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Crunching the Numbers: The Steelers on MNF, and running without Le’Veon Bell

How difficult has it been for the Steelers to replace the production of No. 26 in the games he’s missed?

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Are You Ready For Some Football?

There’s something special about playing on Monday Night Football. For those of us who live outside the Pittsburgh area, it’s the excitement of definitely being able to see the game on television. After enduring a Sunday with no Steelers, the upcoming work week is a little easier to start off with the all-day anticipation of the game under the lights.

It’s also very helpful knowing the Steelers are one of the most successful franchises on Monday Night Football. Most fans are familiar with the Steelers’ 31-11 record dating back to 1990, but that wasn’t always the case. After going 10-5 on Mondays during the 70s, the Steelers had a bit of a rough run during the 80s. With a 4–8 record from 1980 to 1986, the team was excluded from this particular prime-time slot for the final three years of the decade.

Over the course of Ben Roethlisberger‘s career, the question wasn’t if the team would be playing on Monday Night Football, but when and how often. In fact, the Steelers have played at least one Monday night game every season since Ben‘s rookie year in 2004. As a starter, Rothlisberger is 14-4 when playing on Monday (including last year‘s Christmas Day game), with 26 passing touchdowns, 2 more rushing TD’s, and 17 interceptions.

Monday night’s game will only be the second time Ben Roethlisberger has played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. His only other appearance was during the 2008 season with a 27–23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII over the Arizona Cardinals, where Ben was 21–30 for 256 yards with one TD and one INT. The Steelers last game in Tampa was in 2010 with a Charlie Batch-led 38-13 victory in Week 3 during Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension. Overall, the Steelers are 4-1 at Raymond James Stadium with the only loss coming on their first trip in 1998.

Consistency, Thou Art A Jewel

It’s fair to say that the inconsistency of the Steelers’ kicking game has been a major concern after two weeks. Chris Boswell is 0/2 in FG attempts and 3/4 on PAT’s. After going 4/4 on game-winning attempts in 2017, Boswell is 0/1 this season. Luckily, the miss only created a tie instead of a loss.

The truly inconsistent kicking has come in the punting category. In 12 punts this season, Jordan Berry has a 42.3 yard average which ranks him 28th in the NFL. But NFL ranking has not been a very strong point for Berry, with his last three years being ranked 32nd, 18th, and 30th.

Distance isn’t always the deciding factor in the quality of a punt. Almost any punt inside the 20-yard line is deemed a success, while punts inside the 10-yard line are more highly coveted. So far this season, Berry has four punts inside the 20, one of which was a 59-yard punt inside the 10 which was downed at the 1-yard line and led to a Steelers’ safety. The trouble is, out of the eight punts not downed inside the 20-yard line, five of them traveled less than 40-yards. This means 62.5% of punts not downed inside the 20 were of the 30-some-yards variety. And it doesn’t even count Berry’s last punt which was officially 56-yards but netted only 36 because it was a touchback.

The kicking game hasn’t been the only inconsistent aspect for the Steelers. The Steelers’ defense only gave up 21-points and 197 passing yards while registering seven sacks and eight passes defended in Week 1. But in Week 2, they surrendered 42-points and 326 passing yards with only one sack and one pass defended. The most consistent part of the defense has been that they’ve surrender more than 125 rushing yards in each game.

The offense has been inconsistent as well. Week 1 brought 159 rushing yards while Week 2 netted only 33. A lot of this was because the Steelers were playing from behind, but even when they did attempt to run the ball, it wasn’t very successful. Additionally, the Steelers improved on their six-turnover performance to have no turnovers the following game. So at least the inconsistency in offensive output (minus the rushing attack) is with an upward trend.

Life Without Le’Veon

In the 85 games the Steelers have played since drafting Le’Veon Bell in 2013, he has started and played in 66 of them. During those games, Bell has averaged 87.3 yards per game with 0.697 touchdowns per contest. Add on his 41.7 receiving yards a game, and Bell has accounted for an average of 129 total yards in each game he’s played.

But what about the other 23 games since 2013 where the Steelers had to find an alternative at running back? It’s definitely been a mixed bag of results. The Steelers have had nine different running backs lead the team in rushing in the games they’ve played without Bell. In the four games Bell missed in 2013 and 2014, a different running back led the team in rushing each game: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones, Johnathan Dwyer, and Josh Harris. In those four games, no running back registered more than 40-yards rushing or managed to find the end zone.

In 2015, the Steelers invested in DeAngelo Williams as a quality reserve running back. Williams played 13 games out of the 23 where Bell was not in uniform. During those games, Williams averaged 85.5 yards rushing per game with an average of 1.23 TD/G. He added 29.3 receiving yards per game for a total of 114.8 yards per contest.

In 2015, Williams was also injured and the Steelers had to rely on Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman for the final regular-season game, as well as in two playoff contests. Neither back rushed for more than 65-yards (although combined, the two rushed for 123 yards in the wild-card win) but only had one total touchdown.

In Week 17 last season, Stevan Ridley rushed for 80-yards with a touchdown when Bell was given the game off before the playoffs.

So far this season, James Connor has rushed for an average of 76 yards per game with 1.5 TD’s. Connor has also managed to average 52.5 receiving yards for a total of 128.5 yards per game.

Another standard of measurement is the percentage of games a running back rushes for 100 yards or more. In that category, Le’Veon Bell has rushed for at least 100 yards in 30.3% (20 of 66) of his games. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 100 or more yards in 38.5% of the games he started for the Steelers (5 of 13). James Conner has eclipsed the century mark in 50% of his starts (1 of 2).

When comparing the stats, James Connor has maintained the standards set by Le’Veon Bell for the most part. Could this be because he’s not deemed as much of a threat when other teams game plan against the Steelers? Perhaps. The biggest thing is he doesn’t have a very large body of work. But with every week Bell refuses to show, it allows Conner to put up more stats as the Steelers’ starting running back.