While looking through some data yesterday, I happened upon some interesting observations regarding Pittsburgh Steelers running back usage on short-yardage opportunities on third and fourth down during the 2013 season.
The common perception is largely that the Steelers shifted Jonathan Dwyer into that short-yardage role. It is a perception that is reinforced by a couple of prominent performances during which he was brought in solely to convert a third down on multiple occasions within the same game.
Dwyer did, indeed, garner 13 carries on third and fourth down with three or less yards to go, but in fact it was rookie running back Le’Veon Bell with which the Steelers entrusted most of their crucial short-yardage needs.
The rookie carried the ball 16 times on third and fourth down with three or less yards to go, and his performance was quite comparable with the more veteran back. Bell converted on 11 of his 16 opportunities, while Dwyer converted on nine of his 13 chances. They both round off to a conversion rate of 69 percent.
Meanwhile, Dwyer averaged 3.31 yards per carry, with his longest gain being just eight yards. Bell averaged 4.56 yards, but that total is skewed heavily by a 43-yard carry on a third and two play.
Remove that one play and Bell in fact averaged just two yards per play, though he still converted 10 of those 15 opportunities. Dwyer would still have averaged 2.9 yards per carry when removing his longest gain.
Another interesting nuance to this data is the fact that Dwyer never gained negative yardage on a short-yardage play, and on only four plays did he gain either zero or one yard.
Bell, on the other hand, lost yardage on three short-yardage attempts; however, these failures were not his to own when you go back and look at the plays.
On his two-yard loss against the Detroit Lions, for example, Will Johnson, Mike Adams (at tight end), and Guy Whimper (at left guard) were all beaten immediately on what was a third and goal play from the one.
Another peculiar quirk in the manner in which the Steelers employed their running backs in short-yardage situations is that they generally stuck with one option throughout any particular game.
Between the games against the Raiders and Patriots, for example, Bell carried six times in short-yardage, while Dwyer had none. Later in the season, Dwyer had four consecutive short-yardage carries in the games against the Dolphins and the Bengals. This is the data; make of it what you will.