Stats Study: NFL Explosive Play And Red Zone Offenses: 2013-2022

Today I wanted to look at and provide data following a great conversation from Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora on a recent Terrible Podcast. They discussed when the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers were ranked top ten in explosive plays (20+ yards) and red zone offense. I’m here to dive into the question deeper, first looking at the last decade across the entire NFL, with the goal of seeing how it correlates to team success, and view trends for Pittsburgh and the era as a whole. Then I will close with a table for teams that were top ten in both, and see if there are takeaways moving forward.

To start, I averaged the rankings per season for the number of explosive plays and red zone touchdown percentages for all 320 teams the last ten years, and here are the results:

What jumps out right away is 100% teams that won a playoff game in the time frame were above the mean in the composite rankings, which emphasizes the importance of being above average in explosive plays or scoring touchdowns in the red zone for aspirations to hoist a Lombardi trophy. Second is nine of the ten Super Bowl winners had an above-average composite ranking, so a huge correlation to team success overall.

The 2015 Denver Broncos were an exception, a team that defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional playoffs that year, when the black and gold had their second-best ranking of the timeframe. This was in the “Killer B’s” era, of course led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown, and running back Le’Veon Bell. As a reminder, the latter played in only six games due to a suspension to start the season, followed by the season-ending injury on a hit from then Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict which has resurfaced in the news recently. Thankfully DeAngelo Williams stepped in admirably, along with contributions from wide receiver Markus Wheaton and tight end Heath Miller (HEATH!).

As discussed on the Terrible Podcast, 2018 was the last time Pittsburgh was in the top ten in both but failed to make the playoffs. This was interestingly when Bell decided not to sign the franchise tag and held out the entire season, which is a notable factor in the results. This team was highlighted by Roethlisberger and Brown again, including a very strong season from wide receiver JuJu Smith Schuster, along with running back James Conner and tight end Vance McDonald pitching in. From 2013-2018, the Steelers had above-average ranks overall, aiding their four playoff appearances in the timeframe.

Expectedly, Pittsburgh’s worst ranking came in the 2019 season when the quarterback position was decimated by injury. Since then, Pittsburgh has been in the bottom half of the ranks overall, particularly in the last two years. This highlights the overall point and need for the Steelers offense to improve in these areas moving forward to hopefully return to winning playoff games in 2023, and the data pointing to how crucially important those factors of the game are.

To close, here is a table that zeros in on the teams that were ranked top 10 in both explosive plays (EXPPLAYS) and red zone touchdown rates (RZTD%) the last decade, sorted by composite ranks and season, along with the team’s playoff results as well:

In the 2015 season, the Steelers ranked second in explosive plays (118) which ended up impressively being the most of any of the 40 qualifying teams in the last decade. This squad just made the cut in red zone touchdown percentage though (60.7%), which ranked tenth. The 2018 team was stronger in red zone touchdown rate (73.5%) which also ranked first in the NFL that season. They had 72 explosive plays which ranked eighth, for a stronger composite ranking than 2015, tying for 14th in the decade. 70% of the teams that were top ten in both made the playoffs, with just three of those winning the Super Bowl (NE ’16, TB ’20, and KC ’22). Also seeing how well the 2022 Super Bowl participants fared is notable, with each ranking in the top three.

So, not as strong of playoff correlation as expected for teams that were top ten in both, hence why I dove into the composite rankings, with 100% of teams in the last decade ranking in the top half of the NFL. Here’s to hoping the Pittsburgh Steelers can do this sooner rather than later, considering the perfect track record in the era to making the playoffs.

What are your thoughts on the data? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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