Steelers 2009 Rankings (or Why the Defense Doesn't Suck)

In Part 1 of this post, I analyzed various statistical metrics from the 2009 NFL season to determine which has the best correlation to winning. Here, I provide the Steelers' ranking (1-32) among all NFL teams for the most important metrics. This data should help determine where things went wrong and how to fix them.

Steelers Rank Offense Metric Correlation to Wins
12 Points Scored 88%
14 Net Offensive Pts 90%
7 Yards Gained 77%
7 Yards per Pass Att 83%
15 Yards per Rush Att 0%
17 3rd Down % Made 64%
11 Red Zone Avg Pts 61%
19 Interceptions 64%
31 Sacks Allowed 44%

The Steelers offense ranked #7 in yards gained but only #14 in net offensive points. (For net points, I have subtracted points scored by the defense and special teams. I also subtracted points scored by the other team when the offense was on the field, i.e. pick-six and fumble returns.) As the correlations show, net points is the most important metric, and in this light, the Steelers offense is entirely mediocre.


Why the big difference between yards and points? The common criticism is red-zone problems, but the Steelers offense actually ranked better (#11) in red-zone scoring than overall scoring. The bigger problems were drive-killing sacks and interceptions. Interceptions can also turn into points for the other team. Another weakness is third-down conversions.

Steelers Rank Defense Metric Correlation to Wins
12 Points Allowed 68%
5 Net Defensive Pts 75%
5 Yards Allowed 56%
8 Yards per Pass Att 60%
5 Yards per Rush Att 34%
28 3rd Down % 28%
1 Red Zone Avg Pts 36%
12 Defensive Hog Index 48%
25 Interceptions 41%
2 Sacks 41%

The often criticized Steelers defense ranked #5 in both yards allowed and net defensive points. The big difference between points allowed and net points is due to the 8 TDs (4 KR, 2 INT, 2 FR) that were scored when the defense was not on the field. Net points also credits the defense for the 3 TDs that it scored.

The defense was very weak on third downs, leading to some long drives, but following a bend-dont-break philosophy, it stiffened in the red zone, frequently holding to opponent to a FG or no points at all. The team's ferocious pass rush (#2 in sacks) often forced teams back out of FG range, particularly at Heinz Field. One shortcoming was a lack of interceptions, which not only stop the other team but can give the offense better field position.

Steelers Rank Special Teams Metric Correlation to Wins
8 Kickoff Return Avg 5%
18 Punt Return Avg 1%
32 Net Kickoff Avg 15%
20 Net Punting Avg -27%
32 Net KR/PR TDs 3%
9 Field-Goal Percentage 4%


The Steelers' special teams ranged from mediocre (#18 in punt returns) to horrendous (dead last in TDs). The one exception was kickoff returns, as Stefan Logan helped the team finish #8 in this area. Fortunately, special-teams play has little correlation to winning. The highest correlation is for net kickoff average, a statistic that I computed to measure the opponent's average starting point after a kickoff. Due to Jeff Reed's short kickoffs and poor coverage, the Steelers ranked last in this metric.


In summary, the Steelers offense featured a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers, and a 1,000-yard rusher, but it ranked only #14 in net points. Despite churning out yards, the offense could not sustain drives due to too many sacks and interceptions. Third-down conversions were occasionally problematic. The much-maligned defense, however, ranked #5 in both yards and net defensive points. It gave up the fewest points per red zone attempt in the league and ranked #2 in sacks. The defense was weaker (but still respectable) against the pass than the run, and a key shortcoming was lack of interceptions.


Improvements for 2010


Many of the Steelers' offensive problems could be improved by better coaching and QB play. Ben needs to be coached to throw the ball away rather than making a risky pass that can be intercepted. Also, he should throw the ball away to avoid sacks. Interestingly, the Steelers ranked #16 in QB hits but only #31 in sacks allowed. This indicates that Ben is not facing a lot of rushers, but when he does, he often takes the sack rather than throwing the ball away and just taking a hit. (The Patriots, in contrast, rank #12 in QB hits but #3 in sacks.) A better offensive line, however, would help reduce the number of sacks and could also improve conversions on third-and-short.


On defense, the Steelers fell from #1 in 2008 to #5 in 2009, not bad considering the injuries to Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith, two of the defense's most important players. Both are slated to return in 2010, which should keep the unit among the best in the NFL. Polamalu, in particular, will address the shortcomings in pass coverage and lack of interceptions.


Thus, I would argue that the Steelers should draft an offensive lineman in the first round of the 2010 draft. The o-line has several competent players but needs another strong talent to anchor the right side. The defense is already playoff-caliber, but the team must address the possible loss of safety Ryan Clark and NT Casey Hampton. I would draft a safety in the second round, as the 2010 draft is deep in safeties, and look for a nose tackle in the third round or below, as there is no point in wasting a high draft choice on a two-down player whose primary goal is to stop the run. Statistically speaking, the focus should be on pass defense, not run defense.


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