Devil’s Advocate: Red-Zone Rejuvenation

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Will the Steelers have more success in the red zone this season?

This certainly seems to be a perennial topic of discussion, but once again, the Steelers are still looking for the secret to unlocking their full potential on the offensive side of the ball. They seem to be able to virtually drive the ball down the field at will, but too often—and too frequently on the road—they have been unable to capitalize on their opportunities within 20 yards of their destination.

I don’t have the exact numbers readily at hand, but at least when it comes to their scores through the air, a large portion of their success in this area actually came via the explosive play. Antonio Brown had many long-range touchdowns. Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey scored from distance as well, as did Sammie Coates on one of his two. Even Cobi Hamilton’s touchdowns were from distance.

So is this the year—as opposed to all of the previous the years—that the offense finally turns things around and becomes a successful finisher inside the 20? Why, of course it is.

The offensive line is as good as it has ever been, and Ben Roethlisberger has more talent around him at the skill positions than ever before. He has a virtual forest of tall wide receivers now to whom he can throw, including the returning Martavis Bryant.

Le’Veon Bell also has a knack for finding the end zone when he is given the opportunities, and he should be healthy and unsuspended when the year starts for a change.

But none of this directly accounts for the home-road disparity in execution success, nor does it result in better play-calling inside the red zone. Too often they seemed to deviate from what had worked to get them inside the 20 once they got there, resulting in them settling for a field goal. That needs to change first, and none of the play-callers are different, at least physically. Will they alter their approach?

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’m working on looking at the home-road RZ stuff right now, trying to find a difference to account for the large success disparity. So far, the only thing that stands out, is that the success rate of passing plays on the road is far worse than at home (28% vs 57%). They also tend to run it more on the road 44% of the time on the road, only 31% at home). This may be due to the fact that they struggle to throw it on the road, so would make sense to run it more. The run success rates are virtually the same.

    I’m going to keep digging to see what else I can find. Looking at quality of RZ opportunities (what down is it when they get to RZ, what yardline do they start on). Let me know if you have any suggestions on something specific to investigate wrt this.

  • RickM

    The blame logically has to fall at the feet of Roethlisberger and Haley. I think we moved within the K.C.’s 35 yard-line 7 times in the playoffs and did not get a single TD. And the RZ problems, not unexpectedly, continued in N.E. Is the team troubled by all this? Yes and no. They’ll acknowledge it after games and then it’ll be business as usual. When Todd Haley first started he had a play or two in the RZ that made me go ‘wow’, that was so creative. Now it seems like we’re somewhat predictable.

  • RickM

    Great info so far. I’d be curious whether we’re passing more often on 1st down at home in the RZ, i.e. being more aggressive. I’d also be interested in your thoughts as to how a 30% change in completion rate is occurring on the road. Is Roethlisberger being far less accurate (the most likely explanation)? Or do you see other factors: a little more pressure, throwing on obvious passing downs, guys not getting open as much, etc.

  • falconsaftey43

    On 1st down at home. They threw it 69% of the time with a 40% success rate (on 1st down that means 45% of yards needed or more). They ran it 31% of the time with a 56% success rate. They scored on 13 of 29 1st down plays 8 passes 5 runs.

    Away on 1st down, they threw it 41% of the time with 38% success. Ran it 59% of the time with 47% success. They scored on 5 of 32 1st down plays 2 passes 3 runs.

    I don’t have the tape, so I’ll have to stick to what the play by play says.

  • RickM

    Again, great stuff. It’s pretty clear that they’re way more aggressive at home on first down (28% more passes), and no doubt they have opposing D’s guessing whether it’ll be run or pass. And the unpredictability led to a lot of success. It’s amazing they had that many 1st down TD’s.

    It looks like they flip things on the road, going more conservative with far worse scoring results obviously. Too bad. Hopefully the more aggressive approach can be used on the road as well in 2017.

  • falconsaftey43

    So it does look like they had “higher quality” RZ opportunities at home compared to away, at least by these measures.

    When I say start a RZ drive or opportunity, I am referring to the where the 1st play inside the RZ occured, on a single offensive possession.

    At Home they started 79% of RZ ops on 1st down (69% away).
    At home, on average they started in the RZ on 1.25 down (1.7 away)
    At home, the average RZ drive started at 11.75 yard (15.44 away)
    At home, they started 32% of RZ drives inside the 10 (7% away).

