By Christina Rivers
Dean Jones is in his mid-sixties and has been an NFL insider for over 30 years. A retired accountant, Jones has always been a numbers guy. Over the years, Jones has accumulated five large file cabinets full of statistics that focus on everything from snap counts to individual split stats on every player that has spent time in the league, but most importantly, on every Steelers player since the 1950s. Yesterday, Jones sat down with me in an exclusive interview to talk about the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers offense and the offensive stats that really matter if the Steelers are going to get into the playoffs.
Protection, Push and Penalties
Jones opened our interview by focusing on three things that he feels are crucial for the Steelers’ offensive line. “One of the most important factors for the offensive line at this point is to not only protect the quarterback, but to do so without incurring costly penalties,” said Jones. “Mike Tomlin announced that Charlie Batch would get the start against the San Diego Chargers, but didn’t rule out Ben Roethlisberger. Regardless of who is playing what position on that offensive line, they have absolutely got to play smart.” By smart, Jones referred to offensive penalties and awareness. “In October, the Steelers were leading the NFL in penalties, with 9.2 per game. In fact, they were losing more penalty yards than they gaining were in rushing yards. The Steelers addressed the issues and the team has improved, but incurring offensive penalties in these last few games, especially holding and false starts by the offensive line absolutely has to be held to an absolute minimum.” When asked to expound on this, Jones said, “My opinion is that they should be without any penalties, but realistically they should have less than one penalty per 20-30 snaps. Penalties absolutely kill offensive momentum, and the Steelers need to keep an even pace right now on offense.” Regarding push, Jones reflected on last Sunday’s game against the Ravens. “Maurkice Pouncey did a great job at left guard,” said Jones. “He could be seen using his leverage to push the defensive linemen, or driving them, backwards. Doug Legursky was spending way too much time getting bested and lost a lot of ground, which forced the pocket to get smaller for Batch. On the line, you can’t get beat and you can’t let defensive linemen tip balls that can turn into turnovers. Protection doesn’t just mean keeping the quarterback on his feet. Protection includes keeping defenses from being able to hurry your quarterback, catch your running backs in the offensive backfield and bat those balls down.”
Snap Counts and Balance
The Steelers have been trying to use a balanced offense. When the Steelers lose that advantage, they’ve struggled. Case in point, when the running backs had a major issue with fumbling the ball against the Cleveland Browns, Batch was forced to try to win through the air. Off-balance and out of sync, the Steelers kept themselves in the game as much as possible, but couldn’t win. “The number of snaps offensive players, like running backs and receivers, get doesn’t necessarily have to be evenly shared if a particular player is playing well,” Jones pointed out. “If your offense is truly balanced, you will see the ball shared between all of your offensive weapons. Against the Ravens last weekend, Tomlin and [Todd] Haley really wanted Jonathan Dwyer to be their premiere back, and he had 41 snaps over Isaac Redman’s 24.” Dwyer was more effective against Baltimore, gaining 49 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown. Over the season, Dwyer has carried the ball more than any of the Steelers’ other backs, with 114 attempts for 478 yards. “Against Baltimore, you saw [Mike] Wallace, [Emmanuel] Sanders and [Antonio} Brown had 41, 49 and 52 respectively,” said Jones. “They were able to share the load and create opportunities. That's what got them through that game. If the Steelers want to get to the playoffs, they will need to continue spreading the ball between all of their personnel, even if that means that individuals will get fewer snaps.” Through Week 13, the Steelers have attempted 441 passing plays, completing 279 of them, and 319 rushing plays. Their opponents have had 292 rushing plays and 202 passing receptions.
Completion Percentages and Communication
“As it stands, Steelers quarterbacks are completing 63.3 percent of their passes,” said Jones. With Roethlisberger in the game, the Steelers have had 16 drops in 316 attempts, a 5.1 drop percentage. Jones doesn't think that is a bad number, but says it is something the Steelers need to improve while Charlie Batch is in at quarterback. “Receivers have got to communicate with their quarterback and stop making excuses that they misunderstood the route, the ball was too high to catch, etc.,” said Jones. “Quarterbacks are the ones that fans primarily target with negative comments about completions, but it is the receivers' job to make every attempt to catch a ball that is thrown to them.” When asked about recent play by Wallace that has been called into question by fans and the coaching staff, Jones said, “Wallace is a good example of what I am talking about in this case. When you look at how Brown played against the Ravens, he would get distance between himself and the defensive back or, if necessary, come back to the quarterback so that the pass could be made. Wallace has had several passes that were catchable come to him in the past few weeks and he made no effort to either come back for the ball or to extend himself.” Jones gave an interesting demonstration. He showed that if you took the drops and turned them into completions, the completion percentage would move Roethlisberger from 66.1 to 71.2. “What team wouldn't like to improve their completion percentages?” Jones asked. “If the receivers and the quarterbacks communicate effectively, the Steelers should see that percentage go up favorably. If they can't all get on the same page, expect that percentage to go down and their offense to struggle, especially late in games.”
Third and Fourth Down Conversions
“People are talking about how the only way the Steelers can get into the playoffs is if they win the next four games,” Jones said. “They are only looking at one thing; the win-loss column.” When asked if that wasn't the most important stat of all for a team, Jones replied, “A win is absolutely important, but it's how they effectively get to that point that matters just as much.” Jones pointed out two key statistical elements that the Steelers' offense must dominate in order to even get as far as the playoffs; third and fourth-down conversions. “I will take an ugly win,” said Jones. “I will take a win by a single digit if necessary. But the Steelers will not win if they do not improve their third and fourth-down conversion rate.” The Steelers have been more dominant than their foes through Week 13, with a 44.8 third-down conversion rate to 33.8. Fourth downs have not gone as well. “The Steelers currently have a 45.5 fourth-down conversion percentage,” Jones pointed out. “They have been out-played in that department. Their opponents have been able to convert 85.7 percent of their fourth downs. Some of that falls on the defense, but most of it falls on the offense failing to make successful drives down the field.” Jones pointed out a piece of the picture that isn't always clear. “Let's not get down on the Steelers. They have been put into a third-down situation 172 times. Many times they have then punted the ball safely away or gone for a field goal,” he said. “It is more concerning when you take the 11 fourth-down attempts that have only been converted five times and the third-down situations that were wasted opportunities.” When asked how the Steelers could improve these two statistics, Jones said that coaching and execution on the field were the keys. “The Steelers need to rely on their coaches to make sound decisions in tough situations, but ultimately the players themselves must make it a priority to either step up on critical downs or just eliminate the need to go to the third or fourth-down situation altogether.” When asked about how much emphasis the Steelers should put on this area, Jones replied, “On offense, it is not a need for the Steelers, it is a must-have. They cannot afford to keep their defense on the field and ask them to win the game for them. The Steelers must improve this area of their game or they will have to pray for miracles to finish the season well, let alone contend against some of the best AFC and NFC teams in the playoffs. When offensive drives stall because you cannot move the ball and you get yourself into deep down situations...it spells disaster.” Jones said that the Steelers can improve in this area, but they have to be dedicated to the plan. “They can't just do it in practice and use it as a hypothetical situation. In a game, those situations are very real and not converting...every excuse in the book can be given, but it falls squarely on the shoulders of every offensive player if they don't execute. They have got to believe that they can convert, that they must convert. It's a sort of football faith. But, it's a faith that requires works.”
Dean Jones currently works with an online group dedicated to all local professional sports, especially the Steelers, called 'The Beam' in Pittsburgh. You can read more of Jones' statistical analysis at their website.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.