Looking back at the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers season, there are numerous narratives which one could reflect on and expound upon. This particular article is going to focus on the Steelers red zone statistics, and how they compared to other teams, and players, around the league. I will focus on three red zone statistics, Passing, Receiving, and Rushing, honing in on a player level of granularity. Each player, QB, RB and WR will be compared to the top 3-5 peers of said position, to get a feel for how each compared to their peers.
Passing vs. Rushing Comparison
Before we dive into the individual players and their red zone statistics, let's take a look at how diverse the Steelers were when it came to red zone play calling. This graphic shows the breakdown of passing vs. rushing play calls in the red zone.
With respect to total red zone attempts, 2 out of every 3 play calls in the red zone were executed as a pass. It is uncertain how many of these attempts were by design and which were changed at the line of scrimmage, but regardless, the numbers are quite lopsided. The pass attempt to run attempt ratio was 2:1, but how does this compare to other "elite" teams around the league? The table below shows how the Broncos, Colts, Patriots and Packers pass to run ratio compared to Pittsburgh's.
There are a few things which stand out when looking at these teams' red zone attempts. First, 3 of the 4 teams, like the Steelers, relied more on the pass in the red zone than the rush. However, the ratios for the Colts and Packers are very close to 1:1 pass to run. The Broncos, like the Steelers, were nearly 2:1 pass to run ratio in the red zone. The Patriots were remarkably more run than pass in the red zone. While close to 1:1, the Patriots ran 22 more rushing attempts that pass attempts, something which certainly goes against the current trend among NFL teams.
While this data is all well and good, how well did the Steelers' pass happy tendencies translate into touchdowns?First, let's take a more in depth look at red zone passing. My data only looks at what the 1st string quarterback did in the red zone. I am intentionally eliminating any red zone TDs that a backup made or a RB/WR made on a gimmick play, as I am trying to keep this as "Apples-to-Apples" as I can.
The Steelers, namely Ben Roethlisberger, managed a Passing TD% of 21.98% (20 TDs, in 91 attempts), while Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers were: 23.81% (25TDs, in 105 attempts), 28.05% (23TDs in 82 attempts), 33.78% (25TDs, 74 attempts), and 25.00% (24 TDs on 96 attempts) respectively. Even though Roethlisberger fared the lowest in terms of TD% in the red zone, his actual TD volume was not that far off from some of the other elite QBs in the league. Could it have been better? Of course, but the data shows the margin was not as big as some made it out to be. In fact, if you reference the table below, you can see how Roethlisberger fared in some of the other red zone categories. He wasn't much different in my opinion. Finally, the majority of the red zone TDs the Steelers scored came from the pass, 21 of 27, 77.78%, which is 3 of every 4.
Now that we've taken a look at the Steelers' red zone passing, let's transition to the rushing attack. I have already established that red zone rushing was 2nd fiddle to the pass. Only 1 of every 3 plays called was a rush. Furthermore, the Steelers only managed 6 red zone rushing TDs in 2014, all of them coming from their stud RB Le'Veon Bell.
With that being said, let's dive into Bell's red zone rushing stats. Again we will look at his red zone performance through the lens of comparing him to his peers around the league. Due to the sheer number of quality RBs in the league, it was hard to narrow down a select few, so I picked several "elite" RBs to compare him against. Below is a table of the comparison.
Looking at this table a few things come to mind. With the heavy emphasis the Steelers had to the pass in the red zone, Bell did not fare so well to his peers. In spite of Bell's 3.18 yds/attempt in the red zone (tops among RB sample), his TDs & TD% were 2nd to last behind ex-Eagle and current Buffalo Bills RB LeSean McCoy. That should be a cause for concern. How does Bell have the best average by nearly .5yd/attempt but have half as many red zone TDs? One would think with that much success, Bell would have gotten into the endzone more. Furthermore, if you look at the RBs in this sample that had over 65% of their teams' red zone rushing attempts, Bell was dead last by a long shot with only 40 carries. Bell's 6 rushing red zone TDs only accounted for a paltry 22.22% of the Steelers total red zone TD output of 27. Going into the 2015 season, the Steelers need to feed Bell more.
