Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Tortoise and the Hare: The Steelers Slow Starts

The Steelers are sitting at 6-4 and only a game out of the last wild card spot in the AFC. They have looked dominant in their victories against Carolina, Indianapolis and Baltimore and looked absolutely dreadful in losses to Baltimore, Cleveland and New York. One of the stats we have heard week in and week out is that the Steelers continue to give up points to opposing teams on the opening drives of games, which they have done in 8 of 10 games so far.

The 8 scores in 10 games, an 80% scoring percentage, is far and away the worst mark in the league. The only other teams over 56% are the Jets (60%) and the Raiders (67%). Hand-in-hand with allowing the opposition free access to the scoreboard, the Steelers have allowed more yards per opening drive (51.0) than any other team. Opponents are controlling the clock as well, averaging 4:31 on their opening possessions, the 3rd highest mark in the league, trailing only Baltimore (4:54) and Cincinnati (4:32).

While the defense has gotten off to some slow starts, the offense has also not contributed coming out of the gate either.

After yet another opening drive ended in a punt against the Jets, I decided to look up some of the stats. What I found isn't pretty. In the 10 games this season, the offense has punted on their opening drive six times, fumbled twice, scored one touchdown and kicked one field goal. Additionally, the Steelers have failed to get a first down on 4 opening drives - 3 of them being 3-and-outs and one fumble against Tampa.

It's not just that the Steelers aren't putting points on the board in their opening drives, they aren't moving the ball and controlling field position either. Their average opening drive has gained 26.3 yards, tied with the Eagles for 28th in the league. Only the Titans and Giants have scored less on opening drives - Tennessee has 1 field goal and the Giants have not scored at all. The Steelers 20% scoring percentage is about half of the league average of 39% (22% TDs, 17% FGs). Consider this: the league average this season is 18.8 points scored on opening drives. The Steelers have scored 10, more than a full touchdown below average. On top of that, the Steelers punting percentage (60%) is the 5th highest in the league, behind the Giants, Chiefs, Texans and Bears.

All of these stats are troublesome, but perhaps the most problematic statistic is average start position. The Steelers are dead last in the NFL with an average start position of their own 18 yard line. They have only started on the plus side of the 20 yard line once in 10 games. The Steelers have gotten the ball first in 7 of 10 games and because of the offense's inability to move the ball on opening drives and the awful punting from Brad Wing (who ranks 30th in the league in yards per punt), their opponents have the 6th best opening drive starting field position.

Graphically, here is how opening drives have looked on average for Steelers and their opponents this year:

Looking at the broader picture, is this an indictment of the 2014 Steelers or of the Todd Haley Steelers?

In Haley's tenure from 2012-present, the Steelers have averaged more opening drive punts and less opening drive scores than they did under Arians. But when you look at the bottom of the chart, you will note that Haley's teams have averaged 9 yards worse in starting field position than Arians' teams did. This may be due in part to the league-wide average dropping from the 28.6 yard line (from 07-11) to the 25.3 yard line (from 12-14). Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders did a fantastic analysis earlier this year on the impact of the NFL moving kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 yard line in 2011. His conclusion was that starting field position on kickoffs has decreased by about 5 yards since kickoffs were moved up. The Steelers have two issues in play here: Haley's offenses have averaged 7 less yards on opening drives than Arians' offenses and they are starting 9 yards deeper in their own territory. In total, this amounts to a difference of about 16 yards of field position.

A perfectly average opening drive under Arians would start at the 33.6 yard line, gain 34 yards and end at the opposition's 32 yard line. This perfectly average drive would put the Steelers in position to attempt a 49-yard field goal.

A perfectly average opening drive under Haley would start at the 24.5 yard line, gain 27.6 yards and end at the opposition's 48 yard line. In this case, the Steelers would most likely punt (as they have done 55% of the time under Haley). As you can see, both the starting field position and the average yards gained play a big role in the end result.

The 2014 numbers are even worse, as they include a starting field position that is 6.5 yards worse than Haley's average and 15 yards worse than Arians' average. Of course, offensive coordinators have no control over starting field position, but it is part of the hand they are dealt. The 2014 Steelers have gained about the same as the average Haley team on their opening drive (only 1.5 yards below average), but the starting field position means that an average opening drive for the 2014 Steelers comes to an end at their OWN 44 yard line.

Yardage aside, the biggest difference between opening drives under Haley and under Arians are the punting and touchdown percentages. Haley's teams have averaged 54.8% punts and 14.3% touchdowns while Arians' offenses averaged 40% punts and 27.5% touchdowns. There is almost a direct correlation here as Arians' offenses had 14.8% less punts and 13.2% more touchdowns. The field goal percentages are essentially equivalent but Arians offense scoring touchdowns over punting is a huge difference in how the Steelers came out of the gate.

As you will recall, Arians was famous for scripting the first 10-15 plays of a game during the week and doing his best to stick to that script when the game started. If Haley does the same thing, it is blatantly obvious that Arians was much better at writing the script during the week than Todd Haley. However, as you will recall I had a post a few weeks ago comparing the points per game numbers from Bruce Arians's offense and the Todd Haley's offense. The points per game were relatively equal, which means that even though Arians' teams were much better out of the gate, the team normalized over the rest of the game to make the points per game and yards per game numbers relatively equal.

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