FanPost

Pass or Run: After 13 Years, the Steelers Still Can’t Decide.

The issue of the Pittsburgh Steelers not having a consistent running game is, and has been, a commonly cited problem here at BTSC for the past several years, culminating in, after team President Art Rooney II made a comment in 2010 that he would like to see the team "run more consistently...", the replacement of Bruce Arians after 5 years.

Rashaard Mendenhall has been castigated by many for his "spin and fall" running style (eerily similar to what some complained about a certain half back, Franco Harris, who shunned the bone-crunching contact typical of the day, but ran his way into the Hall of Fame); Isaac Redman who has been anointed the next spokesman for Dos Equis, has been described as "Bettis Light", or at least looked upon as embodying the Steelers return to the days of "3 yards and a cloud of dust".

Post after post on BTSC expresses a desire for the Steelers to return to the running game; comment after comment blames former Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians' reluctance (refusal?) to exploit the running game, or utilize a Full Back, as being the root cause for the Steelers' dismal rankings in scoring these past several years, or it's the Offensive Line's fault, it's the low quality of offensive linemen, or too many injuries; no wait, "who's laughing now O-Line?" it's the play calling; no, it must be Goodell's fault.

In actuality, the lack of a consistent running attack goes back much further than we all realize. Starting as far back as 1995, the Steelers have been incredibly inconsistent in defining themselves as either a running team, a passing team, or a balanced attack team.

As you can see from the graph below, from 1995 to 1998 the league as a whole was moving steadily towards a balanced attack, while the Steelers were balanced in 1995 but moving rapidly towards a Rush heavy attack through 1997, only to dramatically return to a balanced attack, coinciding with the League in 1998. In 1999 the Steelers, even more dramatically than the League, returned to a pass heavy offense.

Steelers_20vs_20league_20pass_20rush_20ratio_201995-1999_medium

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So, in 1998 the Steelers mirrored the League in the concept of a balanced offense. Ok, well, let's look at where the Steelers rank with the league in terms of Average Pass/Rush ratio over the 12 seasons from 2000 thru 2011:

Teams_201_20to_2010_medium

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Teams_2011_20to_2020_medium

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Teams_2021_20to_2032_medium

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As you can see from the tables above, it would appear the Steelers have been consistent with their offensive philosophy in the 21st Century. Twenty-two teams passed more than they ran (in varying degrees), 5 had an even 50/50 ratio, and 5 ran more than they passed, with the Steelers tied with the Tennessee Titans at the bottom. This is consistent with the League's trend indicated by the first graph, showing that from 1999 onward, the League began reversing its trend of an increasing Rushing attack and started emphasizing the Pass, as highlighted by this graph:

League_20pass_20rush_20ratio_202000-2011_medium

via dl.dropbox.com

Looking at it graphically, the trend that started in 1999 continues for the League. Three teams (GB, Ari, NE) passed more than ran all 12 years; two teams (Ind, NO) ran more than passed only once in those 12 years (Detroit displaces NE in the top 5 because, despite 3 years where they ran more than passed, they had 4 years of such pass-happy offenses [almost 70/30 for each year] that their average for the 12 year period is skewed).

So, what have the Steelers done since 1999 when they mirrored the League's emphasis on the pass?

Steelers_20pass_20rush_20ratio_medium

via dl.dropbox.com

Over the past 12 years, the Steelers have fielded an offensive philosophy that appears both schizophrenic and contrarian, almost as if the team can't decide year-to-year what it wants to do, but it will "damn well" do the opposite to whatever the rest of the league is doing.

Remember, in 1999 the Steelers had a fairly balanced Pass/Rush Ratio of 54.3% to 45.7%, similar to the League's ratio. However, in 2000 the Steelers dramatically reversed course, becoming a predominantly running team (63% of all plays), while the League marginally increased the number of its passing plays. And then in 2001, the Steelers dramatically reversed course, again, returning to a more balanced but Rush heavy (1999 level) ratio. This level of balanced attack the Steelers held for all of one season, when again they changed course and dramatically re-re-emphasized their passing game in 2003.

But don't assume Steeler Nation knows its Steelers, because in 2004 they once again completely reversed course, going on a two year binge of predominantly Rushing, this time culminating in a Super Bowl victory in 2005 with a Pass/Rush ratio of 33.8% to 66.2%. As the crisscrossing of the graph above shows, for the next 6 years, from 2006 thru 2011, the Steelers managed only once to maintain a consistent Pass/Rush ratio for two consecutive years. This time it started in a Super Bowl year (2008), where this time Passing was the dominant offensive weapon.

