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The Underlying Problem With the Steelers

by Matt Spirio
Problem With the Steelers

There are 12 teams in the Super Bowl era to start 11-0. Of those 12, nine played 16 games, and of those nine, all of them finished with at least 13 wins. After an 11-0 start, the Steelers have fallen to 11-3, and with games coming up against the 10-win Colts and Browns, face the jarring reality of making infamous history. There’s clearly a major problem with the Steelers.

The signs had been clear for a while, but how could you not believe in a team who dismantled the Browns by 31, and won hard-fought games against Tennessee and Baltimore in back to back weeks. Sure, they struggled for large stretches against the Cowboys, Bengals, and Jaguars who have a combined 9 wins, but they were 11-0. However, something then happened on a Monday night against the Washington Football Team—the 2020 Steelers finally lost. And then it happened again to the Bills. And then again to the Bengals. Three losses, in three games, all on primetime, with the eyes of the entire world fixed on the flaws of who we maybe believed was the best team in football.

But what happened? What changed from the first 11 weeks to the past 3? What is the problem with the Steelers? Upon a deeper dive, it’s both simultaneously everything and nothing that’s changed.

Ben Roethlisberger’s Decline

It shouldn’t come as a shock that a 38-year old quarterback is beginning to slow down. Even as the season has progressed we’ve seen Ben look incredibly pedestrian at times, and over the past 3 weeks, he’s been a glaring weakness for the Steelers. It’s a heartbreaking fall from grace for the Pittsburgh legend, but one that fans must accept and coaches must adapt to. And they’ve tried to, but to no avail.

If you’ve watched any of the last 3 Steelers games you know this information to be very true. We’ve seen a lot of check downs, throws in front of the first down marker, and screens to try and get their talented receivers into space. But this Tweet is from early December, and these tendencies have been prevalent all year for Pittsburgh. So what’s different now? The biggest issue is that these plays only work if you’re able to get defenses to respect bigger plays down the field, which the Steelers have failed to do.

Pushing the Ball Downfield

Problem With the Steelers


This graph charts the percentage of deep throws made by the Steelers (throws over 10 yards divided by the total number of throws) versus their average margin of victory. When these two variables are correlated over one another there is pretty moderate evidence that when the Steelers are throwing the ball down the field more often, they are typically winning games by a greater margin. By opening up defenses down the field, a lot of the underneath routes that Ben loves to throw become much more reliable options. The only exception and true outlier in this data is the bottom right-most point against the Washington Football Team, and that’s mostly due to Washington’s ability to generate a pass rush with just four players, and cover more space not only underneath, but downfield as well.

So why all of a sudden are the Steelers not throwing deep as often? Well for starters, teams are taking the blueprint that Washington laid out. If defenses drop more guys into coverage and account for all of the Pittsburgh pass catchers, there’s a lot less margin for error for Ben. He’s being forced to either throw into tight windows down the field or check the ball down, and more often than not over the past three weeks, it’s been the latter. Defenses are letting the Steelers throw it short and rallying to make tackles, forcing them into a lot of 3rd and long/mediums.

So how do you fix this problem? You have to find a way to keep defenses more honest, and that is exactly where the blame falls less on Ben and more on the playcalling and predictability of the offense.

Mike Tomlin’s Tendencies

Mike Tomlin doesn’t like to run the ball. Let’s just make that clear. He hasn’t had an offense rank inside the top-10 in rushing attempts since 2010 (also the last time he coached in a Super Bowl). It’s very hard to win games, especially later in the year, by only throwing the ball, and it’s even harder when you have a 38-year old quarterback who is way beyond his best days.

There is pretty much no respect for the Steelers’ run game because, well simply, no one really expects them to run the ball. Pittsburgh is currently tied for first, with the most pass attempts in the NFL, and show no signs of stopping. With every empty set and no runningbacks to be seen defenses know exactly what’s coming and have found a way to stop it. Ben is struggling to make throws down the field and Mike Tomlin is refusing to adjust and the team is suffering as a result.

On top of the massive issue where the Steelers fail to run the ball, comes the fact that they have a nonexistent play-action game. According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback has attempted fewer play-action passes this season than Ben Roethlisberger. This would be a great way to set up a more intermediate passing game, which we’ve already shown has led to more Steelers wins, but it has never been apart of the equation for Tomlin. Pittsburgh has ranked last in play-action attempts for the past four seasons, and without Ben’s ability to make up for it by making great throws down the field, it’s caught up to them.

Tying it All Together

So we’ve illustrated that the Steelers are more successful when they throw the ball downfield. In years past it was as easy as letting their Hall of Fame quarterback go to work with a 5-wide offense, but times have changed. The best way for the Steelers to open up the field for more intermediate passes over the middle would be through play-action, which is really only set up by establishing a legitimate and committed run game early on.

All in all Mike Tomlin needs to find ways to keep defenses honest and create more space for their talented playmakers to work. If they can at least begin to do that against Indianapolis this week, they may once again position themselves for a playoff run.

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