September 28, 2021

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Steelers Like ‘Em Big, and Other Data on…

14 min read
Steelers Like 'Em Big, and Other Data on...


Last week, we introduced snap-weighted size for offense, defense, and special teams, finding the biggest and smallest NFL clubs as measured by height, weight, and BMI, accounting for how many snaps each player was actually on the field. Today we’re going to look at things in more detail, one position at a time. We’re also going to check for correlations between size at each position and some of our most common offensive and defensive statistics to seen if any trends emerge. We’ll go ahead and start with everyone’s favorites, the quarterbacks.


OFFENSE

Quarterbacks

We won’t waste much of your time talking about height—if you’re reading Football Outsiders, you’re probably well aware that Justin Herbert, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, and Josh Allen are tall, and that Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Tua Tagovailoa, and Baker Mayfield are relatively short. Remember, though, that short does not mean small—the Seahawks, Cards, and Dolphins took gold, silver, and bronze in SWBMI. Seattle’s quarterbacks (mostly Wilson, plus 18 snaps by Geno Smith) had a SWBMI higher than that of any defense’s secondary … and a few teams’ linebackers. The trailers in SWBMI are the three teams we discussed earlier: the Vikings, Titans, and Raiders.

There is a strong tendency for short quarterbacks to scramble a lot, but this is mostly driven by four outliers. The Ravens and Texans were first and second in scrambles as a percentage of all dropbacks, and their quarterbacks were both 6-foot-2 or shorter. The Seahawks and Cardinals were next in scramble rate, and they had the shortest quarterbacks in the league. Remove those four teams and the trend of shorter quarterbacks scrambling more still exists, but it’s much weaker.

On a likely related note, teams with small quarterbacks tend to run more often, and they tend to be more effective when they do run; the correlations between SWW and run rate, and between SWW and rush offense DVOA, are in the -.300 range.

Running Backs

The following table shows statistics for running backs only; we’ll get to fullbacks in a minute.

At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Derrick Henry is the latest in a long line of powerhouse running backs in Oilers/Titans franchise history. He’s the (ahem) biggest reason Tennessee runners finished first in both SWH and SWW. Most of his backups (like all other running backs) were much smaller, though the Titans also got 42 snaps from 6-foot-1, 233-pound D’Onta Foreman.

The Dolphins were at the other end of the scale. Unlike Tennessee, they used a committee backfield, with four running backs getting at least 200 snaps … and unlike Tennessee, they didn’t have any power backs of note. The biggest of those four runners was Patrick Laird (6-foot-0, 205 pounds). The Dolphins had the league’s smallest running backs by both SWW and SWBMI.

The league’s thickest running backs were in Kansas City; the Chiefs used five running backs last year, and four of them had BMIs in the 30s. Clyde Edwards Helaire led the way with 500-plus snaps at 5-foot-7 and 207 pounds, with a BMI of 32.4.

The Bills had the league’s shortest running backs, with Devin Singletary going 5-foot-7 and Zack Moss standing 5-foot-9.

Here are the fullback numbers for the 17 teams that listed players at that position last year. The Vikings led the league with 627 fullback snaps; the Cowboys were last (among teams in this table) with 35.

Not surprisingly, teams with big running backs (including fullbacks) tend to run more often, while smaller backs tend to get more targets. What is surprising is how much more effective those bigger backs were on the ground. Snap-weighted weight had a positive correlation with rush offense DVOA and most of our offensive line stats … including second-level yards and open-field yards, the big-play metrics where you’d think smaller backs might have an edge. Oddly, the only offensive line stat that had little correlation with weight was efficiency in short-yardage situations, which is the area where you’d expect bigger backs to dominate.

Wide Receivers

Aaron Rodgers won the MVP and enjoyed one of the best seasons of his brilliant career in part because he was throwing to an army of giants. The Packers finished with the highest SWH and SWW among wide receivers. Each of their top five wide receivers in snaps played—Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Malik Taylor (who saw the bulk of his action on special teams) and Equanimeous St. Brown—stood at least 6-foot-1 and weighed at least 207 pounds.

Mind you, small wideouts can be productive in the NFL too. Take the Houston Texans, for example, the smallest in the league by both SWH and SWW. Each of Houston’s top four wideouts—Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Randall Cobb, and Keke Coutee—stood 6-foot-0 or shorter and weighed 192 pounds or less. Yet the Texans still finished eighth in pass offense DVOA.

The Pittsburgh Steelers narrowly edged out the Arizona Cardinals for the league’s thickest wide receiver corps. Diontae Johnson (5-foot-10, 181 pounds) was on the slender side, but otherwise Ben Roethlisberger was throwing to wideouts nearly as thick as he is: Juju Smith-Schuster (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, 28.4 BMI), Chase Claypool (6-foot-4, 229 pounds, 27.9 BMI) and James Washington (5-foot-11, 213, 29.7 BMI).

