Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

18 Nov 2009

Pittsburgh Nears an Ignoble Record

Pittsburgh has had problems on special teams for years, but this year things have hit rock bottom. The Steelers have given up three touchdowns on kick returns in just the last four games. How bad is it? Pittsburgh is threatening what I thought was an untouchable record: Worst net kickoff value in DVOA history.

Going back to 1994, only three teams have finished a season with net kickoffs that were so bad that they cost the team more than 20 points of estimated field position compared to NFL average. The 2005 Cardinals score at -20.7. The 1995 Eagles score at -20.9. But Steve Christie and the 2000 Bills blow both those teams away with an absurd -31.0 value on kickoffs. The difference between the Bills and the second-worst team, the 1995 Eagles, is the same as the difference between the Eagles and the team ranked FIFTY-FIRST OVERALL!

I never thought a team would get to the Bills, but the Steelers are inching down there. Check out this week's special teams ratings, and you will see that Pittsburgh's value on net kickoffs is -26.2 points of field position. Jeff Reed has the worst kickoffs of the year (-7.1 points, -3.5 points worse than any other kicker). Filter out the length of kickoffs, and Pittsburgh has the worst coverage too, allowing 20.3 points of returns. No other team has allowed over 10 points worth of returns.

(Note that net value isn't exactly kick value plus coverage value, due to non-returnable kickoffs like touchbacks and kicks out of bounds.)

This does come with a bit of an asterisk, because I'm planning an overhaul of special teams ratings in the offseason. But while the exact numbers will change, the craptacularness of the 2000 Bills and 2009 Steelers kick coverage teams will not.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 18 Nov 2009

40 comments, Last at 24 Nov 2009, 4:40pm by Pat (filler)


by DGL :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:07pm

So what would a team's kickoff DVOA be if they just onside kicked every kickoff, taking into consideration a reasonable percentage of recovery and assuming that every kick that's not recovered gives the opposition the ball around the 40 yard line?

I'm thinking a combination of onside kicks and pooches could be better than letting the Returner of the Week run one back consistently

by countertorque :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 2:58am

What makes you think they can cover an expected pooch? They should just kick out of bounds.

by erniecohen :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 8:24am

If you are satisfied with the 40, just kick it out of bounds; almost all teams will take it at the 40.

However, vs. average, that's giving up something like .7 points per kickoff, so for PIT that would come to about 3.5 points per game, which is already way more points tha they're giving up now (on average).

by Fan in Exile :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:09pm

When you overhaul the special teams rating are you going to axe the Denver adjustment? I only ask because the physics really seem to make it clear that it's much too little of a difference to measure.

by Aaron Schatz :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:45pm

Not sure what you mean. When you look at numbers for Denver kickers at home vs. Denver kickers on the road, as well as kickers vs. Denver in Denver compared to elsewhere, the difference is quite obvious.

by ABW (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:48pm

Which physics are these, exactly? The ones I'm using seem to indicate that it is, in fact, slightly easier to kick at altitude, since the air up there is in fact 10-20% less dense.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:00pm

I guess golf course architects are entirely ignorant of physics. Also, I must suddenly develop much better clubhead speed when I play at altitude. Strangely, Major League Baseball teams have also deluded themselves, in thinking they have observed baseballs behaving differently in Denver, compared to baseballs in cities at lower altitudes.

by MarkV :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:37pm

The difference in denver has been really mitigated by equal humidity balls.

Still, there are very real and observable difference between Denver and lower elevations. What that means to physical feats is debatable until the cows come in, its very difficult to parse out all the actual interactions. On flight dynamics its very easy, and balls fly differently. Its not just further, because the system is more dynamic than that, but there are real and measurable effects.

by dbostedo :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 9:38am

It's difficult to parse out in the details or a single kick. But lots of data exists to parse out the effect on average, in the form of what Aaron mentioned above - kickers in Denver vs. the same kickers outside of Denver.

It's not perfect, but it should be reasonably predictive.

by Fan in Exile :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:59am

Aaron When you account for all of the things going on there's only at best about a foots difference in Denver. I don't think with all of the randomness going on that you can parse out that difference, maybe I'm wrong.

One of the things that I would ask is what's the difference for other Kickers home and away? I would also point out that there is a clear psychological difference in that people are willing to attempt field goals from about 5-7 yards longer in Denver than in other stadiums, however that's not an actual physical difference.

ABW if the only thing going on were the difference in Air Density you would be correct. However the humidity which is lower is also a big factor.

Will have someone explain the difference between a golf ball and a football to you.

MarkV, and debostedo you are correct the math is too much for me to explain so maybe someone with a better physics background could chime in. But every time it's only worked out to about a foot.

by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Tue, 11/24/2009 - 4:40pm

I don't know where you're getting your physics from, but it's wrong. Computer models of Denver versus sea level give a distance difference of about 5 yards. There've been several studies done on this; just do a Google search for it.

ABW if the only thing going on were the difference in Air Density you would be correct. However the humidity which is lower is also a big factor.

