Categorized | Article, Rankings

2012, 2013 NFL Game Opening Drive Study


By Alex Kozora

This past weekend, Dave Bryan posted an article containing Ben Roethlisberger’s career numbers on opening drives.  And as he wrote and a reader posted, a more full-fledged idea came out of it.

Statistics are all relative. On the surface, it’s difficult to gauge how impressive Roethlisberger’s performance (37 touchdowns in 142 drives) really is with nothing to compare it to. You need the rest of the league to see how he stacks up.

The additional nice aspect of a study like this is the sample size is the same. Each team and quarterback, health withstanding, obviously has 16 opening drives. Sure, there will still be a discrepancy in individual stats but a much more controlled variable exists.

This study is a great way to see how teams operate out of the gate while working off some of their 15 scripted plays, the set of plays that the team knows it will use to begin the game.

Out of sheer time considerations, I wasn’t able to go back and look at career numbers for each team and quarterback. What I did do was break the study up into two sections.

1. Looking at team numbers on their opening offensive drives from the last two seasons.

2. Looking at individual stats from each quarterback in 2013.

The first section of numbers come courtesy of Pro Football Reference. All the data is listed in the link at the end of this article. To make the table below a little more concise, I’ve listed the top and bottom five teams in each category, the league average, and where the Steelers’ ranked.

Data from 2012 will be shown first, followed by 2013.

2012
YARDS TIME PLAYS START SCORE
AVG: 31.85 AVG: 3:04 AVG: 6.1 AVG: 25.3 AVG: 5.7
1. TEN – 41.5 1. IND – 3:48 1. BAL – 6.9 1. SEA – 33 1. SEA – 10
2. SEA – 41.3 2. JAC – 3:44 2. IND – 6.8 2. ARZ – 32 2. MIN – 10
3. MIN – 40.4 3. ATL – 3:35 2. JAC – 6.8 3. DAL – 32 3. TB – 8
4. HOU – 40.2 4. TB – 3:33 2. ATL – 6.8 4. TB – 31 3. ATL – 8
5. IND – 39.9 5. WSH – 3:32 2. MIA – 6.8
5. ATL – 29 3. TEN – 8
28. SF – 25.3 28. NO – 2:22 28. BUF – 5.1 T-26. DEN – 21 T-27. BUF – 3
29. GB – 24.4 29. NE – 2:21 29. CHI – 5.0 T-26. DET – 21 T-27. CHI – 3
30. BUF – 22.7 30. GB – 2:21 30. SF – 4.9 T-26. SF – 21 T-27. PHI – 3
31. CHI – 20.3 31. OAK – 2:18 31. NYG – 4.8 31. NYJ – 20 T-27. SF – 3
32. OAK – 17.1 32. NYG – 2:15 32. OAK – 4.5 32. HOU – 19 32, OAK – 1
21, PIT – 29.2 19. PIT – 3:05 23. PIT – 5.8
T-11. PIT – 27 T-6. PIT – 7
TO PUNTS TD FG INT
AVG: 1.9 AVG: 8 AVG: 3.5 AVG: 2.2 AVG: 1.1
1. CHI – 5 1. SF – 12 1. CIN – 7 1. SEA – 6 1. DAL – 3
1. PHI – 5 2. DET – 11 1. ATL – 7 2. TEN – 5 1. CLE – 3
3. DAL – 4 2. GB – 11 1. MIN – 7 3. HOU – 4 1. NYJ – 3
3. NO – 4 2. CAR – 11 4. CAR – 5 3. PIT – 4 1. CHI – 4
3. OAK – 4 5. OAK – 10
4. IND – 5 3. BAL – 4 1. PHI – 3
T-26. IND – 0 T-26. ATL – 6 T-21. JAC – 2 T-28. CIN – 0 T-20. IND – 0
T-26. MIA – 0 T-26. MIN – 6 T-21. NYJ – 2 T-28. CAR – 0 T-20. SD – 0
T-26. CAR – 0 T-26. HOU – 6 T-21. ARZ – 2 T-28. NO – 0 T-20. PIT – 0
T-26. WSH – 0 T-31. TEN – 4 T-21. DAL – 2 T-28. GB – 0 T-20. CAR – 0
T-26. SF – 0 T-32. SEA – 4 32. OAK – 0
T-28. BUF – 0 T-20. GB – 0
T-25. PIT – 1 T-10. PIT – 8 T-14. PIT – 3 3. PIT – 4 T-20. PIT – 0
2013
YARDS TIME PLAYS START SCORE
AVG: 30.1 AVG: 2:54 AVG: 5.86 AVG: 25.84 AVG: 5.34
1. DEN – 50.7 1. GB – 4:12 1. GB – 8.4 1. DAL – 38 1. DEN – 10
2. GB – 44.1 2. ATL – 4:06 2. ATL – 7.6 2. MIN – 35 2. DAL – 9
3. SD – 39.6 3. SD – 3:49 3. DEN – 7.5 3. OAK – 33 3. TEN – 8
4. ATL – 39.5 4. DET – 3:42 4. DET – 7.2 4. TEN – 32 4. SF – 8
5. DAL – 35.2 5. CAR – 3:42 5. SD – 6.8
5. CHI – 32 5. GB – 8
28.MIN – 21.8 28. BUF – 2:19 28. BAL – 4.9
28. STL – 22 28.ARZ – 4
29. STL – 21.6 29. TB – 2:17 29. CIN – 4.9
29. ATL – 21 29. PIT – 3
30. BAL – 20.2 30. CLE – 2:09 30. TB – 4.7 30. ARZ – 20 30. MIA – 3
31. NYG – 20.1 31. BAL – 2:07 31. STL – 4.6 31. MIA – 20 31. STL – 2
32. CLE – 20.1 32. PHI – 2:06 32. CLE – 4.4 32. DET – 19 32. DET – 2
22. PIT – 26.9 9. PIT – 3:07 17. PIT – 5.6
T-13. PIT – 26 29. PIT – 3
TO PUNTS TD FG INT
AVG: 1.9 AVG: 7.97
AVG: 3.16 AVG: 2.19
AVG: 1.09
1. MIN – 4 1. STL – 11 1. DEN – 8
1. SF – 5 1. CIN – 2
2. HOU – 4 2. DET – 11 2. ATL – 5
2. GB – 5 2. SD – 2
3. PIT – 4 3. MIA – 10 3. OAK – 5
3. SEA – 5 3. PHI – 2
4. DEN – 3 4. CLE – 10 4. CIN – 5
4. DAL – 4 4. MIN – 2
5. SD – 3 5. BAL – 10
5. TEN – 5 5. BUF – 4 5. ARZ – 2
28. NYJ – 1 28. CIN – 6 28. MIA – 1
T-22. PIT – 1 28. SF – 0
29. TB – 1 29. TEN – 6 29. CLE – 1
T-22. STL – 1 29. BUF – 0
30. DET – 1 30. GB – 6 30. NYG – 1
30. ARZ. 0 30. TB – 0
31. SF – 0 31. DAL – 5 31. WSH – 1
31. JAC – 0 31. DET – 0
32. ATL – 0 32. DEN – 3 32. SEA – 1
32. DET – 0 32. WSH – 0
3. PIT – 4 8. PIT – 9 T-21. PIT – 2
T-22. PIT – 1 T-12. PIT 1

