PITTSBURGH — The key sequence in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 24-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday came in the second quarter.
Steelers starting offensive guard Isaac Seumalo and quarterback Kenny Pickett suffered injuries as the team neared the goal line with the game tied 3-3. Still, the team got down to 4th and 1, when Steelers interim offensive play caller Mike Sullivan dialed up a shotgun handoff to Najee Harris, running in behind backup guard Nate Herbig.
The 242-back put his head down and churned his legs, and the Steelers’ offensive line got a hat on every hat, but they were unable to move the Arizona defense back one yard.
After the turnover on downs, the Cardinals drove 99 yards to cap off the first half with a touchdown, and completely changed the dynamic of the rest of the game.
“We need to get seven, no question,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “Don’t second guess that there, but the combination of that failure and the subsequent drive by them really made it a challenge for us. Oftentimes, we’re aggressive in those moments, because we realize the field positioning component of play and the defense’s ability to oftentimes back up our offense in those moments and put us right back into short field. But that didn’t occur.”
Tomlin was referring to not second guessing his decision to go for the fourth down instead of kicking a chip-shot field goal. But what about the decision to run the ball out of the shotgun? Interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner was asked about that in his Tuesday press conference.
“It was just a downhill run we liked,” Faulkner said. “You look at that clip, we’ve got everybody covered up, we’ve got to get a yard down there. Everybody’s covered up, we’ve got to get a yard.”
Pushed for his preference between a shotgun and under center run, Harris refused to answer. Obviously, Harris’ true preference should play into the decision by the Steelers’ coaches, and without that, we’re left to speculated whether it was the correct or incorrect choice.
But what do the statistics say about that decision in general? It might surprise you.
According to research by Arjun Menon, a former analytics staffer for the New York Jets, the most successful play to run on a 4th and 1 is a quarterback sneak, according to data going back to 2018. But if you’re going to run the ball with a running back, shotgun runs are better than under center. Shotgun runs convert the first down 67.4% of the time, while under center runs convert it 63.1% of the time.
With the Steelers just losing their starting quarterback to an injury one play earlier, the choice to not go with a quarterback sneak is understandable. That play converts the first down 77.5% of the time. A drop-back pass from an under-center formation is the second-most successful at 68.6%, followed by the shotgun run.
Alright here's some more data regarding 4th and 1 playcalling in NFL since 2018 outside of garbage time, looking at designed runs broken down by sneak/no sneak, and dropbacks broken down by play action and no play action. Non-sneak designed runs from shotgun > under center pic.twitter.com/7fhp7M0rwF
— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) November 25, 2023
It’s fair to criticize the Steelers’ choice — it didn’t work, after all — but it seems the data was on their side in how they chose to approach that key play in Sunday’s loss.