Nope. Water just can't make up a significant fraction of air density even at maximum saturation. Denver's got 80% of the atmospheric density compared to sea level. The difference between 100% and 0% humidity is a few percent, not 20%.

MarkV, and debostedo you are correct the math is too much for me to explain so maybe someone with a better physics background could chime in. But every time it's only worked out to about a foot.

I have never, ever seen the physics worked out such that it gave a value of a foot.

by Balaji (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:21pm

It's like 2001 all over again. At least Reed will be gone this offseason.

by Jerry :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 7:47pm

I still feel much more confident when Reed goes out to kick a field goal (despite Chicago) than I ever did when Kris Brown lined up.

The kickoff coverage's historical badness is impressive.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:38am

I don't really remember Brown as a Steeler, but he's been a pretty good kicker for the Texans. He does miss the occasional short one, but he also makes a good proportion of long ones, and his kick-offs are consistently good to excellent.

by Jerry :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 8:12pm

As Justin Zeth says in #13 below, Brown was always an adventure at Heinz Field. He may be better suited tp a more neutral setting like Reliant Field.

by matt w (not verified) :: Fri, 11/20/2009 - 8:53am

I'm not sure how Brown's overall stats at Heinz Field were, but Steeler fandom was pretty well traumatized by the Baltimore game in 2001 -- their only loss between the first and last weeks of the season, where Brown managed to go 1-for-5 in a 13-10 game. He redeemed himself the next week by making an OT field goal against Cleveland -- IIRC that was the game where the Steelers had the kick blocked on second down, recovered behind the line of scrimmage, and re-kicked for the win -- but anyway, that was an away game. And Brown had been quite successful at Three Rivers (didn't he set a record for most consecutive FGs to start a career or something?)

I'm not sure it's fair to blame the Todd Peterson experience on Heinz Field; he just sucked that year. His FG percentage was even worse away from Heinz (though I haven't normalized for distance or anything like that).

by Steve (not verified) :: Sat, 11/21/2009 - 12:35am

"He redeemed himself the next week by making an OT field goal against Cleveland -- IIRC that was the game where the Steelers had the kick blocked on second down, recovered behind the line of scrimmage, and re-kicked for the win -- but anyway, that was an away game"

You're thinking of the week 3 game at Heinz Field from 2002. That winning kick was by Todd Peterson.

You're correct,though, that Brown kicked the game winner in OT in the game against the Browns in Cleveland in '01. Actually, his five field goals accounted for all the Steelers scoring that day.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:26pm

Reed makes up for his lousy kickoffs with his impressive tackling ability.

by debilliet (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:32pm

I was about to ask how much this might change if Reed was capable of making (or even contemplating making) a tackle.

by Antique Furniture (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 8:07pm

I'd settle for him to even hit the guy and slide off... or slow them down for a step. He barely makes them change directions. Urgh.

by Mystyc :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:28pm

I'd settle for his tackling ability not needing to be part of the discussion.

by DGL :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 1:50am

From the Post-Gazette: "Man, I am not going to go down to evaluating Jeff Reed as a tackler," Tomlin said. "When it comes down to that, we have failed as a coverage unit."

by RRL (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 5:41pm

Love to see a DVOA-type number for Steeler kickoffs that would compare them to the 40 yeard-line positioning achieved by simply kicking the #@$%ing ball out of bounds on each kickoff.

I'm a Steelers fan, and every time they kick the ball off, I start hearing "Yakkity Sax," with the climactic notes being Reed's failed flop-tackle or his running right past the returner.

by Theo :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 6:35pm

Wow. I have 2 questions though...
- What does this mean in yardage - if a touch back goes to the 20, what is the average yardage for the steelers? I can't find the numbers.
- What would the DVOA be of a kicker be if he just kicks it out of the end zone every time?

by Jimmy in Oz :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:58pm

Yeah, i think Aaron just noticed this statistic and posted it without going much further. I'd be interested in seeing what goes into a historically bad coverage unit:

- The average starting position for Steelers' opponents following a kick-off, & how much it differs from league average for the season/DVOA era

- No of kick return TD's have there been, how many is league average for the season/DVOA era

- No of fumbles have Steelers caused & recovered on kick-offs, and the league average for the season/DVOA era.

by Justin Zeth :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 9:44pm

The Steelers need to keep Reed for field goals and do what they've long resisted doing: Using a roster spot on a kickoff specialist. Reason being, Jeff Reed knows how to kick accurately at Heinz Field, which is something I can say about no other kicker I know of. Steelers fans that want rid of him should better remember the Kris Brown Experience and its riveting sequel, the Todd Peterson Experience. Kicking at Heinz Field is tricky business, and it spells disaster for the Steelers if they hire a kicker, get into the regular season and then realize he can't do it.

As for the rest of this year, the Steelers really need to just squib every kickoff and accept that the other team will start around the 30. And probably have the supremely awesome Daniel Sepulveda do the squibbing.

