There was one season a couple of years back—it may have been 2014, when they scored a team-record 426 points—when the Pittsburgh Steelers actually elected to receive the ball to start the game as often as possible. That is pretty much the only time I can recall them ever doing that consistently.
Once in a blue moon, otherwise, they might opt not to defer to the second half. This past Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans was one such game, and it helped enable them to build a 14-0 lead and drain more than 15 minutes off the clock on their first two drives.
If the defense had its way, however, it would start every game on the field, because as Tyson Alualu told reporters earlier today, they relish the opportunity to set the tone for the game. But as we saw on Sunday, complementary football works just as well. They forced a three and out against the Titans. The week before, they took the first pass of the game back for six.
“I think most of the guys on defense feel like that”, Alualu said about setting the tone to start the game. “When we get the chance to go out there to set the tone for the team as a defense, we take a lot of pride in that”.
“It’s different in the past couple of weeks, putting out the offense, having the confidence to go out there and do the same”, he added. “It’s just one of those things where we can feed off each other, whether they’re setting the tone, or they’re setting the tone, on defense and offense”.
Teams choosing to defer has been a more recent phenomenon, according to some quick research. It used to be the case that teams almost always elected to receive the ball to start the game, but in the past decade or so, the script has been flipped completely, with nearly all teams almost always choosing to defer when they win the toss.
Data really doesn’t show a meaningful difference between deferring and receiving, or with beginning the game with possession or not, regardless of whether or not it was that team’s decision to receive. Of course, the coin toss is designed to be equitable—one team starts one half with the ball, and then the other starts the other half with the ball.
Each game can present a different set of circumstances, however, depending upon the teams. Teams with strong defenses and weak offenses would be more likely to want to put their defense on the field first, and vice versa.
As was the case last week, teams playing strong possession offenses may want to take the ball first if possible in an effort to establish possession, which the Steelers were able to do successfully. Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that.
And sometimes defenders just want to start smashing running backs as soon as possible.