Sunday night, Lance Williams of Steel Curtain Radio, Michael Bean of Behind The Steel Curtain and I had a very interesting discussion about Saturday’s Armageddon. It was planned to be a podcast, but unfortunately some technical issues with the recording meant it was just three guys talking Steelers instead.
But even with the recording not working, it was a fun talk, and it brought up some interesting points. One of the most salient was a conversation we had about what the Steelers have to do to win this game. Obviously this is about as evenly matched as a game can be — the last four Steelers-Ravens games have all been decided by a field goal — so there was some thought that it will be the team who makes fewer mistakes will be the one who pulls out the win.
There’s some truth to that — if Joe Flacco had realized Troy Polamalu was coming off his blind side unblocked, the Ravens could have won the most recent matchup. But to me, there’s something even more important. What I’ll be looking for is how many big plays the Steelers can come up with on offense. I think that’s just as important as limiting mistakes.
Let me make it clear. It’s not my idea, it’s Bill Walsh’s. In his outstanding book “Finding The Winning Edge,” Walsh has an entire chapter about putting together a gameplan. In it, one of the his bullet points is that a team needs to generate explosive plays to gain an advantage. As Walsh explained it, an explosive play is any offensive play that gains 20 or more yards. According to the stats at the time Walsh wrote his book (1997), teams that had a two-explosive-play or more advantage over their opponent won 80-85 percent of the time.
That intrigued me, so I compiled the numbers for the eight remaining playoff teams. What I found was that in that admittedly small sample size were very similar stats. With +2 explosive play differential (what Walsh was aiming for), the eight remaining teams are winning 88 percent of their games. With a +1 to -1 differential, the teams are winning 71.5 percent of their games (right in line with their 70 percent winning percentage for the season). And when the have a -2 explosive play differential, the playoff teams are winning only 48 percent of the time.
That’s a pretty significant stat, but when I looked at it for the Ravens-Steelers series, the numbers jump out even more.
|Game||Steelers +20 yard plays||Ravens +20 yard plays||Explosive Play Margin||Winner|
|2010 Game 2||4||2||Steelers +2||Steelers|
|2010 Game 1||2||2||0||Ravens|
|2009 Game 2||4||2||Steelers +2||Steelers|
|2009 Game 1||4||4||0||Ravens|
|2008 Game 3||4||2||Steelers +2||Steelers|
|2008 Game 2||3||1||Steelers +2||Steelers|
|2008 Game 1||3||3||0||Steelers|
|2007 Game 2||3||2||Steelers +1||Ravens|
|2007 Game 1||3||1||Steelers +2||Steelers|
|2006 Game 2||3||3||0||Ravens|
|2007 Game 1||1||1||0||Ravens|
In the five games where the Steelers have gotten the big-play edge on the Ravens, they’ve won. In the six games they’ve failed to get the big-play edge, they are 1-5. So if the Steelers want to win, getting Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders or Heath Miller deep will be a key factor.