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Is Pittsburgh's Offensive Strategy Different Than Great Defensive Teams Of Years Past?

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I wondered earlier as I walked to the store if the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball fewer times than other teams with top defenses over the course of the last ten years. That initial question led me to lots of interesting things which I explored, and I have many more follow-up inquiries to look at later after doing this exercise. But my thought was that we probably were being more cute than most dominant defenses in recent years. Let's take a look to see if that hypothesis holds up, then move on from there and try to answer other pertinent questions based on what we see.

HOW OFTEN DO GREAT DEFENSES TYPICALLY RUN ON OFFENSE?
Year Best Defense YPG Rushes/G Rushes/G League Rank
2008 Pittsburgh 27.4 13th
2007 Pittsburgh 31.93 3rd
2006 Baltimore 29.75 11th
2005 Tampa Bay 28.56 15th
2004 Pittsburgh 38.62 1st
2003 Dallas 32.18 4th
2002 Tampa Bay 25.85 24th
2001 Pittsburgh 36.25 1st
2000 Tennessee 34.2 1st
1999 Buffalo 32.4 2nd

Ok several notes real quick to make sure we're on the same page:

 

  1. Causation: Obviously teams who run the ball well, and are productive offensively in general, have their defense on the field less frequently . Which in turn translates into fewer yards per game allowed defensively. And conversely, a stingy defense gives your offense more opportunities on offense. So it's a little dangerous to make absolute conclusions one way or another based on this data, no matter how telling it may seem. It's also worth noting that today's offenses run the ball a bit more infrequently than in year's past. I think stopping at 1999 is appropriate for many reasons, but one of the main ones is that teams have really taken to the air more recently.
  2. Success Rate: How successful were/are these teams running the football? It's one thing to pound away on the ground even if ineffectively so that you can let your defense simply win ball games. It's another to keep pounding away because you are so successful at it that not doing so makes no sense. Merely knowing carries per game doesn't tell nearly enough of the story.
  3. We're Not Alone: That 2006 Ravens team won 13 games; the 2005 Bucs won 11 games and made the playoffs; and the 2002 Bucs won 12 games and then the Super Bowl. Those three teams, plus our 2008 Steelers, constitute the four outliers of the group. The remaining teams all were in the top 4 in terms of rushing attempts per game.  It's worth nothing though that two of those teams were Jon Gruden orchestrated offenses. He's had similarly outstanding success on defense thanks to DC Monte Kiffin, but Gruden still likes to leave his imprint on the game. He does so by throwing the ball lots. Probably a bit more than he should.

But just to make sure we're basically looking at the right set of teams here, lets also look at Yards Per Play Allowed on defense for those same ten teams and see how they stack up with the rest of the league that year.

HOW OFTEN DO GREAT DEFENSES TYPICALLY RUN ON OFFENSE?
Year Best Defense YPG Y/P Allowed Y/P/A Rank
2008 Pittsburgh 3.8 1st
2007 Pittsburgh 4.6 t-1st
2006 Baltimore 4.5 1st
2005 Tampa Bay 4.7 5th
2004 Pittsburgh 4.7 3rd
2003 Dallas 4.7 2nd
2002 Tampa Bay 4.2 1st
2001 Pittsburgh 4.5 2nd
2000 Tennessee 4.2 1st
1999 Buffalo 4.3 2nd

Ok, good. That confirms we're basically looking at the right set of teams. It's mostly all 1st and 2nds, with only one team (TB '05) having greater than a two places in the ranking disparity between their top spot in yards per game allowed and their ranking in yards per play allowed. So close the Gospel of Football Outsiders, at least that chapter of it, for those few reading who might want to go there. All those yards are still not created equal, I know, so hush there too please, but we're definitely in the correct ballpark. Not just the right park, the right section and row even. Let's carry on.

Now let's take it a step further and see if teams with great defenses are sticking with the run even though they aren't very good at it. I also was wanted to start tracking the success in terms of wins/losses, and playoff success.

Onward.

