How Close Did the Steelers Come to a Championship, Part 2a: Total Offense

Pass interference or just a friendly shove? You decide...

Pass interference or just a friendly shove? You decide…

Since I began this series, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher gave some validity to the exercise. In today’s Tribune-Review Cowher had this to say:

You have to be careful not to tinker too much some times. Sometimes it is a play here and a play there that doesn’t allow you to move forward. You sit there and go back and overanalyze and make changes that they don’t necessarily need to make. The biggest thing sometimes is to recognize where you are.

I think they are very close [to a championship.] Easily, you can sit there and say if their young running back doesn’t fumble in that game that they could’ve beaten the Denver Broncos. They were a team that nobody really wanted to play. They have a great window of time with a young nucleus. Their quarterback still has many good years ahead of [him.]

Cowher, according to writer Mark Kaboly, warned against tinkering too much, although he said the secondary needed some attention. But it seems clear Cowher thought this year’s Steelers could have very well been the AFC team in this year’s Super Bowl. So with Cowher’s blessing, whether he meant to give it or not, I’m going to continue with my speculations.

In Part 1 I addressed the quarterback position. Not surprisingly, the conclusion was the Steelers were certainly qualified to compete with the Panthers at the quarterback position, based upon how Roethlisberger had played this season. However, you can’t really take these things in a vacuum, so today I’m going to look at how the three offenses under consideration managed against other defenses.

Part of the issue is the relationship between quarterback and receivers (and for that matter, who they had), part is how much of a threat of a running game they had, and part is how proficient the opposing defense was in dealing with that type of offense. Although it is pretty much impossible to say what would happen in any given game, even with powerful computer simulations, there are some things we can look at.

One thing which occurred to me was to see how all three teams played against the same opponent. There was a single team the Panthers, Broncos and Steelers all played—the Colts. Unfortunately this wasn’t the most difficult opponent, but it is a place to start. I also found a few other teams for comparison for two out of three—the Seahawks played both the Panthers and the Steelers, the Broncos and Steelers both played the Raiders, and both the Panthers and Broncos played the Packers.

Naturally this will scarcely be of anything more than theoretical interest, since there are so many variables, but we can look at a few basics—the score, the QB ratings, total yards passing and rushing, and how the opposing defense ranked against the rest of the league in the end.

In this post we’ll look at the games played by two out of three teams:

The Green Bay Packers vs. the Carolina Panthers (Week 9) and vs. the Denver Broncos (Week 8)

One major advantage of this matchup is that both games were home games and took place at almost the same point in the season. Both the Panthers and the Broncos won the game:

Final score:

Packers 29, Panthers 37; Packers 10, Broncos 29


Broncos/Packers: (from

Broncos limit Rodgers to 77 yards: Denver’s defense rattled Aaron Rodgers into one of the worst games of his career in the Broncos’ 29-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

Panthers/Packers: (from

Panthers Stay Unbeaten as Newton Beats Packers:

Cam Newton threw for three touchdowns and ran for another score, and the Panthers took an important step toward best record in the NFC once the playoffs arrive with a 37-29 win over the Packers.

QB rating:

According to both QBR and the NFL Passer rating Peyton Manning had his best game of 2015 against the Packers. (QBR: 93.6, NFL Passer rating 96.9.) Curiously, Newton didn’t, by quite a bit. He had five games with higher scores than his 83.6 QBR, and seven games better than his 104.4 NFL passer rating.


Manning was 21 of 29 attempts, with 340 passing yards, no touchdowns, one interception. Newton was 15 of 30 attempts, 290 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. But Newton also had nine rushing attempts for 57 yards, one touchdown. Manning had no rushing yards, to no one’s surprise.


Broncos: C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman had a good day—160 total yards, three touchdowns. The Panthers only had one rusher—Jonathan Stewart—who rushed for more yards than Newton (66). Newton had the only touchdown.

Defensive Rankings:

The Packers weren’t as impressive as usual in any category this season, for whatever reason. The defense was ranked No. 9 in total defense for 2015 by Football OutsidersThey were No. 12 in the league in points/game given up, at 20.2, were tied for No. 7 with 43 sacks, and took the ball away 22 times, which had them tied at No. 18.

The Oakland Raiders vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 9) and the Denver Broncos @ the Oakland Raiders (Week 5)

Final score:

Raiders 35, Steelers 38; Raiders 10, Broncos 16


Broncos/Raiders: (from

Chris Harris Jr. returned a fourth-quarter interception 74 yards for a touchdown and the Denver Broncos overcame a shaky day from Peyton Manning to beat the Oakland Raiders 16-10 on Sunday.