The skinniest wideouts in the NFL played for Sean McVay in Los Angeles. The Rams used five wide receivers last year, and the thickest of those was Cooper Kupp, who stands 6-foot-2 at 208 pounds, which works out to a BMI of 26.7. And now they have drafted someone even smaller. Second-round draftee Tutu Atwell weighs in at only 155 pounds; even at 5-foot-9, that works out to a wafer-thin BMI of 22.9

There’s not a lot of connection between the height and weight of wide receivers and other offensive trends, but there are some correlations with SWBMI. Teams with thick wideouts tend to run more often, which is no surprise. However, they also tend to give up fewer sacks—the correlation between SWBMI and sack rate is -0.231. Correlation does not equal causation, however, and while that may be interesting, it’s still likely just random noise.

Tight Ends

The Ravens didn’t use tight ends very often—only New England gave fewer snaps to the position—but when they did, those tight ends were huge. All of their tight ends weighed at least 254 pounds, and they got more than 600 total snaps from Nick Boyle (270 pounds) and Eric Tomlinson (263). Meanwhile, in Arizona, Kliff Kingsbury used his tight ends a little more than you probably expected in his Air Raid offense, but those tight ends were tiny. Of their four top tight ends, Darrell Daniels was the biggest at 256 pounds; Dan Arnold, the leading receiver at the position, weighed just 220.

The league’s tallest tight ends played in Chicago, where Cole Kmet, Jimmy Graham, and Demetrius Harris all measured in at 6-foot-6 or taller. The shortest played in Tennessee. Four tight ends played at least 300 snaps for the Titans; they ranged in height from 6-foot-2 (Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt) to 6-foot-4 (Geoff Swaim).

From there we turn to BMI, which means once again we find ourselves looking to Pittsburgh. You’ll recall that the Steelers had the league’s thickest wide receivers; it turns out they were first in BMI among tight ends too. Almost all their tight end snaps went to Eric Ebron (6-foot-4, 253 pounds, 30.8 BMI) and Vance McDonald (6-foot-4, 267 pounds 32.5 BMI). The Dallas Cowboys had the league’s skinniest tight ends; Dalton Schultz, Blake Bell, and Sean McKeon each stood at least 6-foot-5, but none weighed more than 252 pounds or had a BMI higher than 29.2.

There is no apparent pattern between an offense’s overall stats and the height or weight of its tight ends, but we do learn something when look at tight end height—specifically, the taller a team’s tight ends, the less often that team runs. The correlation between SWH and run rate is -0.400. It’s also notable that teams with taller tight ends usually fared worse in our offensive line stats. That’s especially true when looking at second-level yards; the correlation between that category and tight end SWH is very strong at -0.488. That’s not a stat that is thrown off by a small number of outliers; most teams with tall tight ends fared poorly in second-level yards, while most teams with short tight ends fared well.

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This would suggest two interesting theories. The first is that short tight ends, in general, are better blockers than their taller peers; the second is that second-level yards are a better metric of tight end blocking than we have ever realized. It’s important to remember that these results only reflect one year; we would need to see a similar pattern emerge over several seasons before putting too much faith in them going forward.

Offensive Line

Derek Carr quietly had a very good season in 2020, making the top 10 in both DYAR and DVOA and setting career highs with 7.94 yards per pass and 11.79 yards per completion. That’s thanks in part to the NFL’s biggest offensive line, which gave him plenty of time to hit deep passes downfield. Eight offensive linemen played at least 200 snaps for Las Vegas, and seven of them topped the position’s average weight of 314.6 pounds. Then, because they are the Raiders and they can never stick to a plan, they blew up the whole thing, trading away starters Trent Brown (380 pounds), Gabe Jackson (336 pounds), and Rodney Hudson (315 pounds).

The Raiders’ counterparts were their former Bay Area rivals, the San Francisco 49ers. The biggest of San Francisco’s top six linemen was 320-pound Trent Williams; the lightest, technically, was Daniel Brunskill, but here is an example where our database is inaccurate as a player’s weight has changed. A tight end at San Diego State, Brunskill was initially listed at 260 pounds in our database, which has not changed since he entered the league in 2017. The 49ers website lists Brunskill at 300 pounds; so does Brunskill’s player page at NFL.com. Changing Brunskill’s weight to 300 pounds boost’s San Francisco’s offensive line SWW to 311.3 pounds and their BMI to 36.6, a significant difference in both categories.

