were some red flags that jumped out at me to where that #3 ALY rank is not an accurate indicator of how good we were at run-blocking.

First - we were 24th in "Power" Running (Success on 3rd & 4th down runs with < 2 yards to go and all Goal-to-Go situations with 2 or less yards to go) with a success rate of only 57%. Only 1 other team in the Top 10 in ALY (Dallas) was under 62% in Power Success.

Equally as damning was our high "Stuff" rate (rushes for negative or 0 yards) of 20%, 10th worst in the league. Amongst the Top 10 in ALY, only Washington had a 20% or higher Stuff rate. It's pretty crazy to think that 1 out of every 5 rushing plays we had last year went for 0 or negative yards. The Saints led the league with only a 15% Stuff rate whereas the Eagles were the worst with a 25% stuff rate.

Basically, both of these stats are an indictment of our short-yardage running game (which we know objectively from watching the team was downright painful to see). Isaac Redman had a pretty good year converting 3rd and 1s, but I think the Goal-to-Go situations were where we were probably the worst (I'll have to look into this more).

Another red flag I saw was our distribution of runs. We ran in the "Mid/Guard" area 67% of the time and to the right (either Right Tackle or Right End) another 23%. As we all know from watching them, the Steelers rushing attack was far too predictable last year. The data proves this as 90% of their runs were either Mid/Guard or to the Right. On a more positive note, Kansas City's run distribution was much more balanced: 15% Left End, 11% Left Tackle, 48% Mid/Guard, 9% Right Tackle, 16% Right End which is a much more even distribution. I bring this up because even though Todd Haley was the head coach, he did a lot of the offensive play-calling for the Chiefs. One important note there is that Kansas City was above average in runs around Left & Right End (League average 11% for both) which means we may see some more outside runs this year (hello Chris Rainey).

Outside runs seem to be a consistent trademark of the Haley offense looking back over his time at Kansas City and Arizona.Over the last 5 seasons Haley's distribution of Mid/Guard carries were only over 50% once (51% in 2010) whereas over the same time period Arians ran Mid/Guard with an increasing frequency (53%, 56%, 54%, 61%, 67%). An interesting note is that the Mid/Guard carries jump from the mid-50s to the 60s corresponded with the departure of Willie Parker.

On the whole, pretty much what we've been saying for a long time is true - it's not that Arians didn't run the ball enough, it's that he didn't run it effectively (as evidenced by our poor Power and Stuff numbers) and the gameplan was too predictable (67% of runs Mid/Guard, for real?). But since the Bruce Arians Reign of Terrible Play-Calling is over, let's take a deeper look at what Todd Haley has done.

Interestingly enough, Haley didn't run it to the outside that much in Arizona (12% and 18% in his 2 years) but ran a LOT more off-tackle, specifically off Left Tackle (25% and 23%). Looking at Haley's numbers as a whole, it seems like he has kept his Mid/Guard distribution in the 43-51% range and utilized off-tackle and end runs based on personnel. With Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower in Arizona, they weren't speedsters so you saw more off-tackle runs whereas Kansas City had the speed with Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster and you saw more End runs and less off-tackle runs.

The one take-away from this is that Haley is going to run the ball LEFT, which is something the Steelers haven't Even in the days of Alan Faneca and Marvel Smith on the left side, the play was always for Faneca to pull around to the right. In the last 5 years Haley has run left (End or Tackle) 33%, 31%, 24%, 27%, 26% whereas Arians ran left 25%, 18%, 18%, 15%, 9%. I know everyone assumed that we'd put DeCastro at LG when we drafted him, but given Haley's propensity to run left, I think this was the key factor in putting DeCastro at RG and having him able to pull from there around to the left. This will give the Steelers plenty of options in the running game as they can have either DeCastro pull from RG around to the left or Willie Colon pull from LG around to the right. Even though Haley has a propensity to run the ball to the left, this does not mean that our running to the right will suffer. Over the last 5 years, Haley has run to the right 18%, 25%, 22%, 25%, 25% while Arians ran to the right 22%, 26%, 29%, 23%, 23%. Both coordinators ran to the right in the range of 24% of the time over the last 5 years. The biggest difference we will see, as I've discussed, is less runs up the middle and more runs to the left. Here's the breakdown (numbers are percentages)

And the full data (directional numbers are percentages):

Note: all data from Football Outsiders

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