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The 2016 Steelers offense was better in the red zone than you think

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There are several moments for the Steelers in the red zone in 2016 that stick out in our minds for all the wrong reasons. But a deeper look shows they mostly did exactly what they should have done inside their opponents’ 20-yard line: pick up yards, run down the clock and, of course, score points.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

You’re probably aware of a statement that has become so ubiquitous that the only thing missing is for it to be captured in a meme: the Steelers’ offense is bad in the red zone.

Between the 20s, we all know how good this offense can be. But, once they get inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, their productivity comes to a screeching halt.

It’s obvious. It’s been beaten to death.

It’s...wrong.

You heard me. I said what no one else wants to say: the Steelers are not bad in the Red Zone. In fact, they’re pretty...decent.

The key to realizing it, as with anything in sports, is to consider situational football.

Before we get into the numbers, we need to consider some vocabulary: for the purposes of this article, any play that gains yards or scores points is considered a “win”; any other play is considered a “loss” for that particular snap.

Basic Stats

In 2016, the Steelers had 50 red-zone possessions. They scored on 40 of those — 30 touchdowns and 10 field goals. One field goal attempt was blocked by the Philadelphia Eagles. One other red-zone drive in that game ended up with a successful field goal try from outside the red zone after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on third down. Against the Patriots, a drive ended with a missed field goal after a holding penalty pushed the offense out of the red zone. Against the Ravens in November, a drive ended as Roethlisberger made a futile, fourth-down effort to bring the team back from a 14-point deficit with just over three minutes remaining. Still another, against the Bengals in week 15, ended when Roethlisberger knelt to end the game, and one more against the Bengals ended up outside the red zone due to a sack. The remaining four were turnovers — three interceptions and one fumble.

Basic math shows the Steelers scored touchdowns on 60 percent of their red-zone drives, and put up points 80 percent of the time.

Neither of those numbers are in the top 20 percent of the league — but neither are they even in the bottom half. When you look at it situationally, though, it looks even better.

Pushing forward

One thing the Steelers did very well in the red zone in 2016 was improve their situation with each snap. Excluding three kneel-downs against the Bengals, the Steelers lost yards on just nine of 129 regular plays (excludes kneel-downs and field goals), and netted zero yards just five times. Two of those five were spikes to stop the clock. That means they gained yards on 113 of 127 plays, or 89 percent. The team also picked up eight first downs along the way, good for 5.7 percent of all red-zone plays.

The Steelers gained 399 yards on 129 red-zone plays, good for 3.1 yards per play.

In light of the fact that they were either ahead or tied for 76 percent of their red-zone plays, even just grinding the clock was a win most of the time.

Good when it counted

The four red-zone turnovers are definitely concerning. However, when it mattered most — when trailing — they did not give the ball away a single time. Two turnovers came while leading, and the other two occurred early in games when no points had been scored by either team.

Missed opportunities

Certainly, none of this implies there is no room for improvement.

As already indicated, two turnovers came while leading. Both happened in the fourth quarter, and would have given them at least a two-touchdown lead, against the Jets and the Bills.

That turnover against the Bills, the second of the game, was a double-whammy, too: it was an interception in the end zone. Against the Patriots, Landry Jones also threw an interception in the end zone.

Miscellaneous Stats

The Steelers went 28 days (10/9 to 11/6) without taking a single snap inside their opponents’ 10-yard line. That included games at Miami and at home against the Patriots, and also the team’s bye week.

In what may have been the offense’s worst performance of the year outside of Philadelphia, they were shut out of the red zone entirely against the Dolphins.

Most of the team’s struggles can be boiled down to this: if they got inside the 10, they usually scored. They simply became more efficient inside the 10. For plays beginning between the 11 and the 20, their average starting location was just inside the 16-yard line. They averaged 3.14 yards on each of those plays, good for just about 20 percent of the possible yards. For all plays between the goal line and the 10-yard line, their average starting position was the five-yard line. On those plays, they gained an average of 2.28 yards per play, or almost 46 percent of the possible yards. They were simply better once they got inside the 10.

There is room to improve in 2017, but the situation in 2016 wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as it seemed on the surface.