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Crunching the Numbers: Analyzing Week 1 showings during the Mike Tomlin Era

The only numbers that matter are wins and losses, but lots of other numbers show how to get there.

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Every year is different.

It’s what makes Week 1 of the NFL season so unpredictable. All teams have a fresh start. Contenders look weak. Dark horses emerge. People drop like flies out of survivor pools. It’s all part of the excitement of a new season kicking off.

If only there was a magic formula which could predict the outcome for the Steelers on Sunday. Well there isn’t, but maybe there are some numbers which can give an indication about what the Steelers need to do to leave Cleveland with a nice 1-0 record.

For consistency’s sake, we’re going to stick with Week 1 from 2007 to the present, comprising the entire tenure of head coach Mike Tomlin. During that time, the Steelers are 7-4 overall: 4-1 at home and 3-3 on the road. The longest winning streak is four games (2007-2010), which was followed by a 3-game losing streak (2011-2013). The current streak is at two wins.

Although the Steelers are only 3-3 opening on the road in Week 1, they’re 2–0 when playing in Cleveland with the wins coming in 2007 and 2017. Throw in a victory at Heinz Field in 2014, and the Steelers haven’t lost to the Browns in Week 1 under Coach Tomlin (3-0).

The Steelers have been favored on opening weekend seven times, winning six games although only covering in three. The three times when the Steelers were road favorites were all victories.

When the Steelers have won a division championship in the previous year, they are 3-2 on opening weekend. But in both of the losses (Ravens in 2011 and Patriots in 2015), they were on the road against a 12-win team and weren’t favored in either game. When facing a team that didn’t make the playoffs in the previous year, the Steelers are 5-1, with the lone defeat against the Titans in 2013 (16-9). Additionally, the Steelers are 5-2 in 1 p.m. games on Sunday in Week 1.

This year, the Steelers (-4) are favored to win in Cleveland the year after winning a division championship against a team that didn’t make the playoffs the previous year.

So far, so good.

There are also a number of game-performance statistics that can give a good indication of whether the Steelers will finish victorious on Sunday.

Starting Strong

The Steelers were either tied or ahead at halftime in every Week 1 win since 2007. Twice they were tied at the half (2009 and 2010), and both games ended as overtime victories. In the Tomlin era, the Steelers have failed to come back and win any Week-1 game when trailing at halftime. Only once (at Denver in 2012) have the Steelers lost when holding a halftime lead (10-7). Additionally, they are 5-0 when leading at the half by 7 points or more.

Rushing

The Steelers are 5-1 when rushing for more than 100 yards in a game. The lone defeat was to the Patriots on a Thursday night in 2015 at Foxborough when the Steelers rushed for 135 yards and were defeated 28-21. The only Week-1 victories under Coach Tomlin in which the Steelers didn’t rush for 100 yards were in 2009 vs. the Titans in OT and last season versus the Browns where their rush totals were 36 yards and 35 yards respectively.

Rushing attempts are also a key factor as well, since it’s a great indicator of a team playing with the lead late in the game. The Steelers are 5-0 when they have 29+ rush attempts. Their two wins in which they failed to reach 29 attempts were the same two games (2009 and 2017) when they failed to reach 100 yards but still won the game (23 and 17 attempts respectively).

Total Yards

In every Week-1 win since 2007, the Steelers have had more total yards than their opponents. They are 7–1 in those contests, with the loss to the Patriots in 2015 being the only time they out-gained a team and didn’t win the game.

Turnovers

The Steelers have yet to play a Week-1 game under Mike Tomlin in which they didn’t have at least 1 turnover. Fortunately, eight of the 11 games only had a single giveaway. The Steelers are 2-3 when losing the turnover battle, 2-1 when the turnover differential is zero, and 3-0 when forcing more takeaways than they gave up. Additionally, the Steelers have lost 2 of 3 games when they have more than 1 TO.

Sacks

The Steelers have only had three games since 2007 when they had more sacks than their opponent, with all three games being victories (2007, 2008, and 2017). Two of those victories were against the Browns, and the third match up with Cleveland had them both even in sacks with 3 apiece. The Steelers are 1-3 when their opponent has a sack advantage of 3 or more, with the only exception being the overtime win against Tennessee in 2009.

Numbers For Victory

  • Start fast and hold a significant halftime lead (7+ points).
  • Run the ball 30 or more times for over 100 yards.
  • Out-gain the Browns in total yards.
  • Limit turnovers (no more than 1) while forcing takeaways.
  • Get after the Browns QB and keep the pressure off of Ben.

Not exactly a magic formula, but if the Steelers can do most or all of these things, their odds of winning are exponentially higher.