Hell, even if they're going to keep kicking deep, they should probably have Sepulveda do it, as his kickoffs can't be much worse than Reed's and he would double as one of the better guys on the coverage unit.

by SteveNC (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:29pm

When I saw the subject line, I thought it would refer to giving up return touchdowns in 7 straight games (although this includes interception and fumble returns as well as kick returns). Anyone know the team "record" for that?

by Dunbar (not verified) :: Wed, 11/18/2009 - 10:56pm

I agree with Justin Zeth--the Steelers absolutely need to get a kickoff specialist. Reed has always been bad at kicking off, but this year he seems to be taking it to new lows. I'm not sure if the distance on his kicks is getting worse, but it seems like most of them just have no oomph whatsoever on them.

If he's going to kick it short, he at least might as well kick it high so the coverage team can get down the field, but he can't even accomplish that. His kickoffs are just shorter and weaker than any other kicker's I've seen since ... well, since Todd Peterson.

That said, the Steelers' coverage teams, on both kickoffs and punts, are just awful. They've been awful every year that I can remember. Some of my earliest Steelers memories (I started watching them in 1995, at age 7) are of the horrible kick coverage units throwing away games the defense had won and even Kordell Stewart had managed not to lose. It took me the Patriots' Super Bowl loss to the Giants to get over the 2001 playoff game that the Patriots wouldn't have won if not for the kick coverage unit's epic choke job (two kick return touchdowns, as I recall). That loss hurt.

I know that special teams only counts for 1/7 or so of the final outcome, and the Steelers have managed to win two Super Bowls even with their awful special teams, but at some point the Steelers need to put a little most emphasis on that part of the game. It doesn't seem like it should be that hard--even if the Steelers end up putting the worst group of athletes in the league in their coverage units, they will still do better than the current lot if they just stick to their gaps and play with a little effort.

by Anonymous Coward (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:23am

Steelers had good coverage units last year.

by Matt W (not verified) :: Fri, 11/20/2009 - 9:04am

The 2001 playoff game wasn't on the kick return unit -- one punt returned for a touchdown after Troy Moron Edwards negated a great punt from the endzone by running out of bounds, one #!*$#!*^&* blocked field goal returned for a TD, in one of several crucial lucky plays the Patriots had that postseason.

by IsraelP (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 5:15am

Are we meant to understand that those -26.2 points are on the basis of sixteen games?

At least I hope they are!

Also, we Steelers fans seem to recall that last year this was one of the team strengths. Does DVOA see it that way too?

by Otis Taylor89 :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 8:15am

Oh, the 2000 Bills. Coached by....Wade Phillips! QB, Rob Johnson AND Doug Flutie!

Good times.....

by tonic889 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 9:59pm

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the historical context of the 2000 Bills special teams unit. In 1999, Wade Phillips was forced to fire his special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven (12 years with the Bills) after losing in the Music City Miracle. If the Seahawks PR department is to be believed, DeHaven was a very good coach (http://www.seahawks.com/team/coaches/bruce-dehaven/2f448e63-315b-47f9-98...).

IIRC, Bills management threatened Philips with his job if he did not change coaches. And the team responds with a season of historically bad performance. God, I love the Bills.

by erniecohen :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 10:54am

It should be mentioned that PIT was something like 5th in the kickoff DVOA last year.

by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 11:01am

"Jeff Reed has the worst kickoffs of the year (-7.1 points, -3.5 points worse than any other kicker). Filter out the length of kickoffs, and Pittsburgh has the worst coverage too, allowing 20.3 points of returns."

Do you guys really think these are unrelated? A kicker who is trying to extend distance (and hence having less hang time) seems like a real good reason for crappy coverage.

by Eddo :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 12:16pm

Isn't that statement saying that Reed kicks short kickoffs?

by Justin Zeth :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 12:13pm

Reed's kickoffs tend to be both short (landing around the 5 generally) AND low line drives. Which is a very serious problem for an already bad coverage unit, and I'm guessing makes the coverage unit (even in DVOA) look worse than it is.

By the way, the Steelers had consistently terrible kick/punt coverage all through the Cowher era; then it quickly and largely improved when Tomlin took over. Now they've reverted back to the Cowher era. Every organization has its strengths and weaknesses, and one of the few weaknesses of the Steelers has long been that they don't know how to assemble a competent kick coverage team and/or just don't care that much.

by Sideshow Bob (not verified) :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 1:54pm

Jeff Reed is a like a cross between two characters in Major League: the guy played by Charlie Sheen (stupid haircut, likes to get in fights, basically a douchebag) and the guy played by Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn; he doesn't like to exert too much effort out there). Reed's half-hearted attempt to tackle Bernard Scott on that kickoff return last week was just like one of Dorn's "Ole!" specials at the hot corner. Is it really THAT hard to find someone with better leg strength who can learn to figure out the winds at Heinz?

by FireOmarTomlin :: Thu, 11/19/2009 - 2:42pm

Funny, in Madden 2010 Sepulveda is the kickoff guy. I wouldn't doubt he could kick it farther (though perhaps less accurately), and he certainly is a SUPERIOR tackler....

by erniecohen :: Sun, 11/22/2009 - 3:07pm

KC returns the opening KO for a TD. PIT is blowing by the record, showing they don't want no part of no asterisk.