Thursday, October 23, 2008

So, just how are the Steelers doing?

With the Steelers sporting a 5-1 record fans of the Black & Gold have every reason to feel good. Of course the toughest part of the Steelers' schedule is still in front of them, so we wanted to get a sense of just how well the team is performing.

So, in the same vein as our 2000-2007 statistical review, we try to bring some historical context ~ beginning with the offense ~ to this season's performance. Specifically, we are going to look at key offensive statistical categories for the 2000-2007 seasons (inclusive) and compare this season's numbers for the first six games to those.

Total points scored, per game average
Here, ranked in order from highest to lowest, are the average total points per game:
  1. 24.56 (2007)

  2. 24.38 (2002)

  3. 24.31 (2005)

  4. 23.50 (2008)

  5. 23.25 (2004)

  6. 22.06 (2006)

  7. 22.00 (2001)

  8. 20.06 (2000)

  9. 18.75 (2003)
So far this season the offense is well above average (22.54) in scoring; but what we find more interesting is that the two season's in which the Steelers had their best won-loss records (2001: 13-3, 2004: 15-1) were far from the highest scoring seasons.

First quarter points scored, per game average
In our recent assessment of the game versus the Bengals we bemoaned the fact that the offense seemingly took a break during the middle two quarters of the game. So we decided to break down the offensive scoring by quarter. Here, ranked in order from highest to lowest, are the average number of points scored in the first quarter:
  1. 7.69 (2004)

  2. 7.06 (2002)

  3. 6.19 (2005)

  4. 5.00 (2008)

  5. 4.69 (2007)

  6. 4.13 (2006)

  7. 3.75 (2001)

  8. 3.63 (2000)

  9. 3.13 (2003)
Once again the 2008 season is compares favorably to seasons that have come before, and is right at the average (5.03) for this nine season period.

Second quarter points scored, per game average
  1. 8.06 (2007)

  2. 7.75 (2002)

  3. 7.56 (2005)

  4. 6.75 (2001)

  5. 6.69 (2006)

  6. 6.19 (2000)

  7. 6.17 (2008)

  8. 5.88 (2003)

  9. 5.63 (2004)
Over the course of the last nine seasons the second quarter has been the Steelers' highest scoring period, on average, of the game. So far this season the offense is performing nearly 10% below the nine year average for second quarter scoring (6.74), and is at its lowest level since 2004 ~ the season the Steelers were 15-1.

Third quarter points scored, per game average
  1. 6.44 (2005)

  2. 6.38 (2001)

  3. 6.33 (2008)

  4. 5.81 (2003)

  5. 4.25 (2007)

  6. 4.19 (2000)

  7. 3.81 (2002)

  8. 3.63 (2006)

  9. 2.94 (2004)
It is beginning to appear that there is no relationship between when the Steelers score and how many games they win. The previously mentioned season of 2004 saw the Steelers produce their worst third quarter scoring total (on average). Meanwhile in 2008 the third quarter has, so far, been #1 for scoring, and well above the nine year average (4.86).

Fourth quarter points scored, per game average
  1. 7.56 (2007)

  2. 7.25 (2006)

  3. 7.00 (2004)

  4. 6.06 (2000)

  5. 5.56 (2002)

  6. 5.50 (2008)

  7. 4.94 (2001)

  8. 4.13 (2005)

  9. 3.94 (2003)
Our criticism of the offense's performance against Cincinnati not withstanding, it appears that, on average, the middle two quarters are their best. Was the Bengals game an anomaly? Only time will tell.

Another assumption we have been making, though not necessarily explicitly stated, is that the Steelers' offense is becoming more of a big play offense rather than one built on ball control. In an effort to determine the validity of that assumption we take a look at the average number of first downs per game, and then just for fun we also looked at rushing first downs and passing first downs, on a per game average over the last nine seasons.

Total first downs, per game average
  1. 21.44 (2002)

  2. 20.44 (2006)

  3. 19.63 (2001)

  4. 19.31 (2004)

  5. 18.63 (2007)

  6. 18.56 (2005)

  7. 18.00 (2008)

  8. 17.69 (2000)

  9. 17.19 (2003)
Superficially at least it appears that our assumption is correct ~ the team is still scoring at or near historical averages, but the number of first downs this season is down significantly. It is also worth keeping in mind that the 2000 edition of the Steelers had a 9-7 record while the team went 6-10 in 2003.

