Reviewing the Pittsburgh Steelers after a Quarter of the Season

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 4:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws the ball in the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field on October 4, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 4: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws the ball in the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field on October 4, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

So far this year, there has been a lot of discussion among Pittsburgh Steelers fans about why the team has not been able to put teams away when they’ve had the chance. In only one game so far have they outperformed their opponents in the 4th quarter, and that was in week 1 against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans outplayed them for most of the first three quarters, but as they did in so many games in 2008, the Steelers fought back and clawed out a tough win. Since then, though, Pittsburgh has been outplayed in the 4th quarter of every other game, with the worst performance coming in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. I commented on these issues in my Around the NFL post, but I wanted to take a more detailed look at what the team’s statistical performance looked like. In this post, I will review the Steelers’ per game statistics to this point in the season compared to their numbers from last season. Since there seems to be much debate as to who is at fault for the two losses, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare the performance of each unit. All statistics come from

As I usually like to do, I have a table of per game statistics to show the average performance of the offensive and defensive units. After that I will also compare the offense’s and defense’s rankings from last year to this year as well as the average opponents’ rankings in offense and defense to show what the difference has been in level of competition, if any.

First, we have the offensive and defensive comparisons.

Pittsburgh Steelers Year to Year Comparison
  2008 2009 Yr/Yr Imp
Pts/G 21.69 21.25 -0.44
Yards/G 311.94 383.75 71.81
Yards/Play 4.9 5.9 1
Pass Att/G 31.63 35.75 4.13
Pass Yards/G 206.31 278.75 72.44
Pass TD/G 1.19 1.5 0.31
Pass INT/G 0.94 1 0.06
Pass NY/A 5.9 7.3 1.4
Sacks/G 3.06 2.5 -0.56
Rush Att/G 28.75 27.25 -1.5
Rush Yards/G 105.63 105 -0.63
Rush TD/G 1 1 0
Y/A 3.7 3.9 0.2
TO/G 1.56 2 0.44
Pts/G 13.94 19.5 5.56
Yards/G 237.19 279.75 42.56
Yards/Play 3.9 5 1.1
Pass Att/G 33.31 36.5 3.19
Pass Yards/G 156.94 218.25 61.31
Pass TD/G 0.75 1.75 1
Pass INT/G 1.25 0.25 -1
Pass NY/A 4.3 5.7 1.4
Sacks/G 3.19 2 -1.19
Rush Att/G 28.75 27.25 -1.5
Rush Yards/G 80.25 61.5 -18.75
Rush TD/G 0.44 0.25 -0.19
Y/A 3.3 3.6 0.3
TO/G 1.81 0.75 -1.06

This table shows the Steelers’ per game averages from 2008 next to their averages so far for 2009, through the first 4 games. It would appear that the offense is performing better this year than last. From 2008 to 2009, the Steelers are averaging over 70 more yards gained, over 70 more passing yards, about the same rushing (although that is certainly helped by Rashard Mendenhall’s 165 yards this week), a half a sack less per game, and almost a yard and half more per pass attempt. Conversely, the defense is allowing over 40 more yards per game, over 60 more passing yards, almost a yard and half more per pass, and has fewer sacks and turnovers per game (over one per game fewer for each). They are also allowing over 5.5 more points per game (or are they?). I ask that because at least 14 points were scored directly off of turnovers (a pick-6 against the Bengals and a fumble return for TD against the Chargers). They are holding opposing offenses to almost 20 fewer rushing yards per game. The offense’s yardage gains are also somewhat misleading, because they are still averaging fewer points per game than last year, in spite of gaining more yards per game. This is probably partly because they are averaging almost a half a turnover per game more than last year.

In fact, as I look at these numbers, the two most important numbers with respect to the Steelers’ 2 losses so far may be the 1.5 swing in turnovers (the offense turning it over at a rate of almost half more a game than 2008 while the defense is forcing over one fewer turnovers than last year). Two of the offense’s turnovers (or, more accurately, one offensive and one specials teams turnover) were returned for TDs. If those two TDs are removed from the defensive total, then the defense only allows 16 points/game, which just over 2 more points per game than last year.  Having looked over those numbers, let’s take a look at the Steelers’ 2008 and 2009 offensive and defensive rankings.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rankings
  2008 2009
Off Pts 20 15
Off Yds 22 6
Off Pass Yds 17 3
Off Rush Yds 23 16
Def Pts 1 12
Def Yds 1 5
Def Pass Yds 1 15
Def Rush Yds 2 3

As we see, the offensive ranks are significantly higher than last year, while the defensive ranks are significantly lower. The biggest drop in defensive rank is in the passing yards. Many have pointed to William Gay replacing Bryant McFadden as to the reason for this. But, Gay started several games last year and there was no signicant dropoff then. The likely explanation is the injury to Troy Polamalu combined with a less effective pass rush to this point in the season (where’s Lamarr Woodley?). Another factor is probably the fact that three of the Steelers’ first four opponents were behind in their games against them, forcing them to pass more to catch up. It may also be that they are playing better passing teams than last year. Certainly, each of the four quarterbacks that the Steelers have faced so far have been veterans who know how get rid of the ball quickly. Let’s take a look at the Average Opponents’ Rankings, seen in the next table, to see how this year’s opponents compare with last year’s.

