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An inferno from a SPARQ: How the Steelers focused on athleticism in 2014

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The Steelers are tight-lipped when it comes to methods of scouting. Based on the results of the players the team selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, it appears advanced analytics may have played a part in their evaluation. With the help of Field Gulls, a Seahawks web site, we cracked the code.

Brett Carlsen

Speed is both illegal and required in the NFL.

The drug is on the banned substances list. The physical measurement is becoming more prevalent in the game than ever. It's the simple way to describe the time in which an object goes from point A to point B. It isn't directly related to acceleration, one half of Newton's Second Law, which, when multiplied with mass shows the amount of force at which an object hits.

Hitting has never been a problem in Pittsburgh. Getting to the spot necessary to impose will on an opponent is the issue, not the actions of that imposition. Speed, and more generally speaking, athleticism, is rarer now than active steel mills in Steel City.

The team's general lack of speed, both from a physical standpoint as well as a mental one, was apparent throughout the 2013 season. Watching Terrelle Pryor go untouched on a record-setting 93-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage in an eventual 21-18 Week 8 loss to Oakland, it was apparent. Pryor, the Pittsburgh product, had speed. The Pittsburgh Steelers did not.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson cracked off a 60-yard touchdown run in Minnesota's eventual 31-27 win over the Steelers in London.

In total, the Steelers had eight running plays against them that went for a total of 381 yards. Take those plays away, the Steelers go from allowing an average of 115.6 yards per game, 21st in the NFL (their lowest mark in over a decade) to 91.8, which would have put them behind the Jets for fourth in the NFL - ahead of San Francisco, Cincinnati and Seattle.

For the first time since Dick LeBeau became the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 2004, the opponents of the Steelers gained more yards (5,402) than the Steelers did (5,400). In fact, it was roughly 1,000 yards higher than what the team's defense averaged from 2008-12.

It's been established the sun rises in the east, and Steelers defenses rank in the top 10 in rushing yards allowed. That changed in 2013, and the question became "what are they going to do about it?"

It's easy to say the problem rested with the Steelers' defensive line, a unit crippled with declining ability and inadequate replacements for past stars. That plays a part of it, but under the surface, it's clear the problem was age - but a lack of it as opposed to the presence of it.

The Steelers lost veteran stalwart Larry Foote in Week 1, thrusting rookie Vince Williams into the lineup. Williams, a two-gap banger who steadily improved throughout the season, is an inferior athlete in comparison to his peers. Combining that with a technique-challenged Ziggy Hood and a declining Brett Keisel on the defensive line, the non-athletic holes in the Steelers' front seven can be blamed for those woes.

It wasn't helped on the back end. A usually resourceful Ryan Clark looked a step slower in 2013, and his typically high level of run support suffered as a result. Missed tackles by first-year starter Cortez Allen and a dropoff of production from Ike Taylor against both the run and the pass hurt the team noticeably.

Despite a heroic climb from an 0-4 start to an 8-4 finish, narrowly missing the playoffs, the Steelers went into the offseason needing to transform their defense in a hurry. Sometimes, righting the ship means changing convention. The Steelers as a franchise are not known to use advanced analytics or other such measurements to evaluate their players. Clearly, though, the team needed a spark.

A SPARQ, perhaps.

What is SPARQ Rating?

It stands for Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness. It's a formula developed through Nike with the consult of strength and conditioning coaches involved with several sports. The main components comprising the football version of the formula are the 40-yard dash, the kneeling power ball toss, short shuttle, weight and vertical jump.

SPARQ essentially weighs performances in each of these areas together, and based on what makers determined to be outstanding level of performance in those measurements, values each component numerically and creates a rating. That rating can indicate, based on the subjective weight of the scores, a general evaluation of a player's athletic ability as it pertains to the game of football.

The Seattle Seahawks are known as pioneers of the development of this statistic as well as the application of it in their draft evaluation. It's by no means the end-all of the measurement of athletic prowess. Like many statistics today, it simply provides an easy-to-understand number of normalization to show the all-around athletic ability of a player. It is not a metric capturing the player's football abilities, but rather, something showing a combined and weighted score in areas of strong correlation to success on a football field.