By now I'm sure your thinking: "...Ok PaVaSteeler, enough data! Why, what does it all mean?"

One common theme heard (read) at BTSC is a desire to find another Jerome Bettis type back. Isaac Redman is often proffered as the player to return the Steelers to their "bread and butter" dominance through Rushing. But is it really true that with Bettis, the Steelers were, if not a rushing team, at least a balanced attack team?

Bettis, as beloved a "bell-cow" running back as the Steelers have had since Franco Harris, played from 1996 thru 2005. You would think it logical the Steelers would formulate their offensive strategy around this Hall of Fame (pending) running back; however, remember, the first graph showed that while the Steelers were a Rush-first team in 1996 and '97, they returned to balance in 1998, then pass first in 1999, then began their 12 year-long vacillation between the two.

The graph below illustrates this: The dotted red line and the black solid line illustrate the % change in yards per attempt, for Passing and Rushing (respectively), year over year from 1995 (not shown) onward. As you can see, the two mirror each other quite consistently year over year, except for 2006 when passing yards per attempt dropped while rushing yards per attempt increased; this is most likely attributable to Ben Roethlisberger's "lost year" after Super Bowl XL when in the off season he both suffered severe injuries from a motorcycle accident and had an emergency appendectomy just prior to the first game of the season.

The key aspect of this graph however, is the blue line; it represents the % change in the number of passing attempts year over year. With both passing and rushing yards per attempt mirroring and support each other, and the rushing being primarily accomplished by Bettis, why the drastic fluctuations in the Pass/Rush ratio?

Steelers_20yoy_20pass_20rush_20ratio_medium

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Of course you think, the Quarterback; until our Franchise QB Big Ben arrived in 2004, we suffered at the hands of Tommy "Tommy Gun" Maddox, Kordell "Slash" Stewart, and Mike Tomzac, with bit parts played by the likes of Kent Graham and Brian St. Pierre.

Let's use same graph, but overlay QB names with their corresponding years as the starter:

Steelers_20qb_20yoy_20pass_20rush_20ratio_medium

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As you can see, our QB situation has been consistent. As maligned as Stewart may be, his effectiveness in yards per attempt is consistent with Bettis' yard per attempt.

So, if it isn't a lack of a consistent and productive running back, nor a consistency in quarterbacks, what is the reason for the Steelers seeming inability to consistently field a rushing attack? One might argue it was the offensive line (sound familiar?) but the level of consistency year over year between yards per attempt for both passing and rushing would argue against that theory.

While the Steelers can boast of being the most stable team in football, having only had 3 head coaches in the Modern Era (since 1970) and only 3 men serving as Dir. of Player Personnel/ General Manager in same time frame (Haley, Donahoe, and Colbert), that "stability" doesn't trickle down to the Offensive Coordinator position.

Kevin Gilbride served as OC from 1999-2000, having succeeded Ray Sherman who in 1998 succeeded Chan Gailey, who was the OC for the Steelers since 1996.

The revolving door of OC's continues, with Mike Mularkey succeeding Gilbride, but only for three seasons (2001-2003), followed by Ken Whisenhunt (2004-2006), followed by Bruce Arians (2007-2011), followed for the future by Todd Haley (2012-???).

Let's return to the first two Steeler graphs, that depict the Pass/Rush ratios, but this time combine them, and show the OC's overlayed with their corresponding years:

Steelers_20oc_20pass_20rush_20ratio_medium

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The vertical bars within the graph represent either (or both) a change in Offensive Coordinator, or a major change in the Pass/Rush ratio. There are 8 such indicators covering a 14 year period, averaging a major change every two years. Even where OC's remain constant for a period of time, (e.g. Mike Mularkey 01-03, Ken Whisenhung 04-06), there is still a major change in the Pass/Rush ratio somewhere within their tenure.

Thus, whenever the issue of the Steelers "...need to return to their roots", or "...the Steelers need to draft a power back and rush more...", it isn't from a lack of a quarterback, or a bell-cow running back that "Steeler football" isn't being played, it's from both the Steelers' inability to hold onto a Coordinator for more than a few years, and a lack of consistent direction from that Coordinator, or from the Head Coach, or the Front Office to the Coordinator of the Day, as to what is the Steelers offensive philosophy is going to be any given year.

This issue of lack of consistency of direction has been hidden by the Steelers' recent "Dynasty II" regime, but it causes one to think, as the Steelers' "re-load" with their talent, and begin yet another year with a new OC, whether this organizational schizophrenia and lack of a clear, consistent offensive philosophy, may bode for the Steelers, and Steeler Nation, another dark age, much as the Steelers suffered from 1980 through 1994, and again from 1996 through 1999.

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