News & Analysis

Metrics that Matter: The QB sneak vs. the RB run with 1 yard to go

By Scott Barrett
Feb 26, 2018

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Jan 14, 2018; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) gets a block from offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva (78) while being pressured by Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)

In mid-January, Ben Roethlisberger went on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh following a postseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, where the Steelers failed twice to convert on 4th-and-1. During the interview, Roethlisberger said he doesn’t “have the freedom to check to a quarterback sneak because we don’t have that call if we’re not in the huddle.” He continued, “It’s been a while since we’ve run the quarterback sneak… I’m for it, but it’s kinda over my head why we don’t do it. I’m not going to second-guess why we don’t run the quarterback sneak. I don’t know.” Perhaps only coincidentally, a few days later offensive coordinator Todd Haley was notified he wouldn’t be with the Steelers in 2018, after six years with the team.

Roethlisberger is a 35-year-old quarterback who has played in all 16 games just twice over the past nine seasons, and the Steelers probably also have the league’s best running back in Le’Veon Bell, so I can understand their reasons for limiting Roethlisberger in the running game if they’re worried about injury risk. Still, in a do-or-die postseason game against the Jaguars, this seems like an egregious error.

The data suggest you are far more likely to convert in short yardage situations on a QB sneak than by handing the ball off to the running back.

Since 2007, when an offense was within one yard of the end zone, teams scored 65.2 percent of the time on QB sneaks, but only 52.5 percent of the time when the running back draws the carry.

Since 2007, when in between the 20-yard lines on third or fourth down with only one yard to go to convert a first down, teams converted 86.5 percent of the time on QB sneaks, but only 68.7 percent of the time on running back carries.

For whatever reason, teams are not opting to go for the QB sneak in short yardage situations as often as the data suggests they should. In the case of Roethlisberger and Bell, again, the difference is glaring.

Throughout his career, Bell has converted 19 of 30 attempts into a first down when running on 3rd/4th and 1 in between the 20s. His 63.3 percent conversion rate is slightly below average among running backs over our sample. For comparison, by the same parameters, Roethlisberger has converted 21 of 23 QB Sneak attempts (91.3 percent) since 2007.

Although this article isn’t especially relevant for fantasy football, at least now you’ll have some stats to back you up next time you call you’re an offensive coordinator dumb for continually handing the ball off to the running back on short yardage situations. And please, Mike Tomlin, give Ben Roethlisberger the ability to call a QB sneak next time you’re in the playoffs.

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