For yet another season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense got off to slow starts. While things were better the first half of the year and ulimtately, the Steelers saw more first-drive success in 2021 than the past two seasons, new data paints how much the team struggled with its first 15 “scripted” plays, ones that are typically mapped out before the game by the offensive coordinator.
Data analyst Sam Hoppen plotted the team’s EPA (expected points added) over the team’s first 15 plays versus the rest of the game.
The chart is shown below with the EPA for scripted plays plotted along the horizontal, X-axis and unscripted along the Y, vertical axis.
The best teams are the ones in the top right quadrant, those who thrive in scripted and non-scripted situations. That’s where you find top offenses like the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Packers. Teams in the bottom right quadrant are successful on scripted plays but less so on unscripted ones. Not many teams appear here but you see the Carolina Panthers have a positive EPA on scripted plays but the league’s worst EPA on unscripted ones. Teams in the top left quadrant aren’t successful on the first 15, scripted plays but good unscripted. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals stand out here.
Finally, we get to the bottom left quadrant, the worst place to be. Those are teams with a negative EPA on scripted and unscripted plays. That’s where the Steelers land. However, they were much better unscripted with an EPA around -0.04 compared to a scripted-play EPA of roughly -0.18. So relatively speaking, the Steelers were much better past their first 15 plays, though they sill weren’t good compared to the rest of the league. Much of that isn’t a surprise considering the Steelers much more frequent success in the second half of games, several second half comebacks or near-comebacks.
Of course, there are always caveats to this. Not every team has its first 15 plays scripted, some do more, some do less, and it is a relatively small sample size overall, 255 total plays when offenses run over 1000 per season. The unscripted ones are still often playcalls too from the offensive coordinator so don’t think the rest of them was Ben Roethlisberger calling his own number.
The data is telling but not overly surprising. The Steelers’ offense was not successful in most regards and they especially struggled early in games. Over their final nine games of the year, they scored just nine first quarter points, fewest in the league. It’s one of many areas for Matt Canada to fix next year in his second year as offensive coordinator.