Pittsburgh Steelers: Why Touchdowns in the Red Zone Are Key for Playoff Success

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIDecember 10, 2011

Occasionally, statistics can be misleading; for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers have scored a touchdown on 52.27 percent of their red-zone trips in 2011. 

Breaking the figures down further, the Steelers offense has converted at a rate of 60 percent over the course of the last three games, despite another anemic outing (1 for 3) during a tense win over the Browns

To see the empirical evidence of Pittsburgh's success near the end zone is a lesson in perception versus reality.  For years, the team has ranked near the middle of the NFL pack with respect to taking advantage of their trips inside the 20-yard line. 

Getting the football past the goal line just over half the time has this installment of the Men of Steel on par with their 2010 rate.

It just doesn't seem accurate, but it's funny how a litany of fumbles, untimely penalties, and sputtering acts can skew one's recollection.  In fact, recent events should have Steelers Country feeling a bit jaded. 

Over and over, loyalists point to red-zone touchdowns as a critical matter of emphasis that may impact future success, but the team keeps repeating the same mistakes.

Taking the issue from a logical perspective, there are two main points that can be derived from a look at the team's red-zone touchdown percentages in recent seasons, which are as follows:

2003: 50%, 2004: 49.23%, 2005: 62.5%, 2006: 50%, 2007: 59.32%, 2008: 55.93%, 2009: 48.21%, 2010: 52.46%

The first nugget of information is that the Black and Gold are fairly mediocre in most seasons, but great defense is quite a tonic for many things.  The second tidbit is that Pittsburgh wins Super Bowls when the offense steps up its red-zone conversion rate.  It's time to elaborate:

In the section of field that could easily be called the "gold zone" for the potential points it offers, the Steelers are certainly not golden, make no mistake.  In fact, at their best, teams with high-octane offenses typically finished anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent ahead of the 'Burgh with respect to red-zone touchdown percentage. 

In Pittsburgh, the correlation between championships and red-zone production isn't the gap between good and great, but between mediocre and good (if that).  To put Pittsburgh's peaks in perspective, the top ranked team in this statistical category tends to convert at about a 68 percent clip, with New Orleans peaking in 2007 at 72%.

With the exception of the 2007 Steelers, which saw a damning injury to Willie Parker and a worn team right before the playoffs, Pittsburgh's highest touchdown rates in the newly nicknamed "gold zone" came in 2005 (ranked 4th in the NFL) and 2008.  Any real fan can easily associate those two years with Lombardi Trophies.  

Though to a lesser degree during those two championship seasons, Pittsburgh has been pedestrian near the end zone.  Still, the Steelers commonly finish with winning records and make the playoffs despite such anemia; with the luxury of great defense and low point totals surrendered, the Steelers can sacrifice point scoring that most teams cannot.

Looking back at the figures, notice the sharp declines in red-zone conversion percentage in 2006 and 2009, seasons that saw failed championship defenses in which Pittsburgh didn't qualify for the playoffs. They also missed the postseason in 2003, another year featuring poor red-zone offense.  On an interesting note, Pittsburgh was lackluster in 2004 but finished 15-1.

What can I say?  Those who remember that season surely remember the dominant defense that was on display.  Chalk one up to LeBeau and Co.!  And, despite their struggles close to the end zone, a certain rookie phenom was very clutch in the fourth quarter that season.  Perhaps with a better conversion rate, some of those nail-biting moments could have been avoided in Ben's rookie year.

Whether you choose to accept the figures listed as a true trend showcasing championship potential, it cannot be denied that points are going to be vital in a tough 2011 AFC playoff race. 

Looking at contests from earlier in the season, settling for field goals or going scoreless altogether made feasibly comfortable leads turn into stressful endings.

Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns allowed a thoroughly dominated Patriots squad to receive the ball within a miracle score of tying the game during an Oct. 31 battle at Heinz Field.

Early red zone opportunities were missed against both the Browns and Chiefs, two of the league's worst teams in 2011.   Worse yet, the lost points were the result of a lack of discipline, costly fumbles by veterans (Hines Ward, Mewelde Moore, and Heath Miller) giving the ball back to the opposition at the worst possible moment.

I suppose that by referring to the red zone as "gold," one must then refer to turnovers in that area of the field as "fake gold."  Things seem to be going well, then you realize it is all just a ruse!  Turnovers aren't always the cause of red-zone breakdowns.

The most stark example may have been in the Steelers' most recent game, as the Browns stuffed four consecutive run attempts up the middle after Pittsburgh secured a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. 

Whether one chooses to blame the health of the offensive line, Bruce Arians' predictable play-calling, or Chris Kemoeatu's ineptitude (he missed two critical blocks on the series) is a matter of choice.

The one thing all can agree on is that the job didn't get done.

The good news is that most of the red-zone issues are fixable.  For example, holding onto the football is a matter of 101 fundamentals. 

The x's and o's of the game are something athletes are always vying to improve upon.  And, lastly, there are mistakes in strategy that can be fixed, from reassessing play calls to adjusting the starting roster. 

There are reasons for optimism: Jerricho Cotchery is getting into the offensive mix, Heath Miller could get more of the focus, and (frankly) recent performances really can't get much worse.

With a trip to the Super Bowl last season and numerous winning seasons since 2003, why is it that fans are so up in arms about the red-zone performance in 2011?  After all, the team has been performing comparably to last season's squad, which attained a Lamar Hunt Trophy as AFC Champions.

Simply, the answer is talent.  Not since the days of Bradshaw and the boys have the Steelers fielded such a gallery of offensive playmakers. 

From Antonio Brown to Mike Wallace, the Pittsburgh offensive roster is a veritable who's who as it concerns moving the sticks (getting first downs) and finding the end zone. 

Despite the slew of potential, so far, the season has seen arguably the league's most dangerous offensive roster (at skill positions) producing no better than in past years.

With great potential comes high expectations; it's merely common sense.  If this struggle can be fixed and the team can stay healthy, the combination of offense and defense in the 'Burgh could be a brutal force to reckon with!

While the Steel City has celebrated many championships, the region has felt the heartache of deserving squads falling short.  These heartbreaks can happen for any number of reasons, from turnovers to the issue at being discussed.

Any game can unfold in any number of infinite manners.  As such, rolling up points when they're available is a matter of common sense.  You never know when you may need them.

Consider the 1986 AFC Championship in Cleveland. Trailing 20-13, John Elway led the Broncos on a 98-yard scoring march, affectionately (in every city but Cleveland) labeled "The Drive."  Denver tied the score with seconds remaining before winning in overtime.

In the game, Cleveland kicker Mark Moseley hit two field goals from 29 and 24 yards away.  In other words, touchdowns were left on the field when Cleveland had a red-zone opportunity.  Proving that any given point forfeited in this manner can cost an entire season, let me ask a question:

What would The Drive have meant if Denver trailed 24-13?  What if the Browns had finished their offensive march just one more time?

Obviously, it's impossible to convert 100 percent of the time.  Expectations have to be reasonable.  For the Steelers, the goal must be improvement.  Certainly, there is no reason that the red-zone offense can't get better with the featured talent.  It must!

After all, the 2011 Steelers don't want to spend their summer thinking back on Tom Brady (just an example!) as their 1986 John Elway. 

Earlier this season on Sunday Night Football, Pittsburgh saw a "Drive" of their own as Joe Flacco marched Baltimore 92 yards to victory.  In that contest, the Steelers settled for two first-half field goals.

Steelers fans can agree that one "Drive" is already one too many. 


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