Taking the rest of the league out of the equation for a moment and comparing the 2012 Steelers to 2013, there was considerable regression. The 2012 Steelers scored seven times on their opening drive, well above the average of 5.7. In all, they came away with 33 points. In 2013? Just three scores – well below the average and one of the worst figures in the league – and 17 points. Especially troubling considering the team’s average start and plays run are nearly identical. You’d expect production to be similar.

Worse yet, the team turned the ball over four times in 2013, tying the league high (The combined record of the other two teams with four was 7-25). In 2012, the Steelers turned it over just once.

The only category the Steelers improved in was time of possession, a two second markup.

League-wide, the 2013 team was below average in yards, plays, and scores despite being average in starting field position. They finished near the top in categories no teams want to be first in: punts and turnovers. In 2013, the only categories they finished positively above average in were time of possession, average starting position, and interceptions.

2012 was similar with the exception of an above average mark in scoring drives, the only category to truly be excited about. But an important one.

To put a bow on the two seasons, one more comparison that’s a bit easier to digest.

2012: 16 drives, 8 punts, 7 scores (4 FG, 3 TD = 33 points), 1 turnover (1 INT)

2013: 16 drives, 9 punts, 3 scores (2 TD, 1 FG = 17 points), 4 turnovers (3 Fumbles, 1 INT)

In 2013 alone, the Denver Broncos scored more touchdowns on their first drive – eight – than the Steelers have in the last two seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals have scored 12 touchdowns over the last two years, 240% more than Pittsburgh. That stings.

It’s only one drive but helps show one reason why the Steelers always seemed to be playing from behind last year.

Since we originally were talking about quarterback play, blanket team stats can skew the numbers. After all, if a running back were to hypothetically rip off a long TD run on the first drive, the quarterback didn’t really orchestrate it and unfairly gets credit for it.

