Setting the Bar Higher: Goals for the Steelers’ Offense
A few weeks back I wrote about the stated goal of the offense to score at least 30 points per game in light of what they actually did last season. Had Ben stayed healthy it isn’t crazy to think they could have done it, although the stinker of a game quarterbacked by Roethlisberger in Baltimore does give one a slight pause. But the offense has just upped the ante, and now they wish to not only score 30 points per game but average 5.0 yards per carry.
I’m pretty sure most of Steeler Nation would sign up for that. Is it realistic? Mark Kaboly of the Tribune-Review wrote yesterday:
A year ago without running back Le’Veon Bell for 10 games (injury and suspension), center Maurkice Pouncey for the season and tackle Kelvin Beachum for a significant portion of the year, the Steelers rushed for 4.4 yards per carry, which was eighth best in the league.
Good points. But Kaboly also noted that in recent years only the 2014 Seahawks and the 2013 Eagles have done it. (No one managed it last season.)
It’s kind of ironic, given that the running game seems to be going the way of the slide rule—not the baseball one but that thingy that the nerds in your Calc 2 class used, if you are as old as I am. Not that I was in Calc 2. Or even Calc 1. The point is, people still dust them off and bring them out on occasion, but not many people really use them a lot anymore, and they are a bit of a curiosity.
But while the Steelers are scarcely a “three yards and a cloud of dust” team anymore, an efficient and effective running game would certainly be a good plan.
Interestingly, despite the Steelers running the ball so much in days of yore, they haven’t managed to reach 5 yards per carry since 1972. Kaboly notes that Terry Bradshaw threw for less than 2000 yards that season, and they ran the ball more than 500 times. I was curious as to how this compares to the apres-Noll Steelers. I found some interesting stuff.
I began at 1995, which seemed like a good starting point since it was the first time the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl with a coach other than Noll, although of course they didn’t win it. I guess I sort of expected to see a gradual decrease in the percentage of running plays to passing plays, with the exception of the first few years of Ben’s tenure, since he was young and untested. I also assumed there would be a steady lessening of efficiency in the running game. But real life is never as tidy as one’s theories. First, here’s the rushing and pass attempts:
As you can see, the number of pass and rush attempts sort of ebbed and flowed until Ben Roethlisberger came into his own, you might say. There’s no question what direction things have been going since about 2008. I expect 2010 would fit right into the trendline had it not been for Ben’s suspension.
Next up is the average gain per attempt for both rushing and passing:
The bold line in the middle is 5 yards per carry. As you can see, the only team that got close (averaging 4.8 YPC) was the 2001 team. However, it has certainly been trending up.
I looked at various other things, but there didn’t seem to be a tremendous amount of correlation between, say, average yards per carry and average points per game. But this one was interesting:
You might think there would be a correlation between average points per game and the percentage of run to pass plays, because you might assume that the game is likely to contain more series for your offense when the ball is being flung about as opposed to being slowly matriculated down the field. And as you can see you would be wrong, at least before about 2011. Since then the percentage of running plays has dropped precipitously and the points per game has moved upwards.
One of the things it’s easy to overlook in all this is the defense’s role. I’m not talking about how many points they hold the other team to, since I’m not looking at winning games but strictly at the average points per game and average YPC. But the longer the defense allows the other team to stay on the field, the less overall chances the offense will have to score. And of course the defense can also affect the average points per game by putting a few on the board themselves.
But in the end the issue is winning. If the Steelers average 30 points per game, or 40 for that matter, and the running backs are getting 6 YPC, but the record at the end of the season is 8-8, I don’t think anyone will be happy. That said, it’s hard to imagine that if the backs are putting up great numbers and the offense in general is scoring a lot, there won’t be a preponderance of wins.
So for a final thing to contemplate, here’s the win total, average points per game, and average YPC. Since it was impossible to make a chart which would make any sense, I’ve highlighted several things—non-winning record (so 8-8 is included,) less than 21 average points per game, under 50% rushing plays [darker yellow] and under 45% [lighter yellow], and less than 4 YPC average. Have a look:
Not very surprisingly, averaging less than 20 points per game correlated exactly with having a losing record. But there isn’t much else that you can really point a finger at. The 2008 Super Bowl-winning squad averaged a meager 3.7 YPC and a not-very-exciting 21.7 average points per game. But that was back when defense won championships.
Which it also did this past February. So I guess the point is, I would love to see the offense put up all sorts of incredible numbers, but we’re going to have to hope the defense is going to continue their improvements during the course of last season, because I have a feeling the offense can only carry you so far.