One of the most popular, or at least one of the most frequently discussed, narratives pertaining to the tenure of Mike Tomlin as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who is now in his 10th season on the job, is the idea that his teams have struggled to play ‘up’ to statistically weaker opponents, purportedly more so than is the norm.
The idea is, of course, that his teams play ‘up’ or ‘down’ to the competition, as while the Steelers have an obviously solid record against winning opponents, their record against losing teams has left something to be desired over the course of recent seasons—none more evident than in their 8-8 seasons a few years back.
The Steelers dropping a game by a 30-15 margin to a previously 1-4 Dolphins team on Sunday has reignited this talk all over again, even if it came off the back of a throttling of the Jets a week earlier, another losing team. They also took down the Bengals, who were 1-0 at the time, but are now 2-4.
However, there is some statistical framework with which to hold this discussion, and the data was provided by Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, who posted a chart showing the team’s success against teams based on how many points they were favored by.
For example, in games in which the Steelers were favored by 10 or more points, they have won 16 games and lost four, a winning percentage of .800. According to the chart, this is below the line, as the league as a whole has a .878 winning percentage against such opponents.
The Steelers under Tomlin are 29-8 against opponents over which they are favored by seven points, a winning percentage of .784. This is also below the cumulative winning percentage of .830. In games in which they have been three-point favorites or more, the Steelers are 49-19, a winning percentage of .721, below the cumulative percentage of .753.
What actually interests me more in this chart, however, is how stark the difference gets when the Steelers are on the road. Factoring in sample sizes, the discrepancies between their overall percentages and the league percentages are not that statistically significant.
But when you look at the road numbers, it’s a different story, though, again, sample size comes into play. The Steelers are 4-3 on the road against teams they are favored to beat by 10 or more points, for example. That is a small sample size, but it still works out to .571, when the league average is actually higher than the overall, at .891.
When favored by seven or more on the road, Pittsburgh is just 8-5, a .615 winning percentage. Compare that to the league average of .748. When favored by three or more points, their .594 winning percentage pales in comparison to the .735 league average.
I can’t say definitively whether or not there is any merit to the idea of teams, and specifically the Steelers, ‘playing down’ to the competition level, certainly not a consistent, years-long basis. But whether or not that idea itself has validity, the numbers are the numbers, and help to inform the discussion.