In Brian Batko’s mid-January chat with Pittsburgh Steelers fans over at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there was a lot of concern about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s desire to play out of the shotgun formation as much as possible.
And rightfully so.
According to data I pulled from the nflfastR package, the Steelers offense operated out of the shotgun formation on approximately 83-percent of all plays during the 2020 season.
Only two teams maintained a higher shotgun-usage rate through the season: the Arizona Cardinals (92-percent) and the Baltimore Ravens (96-percent). For comparison, the Minnesota Vikings bring up the rear after operating out of the shotgun just a measly 36.7% of the time.
It is a fair assumption that new offensive coordinator Matt Canada will continue the trend of utilizing the shotgun, as it is Roethlisberger’s preference. However, the question is this: do the Steelers find better success running when operating out of the shotgun? Or should Canada put more focus on the pound-it-up-the-middle type of offense where the running back gets the ball from Roethlisberger who is lined up under the center?
Batko, in his chat transcript, argues that teams are fully capable of running the ball out of the shotgun. I tend to agree.
To start exploring this, we turn to the R programming language and a little bit of data science.
First, let’s take a broad look at the Steelers’ rushing success rate both in shotgun and with Roethlisberger operating under center.
The success rate metric baked into nflfastR is very straightforward: a play is considered successful if it obtained positive expected points added (EPA). As a quick explainer, EPA takes into consideration that not all yards are created equal. A 2-yard gain on third-and-1 is incredibly more beneficial than a 2-yard gain on first-and-10. Because of that, EPA is ultimately the measure of a play’s impact on the score of the game. The more positive EPA plays, the better.
So in the case of shotgun vs. under center, the Steelers – generally speaking – have more success out of the shotgun.
In Shotgun Success Rate: 45.3%
Under Center Success Rate: 37.3%
Remember, that is including both rushing and passing attempts.
The rushing success rate numbers are slightly different:
In Shotgun Rushing Success Rate: 41.4%
Under Center Success Rate: 35.1%
And, of course, contextualization is everything. Let’s break down the rushing success rate by down as well, excluding fourth down attempts. For the sake of transparency, the coding necessary look like this:
rush.shotgun <- pbp %>% group_by(down) %>% filter(posteam == "PIT" & season == 2020 & down <= 3) %>% filter(rush_attempt == 1 & !is.na(down) & qb_scramble == 0 & qb_kneel == 0 & aborted_play == 0 & play == 1 & penalty == 0) %>% summarize( in.shotgun = mean(success[shotgun == 1]), under.center = mean(success[shotgun == 0]) )
And the results:
Aside from a slight difference in third down rushing situations, the Steelers do operate better when rushing out of the shotgun. In the case of second down rushing attempts, the success rate is significantly better than those attempts when Roethlisberger is under center.
Now, do remember that the Steelers ran plays out of the shotgun formation nearly 90% of the time during the 2020 season. Because of that, the numbers are slightly skewed because of a lack of data to pull from in regards to plays from under center.
However, we can take a look at how the Steelers size up against the NFL in rushing success rate in an attempt to somewhat normalize the data.
When looking at the rushing success rate across all downs in the NFL, the Steelers are in the middle of the pack. The Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers are the only clubs to break the 50% barrier. The Steelers, with a 41.5% success rate out of the shotgun formation, are part of a massive logjam of teams in the 40-to-48-percent success rate range.
In fact, the Steelers are nearly hitting the league-wide average for rushing success out of the shotgun, 42.4% right on the nose.
In the end, if Canada does continue to let Roethlisberger operate the offense out of the shotgun, it should not be a cause for concern.