In an effort to make the picture a bit clearer, I broke down how 32 quarterbacks performed in 2013 on their opening drive. Table is below. Averages are located at the bottom of each category. Feel free to sort it how you like. By default, it’s sorted alphabetically.

PLAYER COMP ATT COMP % YDS YPC TD INT SAKS FUM/L RUSH YDS RUSH TD
S. Bradford 7 15 46.7 57 8.14 0 1 0 0 2 0
T. Brady 34 62 54.7 360 10.59 1 1 3 0 18 0
M. Cassel 11 18 61.1 104 9.45 0 1 2 1\0 0 0
K. Clemens 13 18 72.2 145 11.15 0 1 3 0 16 0
J. Cutler 22 32 68.9% 221 10.05 2 1 1 1\0 0 0
A. Dalton 22 39 56.4 320 14.55 3 2 0 0 9 0
R. Fitzpatrick 20 29 69 253 12.65 0 0 3 2\0 11 0
J. Flacco 21 44 47.7 230 10.95 1 1 3 0 6 0
N. Foles 24 34 70.6 288 12 4 0 2 0 18 1
R. Griffin 22 40 55 270 12.27 0 0 0 1\0 69 0
M. Glennon 15 29 51.7 184 12.27 2 0 2 1\1 0 0
C. Henne 24 35 68.6 325 13.54 1 1 2 1\0 1 0
C. Kaepernick 23 43 53.5 260 11.3 1 0 4 0\0 65 0
A. Luck 27 46 58.7 315 11.67 2 1 1 1\1 8 0
E. Manning 22 44 50 271 12.31 0 2 4 0 20 0
P. Manning 55 81 67.9 662 12.04 8 1 0 0 0 0
E. Manuel 5 16 31.3 84 16.8 0 0 1 0 22 1
J. McCown 11 17 64.7 124 11.27 2 0 1 1\0 4 0
C. Newton 30 48 62.5 317 10.57 2 2 8 0 68 0
C. Palmer 36 52 69.2 408 11.33 2 2 5 2\1 12 0
T. Pryor 11 14 78.6 126 11.45 1 1 2 0 113 2
P. Rivers 40 55 72.7 373 9.33 3 2 3 0 4 0
A. Rodgers 33 43 76.7 300 9.09 2 1 5 0 12 0
B. Roethlisberger 33 45 73.3 321 9.72 2 1 3 2\2 0 0
T. Romo 26 40 65 297 11.42 3 0 3 0 0 0
M. Ryan 53 67 79.1 457 8.62 3 0 4 0 0 0
M. Schaub 11 20 55 69 6.27 1 2 0 0 0 0
A. Smith 23 47 48.9 283 12.3 2 1 2 0 61 0
G. Smith 21 38 55.3 278 13.24 1 1 0 1\0 43 1
M. Stafford 38 62 61.3 406 10.68 1 0 3 1\0 6 0
R. Tannehill 28 43 65.1 269 9.61 1 2 5 1\0 35 0
R. Wilson 21 36 58.3 208 9.9 1 1 2 1\0 31 0
AVERAGE 24.4 39.1 59.4 268.3 11.1 1.6 0.9 2.4 0.0 20.4 0.2

Roethlisberger’s numbers are the following:

33/45 (73.3%) 321 yards 9.72 YPC 2 TD 1 INT 3 sacks 2 Fumbles Lost 0 rushing yards/touchdowns.

His league-wide ranking in each category listed below. To clarify, each category is ranked from highest number to lowest. So for example, in interceptions, the highest number is first with the lowest being 32. How I set things up in the team chart and wanted to remain consistent.

Completions: T-6

Attempts: 9

Completion %: 3

Yards: 8

YPC: 25th

TDs: T-7

INT: T-7

Sacks: T-7

Fumbles/Fumbles Lost: T-1/1

Rushing Yards: T-25

Rushing Touchdowns: T-5

On the surface, the numbers appear positive. His completion percentage is only bested by Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Completions, attempts, and yards are all top ten.

The yards per completion does leave a lot to be desired, however. And as I alluded to above, the turnovers are back-breaking. Big Ben is responsible for three of the four giveaways. It’s not directly listed in the chart but that ties the league lead with Carson Palmer. This isn’t shown in the chart either but all three came within the first nine games of the season. In that same span, only twice did Ben throw for more than 20 yards on an opening drive.

It should come as no surprise then, though certainly a disappointment, the Steelers were outscored 64-19 in the first quarter through their first nine games. Only twice did the Steelers lead after the first stanza, and that’s including the opening kickoff safety in Week One against the Tennessee Titans.

As an aside, a quick look at the rest of the league.

