Lesson of possession

The Steelers' 37-23 margin in time of possession Sunday provided the team the identity it enjoyed last season, when it possessed the ball long enough to wear defenses down and keep their defense fresh.

In running for an NFL-leading 60% of all plays in 2005, the Pittsburgh Steelers were eighth of all NFL teams in time of possession at 31:16 minutes per game and ninth in scoring at 24.3 points per game. The best team in 2005 in terms of time of possession was Denver at (32:37), the worst, the New York Jets at 26:37.

Overall, the numbers show it's very hard to capture the time of possession lead if you pass more than run. Of the top ten teams in 2005 in terms of passing more than running, only two were among the top 10 in the NFL in time of possession. Conversely, of the top 10 teams that ran more than passed, six were in the top 10 in time of possession.

Lastly, of the top 10 teams in time of possession last year, six made the playoffs. Ultimately, its clear that time of possession made those offenses more efficient.

Or … is it?

Of the top10 scoring offenses in 2005, only three were in the top ten in time of possession. That being the case, the correlation between offensive output and time of possession seems sketchy. There must then be another issue at play.

The Defense

It's clear then that if the best teams win the time of possession game and that time of possession does not really equate to scoring, that the defense must actually be the unit most helped by time of possession.

In scoring defense, this absolutely holds true. The less time on the field and fewer downs played on defense, the fewer points allowed. Of the top ten defenses in points allowed last year, six had offensive counterparts that were among the top ten in time of possession.

But in actually making the defensive unit better – in determining whether it helps defenses let up less points per down played (as opposed to per game), there's actually little to suggest that "keeping defenses fresh" is a strategy that is successful. Of the top ten teams in time of possession last year, only three sported defenses that were in the top ten in average points allowed per play. Furthermore, some of the teams with the poorest time of possession had the best defensive units in average points per play allowed. Miami, Cleveland and Chicago were among the NFL's worst in time of possession in 2005, yet all were in the top ten in average points per play allowed.

So, the picture seems to be as follows:

Teams often create offense strategies that are less effective in scoring points but that eat up the clock – and in doing so they enable the other team to score less but don't improve their own defense either.

The question then becomes – why is it necessary to sacrifice points on offense in order to win games when it doesn't really improve your defense?

And the answer seems to revolve around defensive effectiveness. Many of the teams with the best time of possession are actually teams with defenses that have poorer points per play averages. Dallas, Kansas City, San Diego, Arizona, Cincinnati and Tennessee all were top ten in time of possession but in the bottom-half of the NFL in points per play average.

Teams, it seems, are simply protecting their defenses. They can't make those defenses better, but they can ensure they don't make them worse. Is it a counter-productive philosophy? Not to the six teams that had the best time of possession numbers and made the playoffs.

Sure, outliers like Indianapolis exist – they have been one of the first to take an entirely different approach – load up on offensive skill-player talent and defensive pass rushing talent, build early leads, then let your defense tee off on quarterbacks. Its actually the strategy Pittsburgh adopted successfully in the 2005 playoffs and tried to maintain in early 2006.

But the strategy is risky - it relies on a superior pass rush and a quarterback playing at his best. Neither has happened for Pittsburgh in 2006, and therefore the strategy has fallen flat. The time of possession game was ultimately lost, and Pittsburgh's defense left unprotected by the lack of time of possession.

In 2006, before the Cleveland game, Pittsburgh dropped to 16th in time of possession to an even 30:00 per game – down 1:16 from 2005. Furthermore, their pass-run ratio has been skewed heavily towards the pass. They have passed 15% more than in 2005 – up to 55% now, after passing only 40% of the time in 2005. And they pass 59% of the time in the first half – its not just the issue of playing catch-up football in the second-half.

What we've seen this year is Pittsburgh's attempt to continue Indianapolis' build-a-lead then rush-the-passer strategy that worked so well for them in the 2005 playoffs, but with little success. A traumatic off-season that initiated a poor regular season for Ben Roethlisberger was the first domino that fell (if not, it was the Super Bowl victory itself that may have created some complacency for the 2006 season). Either way, leads were not built early – in fact, deficits were due to turnovers by Roethlisberger and other players. This undermined the entire strategy. The defense cannot tee off on quarterbacks if its playing from behind, and its flaws simply cannot be concealed if its not being protected by its offense.

The strategy seemed sound – it was proven throughout the 2005 playoffs. But it relied so much on a third-year quarterback that suffered a horrid off-season that perhaps the coaches could have adjusted earlier to the problem and fell back more to the running game. Now, the point is moot. But if they are planning to continue to adopt the "Indianapolis strategy" and forego the time of possession game, then they'll need two things in 2007. The return of the 2005 playoff Ben Roethlisberger, and an improved pass rush.

The team is not that far off though, as they proved Sunday. Ultimately, this team does not need seem to be in a need to rebuild. It takes little to derail a team, but poor quarterback play was the very thing Pittsburgh could least afford due to its increased reliance on Roethlisberger to set the tempo for its entire team strategy. It will be very interesting to see where Pittsburgh's mindset is in 2007 though.

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