Panthers/Packers: (from

Steelers beat Raiders but lose Roethlisberger: Chris Boswell hit an 18-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to lift the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 38-35 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

QB rating:

In terms of his career, Peyton Manning’s QBR of 35.4 looks pretty bad. But it certainly wasn’t the worst game of 2015—he had three games that were worse, including the 0.1 game which got him benched. The NFL Passer rating didn’t look much better, at 62.3. Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have a particularly good day against the Raiders either, and had played the majority of the game before being replaced by Landry Jones. His QBR of 52.1 was only exceeding in badness by his first game back from injury vs. Cincinnati and the Ravens game in Week 16. The NFL Passer rating of 84.8 is pretty equivalent.


Manning was 22 of 35 attempts, with 266 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions. Roethlisberger was 22 of 44 attempts, 344 yards, 2 touchdowns, one interception.


Broncos: C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman had 43 total yards with no touchdowns. (If you’re keeping track you may have noticed the only touchdown in the game for Denver was by the defense.) The Steelers, conversely, had almost 200 total rush yards, with 170 of those by DeAngelo Williams, who also had two touchdowns.

Defensive Rankings:

The Raiders’ defense was ranked No. 15 in total defense for 2015 by Football OutsidersThey were No. 22 in the league in points/game given up, at 24.9, were tied for No. 14 with 38 sacks, and took the ball away 25 times, which had them tied at No. 12.

The Carolina Panthers (Week 6) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 12) @ the Seattle Seahawks 

Both games were home games for the Seahawks. Unfortunately the teams met at rather different developmental points in the Seahawks’ season. When they played the Panthers they had a 2-3 record and were not looking very good. When they played the Steelers six weeks later they had won three of the four games since the loss to the Panthers and were suddenly looking a lot more dangerous.

Final score:

Steelers 30, Seahawks 39;  Panthers 27, Seahawks 23


Steelers/Seahawks: (from

Russell Wilson’s 5 TDs lead Seahawks past Pittsburgh: Russell Wilson threw a career-high five touchdown passes, including two TDs to Doug Baldwin in the final 8:12, and the Seattle Seahawks held on for a wild 39-30 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Panthers/Seahawks: (from

Newton leads late Carolina rally: Cam Newton threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with 32 seconds left and the Carolina Panthers remained unbeaten, rallying for a stunning 27-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

QB rating:

According to both QBR and the NFL Passer rating Newton didn’t have one of his better games. His QBR of 49.5 was his sixth-worst game of the season, and according to the NFL Passer rating his 65.6 was the next-to-worst game of 2015. Ben Roethlisberger’s QBR of 70.3 and passer rating of 82.0 were also some of his lower scores—he had three games with a lower QBR, and only two games worse than his NFL passer rating.


Roethlisberger was 36 of 55 attempts, a particularly astonishing number of attempts when you realize he didn’t even finish the game. He had 456 passing yards, one touchdowns and two interceptions. (We shall not speak of Landry Jones’ 1/4 with two interceptions.) Newton was 20 of 36 attempts, 269 yards, and also had one touchdowns and two interceptions. He also had seven rushing attempts for 30 yards and one touchdown. Roethlisberger had five rushing attempts for 18 yards.


Panthers: Jonathan Stewart rushed for 78 total yards and two touchdowns to go along with Newton’s rushing yards. They totaled 135 yards, included bits and pieces from three other rushers. The Steelers passed so much because they couldn’t get anything going on the ground. DeAngelo Williams only managed 29 yards. His long of seven yards was shorter than both a Martavis Bryant 11-yard end around and a Roethlisberger scramble.

Defensive Rankings:

The Seahawks defense was one of the very best in the league, and the only one which managed to shut Antonio Brown down completely, at last when Ben was throwing to him. (Perhaps we could come up with a new pass defense metric—Yards Vs. AB or something like that,) They were ranked No. 4 in total defense for 2015 by Football OutsidersThey were No. 1 in the league in points/game given up, at 17.3, were tied for No. 17 with 37 sacks, and took the ball away 22 times, which had them tied at No. 18. It’s odd that they were so good without a great pass rush or a lot of takeaways, but when we note they were clearly the best team against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver it is less surprising. In fact they were more than six percentage points better than the next best team.


When looking at games against common opponents, the Steelers’ offense appears to have been at least equivalent to that of the Panthers and Broncos. In the next installment we will look at the single team all three contenders played in 2015 in a bit more depth, since it gives us a more direct three-way comparison.



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