The Pittsburgh Steelers had a busy free agency, including the signings of Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts. Today I wanted to provide some data context to what they provided last season in coverage along with Pittsburgh’s linebackers, following a similar study I did on them in run defense.
Let’s get right to it, starting with 2022 coverage snaps and targets to get a gauge of the quantity of plays comparatively:
Right away we see the linebackers in our sights today all land on the bottom left of the chart, with below-average opportunities of 67 players with a minimum of 15 targets. Linebacker Myles Jack, who is still a free agent, topped the highlighted players with 335 coverage snaps (46th), and was targeted 30 times which was right at the mean (T-31st). Up next is Robert Spillane (who is now a Raider), with 321 coverage snaps (48th), and targeted 27 times (T-37th). Devin Bush, who is also donning new colors with the Seahawks, had 314 coverage snaps (50th), and 26 targets (T-41st). So, every Pittsburgh linebacker last season saw more opportunity/utilization in coverage, important context as we dive deeper.
Then we see the free agent additions, starting with Elandon Roberts, who had 288 coverage snaps with the Dolphins in 2022 (52nd) and was targeted 21 times (T-52nd). Cole Holcomb suffered an injury with the Commanders last season, appearing in seven games and playing 240 coverage snaps, which was eighth least of the qualifying players, and targeted 15 times (the minimum for this study). While those players had less opportunity, an encouraging element is seeing them below the trend line, being targeted less than expected at their coverage snaps, compared to the 2022 Steelers linebackers, who were targeted at above average rates given their snap opportunities.
Now let’s begin to examine the quality of play with completion percentage and deserved catch percentage, which is the number of completions and drops divided by the number of catchable targets and passes defensed.
Holcomb has the best results by far as the only above the mean player among those we’re focused on, particularly with the seventh-ranked deserved catch percentage, along with an above average completion percentage allowed (T-32nd). This highlights the capabilities he has in coverage, which Pittsburgh was likely looking for before his signing. Hopefully we see a healthy 2023 season in which he provides just that. At the other end of the spectrum, we see Roberts, who tied for the worst deserved catch rate of 100%, and the sixth-worst completion rate allowed. He is a much stronger run defender, and the chart really gives comparative context to his weak coverage results last season.
The 2022 Steelers linebackers all landed below the mean, with Spillane having the best singular result of the group with a 36th-ranked deserved catch percentage, but an actual completion rate allowed at 57th, which was the worst for Pittsburgh last season. Last year’s starters had very similar completion rates allowed (51st and 52nd), with Bush having the better deserved catch percentage (T-50th), and Jack at a low 62nd rank. So far, we get a good sense of the perceived upgrade Holcomb provides in coverage, and here’s to hoping that comes to fruition.
Next, let’s look at the yardage of the targets with yards per attempt and yards per game:
Jack was the only player that landed above the mean in both data points, tying for 26th in yards per attempt, along with a slightly above average yards per game rank that tied for 29th. Roberts was well above average in yards per game ranking solidly at 15th and tied for 47th in yards per attempt. Landing on the top left of this chart is encouraging, considering he had the best yards per game result, besting Holcomb in more snap opportunities. The latter was well below average in both, tying for 51st in yards per attempt and 56th in yards per game. Bush landed at the mean in yards per game (35th) but tied for 48th in yards per attempt. Spillane had a particularly poor yards per attempt allowed, which was third worst among the qualifying linebackers, and his yards per game ranked 54th.
Another stat that is used often to evaluate defenders in coverage is QBR Against, so let’s see how they fare along with Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a points above replacement scale conversion that is based on the scoring environment.
All five players discouragingly land below the mean in both data points. Jack fared best in WAR, just below the mean, which tied with several players for the 26th rank. His QBR Against ranked 49th. Bush had the best QBR Against of the players in our sights, at a below-average 47th rank, with the same being true for WAR, tying for 41st. Holcomb was near the league average in WAR (T-26th) but a poor 59th rank in QBR Against. Lack of snaps play a part in this for sure. With a touchdown allowed, no interceptions, and his allowed yardage on the smaller sample that needs to be considered, in my opinion, and putting encouraging play on tape in this regard in a healthy 2021 season. Roberts tied for 41st in WAR and had the worst QBR Against of the players we’re focused on, which was third worst across the NFL. His poor number included two touchdowns allowed and no interceptions, and here’s to hoping that differential can improve with the black and gold. Spillane tied for the worst WAR result, along with a QBR Against that was seventh-worst overall.
To close, let’s look at SIS’s Boom and Bust percentages to see the rates of big plays allowed or made in coverage.
- Boom % = The percentage of drop backs that resulted in an EPA of 1 or more (a very successful play for the offense)
- Bust % = The percentage of drop backs that resulted in an EPA of -1 of less (a very unsuccessful play for the offense)
Pretty stark chart, with all the focused players well below average in bust rate. This highlights the well-documented lack of playmaking from the 2022 Pittsburgh linebackers, and even worse results from the free agent additions, each having zero percent! This really puts into context some earlier points and with lack of playmaking and touchdowns allowed in coverage. This is very high on my concerns/radar for 2023 despite the changes, with Roberts and Holcomb also ranking lowly at 52nd and T-58th in boom percentage. Jack was the only player with an above-average boom rate, tying for 32nd in limiting extremely successful offensive plays in coverage. Bush ranked 61st overall (seventh worst) in boom rate, while Spillane was dead last by over five percentage points! Here’s to hoping those big offensive pass plays exited with them and that the additions can provide a much-needed improvement.
Regarding the data and outlook for 2023, the coverage results were unfortunately more discouraging than the run-defense findings. Where Holcomb fared best in catch rates allowed, particularly a seventh ranked deserved catch percentage, was slightly below average in WAR, he was below average in yards allowed, QBR Against, boom and bust rates, particularly the latter which tied for last on limited opportunities. Roberts was only above the mean in yards per game (15th), with poor marks throughout the rest of the study, including opportunities, completion percentage, yards per attempt, WAR, boom percentage, with very poor results including the third worst QBR against, along with the lowest (or tied for) ranks in deserved catch rate and bust rate. Jack had the most snaps and targets of the highlighted players. He fared best in yardage allowed and boom rate, was slightly below average in WAR, with below average results in catch percentages, QBR Against, and bust rate. Bush’s only slightly above-average result was yards per game, and was below average in opportunities, catch percentages, yards per attempt, WAR, QBR Against, and boom/bust rates. Spillane’s best result was a slightly below-average deserved catch rate. He was well below average in opportunities, completion rate, yards per attempt, WAR, and ranked (or tied for) last in QBR Against and boom percentage.
We can clearly see the motivation for Pittsburgh to revamp the position room, with the 2022 linebackers below average in nearly every aspect of the study. The free agent additions were underwhelming in several aspects of coverage last year as well, but here’s hoping they can fare well for the black and gold this season. There are particular hopes for Holcomb with success on his resume in a — knock on wood — healthy year.
What are your thoughts on the data? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.