And now it’s time to look again at the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose offense is just full of outliers. The Steelers’ offensive line had a SWH of 77.75 inches; the second-tallest line, the Denver Broncos, was closer to 15th-place Kansas City than they were to Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ top three linemen in snaps included two players at 6-foot-6 (Matt Feller and Chukwuma Okorafor) and one at 6-foot-9 (Alejandro Villanueva).

While the Steelers’ line stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league, the rest of the league stood head and shoulders above the Patriots’ offensive line. New England’s SWH at the offensive line was 75.23 inches; only two other teams were even within an inch of that total. The second-shortest line, Chicago, was closer to the 13th-place L.A. Chargers than they were to the Patriots. Eight linemen played at least 100 snaps for New England last year, and none of those were taller than 6-foot-5 (Joe Thuney and Justin Herron); the shortest was Shaq Mason at 6-foot-1.

The top two offensive lines in SWBMI were either very short (New England) or very fat (Las Vegas), but either way we have already discussed them. So let’s instead discuss the Seattle Seahawks. Five of Seattle’s top six linemen had BMIs higher than the positional average of 37.5; the biggest were Damien Lewis (6-foot-3, 332 pounds, 41.5 BMI) and Jordan Simmons (6-foot-4, 339 pounds, 41.3 BMI). The league’s skinniest line played in San Francisco, but in the interest of discussing as many teams as possible, let’s move on to second-place Minnesota. Four of the Vikings’ top six linemen had below-average BMIs: Brian O’Neill (6-foot-7, 297 pounds, 33.5 BMI), Riley Reiff (6-foot-6, 305 pounds, 35.2 BMI), Ezra Cleveland (6-foot-6, 311 pounds, 35.9 BMI), and Dru Samia (6-foot-5, 308 pounds, 36.5 BMI).

In general, high-BMI lines tend to fare better in the run game; they were especially effective at preventing stuffs, where the correlation with SWBMI was -0.396. However, they tended to give up more pass pressures; the correlation between SWBMI and sack/scramble rate was 0.407.


DEFENSE

Defensive Linemen

In Part I of this series, we pointed out that teams that the more defensive linemen a team uses, the smaller those linemen tend to be. For that reason, we’ve color-coded this table. Teams that use linemen more than linebackers are shaded yellow; teams that use linebackers more than linemen are shaded blue.


Based on these numbers, it appears the Chicago Bears may have had actual bruins patrolling their defensive line. This is mostly due to Akiem Hicks—at 352 pounds, he was the heaviest defender in the NFL to play at least 500 snaps. He led Chicago’s linemen with 795 snaps; second-place Bilal Nichols played nearly 700 snaps at 313 pounds, which was also bigger than average for most teams in the league.

While the Bears were big, the Bills were bantamweights. Seven of their eight top linemen in snaps played weighed less than 300 pounds, the lightest of them 253-pound Darryl Johnson. Their top two linemen in snaps, Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes, both weighed 260 pounds or less.

In Miami, the Dolphins had the league’s tallest defensive line. Every defensive lineman who played a snap for Miami stood at least 6-foot-1; the four who played at least 600 snaps all stood 6-foot-4 or taller, peaking with the 6-foot-7 Raekwon Davis. One state to the north, the Falcons had the shortest line in the NFL. Snap leader Grady Jarrett goes 6 feet even; their top five linemen were all 6-foot-3 or shorter.

It was a flock of a different feather, the Cardinals, who had the NFL’s thickest defensive line. The average defensive line had a SWBMI of 35.7, but seven of Arizona’s top eight linemen were bigger than that. The exception was Zach Allen (6-foot-4, 281 pounds, 34.2 BMI), but three of them—Corey Peters (6-foot-3, 335), Trevon Coley (6-foot-1, 310), and Domata Peko (6-foot-3, 325)—had BMIs north of 40.0.

The skinniest line was technically that of the Buffalo Bills, but since we already talked about them, let’s look instead at the team that finished in second place by just a few decimal points: the Indianapolis Colts. Only one of Indy’s top six linemen (the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Grover Stewart) was above-average in BMI for the position. The others, in order of snaps played: DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7, 300 pounds, 33.8 BMI), Denico Autry (6-foot-5, 285 pounds, 33.8 BMI), Al-Quadin Muhammad (6-foot-4, 250 pounds, 30.4 BMI), Justin Houston (6-foot-3, 270 pounds, 33.7 BMI), and Tyquan Lewis (6-foot-3, 277 pounds, 34.6 BMI).

There are subtle trends suggesting that better defenses have bigger defensive lines, but it’s not a one-size fits all solution. Taller defensive lines usually result in better pass defenses (correlation with pass defense DVOA: -0.306), while heavier lines play better against the run (correlation with run defense DVOA: -0.353).

