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Running the Numbers: Steelers’ Offensive Tendencies

Posted Dec 13, 2012

Earlier this week, I described how the Pittsburgh Steelers have evolved  in recent years, throwing the football more than almost every team in the league. The Steelers have three unbelievably fast wide receivers that can test defenses both downfield and sideline-to-sideline. Like every team, Pittsburgh’s offense has tendencies for which coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense must be prepared.

48.4: Steelers’ pass rate on first down.

Although the Steelers have passed the ball nearly 150 more times than they’ve run it, they’re still a balanced offense on first down; their 48.4 percent first down pass rate is right in line with the league average. In comparison, the Cowboys have passed the ball more often on first down than all but one team. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; NFL defenses still tend to play the run on first down, creating an advantage for those that air it out. It helps that Tony Romo’s first down completion percentage is nearly 70 percent. Only three of Romo’s interceptions have come on first down.

62.2: Pittsburgh’s pass rate in the first half of away games.

Some teams play conservatively to begin games on the road, but the Steelers aren’t one of them. Pittsburgh likes to establish the pass to begin away games, and they’re in good company; the only five teams with more passing attempts in the first half of road games are the Falcons, Eagles, Patriots, Saints and Texans.

7: Number of passes from Pittsburgh on second-and-1.

Only five teams in the NFL have more passes than runs on second-and-1: Pittsburgh, Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. The down-and-distance represents a unique opportunity for offenses to maximize upside without much risk, yet most teams take the “sure thing” and run on second-and-1 at nearly a 70 percent clip.

On his second-and-1 passes, Roethlisberger has three touchdowns and a 140.5 passer rating. He connected with Mike Wallace on a 40-yard touchdown just last week that came on second-and-1.

17.2: Percentage of Roethlisberger’s passes that utilize play-action.

You’d think the Steelers would use more play-action than they do; even though their rate is nearly twice that in Dallas, it still ranks only 20th in the NFL. Roethlisberger has a 71.0 completion percentage and 104.9 passer rating on play-action looks in 2012.

10.6: Percentage of Roethlisberger’s passes that travel at least 20 yards.

When you think of the Steelers’ receivers, you think of speed. Wallace joins Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown as three of the fastest players in the entire NFL, regardless of position. Because of that, defenses tend to be cautious with the trio, playing off so as to not surrender big plays. There’s evidence of that in the Steelers’ wide receiver screen usage, which leads the league, and Roethlisberger’s deep-ball rate, which ranks him only 26th in the NFL.

The Steelers have been relatively unable to capitalize on their deep looks, too. Roethlisberger has actually completed fewer than half as many deep passes as Mark Sanchez. Wallace, Sanders and Brown rank 18th, 38th and 46th in the league in deep-ball rate. Nonetheless, I think the lack of big plays downfield is more telling of how defenses play the Steelers than any problem inherent to their offense.

15.8: Percentage of pass plays with tight end Heath Miller in the slot.

If there’s a tight end in the NFL who most resembles Jason Witten, it’s Miller. While the pure pass-catcher is in vogue these days, tight ends like Miller and Witten are among the best blocking tight ends in the league, giving their offenses a lot of options.

Miller’s blocking prowess is reflected in how he’s utilized; only 15.8 percent of his pass snaps have come in the slot, ranking him 82nd in the NFL among tight ends. In comparison, Witten has lined up in the slot on 44.0 percent of passes in Dallas and some tight ends are there over 70 percent of the time. When Miller is in the slot, though, he sees a target on nearly one-fourth of all passes.

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