A goal of the preseason is to learn as much as possible about the players on the roster. Like every team, the Pittsburgh Steelers must delve in into the most critical of evaluations to ensure the 53 players they conclude the preseason are also the best 53.
One trend in the league is to leverage advanced statistics, or analytics, as part of roster selection protocol. How many teams that trust analytics is a guess, but according to one article, the Steelers are one of the few that do not.
With that, let's consider eight things we learned about the Steelers based upon analytics. Please understand that I am certainly no expert in this area, moreover ... you might consider me to be a bit of a skeptic. Nonetheless, I will do my best to highlight some areas that I found most interesting and significant.
All the analytics used in this article are from ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required). Specifically, we garnered most of our information from this page, where one can select and sort every imaginable statistic regarding any team or player. Unless otherwise noted, all advanced stats are provided via PFF.
According to PFF, John Malecki graded out higher than any other offensive lineman on the roster with a 5.1. What did this do for him? Apparently, it got him waived when the Steelers chose to sign Cody Wallace instead.
If the Steelers did use analytics, one has to believe Malecki would still be on the team. Moreover, one would assume much of his success came late in games. Nevertheless, he was on the field for 158 plays, which led all Steelers.
It certainly felt like rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton was on the field a lot during preseason. Not until I checked PFF did I discover precisely how much. Wheaton was on the field for 143 out of a possible 265 total offensive plays. This put him 17 plays ahead of fellow rookie Derek Moye who finished second.
Without a doubt, the Steelers were looking at Wheaton in hopes they could see enough to make him the team's third wide receiver to start the season. Did he show enough? We will find out soon.
Many consider Maurkice Pouncey the best offensive lineman on the Steelers roster. I have never been among that group. Studying the preseason film, Pouncey again looked lost. He struggled to engage, and got pushed around far too often.
The analytics tell a similar tale. Pouncey graded out -1.0 in run blocking and -2.1 in pass blocking. The most troubling stat? Pouncey graded out -4.8 overall, the lowest of any projected starter on the line. Yikes.
I believe in what my eyes tell me, and I tend to trust my gut. When those two things are supported by analytics, I feel even better.
According to PFF, Baxter was on the field for 47 pass plays. His grade for those plays was 4.4, which put him well ahead of any other linebacker on the roster.
Seeing these numbers make it even more baffling that Baxter was released.
The Steelers' secondary has been an issue for years. No advanced statistics are necessary to recognize that. Regular fans are certainly aware that coverage concerns continue to plague this group.
But, looking at the analytics from the 2013 preseason, everything becomes more clear. Four of the five lowest-rated defensive players on the Steelers in preseason for pass defense are projected starters for the 2013 season.
Now, the former player and coach in me says that the front seven has to do its job in order for the secondary to be successful, so I take these statistics with a grain of salt. A consistent pass rush would seriously soften these numbers, in my opinion.
Before I looked up the numbers for Al Woods this preseason, I had praised his play. His ability to overpower blockers and split double teams has been impressive.
In this case, the analytics from PFF fully support such. Woods graded out at a 5.7, while being in on 164 snaps. That number was also tops among all defensive players.
In short, Woods was on the field more than any other defensive player, and, based on the numbers, played better than any other player. Get this guy on the field and keep him there!
Here is a case where the statistics support what the eyes tell. LaRod Stephens-Howling ran very well in limited action. He's quick, decisive, and stunningly elusive in the clear.
According to PFF, Stephens-Howling had a rush rating of 1.6. Nothing spectacular, but well ahead of the next best back.
With the new zone blocking scheme in place, Stephens-Howling could find himself getting plenty of carries. He's got a running style that is well suited to the scheme and can make the most of an average offensive line.
Over the course of the preseason, the Steelers were auditioning two punters for the starting punter job. Drew Butler and Brian Mooreman traded reps for four weeks, and looked to be very close.
But according to PFF, the competition wasn't very close at all. They graded Butler a 4.3 and Mooreman a -3.0 for the preseason.
I saw the competition as much closer than that, with a couple of bad punts by Mooreman in the final two games that sealed the deal. But the numbers tell me it was never that close.
Update: With the acquisition of Zoltan Mesko, we find that Butler's 4.3 rating wasn't quite good enough, either.