Linebackers

The Patriots didn’t use linebackers often (only 2,157 snaps; every other linebacker corps was over 2,900, maxing out at 6,132 for Arizona), but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in bulk. Their top three linebackers—Ja’Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings, and Shilique Calhoun—all weighed 255 pounds or more. Not surprisingly, New England also ranked first in SWBMI at the position.

The Patriots’ polar opposites were the Panthers. Every linebacker who saw the field for Carolina weighed 241 pounds or less. Note that this does include 212-pound rookie Jeremy Chinn—though he wears jersey No. 21, the Panthers do list him as a linebacker. Going forward, he should probably be listed as a safety—his average run tackle came 7.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which would rank last by a full yard among linebackers but merely below average in the defensive backfield—but we’ll leave him here for now. For the record, he’s not quite the smallest linebacker in the league. Akeem Davis-Gaither (Cincinnati) and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (San Francisco) each checked in at a porterhouse north of two bills.

New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman likes his defensive linemen big (ranking in the top three in both SWW and SWBMI), and he likes his linebackers tall, with the highest SWH in the league. The Giants’ top 11 linebackers (!) were all at least 6-foot-2; three of them (Kyler Fackrell, Cam Brown, and Lorenzo Carter) stood 6-foot-5. New York’s divisional rivals in Washington had the league’s shortest linebackers; the Football Team’s top seven linebackers were all 6-foot-1 or shorter.

The Falcons had the league’s skinniest linebackers by SWBMI (stunning, considering the Varsity is right there). Their top three players at the position: Deion Jones (6-foot-1, 227 pounds, 29.9 BMI), Foyesade Oluokun (6-foot-2, 215, 27.6 BMI), and Mykal Walker (6-foot-3, 227, 28.4 BMI).

We couldn’t find any correlation between linebacker size and any of our defensive stats. Tall, short, heavy, light, none of it seems to matter—just get good players.

Defensive Backs

You won’t find the New York Jets at the top of many tables from 2020, but they can put a bow on the season knowing full well that they had the biggest secondary in pro football. Marcus Maye, second among all defensive backs in the league with 1,186 snaps, clocked in at 207 pounds. Bryce Hall, Brian Poole, and Lamar Jackson (no, the other one) each topped 200 pounds as well, while Blessuan Austin and Pierre Desir were in the 190s.

If you’re looking for the league’s tallest defensive backs, you’ll find them in the Motor City. At 6-foot-1, Duron Harmon led all defensive backs with 1,221 snaps; 6-foot-2 Amani Oruwariye added over a thousand snaps himself. Other prominent Detroit defensive backs included Jayron Kearse (6-foot-4) and Tracy Walker and Will Harris (both 6-foot-1).

The Philadelphia Eagles and their itty-bitty secondary pulled off the rare feat of having the shortest and lightest players at the same position group. None of the Eagles’ top six defensive backs stood more than 6 feet tall, and only one topped 200 pounds. Nickell Robey-Coleman was the smallest at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds.

The Tennessee Titans secondary had a SWBMI of 27.8, highest in the NFL. Notably thick Titans defenders include Kevin Byard (5-foot-11, 212 pounds, 29.6 BMI), Kenny Vaccaro (6-foot-0, 214, 29.0 BMI), Amani Hooker (5-foot-11, 210, 29.3 BMI), and Desmond King (5-foot-10, 201, 28.8). The Minnesota Vikings, on the other hand, liked their defensive backs to be long and lean, like Anthony Harris (6-foot-1, 202, 26.6 BMI), Jeff Gladney (6-foot-0, 183, 24.8 BMI), and Cameron Dantzler (6-foot-2, 185, 23.8 BMI).

(Out of curiosity, I went back and checked the Legion of Boom Seahawks to see if their defensive backs were as large as their reputation, and the answer to that question was a resounding yes. In 2013, the year Seattle won the Super Bowl, they had a SWH of 73.21 inches and a SWW of 205.7 pounds, both of which would have comfortably led the league in 2020—and that’s with Earl Thomas clocking over a thousand snaps at 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds.)

In general, defenses with taller secondaries tended to struggle (you’ll recall that the Lions were dead last in defensive DVOA). Curiously, height was most strongly correlated with those stats that are usually associated with defensive linemen and linebackers. Teams with tall secondaries tended to get fewer sacks (correlation with sack rate: -0.343) and stuffs (correlation with stuff rate: -0.319) while giving up more adjusted line yards (correlation with ALY: 0.405) and more first downs in short-yardage runs (correlation with POWER%: 0.423).

https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2021/steelers-em-big-and-other-data-snap-weighted-size-position