Average Opponents’ Rankings
  2008 2009
Off Pts 17.56 13.75
Off Yds 17.81 16.5
Off Pass Yds 19 21.25
Off Rush Yds 16.56 20
Def Pts 12.06 18
Def Yds 12 19.25
Def Pass Yds 11.44 21.25
Def Rush Yds 14.38 10.75

Based on these numbers, it does appear that the defense is facing overall better competition so far this year than last year. But, the opponents’ pass offense rankings are still lower than they were a year ago. The offense, though, has faced significantly lower ranked opponents than they did a year ago, except in rush defense. This would help explain why the offense has more passing yards, but has still struggled to run the ball in most of the games so far. I would also say, though, that in my opinion, the onus has to be on the offense somewhat. They’ve been able to move the ball against lesser defenses than they faced last year, but they haven’t been able to put up big points, except in the last game. Yards are great, but the offense’s job is score points, not just gain yards.

So, on the whole, I would say that the defense has certainly taken a step back, particularly against the pass. The pass rush has not gotten the QB as much as they did last year, and they have not been able to force as many turnovers. At the same time, the offense has had their own struggles. Although they are top ten overall and Big Ben Roethlisberger is 3rd in the league in passing yards, they are 15th in points scored. While throwing for nearly 1200 yards, Ben has only thrown 5 TD passes to 4 INTs. One pick was on a Hail Mary pass, and another was the fault of Santonio Holmes for not adjusting his route on blitz. But, the fact remains that the offense also had a few mental breakdowns that led to losses in games that could have been won.

Before I wrap up, I wanted to come back to the 4th quarter issues. Below is table showing the points and 4th quarter yardage breakdown for each game this year. This information came from the Yahoo! NFL Boxscores. I used the Drive Log for each game to calculate the yardage for the 4th quarter for each team.

  4th Quarter Points 4th Quarter Yards
Steelers’ Totals 13 295
Week 1 3 110
Week 2 0 46
Week 3 0 19
Week 4 10 120
Opponents’ Totals 48 423
Week 1 3 48
Week 2 10 112
Week 3 14 156
Week 4 21 107

So far this year, the Steelers have been outgained 423 to 295 in the fourth, and they have been outscored 48 to 13. In the other three quarters, they have outscored opponents 72 to 30. In week 2, the offense didn’t completely mail it in; they did gain 46 yards, but Jeff Reed missed a FG (his other miss came late in the 3rd). But, it was really in week 3 that both the offense and defense completely collapsed in the 4th quarter. The offense gained only 19 yards on two drives while the defense gave up 156. In week 4, although the team was outscored 21 to 10, they outgained the Chargers 120 to 107. As already mentioned, one of those TDs was on a strip returned for a TD on Stefan Logan (although his forward progress had clearly been stopped and he was pushed back at least 2 yards for a good 2 seconds). Another TD was due to a successful onside kick for the Chargers. After that touchdown, though, the offense responded well, driving down the field, eating all but 38 seconds off the clock, and Jeff Reed redeemed himself by hitting a 46 yard FG to seal the win.

To wrap up, from looking at these numbers and having watched the games, it’s clear the the Steelers have the talent to play with, even dominate, just about any team in the league. What is less clear is whether they have the same mental toughness that they displayed last year. In each of the last three games, they have had leads in the 4th quarter of 7 or more points. In two of those games, both the offense and the defense had a few breakdowns that allowed the other team to win the game. In the last game, it was two Special Teams errors that allowed the opponent to score quick touchdowns, but finally, the offense displayed the ability to run the ball late in the game. So far this season, the Steelers have displayed many positives. Big Ben is leading the league in completion percentage, and he’s on pace to pass for nearly 4800 yards. Hines Ward and Heath Miller are on pace to catch around 100 passes. Hines is on pace for 1200 receiving yards. Even Limas Sweed, for all that he’s been criticized for dropping a sure TD pass, has shown that he’s much more talented than Nate Washington ever was. On that drop, it’s unlikely that Nate would have gotten as open as Sweed was. Young Mike Wallace has shown poise beyond his years and looks like he may be a steal in the 3rd round. Mendenhall had an excellent game against the Chargers, but let him have a few more before I’m ready to be a true believer there. But, overall, it appears that the Steelers are close to being an excellent team. The difference appears be more in terms of execution and mental focus than anything else.



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