Year YPG Def Leader  Yards Per Carry League Average
2008 (6-3) PIT (???) 3.5 (30th) 4.1
2007 (10-6) PIT (WC Round) 4.2 (8th) 4.1
2006 (13-3) BAL (Div Round) 3.4 (31st) 4.2
2005 (11-5) TB (WC Round) 4.0 (13th) 4.0
2004 (15-1) PIT (AFC Champ Game) 4.0 (21st) 4.1
2003(10-6) DAL (WC Round) 3.9 (23rd) 4.2
2002 (12-4) TB (SB Champs) 3.8 26th) 4.2 (
2001 (13-3) PIT (AFC Champ Game) 4.8 (2nd) 4.1
2000 (13-3) TEN (Div Round)  3.8 (23rd) 4.1
1999 (11-5) BUF (WC Round) 3.9 (17th) 3.9

Couple follow-up notes with this data handy now:

  1. The Good News First: Well, history's on our side in terms of making the playoffs. No team that allows the fewest yards per game has ever not made the playoffs.
  2. Does Defense Really Win Championships Though?: Well, as we just mentioned, if you play great defense, you're going to make the playoffs. But of these ten teams with elite defenses, only three of them won a playoff game that year: 2001 and 2004 Pittsburgh; 2005 Tampa Bay. 2006 Baltimore and 2000 Tennessee both had first round BYEs before losing.
  3. How Bad Is Too Bad?: 6/10 teams above averaged fewer than 4.0 YPC.  However, most all of them still pounded away on the ground. Buffalo ('99) had the 2nd most carries; Tennessee ('00) was 1st; Tampa Bay ('02) was 24th; Dallas ('03) was 4th; Baltimore ('06) was 11th; and Pittsburgh ('08) is 13th.

You might look at Baltimore in '06 and Pittsburgh in '08 and conclude, well we're averaging about the same yard per carry, and league rank wise, they're about the same. True, very true. They only ran it roughly two more times per game, or ~7% more often. Sounds little, but that can be a bit deceiving. Of course, football games are made up on many different moments, not just singular ones. At least usually. But it's little decisions like opting to throw on 3rd and 2 with a lead and a defense that's been playing lights out when not getting put in bad position by the offense or getting burned for a long TD on a fluky tipped type play.

Conclusions:

Well, there are some striking data points in here in my opinion, but there are also (as is usually the case) an outlier or two that makes things a bit murky. But let's make a couple conclusions to close, then see what y'all think.

  1. Mediocre teams, even ones with great defenses that lead them to playoff berths, don't usually get very far in the playoffs. Teams like the Rams and Patriots won a number of Super Bowls largely based on their offensive prowess.
  2. However, those offenses were exceptionally good, and had they not been, perhaps we would have seen a few more SB winners like the TB Bucs in 2002, or the Ravens in 2000, or the Steelers in '05.
  3. So, as it relates to this year, since their doesnt seem to be a dominant team propelled by outstanding offense, perhaps having that special defense will be enough provided the offense can do enough come playoff time.
  4. Tampa Bay in 2002 was an odd outlier. They rarely ran the ball, and for good reason: they weren't very good at it. Here's the difference though. That year, Tampa threw just 10 INTs. One was from Tom Tupa, a punter. And one by Shaun King, a colossal mistake that the NFL Gods wish they could take back forever. Brad and Rob Johnson combined for just 8 picks otherwise, despite the team throwing it 35 times per game.
  5. So in other words, as it relates to us this year, we're not inherently playing excessively unstrategic football on offense.We're not very good - AT ALL..at least yet - running the ball yet we've shown a decent commitment to it.  We could feel ok about ourselves if we weren't turning the ball over so often when we took to the air. However, we're doing ourselves a disservice by not running it more simply because of turnovers, which we all know is probably the most important stat in football. We have a turnover differential of -4 despite A) only fumbling 3 times, the 3rd fewest total in the league and B) having the 4th highest INT% at 4.2%.
  6. So to conclude, we're ok. We're close. The picks have to come down, we need to avoid the temptationt to not keep running the ball as the weather gets colder, even if we stay fairly unproductive while doing so. And when Ben is more comfortable controlling the offense, perhaps we'll then be able to again take teams by surprise through the passing game, somewhat like we did in 2005. I have a follow-up post that I'd like to get to later today that proves just how dominant our defense has been (I knew it had been good, but while doing all this digging around for this post, I realized even more so how great they've been). But all of what I covered here, plus what I intend to show next, all have me convinced that we might be better off just plowing ahead, for better or for worse on offense. It doesnt help that we're out our top two RBs, but there's no reason why Gary Russell couldn't have a string of games like Ryan Grant had for Green Bay last year. We're close, despite how infinitely far it seems at times we still have to go on offense.