Study: Steelers’ Field Position And Scoring Correlation

Field position. The thing you forget about until it costs your team a game. Talk to any special teams coach and they’ll tell you how important it is and how it impacts the ability to score.

Intuitively, we know the better field position you have, the more likely you are to score and vice versa. But let’s put some actual numbers to it. And see, where, if any, we have a point of diminishing returns, where if we reach “X” we have about the best spot to score. The point where things are going to be about as good as they’ll get.

I dug through the 2015 numbers using Pro Football Reference’s brilliant Play Index to compile my data. We’re looking at average points per drive, adding up touchdowns and field goals and dividing by total number of drives. To make clear, all touchdowns will count for seven points, even understanding there are two point conversions and following last years rule change, missed extra points.

For the Steelers’ offense, here are the numbers.

Starting Field PositionTouchdownsField GoalsTotal DrivesPoints Per Drive (PPD)
Own 1-1043221.68
11-1934221.50
At 20135492.16
21-29510322.03
30-4968302.20
Opp 49-1115214.38

Starting inside their 20, the Steelers’ offense saw a big dip in production. Well under 1.75 points per drive. As soon as they reached the 20 – aka touchbacks – the number spiked up to 2.16. And then, even as field position improved, the number leveled off when the ball was still in Steeler territory. There is only a .04 increase in points per drive from the ball being in the 30-49 range as it is on a touchback.

Of course, the numbers tell the story we all know about creating turnovers and starting in territory. A huge spike, averaging better than a field goal per possession.

The data tells me two things.

– Again, turnovers are supreme. Force the opposing team to cough it up in their own end, or pin then deep and get a decent punt return, and if you can start on their side of the 50, you’re golden.

– Is the Steelers kick returner really all that important? It is a tad more difficult to draw conclusions knowing touchbacks are now at the 25 instead of the 20. But the data suggests as long as the Steelers don’t have horrible field position, just get to the 20 (which a touchback would do and then five extra yards), the offense is about as “good” as it’ll get.

Using last year’s data as our guide, the difference between the Steelers starting at their 20 and their 30 aren’t significant. And it’s not like any one sample size is so tiny that they’ll be easily skewed.

So here’s the theory. Mine, anyway. The Steelers offense is so high powered that they’ll succeed in most areas of the field. Again, just as long as the field position isn’t groan-inducing.

As an extension of that, to the original question, why not just take the touchback every time? Or on the returns that do happen, all I care about is getting to the 20, something even Najeh Davenport could do. So while obviously, you want the best man back there, you can say at the same time, it doesn’t really matter. Just find someone who takes care of the football – by far, the most important element – and you’ll be successful.

Defensively, let’s look at the same set of data.

Starting Field PositionTouchdownsField GoalsTotal DrivesPoints Per Drive (PPD)
Own 1-1020200.7
11-1944271.48
At 2077371.89
21-2943311.19
30-4998402.18
Opp 49-184282.83

The numbers are about what you’d expect. A slow climb upwards with the exception of the random dip from the 21 to 29.

We know that when the Steelers pin their opponent to their ten or closer, they only score 10% of the time and overall, have a very small PPD. Jordan Berry finished as the league’s best “pin deep” punter last season and if he can carry that over, the Steelers’ defense will be much better for it. The difference between putting them at the ten or a touchback, last season at least, was over a pull point per drive.

And these numbers show the importance of field position and a quality coverage unit. You don’t want the opponent to reach their 30 because their odds of scoring goes up relatively significantly.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • dkoy85

    Interesting study. Thanks for the work!

  • Steel PAul

    Unless a team was smart enough to draft Tyler Lockett last year, who averaged 26/yds on kick returns with 105 yd TD, and 10 yds/return on punts with another TD.

    If the Steelers had him, well wow.

  • Alex K

    Interesting. Some real sports journalism here.

  • Mc_Muffin

    Excellent work Alex!

    What I find most interesting about these numbers is not nessesarily the PPD but the TD-% when starting from the 20 yard line. If you divide the number of touchdowns by the number of drivers you get something like:

    1-10: 18%
    11-19: 14%
    20: 27%
    21-29: 16 %
    30-49: 20%

    Maybe opposing defenses get tired after these long drivers from the 20 yard line and therefor often give up a TD and can’t stop us for a FG.