There are likely Hall of Fame players who scored very poorly in this statistic. There are likely SPARQ Rating heroes who failed to make an NFL team. But it's not a stretch to consider players with outstanding performances in the aforementioned areas of measurement, combined with film showing outstanding football skill, have a good chance of becoming NFL players.

Great athletes don't necessarily make great football players, but poor athletes don't have all that great of a chance in their own right. If the Steelers are on the decline in terms of athleticism, maybe that's an area they could address.

Maybe that's exactly what they did.

Steelers 2014 Draft Class

"With the 14th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select...Kyle Fuller, cornerback, Virginia Tech."

Many, myself included, thought Fuller would be the Steelers' pick at 15. A solid all-around cornerback, maybe some position flexibility (safety), a guy who could see the field in sub packages early in his career. The Steelers had a need at cornerback. They were looking to fill what very well could be a starting position next season, given the strong probability this is Ike Taylor's final year in Pittsburgh, and Cortez Allen is in the last year of his contract.

Fuller was gone. All heads immediately turned to Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard - a solid, savvy player who makes up for a lack of elite-level athleticism with good technique.

We called him a "good player, not a great one." It seemed at this point, Dennard was on the card being handed to the commissioner.

"With the 15th selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select...Ryan Shazier, linebacker, Ohio State University."

Twitter exploded. So did BTSC. I broke Shazier down in January and absolutely loved him. His speed and explosion were rivaled by few others in the draft. Some might argue inside linebacker wasn't a position of need, certainly not in comparison to cornerback. Having watched Vince Williams' lack of athleticism last season and not having any certainty on Sean Spence's future ability, to me, Shazier was the perfect pick, considering who was there.

Athleticism. What a novel concept.

The Seattle Seahawks out-scheme and out-muscled the offense-heavy Broncos in the Super Bowl. Their success in taking mid-to-late round draft picks and molding them into the kinds of players they want is amazing. Watching the Seahawks' defense fly around the field followed by watching the Steelers' slogging and plodding defense get blown away by Pryor, Peterson, Rob Gronkowski and more is a study in depression for fans.

What the Seahawks have been doing isn't exactly new. Several teams over the years have developed rating systems of some kind in order to target the kinds of players that work well in their respective schemes. The Steelers are known as an old school team. They don't dabble in advanced metrics or the higher ends of technology when it comes to the simple act of scouting players' football abilities and character.

Right?

The formula has since been removed from Nike's web site, creating the speculation someone or some team is using it as proprietary information. Staff members and contributors to SB Nation's Seahawks site, Field Gulls, did the dirtiest of dirty work, figuring out how to reverse-engineer the formula based on past results from high schoolers tested by Nike.

David Hsu and Zach Witman, the two intrepid reporters of Field Gulls behind the regression version of SPARQ, added the broad jump, the 10-second split time and the 3-cone drill, based on comments made by Seahawks general manager John Schneider in regards to the use of this formula in their evaluation of players.

Witman and Hsu call the reverse-engineered version of this formula rSPARQ, and the version with the three additional inputs pSPARQ (created by Whitman).

I'll leave it to them to explain in full detail their methods, but essentially, they substituted the power ball toss for the bench press, and based on the test results from several previous and publicly shared entries, they were able to come up with a version of the formula (rSPARQ) that holds very true to the formula used to generate the scores of those previous subjects.

They made it even better with the inclusion of three drills used as standard measurements in player evaluation. All told, pSPARQ is not an exact mirror of the original SPARQ formula, but a more inclusive version that brings in even more input.

The duo also incorporated what they call "pSPARQ z-score," which establishes an amount of standard deviations from what Whitman described as "an average training camp athlete." He calculated the SPARQ scores across the NFL of all players who were in training camp at the start of the 2013 season, and from that, determined a player with a 1.0 z-score is in the upper 16 percent NFL athlete, 2.0 is upper 2.5 percent, and 3.0 is upper 0.15 percent.

Without confirmation, it would seem the Steelers were paying attention to a similar formula when making their selections in the 2014 NFL Draft. Evidence of a connection comes straight from their first pick.