    These numbers would suggest that the RZ opportunities weren’t as good on the road, so they may have been impacted by the overall lesser play of the offense on the road not getting them early down starts deep in the redzone. May be that the RZ home away splits aren’t as bad as the surface number suggest, but just reflective of the overall poorer offensive play.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yes, that seems like it may be part of the problem. Their overall play success rate was the same on 1st down, but when your “success” is a TD pass at home, and a 5 yard run on the road, it’s a big difference. So perhaps passing more on early downs is called for. Would seem to make sense, you’re passing earlier so less predictable, likely from further out than if you ran first, so you have more room for WRs to work with,

  • falconsaftey43

    At home they scored 6 TDs on 1st down, 8 on 2nd, 7 on 3rd.
    On the road they scored 6 on 1st down, 3 on 2nd, 2 on 3rd.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yards to go (for 1st down or TD) at home and away were very similar, with small difference on 1st down (due to more goal to go situations at home.

    Home: 6.9 on 1st, 5.6 on 2nd, 4.8 on 3rd.
    Away: 7.9 on 1st, 5.6 on 2nd, 5.0 on 3rd/4th.

  • AndyR34

    Matthew…to answer your question, No! Too stubborn to try something new.

  • RickM

    No doubt those stats factor into it as well. Especially that 32%-7% inside the 10 number. I do think the non-division home opponents (N.E., Giants, K.C., Dallas, Jets) were far tougher than the road opponents (Washington, Eagles, Miami, Colts and Bills), except the Jets of course. That would balance off the easier home starting position a little, but not all of course.

  • AndyR34

    RickM – “somewhat predictable” is an understatement. But then again, you are a kind gentleman. And that’s not sarcasm.

  • RickM

    Hi Andy. Agree, it sure seems that D’s had a better handle from film study on what we’d do. It’s tough in a vacuum without watching it all again, but falcon’s stats certainly give some insight. I will admit that there are times I (like you) can call the upcoming play; but we as fans watch every game so closely that we know our OC’s tendencies.

    But I hope they make a concerted effort to fix this. Somehow we have to get the #1 seed. We got lucky last year with a pretty easy road schedule so the poor RZ play didn’t kill our playoff chances. Against better teams, we just can’t leave that many points off the board and win. Cheers.

  • Michael Conrad

    The difference this year should be MB and Hunter if he makes the team and maybe JJSS. Ben will have taller targets. I think for some reason the steelers get more penalties in the red zone then they should on running plays. Don’t forget most of the year it was AB and not much else in the passing game. I think the play calling gets to conservative in the red zone at times. Look at the targets for this year. MB ,JJSS,Hunter ,Coats ,AB ,Bell ,James ,Conner.I don’t think it will but if the red zone O stinks it will fall on the OC and Ben the players are in place to make this O special. I’m not sure if they deviate from what worked or somehow and OC and Ben take to long to get a play off while searching for RZ plays. A stubborn OC may want to run his plays and not just go for it and let the talent do the job.

  • falconsaftey43

    At home, they threw to start most RZ possessions. 76% of the time on ones the ended up scoring and 71% on those that didn’t, so no major difference. At home, they scored on 76% of possessions starting with a pass (it’s coincidence that it’s the same as % of scoring drives that started with a pass). And on 71% when starting with a run.

    On the road, they threw much less, as previously noted, but what stands out is the difference between scoring and non-scoring possessions. On scoring drives, they started with a pass 50% of the time, on non-scoring drives they only started with a pass 35% of the time. They scored on 50% of drives starting with a pass (again coincidence, but weird). They only scored on 35% when starting with a run.

    So, to put it simply, there was a big difference in ability to score on the road depending if they started off with a pass vs a run (no so much of a difference at home).

  • nutty32

    Modern medical advancements in cosmetic surgery has ruined a perfectly fine term like “rejuvenation.”

  • Edjhjr

    Ya very odd game, KC lost by not letting them score a TD. What was time of possession difference

  • Edjhjr

    I knew Green was done. Can just tell. But I don’t know about Coates. But if you can’t catch you can’t play that position

  • RickM

    9 more minutes of possession by the Steelers and 389 yards versus 227. It should never have gone down to the wire.