Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Expect a shootout in Week 7.
The Steelers have a really good defense. let me be clear about that, they are a top 5 defense right now, and are likely to do what Mike Tomlin defenses do, and get better as the season continues. I’m a huge fan of this defense, and I think they can thrive even without Devin Bush.
But this isn’t about the whole season, how good this defense is the last 6 weeks and into the playoffs, or how we will look at this defense 5 years from now. This is week 7, facing the Tennessee Titans, and an offense that is the best in the NFL.
The Steelers offense is underrated, they are better than the normal stats say they are, and while they are not producing the numbers the Titans are, they are also a really good offense.
Just hear me out.
Scoring rate over total points
The No. 1 goal of any offense is to score points.
But total points is misleading, points per game doesn’t cut it either, because chances matter. Like a basketball payer who scores 35 points on 40 shots versus a basketball player who scores 30 points on 24 shots, which one is better? The guy who shot almost twice as much scored more, but he also missed a lot more, the better scorer is the one that scored more efficiently. In the same way in baseball numbers like slugging percentage tell you the best hitters more than total hits or total RBIs.
In football, each possession an offense gets is a scoring chance. You can score once per possession, and an offense can’t score without a possession. So to look for the best NFL offense, the first thing to look for isn’t how much they score, but how often they score.
Scoring percentage is simply the percentage of drives that an offense gets that result in a score. In scoring percentage the Titans rank 2nd in the NFL at 54.7%. The Pittsburgh Steelers rank 15th at 43.9%.
The problem with scoring percentage is all scores aren’t equal, so a better mark is often points per drive, which is just points scored divided by the number of drives you get.
The Titans and Steelers are both effective at scoring touchdowns, and in points per drive the Titans rank #1 in the NFL at 3.15, while the Steelers rank 9th with 2.58 points per drive.
The three main results
An offensive drive has three main possible results: a score, a punt and a turnover. Those are the most likely results. The important thing about those results is more than just if you scored or not, because those results also affect the other team’s offense and your defense.
Here’s a quick look at the scoring percentage of drives from 2019 and 2020 depending on how they start.
The difference in drives that follow a punt or kickoff is minimal. Of course, the fact that you are kicking off because you just scored certainly helps your chances of winning the game. Drives that follow turnovers are on average far more successful. Drives following turnovers are the only drives that aren’t most likely to end in a punt, and the most likely result is a touchdown. A missed field goal is worse than a punt, but still much better than a turnover.
We can simplify the three basic outcomes by stating that a score is very good, a punt is roughly neutral and a turnover is very bad. Shocking, I know. Isn’t it great that stats can tell us that?
(you can skip to the next part if you just want the results)
This leads us to a fantastic, simple metric. Scoring percentage minus turnover percentage. This metric helps account for the number of times an offense puts their own defense in a bad spot, and not just how good they are at scoring.
Consider the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots of 2019, the Buccaneers scored on 38.3% of drives and averaged 2.12 points per drive. The Patriots scored on 36.8% of drives and averaged 1.99 points per drive. The Buccaneers were the better offense right?
No. The Buccaneers turned the ball over on 20.7% of their drives, compared to the Patriots 7.6%, Those turnovers put a really good Buccaneers defense in constant bad spots and led to more points being scored by the opposition. Of course, following the 2019 season the Buccaneers signed the Patriots quarterback to help solve their turnover issues, and they are a much better team because of it.
When you subtract the percentage of drives ending in a turnover from the percentage of drives resulting in a score, the Titans become the #1 offense, and the Steelers move from 15th in scoring percentage to 7th in scoring minus turnover percentage.
Now again that leaves out the difference between scoring touchdowns and scoring field goals, and we don’t like that. So lastly we can discount field goal drives by making them worth 3/7ths of a touchdown drive and adapting the scoring percentage accordingly.
That gives you a metric I like to call dynamic scoring percentage. Again the Steelers and Titans score more touchdowns than average. The Titans are the number one team in the NFL in dynamic scoring percentage, and the Steelers rank 9th. If you subtract turnover percentage from the dynamic scoring percentage, you get a metric that values touchdowns over field goals and accounts for the negative effects of turnovers.
The point, why this matchup is a big deal
When you take dynamic scoring percentage and subtract turnover percentage, the Titans stand at the top of the NFL, as the clear best offense in the NFL. The Steelers, for their part are the #5 offense in the NFL. While the Steelers aren’t putting up big numbers, their effectiveness at scoring touchdowns and their consistency protecting the football make them a much better offense than counting stats give them credit for.
These same stats can be used to evaluate defenses, and the Steelers defense ranks third in Dynamic scoring percentage minus turnover percentage. When the two are combined, the Steelers rank as the #1 team in the NFL.
When you look at overall dynamic scoring minus turnover percentage, there are 6 teams that stand out above the rest of the NFL, those six teams are the Steelers, Chiefs, Ravens, Buccaneers, Seahawks and Titans.
One of my favorite aspects of the family of scoring percentage minus turnover percentage family of stats is they predict playoff success better than other metrics, as turnovers take on even more importance in playoff games.
This game is a matchup between two of the top teams in the NFL right now, and two that are showing right now that they are in the mix of Super Bowl favorites.
The Steelers offense needs to win this game
The Titans are the number one offense even with a good number of games lost to injury by key players. Receivers Corey Davis and A.J. Brown have both missed multiple games, and yet the Titans under Ryan Tannehill are still one of the most efficient passing offenses in the NFL. The Steelers can’t come into this game, shut down the run and expect Ryan Tannehill to fall apart. The Steelers can’t focus on pass rush and coverage with Derrick Henry in the backfield.
The Titans are going to move the ball, and they are likely going to score touchdowns. For all the Steelers defensive success in 2019 and 2020 they haven’t been one of the best teams at preventing touchdowns, and the Titans are one of the best at scoring them.
In the current NFL, with the rules pushing scoring up every year the odds of the Steelers defense holding the Titans to a low score are laughable. The Titans are going to score on the Steelers. The Steelers defense needs to get some key stops and slow down the Titans scoring, but they won’t stop it.
To win this game, the Steelers are going to need Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense to be able to match the Titans offense, and I think that’s what will happen. This is the game the Steelers are going to need Ben Roethlisberger to step up and carry the team to a big win, and that makes this a must-watch game.