The Pittsburgh Steelers had a busy free agency, including the signings of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Today I want to provide some data context to what they provided last season in run defense, along with Pittsburgh’s 2022 linebackers. The Steelers have massively overhauled the position, with Devin Bush and Robert Spillane signing elsewhere and Myles Jack still available in the free agency pool. The goal is to compare/contrast their seasons and see if we can glean anything for the Steelers’ 2023 outlook at linebacker.
Let’s get right to it, starting with 2022 run defense snaps and average tackle depth to get a gauge of the quantity of plays and yardage comparatively.
Of the five players in our sights, Roberts had the most opportunities in his 2022 season with the Dolphins. He played 332 run snaps, which ranked 35th out of the 82 linebackers with at least 150 snaps. He also impressively had the healthiest tackle depth of the players we’re focused on, tying for a strong ninth in the NFL, and was the only player above the mean in both data points. Here’s to hoping he can carry these qualities over to the black and gold.
Jack and Bush land very similar on the chart, particularly in run snaps (43rd and 44th) just eclipsing 300 of them. The latter had a slightly better average tackle depth, which tied for 48th, but each landed below average as the primary Steelers linebackers in 2022.
Then we see a drop off in the run snaps, with Spillane just shy of 200. That was above the mean in average tackle depth, tying for 22nd with three other players. Holcomb had the least snaps out of the players we’re looking at and tied for sixth least of the qualifying NFL group. He started seven games for the Commanders before going down with a foot injury that required surgery. Knock on wood he can make a strong return and lead the new-look group as projected.
Now let’s look at types of tackles, solo versus assisted tackles against the run:
Jack led the group we’re focused on, with 41 solo run tackles (T-31st) along with 23 assists, which tied for 19th. Roberts was the other above-average player, with 39 solo (35th) and 19 assisted run tackles (T-30th). So, Jack had the slight edge in quantity, while Roberts had more quality in terms of tackle depth, though on more opportunities. Bush matched Roberts in the assisted run tackle department (19), but 35 solo run tackles (T-42nd), which was below average, and on similar snap opportunities to Jack.
Then we have below the mean players, with Holcomb landing here due to the missed time, with 23 solo run tackles and 15 assists. Spillane had the least run tackles of the group, with 22 solo and 12 assisted run tackles on more snaps than Holcomb. Very important context as we dive deeper.
Next, I wanted to see how the players fared in a “hit or miss” type view with stop percentage, which uses the successful play rates formula (less than 40% on first down, 50% or less on second down, and third- or fourth-down plays kept from a first down or touchdown) and missed tackle percentage:
Very telling chart with all five players landing above average with low missed tackle rates. This highlights an improvement from the 2022 Pittsburgh linebackers compared to struggling the previous season. It is positive data as we hope the 2023 Pittsburgh linebackers provide continued or even better results. The other hope for this season is an improvement in positioning and gap-sound play, which was a weakness of the 2022 Steelers linebackers overall, highlighted by their below average stop percentages.
Roberts was the only player above the mean in both. Encouragingly, he had strong results in this regard ranking 21st in stop percentage, which can hopefully carry over to Pittsburgh. His 7.9 missed tackle rate was above average (29th) but was the lowest among the linebackers in our sights. Holcomb had the second lowest 7.3 missed tackle rate through Steelers’ lenses, but 26th across the league, along with a 6.2 stop rate that ranked 60th. This is an area I’ll definitely have my sights on in 2023, hopefully seeing the new position group stay strong in the missed tackle department, and how it compares to the departed players who were each in the top 25 of missed tackle rates.
To close, let’s look at a more total view of how the players fared in the run game with PFF run defense grades along with points above average per play (a player’s EPA responsibility on run plays using the total points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play, and accounts for defenders in the box, blown blocks forced, broken tackles, and turnovers) from Sports Info Solutions (SIS):
Here we see encouraging results, with the 2023 Steelers linebackers landing above the mean in both data points. Holcomb tied for second in points above average per play, along with a 69.4 PFF run defense grade that ranked 29th. Roberts had a 68.5 PFF grade (31st) along with his points above average ranking 28th. Very encouraging results when taking more run game factors into account and as we look forward to 2023.
Comparing that to the 2022 Steelers, Spillane had the best PFF run defense grade of the highlighted players (77.3), which ranked 19th across the board, and his points above average/play ranking 25th. Jack ranked higher in the latter (15th) but had the lowest PFF grade (52.1) of the players we’re focused on, which was well below average across the NFL (65th). Bush was the only linebacker below the mean in both, with a 56.4 PFF run defense grade that tied for 59th and a points above average result that tied for 61st.
The data is encouraging regarding the outlook for 2023. Roberts impressively was above the mean in every aspect of the study, while Holcomb’s shortened season landed him low in the opportunity metrics (run snaps and tackles). This is important context to his second-ranked points above average/play, along with an above average PFF grade and missed tackle rate, average depth of run tackle result and only below league average quality result being stop rate. Jack was above average in tackles, missed tackle rate, and points above average/play but had the lowest results of our focused players in average tackle depth, stop rate, and PFF grade. Bush was above average only in assisted tackles and missed tackle rate, landing below average in run snaps, average depth of tackle, solo run tackles, stop percentage, PFF grade, and points above average/play. Spillane had good results in limited opportunities (snaps and tackles), including tackle depth, missed tackle rate, PFF grade, and points above average/play, but below average in stop percentage and was utilized curiously at times, particularly in coverage (study coming soon).
This study gives us data context to some likely factors that played into the changes the Steelers made. Pittsburgh certainly cleaned house at the position, and hopefully the 2023 linebackers fare well for the black and gold.
What are your thoughts on the data and the 2023 outlook at the position? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.