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Diagnosing the role formation plays in the Steelers short-yardage failures

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Our local stat geek dives into how the team’s formation use in short-yardage situations could explain their failures in Week 7.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After the Steelers big win over the Bengals in Week 7, the Pittsburgh offense took steps forward against their AFC North foe, but they left plenty to be desired at the same time. Red-zone failures, third down struggles, but what most fans were talking about were the team’s short yardage failures.

We put our local Stat Geek (58Steel) on the job, and he broke their short yardage failures by formation to see what he could find. Let’s take a look at the results:

“Although the Steelers had success running the ball, they couldn't convert short 3rd (and 4th) downs. I broke down not only the Steelers success rate on their runs, but also by personnel grouping. Maybe this would shed some light on which personnel groupings were successful, and what they used on the short yardage situations.

I took a look at 39 running plays. (I did not include Martavis' reverse and Ben's kneel downs).

39 carries for 153 yards, 3.92 YPC , 19 successful, 48.7%, 4 runs of 10+ yards, or 10.25%, 7 1st downs, or 17.9%

By personnel grouping:

11 (1 RB, 1 TE): 8-19 yards, 2.38 YPC, 3 successful, 37.5%, 0 runs of 10+ yards, 0 1st downs

12 (1 RB, 2 TE): 12-45 yards, 3.75 YPC, 6 successful, 50%, 1 run of 10+ yards, 2 1st downs, 16%

21 (2 RB, 1 TE): 3-4 yards, 1.3 YPC, 0 successful, 0 runs of 10+ yards, 0 1sy downs

22 (2 RB, 2 TE): 16-85 yards, 5.31 YPC, 10 successful, 62.5%, 3 runs of 10+ yards, 5 1st downs, 31.25%

Not difficult to see the most successful personnel grouping. Looking at raw stats after the game can mislead us. Again, we're focusing on the 3rd/4th and short plays. How successful was each personnel grouping at the time of those plays?

The Steelers first 3rd and 1 came at 8:06 of the 3rd quarter. They decided to run from their 11 personnel. We all know it was disastrous (-4 yards). To that point in the game the Steelers runs from 11 personnel were:

8 (S), 1 (N), 5 (S), 7 (S), 3 (N), -1 (N)

3 successful, 3 not successful. 5 of the runs came on 1st down. The 6th (and last) came on 2nd and goal from the Bengals 5 yard line.

So in a situation where the defense was packed in a bit tighter, running from 11 personnel failed.

Let's look at the Steelers most successful personnel grouping (22) to that point of the game:

9-53 yards, 5.88 YPC, 6 successful, 66.6%, 4 1st downs

I understand using 11 personnel to get smaller defenders (nickel cb) on the field. In 3rd and 1, however, when you're just need to pound the ball in there, it seems to have backfired.

Now we'll look at the Steelers other rushing attempt on short yardage; 4th and 1 on the first play of the 4th quarter. The Steelers decided to go with 12 personnel here. To that point of the game the Steelers numbers runs with 12 personnel were:

8-33 yards, 4.12 YPC, 4 successful, 50% 2 1st downs

It wouldn't seem to have been a bad decision to use 12 personnel here. If we look a bit further, though, into formation, we get more information. I further categorized the 12 personnel into "TE's balanced" (one TE on each side of the formation) and "TE's right/left" (both TE's to one side of the line).

TE's balanced: 4 plays, 32 yards, 8.0 YPC, 4 successful, 2 1st downs

TE's right/left: 3 plays, 2 yards, 0.67 YPC, 0 successful

On 1 other play, both TE's were to the left of the formation. Grimble was in the slot left, not in-line. That play lost 1 yard.

So if the Steelers were going to run a 4th and 1 play with 12 personnel, it would seem to make sense to run it from a "balanced" formation. They did not. The Steelers lined up with both TE's to the right side of the line.

I am the first person to acknowledge that the coaches know 1,000 times more than I ever could. They have information on opponents' tendencies and such. They know what specific player matchups they might want to take advantage of, etc., hindsight is 20/20. Looking at the run game from this perspective, however, does leave room for some head scratching.”

There is still plenty of room for the Steelers’ offense to improve, and these short-yardage situations not only would be an easy fix, but the formation usage by Todd Haley certainly clouds the situation.

A huge thanks to 58Steel for diving into the stats, as he does every week, but sharing his results with Steelers fans around the globe!