On Saturday, Explosive Plays Could Make Difference

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.

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  • eddie

    with the return of a healthy todd heap, i’m worried that he might be a source for ravens big plays. seeing the ravens game plan last week made me worry a little and made me think that cam cameron showed the ability to adjust like whiz did against the colts in the super bowl XL playoffs.

    tomlin has said many times that it’s a familiar opponent, that we know what the game plan’s are, but i worry that cameron and the ravens might try to mix things up on the stillers and try a bellicheat approach on lebeau.

    if i’m harbaugh, after i kill myself, i’m thinking that we can’t beat the steelers playing the same game we’ve player the last 3 years… time to mix things up.

    • Jfishel

      That’s fine by me. I don’t think Flacco is in the group of QB’s who can pull a Brees/Brady on our D. I also don’t think that harbaugh will try it because of that. Their best bet will be to try and keep us honest on defense and get Boldin and Heap involved. But unlike most D’s, our linebackers aren’t the same kind of mismatch when up against Heap. They can hold their own. Taylor can hold down Boldin, which leaves Housh. I think we match up well enough on our defense vs their offense to win that battle. I think that our offense has more big play potential than the last time we faced them, too. Sure, Wallace is awesome, but our rookie receivers have come around since then. I think we get this one, unless we shoot ourselves in the foot.

    • RoB D

      I don’t think Heap is healthy. He has a thigh injury and the announcers were talking about it throughout the game. He had a very productive game but AFAIR, he didn’t have much YAC other than the one 21 yarder. So I think he’s a dangerous receiver but I dont think he’s going to get much more than short yardage catches and the odd first down against us.Which isn’t chicken feed..he’s a quality player obviously. I am more worried about freaking Mason who seems to go uncovered at crucial times everytime we play these guys. Seriously, he’s either the slipperiest customer in WR history or we need to respect him just a tad more…lol..

  • JCRODRIGUEZ

    Nice findings, and this goes in line with the current way that Coach LeBeau approaches the game. Funny how that strategy is exactly what his detractors hates about him.

    Defensively, I am sure that we can hold them to a very low number of Big Plays. On offense, we have exactly what it takes to make it happen given that their CB’s are not a strenght… if only we could get Suggs not to obliterate our LT.

    How many days until sunday?

    Damn!

    • Anonymous

      You are probably well aware of this, but in the off chance you aren’t, you should know the Steelers play this Saturday, not Sunday.

  • Randy Steele

    That was a great analysis: Simple, efficient, accurate. You got my attention, and I’ll pay particular attention to the Big Play Count this Saturday, too.

  • Alex Lawson

    What I’d like to see – admittedly looking forward, but not overlooking the ravens – is what the stats are for the Steelers VS the Patriots.

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  • Michael O’Neal

    That’s a really interesting post, actually. Can someone get this data to Tomlin? :)