Peyton Manning was expectantly dominant. Eight touchdowns, no turnovers, and was not sacked in 81 dropbacks. Wow.

From the numbers alone, you wouldn’t be able to tell Aaron Rodgers started just eight games. Top ten in completions and just missed the cut in attempts and yards. The Packers let him air it out early on and he knows how to move the sticks.

Ryan Fitzpatrick did surprisingly well to start the game, throwing for 50+ yards on the opening drive 40% of the time. But his performance seemed to go downhill from there. Houston better score early in 2014. Ditto with Matt Ryan. His opening drive numbers of a near 80% completion percentage and three touchdowns to zero interceptions mark far exceeded what he was able to do the rest of the game. Granted, some of that is natural regression to the mean.

Looking at the AFC North, Andy Dalton was boom-or-bust. Three touchdowns and the top YPC by a fair margin but wasn’t even close to completing 60% of his throws while starting and finishing the year with an interception. Joe Flacco was not impressive, failing to complete half his passes, throwing just one touchdown, and absorbing three sacks. In his final four weeks, he went 4/10 for 34 yards and a pick.

E.J. Manuel was dreadful. Matt Schaub was worse. He threw three touchdowns on his first drive. Two of those were to the other team. Only QB in the league to throw multiple pick six’s to start the game.

Back to the Steelers to wrap things up. As a whole, the team has been below average the last two years and frankly, bad last year. Roethlisberger was slightly above average but must cut down on the turnovers and a big boost in YPC would be a welcomed sight.

But the biggest onus rests on the shoulder’s of the running game to pick up the slack. Combined, the Steelers ran for right around 110 yards in 2013, a measly fourth of the team’s total offense. Just getting that number up to about 40% would probably be beneficial enough. No one is asking for a 50/50 split between run and pass.

Feel free to comment and add whatever other analysis you come up with. There’s a ton more to break down that I haven’t touched yet.

How a team starts a game is obviously not the end-all, but boy, it sure is nice when you’re successful early. Puts you in control as a team. Control is something the Pittsburgh Steelers sorely lacked in 2013.

Link to Team Data: http://goo.gl/tRhzBH

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About Dave Bryan

I am, I'm me. 40 something, retired and a life long Steelers fan.
  • k33ger

    Nice article. Highlights how I felt watching the game, as I was used to seeing us score more on the opening drive.

    I think a good followup would be to rank the defenses by opening drives. This would allow you to do a +/- evaluation of the strength of a team in the beginning. For example, Peyton scoring 8 times is great, but if the defense allowed 8 scores as well, it isn’t as awesome as it could be.

  • steeltown

    4 turnovers sure doesn’t help

  • Craig

    It is most difficult to judge a player on his individual stats in football being it is a team based sport- EX: opening drives are like boxing and feeling out your opponent football is predicated on your run game, long term strategy in clock control and how it allows your passing game to develop. Baseball is the only team sport where there are Off/Def. individual stats. To me the basic rule is looking to 5 yrds. per carry and 20 yrds. per reception as your goal- successfully reaching this would show a well balanced surprise base element game plan.

  • chris ward

    Nice article, definitely an area to improve on in 14′, Opening drives in 13′ were below the standard.

  • http://suspect5.bandcamp.com/ HardPunkKore

    20 yards per catch is way high, I think maybe closer to 15 yards is a bit more realistic.

  • Craig

    Okay and maybe 4.5 also, I’m just saying there is so much to take into consideration. I didn’t care for Ben for a long time because he used to line up w/ his feet facing the line of scrimmage and suffered from happy feet, always weighing running rather than throwing. Whenever he had one foot perpendicular to the LOS his passing stats would go up but then he started always looking for the deep open receiver rather than hitting the short timed receiver throw, helping TOP by using the short pass game as a time consuming run similar play. Also there were balls that should have been caught but say maybe Wallace wouldn’t fight for a ball and that would reflect on the QB. Anyway I feel that w/ the new Off. coordinators different attack scheme Ben will not only set new highs but also be around for a lot longer instead of sitting at home in a diaper from being bounced around like a basketball. I think Ben is going to rated as a great field general in the future but the only stat I’m interested in in his not getting sacked.

  • falconsaftey43

    Would be interesting to see how scoring on the opening drive correlates with winning. I bet it’s close to 80% if you score on the opening drive and don’t let the opponent score on theirs.

  • charles

    Opening drive is a picture of coach’s game planning. TOs ruin that , chaotic Oline might explain TOs and certainly losing your center digs the hole deeper. Munchak should solve the Oline question while Ben’s increasingly quick read should lower the TOs. Someones previous comment above that scoring first puts pressure on your opponent is right.

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