Rushing first downs, per game average
  1. 9.25 (2001)

  2. 8.38 (2004)

  3. 7.69 (2000)

  4. 7.50 (2005)

  5. 7.44 (2002)

  6. 6.75 (2007)

  7. 5.50 (2008)

  8. 4.81 (2003)
This season's total is the lowest for any Steelers' offense with a winning record in the last nine seasons. The loss of Willie Parker certainly is has to be considered a huge part of this; especially when considering that against Cincinnati (with Mewelde Moore stepping up his performance) the Steelers had nine rushing first downs.

Passing first downs, per game average
  1. 12.56 (2006)

  2. 12.50 (2002)

  3. 11.19 (2007)

  4. 10.88 (2003)

  5. 10.33 (2008)

  6. 9.38 (2001)

  7. 9.19 (2004)

  8. 9.00 (2005)

  9. 8.06 (2000)
More evidence of the big play nature of the 2008 offense is found here ~ with the precipitous drop in rushing first downs one might have expected to see a rise in the number of passing first downs. Instead this season's offense falls in at the middle of the pack, right at the nine year average (10.34).

First downs by penalty, per game average
  1. 2.17 (2008)

  2. 2.06 (2005)

  3. 1.94 (2000)

  4. 1.75 (2004)

  5. 1.63 (2006)

  6. 1.50 (2002)

  7. 1.50 (2003)

  8. 1.00 (2001)

  9. 0.69 (2007)
Finally, this season's offense leads in something!

Next we look at play propensity ~ i.e. the mix of run-to-pass:

Pass attempts, per game average
  1. 34.44 (2002)

  2. 33.25 (2003)

  3. 32.69 (2006)

  4. 28.38 (2001)

  5. 27.67 (2008)

  6. 27.63 (2007)

  7. 27.50 (2000)

  8. 23.69 (2005)

  9. 22.38 (2004)
We were amazed at the consistency of Bruce Arians' two seasons ~ to be within .04 pass attempts over the course of twenty-two regular season games is striking.

Rushing attempts, per game average
  1. 38.63 (2004)

  2. 36.25 (2001)

  3. 34.31 (2005)

  4. 32.88 (2000)

  5. 32.00 (2002)

  6. 31.94 (2007)

  7. 29.31 (2006)

  8. 28.33 (2008)

  9. 27.88 (2003)
Is it any coincidence that the three most successful seasons of the last nine are also the three seasons in which the Steelers' offense ran the ball most often? We think not; and while the loss of Willie Parker certainly altered the play calling this season (and last season), we are concerned that the number of rushing attempts this season is closer to the bottom than the top.

Having begun are analysis with points scored, we end with another type of "deliverable" ~ yards gained.

Net passing yards, per game average
  1. 239.50 (2002)

  2. 233.31 (2006)

  3. 206.50 (2003)

  4. 194.56 (2001)

  5. 191.94 (2007)

  6. 189.50 (2008)

  7. 182.88 (2005)

  8. 170.00 (2004)

  9. 158.94 (2000)
For the most part these numbers are directly related to the number of pass attempts.

Net rushing yards, per game average
  1. 173.38 (2001)

  2. 154.00 (2004)

  3. 139.19 (2000)

  4. 138.94 (2005)

  5. 135.50 (2007)

  6. 132.50 (2002)

  7. 124.50 (2006)

  8. 109.17 (2008)

  9. 93.00 (2003)
The loss of Willie Parker explains a great deal when it comes to the running game, however this season's performance is more than 18% below the historical average (133.35) ~ did we really appreciate averaging 173 yards rushing back in 2001? ~ and is, arguably, more of a reflection of the play of the offensive line. We believe Darnell Stapleton may be a difference maker for that group, so there is hope for the remainder of the season.

So what does it all mean?

Being fans of the Steelers we, naturally, believe that the numbers do not portend good things for the remainder of the season. The offense is relying on big plays, and help from the officials, to a degree not seen before ~ at least during winning seasons. With the Giants, Redskins, Patriots, Ravens, and Cowboys on the schedule it is reasonable to assume that the proficiency of the defenses the Steelers will face is bound to rise, and only a corresponding increase in offensive proficiency will result in success.

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