What’s So Special About 30 Points per Game?
If you pay even the least attention to offseason Steelers news, you’ve probably read that the offense intends to achieve the Holy Grail of 30 points per game this season.
Last season the offense did in fact manage 30 points or more per game for six games in a row later in the season, and the ultimate figure of 26.4 was considerably higher than the old standard of 20 points per game.
Why has the desired number changed so much? This should be pretty obvious—the stifling defense of old is no more. Under the old Dick LeBeau defenses you could pretty much count on winning the game if the offense managed to put up 20 points, or that was the theory.
Like many such theories, it turns out to be pretty flawed. I decided to have a look at the regular season games for every season since Dick LeBeau took over as the defensive coordinator in 1995. I looked for two things—how many losses there were each season in which the defense gave up 20 or more points, and how many times altogether they gave up more than 20 points, even if the Steelers won. The results were a bit surprising.
The fewest times the defense gave up more than 20 points during the course of a 16-game season was two. This was in 2011. Both times were losses, to Baltimore. The first was the opening game of the season, a 35-7 loss @ Baltimore which moved Warren Sapp to declare the Steelers’ defense “old, slow, and it’s over.” In a sense he was correct—he was just off by a year or so, although I hate to admit this. The following season they gave up five such games, all losses, seven in 2013 (five of them losses) and hit their nadir in 2014, with 10 games in which the defense gave up more than 20 points. However, only four of those games were losses, reflecting the higher-scoring offense.
The best any team previous to 2011 did, going back to 1995, was four. The 2001 team did it (two of them were losses,) as well as the 2008 team (also two losses) and the 2010 team (also two losses.) From this we can deduce that if the 2016 Steelers’ defense manages to hold their opponents to 20 points or less four times, with only two of those being losses, there is a two out of three chance they are going to the Super Bowl.
Just kidding, although I think that’s a pretty good recipe for a long post-season run, assuming a minimum of critical injuries.
Five teams—the 1995, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2012 squads—gave up more than 20 points in five games. The 1998, 1999, 2005, and 2012 teams gave up six such games. The 1997, 2007, and 2013 teams gave up seven, the 2003 team gave up eight (seven of them losses), and the 2002 team gave up nine—five losses and a tie.
So you can see that “20 points is enough” wasn’t really even true of most of the Dick LeBeau teams. So you can understand why Todd Haley would come up with the figure of 30 points per game. After all, the rules have increasingly favored the offense, so the chances of holding the opposing teams to 20 points per game is even more difficult.
In case you’re curious, Keith Butler’s 2015 Steelers’ defense gave up six games of +20 points. Four of them were losses. I thought it would be interesting to see whether actually managing 30 points per game would have made a substantial difference to the Steelers’ records during the Todd Haley era. It was also the point at which the Steelers were spending serious money and draft picks on the offense (or at least the offensive line.) It was also during the decline of the Super Bowl greats on defense, and the beginnings of the gradual rebuild. So let’s look at the Todd Haley era—2012 to present.
During the 2012 season, 30 points from the offense wouldn’t have been sufficient to win the first two of the losses—a 31-19 loss to the Broncos, in Denver, and a 34-31 loss in Oakland. But the third loss, @ the Titans, was lost 26-23, so that extra seven points would have done the trick. Only one other of the losses in the 8-8 season would have still been a loss had the Steelers’ offense put up 30 points—a 34-24 loss to the Chargers at Heinz Field. (That one was a real head scratcher. As I recall, most of Philip Rivers’ offensive line was signed off the street earlier that week.)
So it’s entirely possible that putting up 30 points per game would have been the difference between an 8-8 season with no playoffs and, in theory, a 13-3 season, which would have put the Steelers first in the AFC North, ahead of both the 10-6 Ravens and 10-6 Bengals.
2013 was another 8-8 season, and 30 points per game from the offense would have made it a 12-4 season, with the 40-23 loss at home to the Bears, the 34-27 loss to the Vikings in England, the 55-31 shellacking by the Patriots, and the 34-28 loss to the Dolphins being the sole losses. (Note how close the offense was to 30 points in all of those losse as it was.)
In 2014 there was a feeling that Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley were finally on the same page. The 11-5 season would have been a 14-2 season, in theory, with the only losses being to the Saints at Heinz Field (35-32) and, astonishingly, the Browns in Cleveland (31-10.) How close did the offense come otherwise?
In seven games the offense scored 30 points or more—sometimes considerably more. In three more games they scored 27 points. For the remaining six games they scored less than 20 points in half of them—the aforementioned loss in Cleveland, a win Jacksonville (17-9), and a 20-13 loss @ the Jets.
2015 was, as we all remember all too acutely, a very mixed bag, depending on who was throwing the ball. Ben Roethlisberger quarterbacked the season opener at the Patriots, putting up only 21 points, but bounced back with 43 against the 49ers. The following week, @ St. Louis, Ben was the starting quarterback. However, the offense had only managed 9 points by the time he was injured in the third quarter. That game was ultimately won but would have been a lot more comfortable with 30 points rather than the eventual 12 they scored.
The following week Michael Vick gave the team a good chance to win despite only putting up 20 points, but the two missed field goals by Josh Scobee would have brought the total to 26 and won the game besides.
The following week at Qualcomm was pretty crazy, but the Michael-Vick led team scored 24 points, thanks to a pretty spectacular all-or-nothing throw of the dice by Mike Tomlin and some even more spectacular running by Le’Veon Bell.
The following week saw Landry Jones as the quarterback of last resort after an injury to Michael Vick, and between them they managed 25 points, good for a win against the previously barely-beaten Cardinals. He didn’t fare nearly so well against the Chiefs the following week, though, and the Steelers only totaled 13 points.
Ben was back to take on the Bengals, but his reputation for coming back ‘rusty’ was further entrenched in a 1 TD, 3 INT performance. It would have taken 20 more points to get to the desired 30. The following week looked more like what we expected to see, with a 38-35 win over the Raiders. Only twice thereafter did the Steelers not put up at least 30 points. The Week 17 game was close though—the offense scored 28 points in a win over the Browns. The other was an inexplicably poor performance against the tanking Ravens in Week 16. 17 points wasn’t quite enough to beat Ryan Mallett and his crew of has-beens, never-wases, and so on.
To summarize, putting up 30 points per week would have prevented all but the Week 12 loss to the Seahawks. It also would have been a lot to ask from the backup-backup quarterback (Michael Vick, in relief of Bruce Gradkowski) and the backup-backup’s backup, Landry Jones, who had never thrown a pass that mattered much before that. But it sure would have been nice. For one thing, it would have given the Steelers a bye week and at least one home game in the playoffs. For another, if the team who had to play Cincinnati in the Wild Card round had taken them down, perhaps Antonio Brown would have survived the playoffs. Oh, well.
So what will 2016 bring? Hopefully a lot less injuries and an improved defensive backfield. But I would say Todd Haley is on the right track. If the defense can continue to improve and the offense can put up 30 points per week, I’m guessing Pittsburgh’s goin’ to the Super Bowl…