Ryan Shazier, at 150.0, has the highest pSPARQ score of any draft-eligible player. The average among inside linebackers was 109.9 - meaning Shazier was nearly one and a half times more athletic than the average inside linebacker in this draft.

Shazier's z-score is 2.4, meaning less than 2.5 percent of all NFL players have a higher score than he does. None of them are in the 2014 NFL Draft class.

This theory takes a slight dip when it comes to second-round pick Stephon Tuitt - a player who did not work out at The Combine (foot surgery), but based on past results in the input events as well as averages factoring in size among other criteria, they estimated Tuitt's pSPARQ score at 99.6 with a 0.3 z-score, suggesting Tuitt, in comparison to 7-technique edge rushers, is still a little above average in comparison to athletes in the rest of the league.

Tuitt's z-score is still somewhat misleading, considering he's more of a defensive tackle than edge rusher. The Steelers will be able to use him both inside and out.

Many, including us at BTSC, questioned the reasoning behind the selection of Kent State running back Dri Archer. Those who questioned it may not have been convinced by his blistering 40-yard-dash time, but his 133.4 pSPARQ score puts him 10th among all running backs, and the 41st highest total in the draft - higher than first round picks Bradley Roby (130.0), Brandin Cooks (126) and Odell Beckham (125).

Speaking of wide receivers...

The Steelers grabbed the raw but physically talented and imposing Clemson WR Martavis Bryant in the fourth round. Most just judged Bryant by his Ben-approved height - 6-foot-4 - but it goes much deeper than that.

Bryant, at 124.3, has the highest pSPARQ score of any receiver standing 6-foot-3 or taller, and ranks 19th overall at the position, higher than seventh overall pick, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans (118.6), and - even more exciting - higher than his teammate at Clemson, Sammy Watkins (116.9), the fourth overall pick in the draft.

Another alleged blue chip tall receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, scored 104.0, putting him 128th out of tested receivers, along with a -0.6 z-score. By waiting until the fourth round to draft Bryant, the Steelers added the most athletic "big" receiver in the draft along with Archer, who will run and receive, giving them perhaps the most athletic pair of offensive players taken in the middle rounds.

Bryant, at 124.3, has the highest pSPARQ score of any receiver standing 6-foot-3 or taller, and ranks 19th overall at the position, higher than seventh overall pick, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans (118.6)

Summarizing four rounds of drafting, no one is more athletic than Shazier, Tuitt is among the strongest defensive ends, Archer is the fastest in the draft and among the top 50 most athletic and Bryant - contrary to all previous opinion - is the most athletic "tall" receiver in the draft.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all, however, appears in the fifth round.

Back to when most felt Dennard's name was certainly going to be Roger Goodell's next words while on the podium...the Steelers were supposed to draft a cornerback in one of the first three rounds. That could have been taken to the bank before or after hours.

Dennard's pSPARQ score? 117.3.

Steelers fifth round pick, CB Shaquille Richardson's score? 122.8.

Not only is he, measurably, a much better athete than Dennard, according to pSPARQ, he's a better athlete than Fuller (121.4) and uber-athletic CB Justin Gilbert (120.6).

There were 19 cornerbacks drafted before Richardson was.

The two biggest alleged positions of need for the Steelers, cornerback and wide receiver, were addressed much later than many said they would be. But in both cases, the Steelers drafted high-level athletes in comparison to their peers at those positions. They bypassed consensus picks in the first and third rounds in favor of incredible athletes. Their "tall" receiver is on the same level of athletic ability as several receivers who stand shorter than him and were drafted higher than him.

Some may call picks like this "steals." It's probably more fairly called "intentional."

The Steelers are looking for a few athletic tackles to build for the future of their zone running scheme. Wesley Johnson fits the bill well. His 111.2 pSPARQ score puts him 12th among all eligible tackles in this draft, just 0.4 behind Atlanta's Jake Matthews, the sixth overall pick of the draft.

Not only is he, measurably, a much better athete than Dennard, according to pSPARQ, he's a better athlete than Fuller (121.4) and uber-athletic CB Justin Gilbert (120.6).