What could be the cause of Bell not getting a lot of red zone carries? There are most likely several factors. One reason might be that when in the red zone, teams game plan to stop the run first when playing the Steelers. However, if that were the case, the Steelers should give Bell more carries because he averaged over 3yds/attempt. This simple statistic tells me defenses, whether they game planned or not, were unable to stop Bell in the red zone.
Another potential reasoning is the Steelers overall penchant to pass before the run. If the priority is passing, then regardless of success the lion's share of attempts will be through the air.
While it has been well established the Steelers need to balance out their red zone attempts, Bell was still a heavy factor in the Steelers' red zone strategy. Bell recorded 3 TDs on 10 receptions and 13 targets. This means that even when checking out of a designed run, or calling a pure pass play, Bell still had a role to play in the overall red zone strategy. This duel threat is what makes Bell so dangerous especially as he continues to mature and grow as a player. Imagine how much better he will be, and the Steelers by proxy, if they can give him more carries and have him be successful in the passing game as well.
The final area of red zone analysis is receiving. I mentioned briefly what Bell's receiving stats were and how they were a factor in the Steelers' overall passing success in the red zone, but let's shift the focus off of Bell and to the most important receiver the Steelers have, and that is Antonio Brown.
We are all familiar with Brown's success since his new contract a few years back, and how integral he has been to the new found passing success of a team that is historically known for its dominance in the run game. So with that in mind, let's see how Brown ranked against his peers. Again, due to the sheer number of WRs in the league, I only took a handful of player to compare Brown against. While this list isn't comprehensive, I do believe it serves the purpose of gauging how successful/unsuccessful the Steelers' red zone offense was.
While I could have sorted on any of these columns I decided to sort first on TDs. As you can see from the table below, Brown's 8 red zone TDs were, coincidentally, the exact median of the sample of WRs I chose. The average for this sample size was 7.
While Brown's 8 TDs were great, his TD% struggled at 44.44%. Brown had 18 receptions on 33 targets tied for 1st, and his 133 yards were 2nd only to Demaryius Thomas in this sample. However, like Bell, all those yards and receptions didn't necessarily translate into TDs. In fact, Brown's stats have him among the tops in Targets, Target %, Receptions, Yards, Yds/Catch, even ratio of targets, but even all those stellar stats only put him 1 TD above the average in this sample.
You would have expected AB's TD production to trend in line with all the other stats, but they don't. It seems that Brown's stats are more quantity not quality.
What can we make of all this data and statistical analysis?
First, we can say the red zone strategy of the Steelers is to pass first. With 2 of every 3 plays in the red zone being a pass, you can see what the Steelers hold as the priority in the red zone. Secondly, we can say while Roethlisberger had great stats and shouldered the red zone burden more in 2014, it didn't lead to more success for the Steelers when compared to the other top teams in the league. It seems the more balanced the offensive strategy, the better the results. Thirdly, we saw that even with the success of the red zone rushing attack, over 3yds/rush, the Steelers still devalued it and favored a pass first strategy. The Steelers need to utilize Bell more in the red zone in 2015, much like Seattle did with Marshawn Lynch or DeMarco Murray when he was with Dallas.
Finally, even with the emphasis on the pass, this philosophy simply didn't translate into more TDs, especially when your top receiver was superior in all receiving statistics but TDs. If the emphasis is going to be on the pass, then the Steelers passing touchdowns need to increase dramatically, not just to rack up pretty stats like receptions and yards.
Plain and simple, if you can't get it in the end zone all the other stuff is meaningless. In 2015, the Steelers must do a better job of improving their red zone efficiency, whether that is by land or by air.