Tribune Review reporter Mark Kaboly had an interesting entry into the paper's Steel Mill blog Tuesday. He conducted an interview with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who revealed his positive sentiment of advanced analytics, particularly how it pertains to fourth down conversion rates.
We have messed with (analytics) here a little bit with four-down mode. It doesn’t happen in obvious places. It might be on your own 30 when you say we have four downs to get the first so to me it changes drastically because you can hand it off three times in a row knowing that you will have that extra down.
Haley is referring to the idea just running for three yards a pop on four consecutive plays would get you a first down. Rest assured, though, the headline of that quote is the idea of going for fourth down in "non" obvious places.
Since Haley took the reins of the Steelers' offense in 2012, Pittsburgh has gone for it on fourth down 28 times, converting on 15 of those chances - a 53.5 percent success rate. The average for the NFL over time time period is 48.8 percent (450 of 923). Last year, teams attempted an average of 14.75 fourth down conversions, or just under one a game. The league conversion average was 7.03 on the season, and the Steelers were 9-for-15, putting them above average in both areas.
Haley also confirmed to Kaboly a common sentiment of opportunity in football; use a second or third and short as an opportunity to get the ball down the field because you have another down or two to convert a short-yardage run.
I had a rule and I told (Chiefs offensive coordinator) Charlie (Weis) that when I tell him we are in four-down mode, I want three handoffs in a row no matter what unless on first down we got 7 yards and second down we would get 2 and knowing that you had a fourth down to hand it off to get the first, that shot against a more predictable defense came into play. It’s third-and-1 and we are trying to get the ball down the field for a huge play knowing that we are probably going to get man-to-man. It drastically changed the thinking. That came to me when Kenny would say third down and have a fourth down call ready. I’d have a fourth-down call ready but if I knew that, I could’ve handed it off here and here and here.
The entire conversation is based in Haley's time as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, when they led the NFL in rushing yards. It's perhaps not in line with the short-passing meme of today's game, but when the rubber meets the road, if a team is able to run the football successfully, they can give themselves options from a playcalling standpoint. From there, it's all about execution.
Since this is about Haley, I'm required by Yinzer Law to bash him in some way. I'll ease off the throttle because much of this is confirmation of what many offensive coordinators would agree with, but I will say it fits in Haley's brash image to point out he had drives during which he knew he would go for it on fourth downs.
It seems wise of him to mention what he did when he was a head coach, and someone else was calling the plays, as opposed to openly discussing strategic decisions the team may make in 2014.
Ultimately, head coach Mike Tomlin would tell him, as Haley said Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt would tell him, have a fourth down play ready. That can't be seen as exclusive inside information, but considering how glowingly Haley is recalling his days of leading a dominant rushing attack, it seems logical to deduce that's really the aim of this year's Steelers team.
We'll see if the frequency of fourth down attempts changes this year, but one thing to keep in mind is teams better not show single coverage on Steelers' receivers on 2nd and 3rd and short.
The mere notion of throwing deep on third and short is enough to enrage much of Steeler Nation, but if the team can run effectively enough and are willing to line up and maul their way for a yard on fourth down, then it'll be a successful strategy in the long run.
Besides, there's no evidence, advanced statistics or otherwise, to suggest kicker Shaun Suisham is a strong bet from 50-plus yards anyway.