    Also it would be really interessting to see these numbers go up against other teams in the league.

  • JAMESH

    Alex, you are a beautiful human being.

  • PittsburghSports

    Interesting study. Your data might not show a significant difference in scoring points, but what about scoring percentage. Wether it’s a TD or a FG the Steelers had a much greater chance of putting points on the board the further down the field they were.

    Scoring percentage(TD or FG)

    Own 1-10: (31.8%)
    11-19: (31.8%)
    20: (36.7%)
    21-29: (46.8%)
    30-49: (46.6%)
    Opp 49-1: (76.1%)

  • pittfan

    Welcome. You must be new.

  • David Paul

    Been saying this for years. The “bend but don’t break” defense is a big culprit here. How many times the last few years have the Steelers pinned the other team back, only for the D to allow 2-3 first downs and a flip of field position? The argument is “if they don’t give up points they did their job”, but that’s only half of it.

    Last year in Baltimore, the Steelers best starting field position was their own 23, and people blamed the offense solely for that loss. Very misguided, IMO.

    If you make your O drive long fields all game, the production will naturally be down.

  • Alex Kozora

    I did consider that, though that was at like, 2 AM last night.

    I think the best counter is that even knowing that, with the ball being moved to the 25 this year, and knowing the difference between 21-29 and 30-49 in nill, it still encourages the touchback every time.

    I also do wonder that since the 20 had a bigger sample size, there is more of a normalization at play, too. Just a wild thought.

  • Alex Kozora

    It would. Maybe at some point. Would take a lot of time.

  • Alex Kozora

    Us Alex K’s gotta stick together.

  • PaeperCup

    Cool stuff. With the touchback moving to the 25, that puts us in our prime defensive starting spot.

  • PaeperCup

    Yeah, it would be nice to see them stop some drives within their 30. More 3 n outs please.

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    This is good data. If you factor in the preponderance of penalties that occur which become a reason you end up starting inside your 20, it furthers your conclusion to take the touchback.

  • popsiclesticks

    Tyler Lockett KO return: 25.8/ret

    Dri Archer KO return: 25.3/ret

    The TD is the only really important stat there. Outside of that TD, statistically he was Dri Archer returning kicks.

  • Steel PAul

    That’s a little short sighted, no disrespect meant.

    Archer’s KO return average his rookie year was 17.9. Lockett’s was 25.8. (12th in NFL).

    Lockett also had 33 KO returns compared to Archer’s 9 (only 14 in his second/last season).

    But the bigger issue is that Lockett also had 3 KO returns over 40 yards, to go along with 3 more punt returns of over 40 yards and a TD in each.

    That’s six times he flipped the field and scored twice. Archer zero on all counts.

  • popsiclesticks

    Well Archer didn’t return punts. I’m just talking about kickoffs, as if 26 ypr is some great number. Archer’s kickoff return average his rookie year did not affect the Steelers 2015 kickoff returns one iota.

    The big plays are great, but he also had more than twice as many kick returns as Archer did and if he had so many great returns and almost the same average overall, he must have had some really bad ones.

    I’ve just seen this in a bunch of threads where people see a kick returner and wish the Steelers had him because of his return average when it’s the same (or close to the same) as glaring wasted roster spot Dri Archer. I’d love Lockett for his punt returning ability. But I also think kick return TDs are largely a result of volume, as good returners seem to take one back every 40+ returns or so. I remember people complaining that Stefan Logan didn’t take any kicks to the house and then, lo and behold, he goes to Detroit and takes a kick to the house.

    Devin Hester returned 4 KOs for TDs in his first 2 seasons. Over the remainder of his career, he returned 201 kicks….and scored once. Jacoby Jones scored a TD on his 30th career kick return…it was his first 40+ yard return.

  • popsiclesticks

    In the game against Carolina, Lockett returned two kicks…one to the 10 and the other to the 9. If Dri Archer did that, this place would meltdown. I just think people look at kick return avg of other team’s players too much.

  • Steel PAul

    Haha, okay.. I take back the “short sighted” remark as you’ve obviously thought about this a lot and have a strong opinion. I disagree, but honestly don’t care enough to debate this one. Party on Garth..

  • The GreekGeek

    For a moment there, I thought you made a second account to complement yourself. LOL.
    Good article though. Pro football reference is my go to for stats. They have tons of really good data.