Consider Daniel McCullers (86.7) an outlier for the athletic initiative the Steelers took in this draft. For what it's worth, though, he scored higher than Houston third-round pick Louis Nix, the choice of some in February for the Steelers' first round pick.

UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt, on the other hand, got something of a bad rap when it comes to his athleticism. Considering how late he was taken,  the fact his 115.3 outscored both Demarcus Lawrence (34th overall pick by Dallas, 113.9) and Kyle Van Noy (40th overall pick by Detroit, 113.3), there's something to be said about the value of his selection.

Tight end Rob Blanchflower rounds it out, coming at an above-average 104.8, just barely below Notre Dame's Troy Nicklas - a player the Steelers were said to be targeting aggressively in this draft. Nicklas went in the second round to Arizona. His -0.3 z-score makes him just slightly below average athletically in comparison to the rest of the NFL, keeping in mind, injuries likely cut down his athleticism at measuring events.

Boiling this down simply, based on this stat and the order in which players were selected, it would appear the Steelers used some kind of specific measurement regarding the athletic ability of the prospects, and they stuck with that, round by round. Tuitt and Blanchflower are the only two who scored below average for their position, and, interestingly, they are the two players the Steelers drafted who were known to have been recovering from injuries during the evaluation period of the draft, when measurements are taken.

It also explains why the team may have passed on Dennard - a below-average athlete for his position - and why it selected Archer, the most controversial pick, and a top 50 athlete in this draft. It answers many questions both about the current team and the decisions they made in putting the roster together.

Woe is 2013

This picture is colored even more brightly when the same measurements are applied to the Steelers' 2013 draft class. While Shamarko Thomas (138.5, 2.2 z-score), Markus Wheaton (119.9, 0.9 z-score) and Le'Veon Bell (122.4, 0.6 z-score) scored above their peers, Jarvis Jones (89.8, -1.5 z-score) and Vince Williams (91.2, -1.2) were well below average.

They both played significant snaps in 2013. Was their general lack of athleticism as displayed by these scores the reason the Steelers' defense fell well off their standard pace? Perhaps we won't know the true answer to that question, but what we do know is, collectively, the 2013 draft class has a cumulative z-score of 0.2, four times lower than the 0.8 of 2014.

Still, writing off Williams - thrust in the lineup due to injury - and what's generally believed to be a case of test results not accurately depicting Jones' ability, Thomas scored remarkably well. Data isn't available to show results from classes past 2013, but judging on past results from Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell, the Steelers could boast an incredible combined score from their safeties.

And for the future? Seventh-round pick Nick Williams scored 118.5 (Atlanta's second round pick Ra'Shede Hageman scored 120.6) with a 0.6 z-score, an outstanding stat for a 5-technique defensive end.

Starting a fire with a SPARQ

These numbers do not suggest the Steelers mirrored their famous 1974 draft class in terms of ability. But they do show clearly the team improved their overall athleticism with these picks. With record lows in yards allowed in 2013 and another season where two rookies are expected to start (Shazier and Tuitt), it's possible the Steelers experience another season of growing pains defensively.

At the same time, a year of experience and increased playing time could serve as a benefit for Jones, Thomas and Williams. Adding that with the explosive ability of Shazier and the strength of Tuitt, the Steelers may have found their building blocks for the future, and a restored level of what has historically been outstanding production on the defensive side of the ball.

Offensively, Bell showed at the end of 2013 why the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft, and a return to healthy status for Wheaton could land him the starting x-receiver position. The inclusion of the hyper-athletic Bryant shows significant upgrades in terms of athleticism and playmaking ability.

All of this, of course, is led by Ben Roethlisberger - who, incidentally, is an excellent athlete, a trait only outdone by his abilities as a passer. The Steelers' offensive line may be the most athletic group, pound for pound, on the team, and it should lead the Steelers into a top 10 finish in yards gained in 2014.

The question remains whether the Steelers did incorporate some kind of athletic measurement in their evaluation process, or even whether they've used one in the past at such a distinctive degree. It's beside the point to take that to task; the results clearly show the team emphasized one common trait among all their picks. That trait may be what brings the team from consecutive .500 seasons into contention for the AFC North crown.

At the very least, they built over the Old and Slow stigma and that will be obvious on the field this year.