Steelers' strategy gets a pass
Steelers' strategy gets a pass
By John Harris
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians felt compelled to defend their gameplan following last week's 31-28 loss in Denver.
The Steelers bucked a long-standing NFL tradition when they bypassed the running game in the first quarter against an opponent that ranked last against stopping the run.
Indeed, the Steelers absorbed some much-deserved criticism for losing a game they were expected to win. But that criticism was misdirected, according to a prominent expert in football statistical analysis.
In fact, Ben Alamar, a professor of sports management at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., said the Steelers should have been even more aggressive than their final 35-26 pass-run ratio would indicate.
It is Alamar's contention, based purely on data rather than his personal opinion, that teams with good passing attacks are more likely to make the playoffs than teams with good running attacks.
"The general concept for the passing-running choice is there's much higher payoff for passing than running," said Alamar, who became involved in football research as a graduate student and founded the Journal of Quantitative Analyses in Sports.
"Given the Steelers' tradition, I can understand why people want to say they should have run the ball against Denver. And maybe they should have, given what Denver's defense was. But Denver was putting eight and nine players up on the line of scrimmage. So audibling to a pass play in those cases makes some sense."
Alamar offers league-wide evidence that passing on first-and-10 is "more frequently successful than the running game, gains more yards and has more upside when it is successful."
Alamar based his research on first-and-10 because he said it's the down with the greatest option of plays. He selected first-down plays 60 to 80 yards from the end zone so there would be more factors involved than "trying to get another first down."
On all first-and-10 plays this season, the Steelers have run the ball more than half the time (54 percent) while passing 46 percent of the time. In 2005, the league average broke down to teams running and passing around 50 percent on first down.
In 2007, the Steelers area averaging 4.5 yards per carry and converting 13 percent of those runs into first downs.
On first-down passes, the Steelers are averaging 6.1 yards per play and turning 32 percent of those into first downs.
During their Super Bowl season two years ago, the Steelers ran 65 percent on first-and-10 and passed 35 percent.
That year, the Steelers averaged 4.2 yards on first-and-10 runs. But when the Steelers threw the ball on first-and-10, they averaged 8.0 yards per pass play.
"If you gave somebody a choice that if you spend a dollar half the time, on average, I'll give you $3 back or 10 percent of the time I'll give you $100, or if you give me a dollar and half the time I'll give you $6 and 30 percent of the time I'll give you $100, there doesn't seem to be a choice there," said Alamar, a former consultant for an NFL team.
"By no means does my work suggest that all teams should always throw more than they run. But it's (not) hard to argue that the Steelers could double their output on first down by passing the ball."