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Examining how penalties shape the Steelers’ offensive drives in 2019

When a flag is thrown during a Steelers’ drive, it has a significant impact on the result

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

I had a question posed to me this week which caused me to dive quite deep into the Steelers 2019 season. When asked about how penalties affect Steelers’ drives, both the person who asked the question and myself assumed we had an idea of the result as we were just looking for the data to back up our hypothesis. But the more I searched, the more the data was telling a different story.

So how do penalties affect the offensive drives for the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers? When the Steelers are set back, does it significantly hinder their ability to put up points? Or does it not really make a significant difference in the long run? In this weeks installment of Crunching the Numbers, we’ll take a look at all the Steelers’ drives in 2019 and evaluate the percentages of how often they score points when a penalty is enforced.


To set the stage for this exercise, it is important to first look at the Steelers totals for 2019. Of the Steelers 144 offensive drives, they have scored points in some manner in exactly one-third of their possessions. The Steelers have had a drive resulting in a touchdown 22 times (15.3%) and a field goal 26 times (18.1%). The Steelers have had 57 of their offensive drives end in a punt which is 39.6% of their total drives. They’ve had 39 drives end by some other means than a punt or a score. Drives which fit into this “other’ category include a turnover, the end of the half, the end of the game, a safety, turning the ball over on downs, or a missed field goal. Between the other category and punts, they comprises 66.7% of all Steelers’ drives.


Of the Steelers 144 offensive drives, 82 of them have had no penalties accepted for either team. On these drives, the Steelers have only scored nine touchdowns (11.0%) and 10 field goals (12.2%) which means the Steelers have a scoring rate of 23.2%. Surprisingly, the Steelers actually score points at a rate of 10% less than their total average when there are no penalties called. In these drives, the Steelers have punted 35 times (42.7%) and have given the ball up by some other means 28 times (34.1%). So when there is no penalty called, over three-quarters of the Steelers’ drives have ended without points.


Here is where the data starts to take an even more interesting turn. In looking at the 29 drives in where the only penalties accepted were against the Steelers when they were on offense, they score at a rate of 24.1%. With four touchdown drives and three field goals, the Steelers actually score with a slightly higher percentage when there is an offensive penalty then if there was no penalty at all.


So how is the Steelers total scoring percentage higher than when there are no penalties? It’s because of the Steelers overwhelming success rate on drives where there is only a penalty accepted against the defense. Of the 18 drives where the Steelers have not surrendered a penalty but have accepted one against their opponent, they have scored on an overwhelming 88.9%. These scores have come as six touchdown drives and 10 field-goal drives. In all, The Steelers have only punted twice in 2019 on a drive where the only penalty called was on the defense. Along with only two punts, there have been no drives ended by the any other means. The Steelers have scored points on 16 of 18 of these drives .


The only category remaining is the 15 drives in which there were penalties called on both the offense and defense. Many times these penalties were even in number, but not necessarily all. Sometimes there may have been more penalties on the offense while others may have had drives where the defense was penalized more. For these drives, the Steelers have scored on 40% of them with three drives being touchdowns and another three being field goals. The Steelers have punted five times and have given the ball up four times by one of the other categories.


Here was the number which I thought was very interesting. In looking at any drive in which a penalty was called on the defense whether there was a penalty on the offense at some point or not, the Steelers score points on two-thirds of these drives. The scoring rate of 66.7% comes with 27.2% rate of touchdowns and 39.4% for field goals. Only one-third of the time do the Steelers not score points with 21.2% of the drives ending in a punt and 12.1% ending some other way.

In 2019, the Steelers have been held scoreless on 66.7% of all their drives. But if there is an accepted penalty on the defense including drives where the Steelers were also penalized, they score at the same 66.7% rate. So if a penalty is enforced on the defense, the scoring rate is flipped.

When taking the time to look at every drive of the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers, I expected scoring success rates to plummet on any occasion in which they suffered an offensive penalty they had to overcome. Surprisingly, it was not the offensive penalties which significantly changes the outcome of the drive. Instead, it has been the Steelers taking advantage of defensive penalties in order to put points on the board.

As for the Buffalo Bills, they have the ninth most defensive penalties in the NFL for 2019. Averaging three penalties on the defensive side of the ball each game, can the Steelers take advantage to put points on the board? Can their high rate of success in cashing in on the defenses mistakes guide them to a win on Sunday night? Please leave your answers in the comments below!