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The Steelers abandoned their recipe for success against the Bills and got burnt

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Asking an undrafted rookie quarterback to throw 38 times didn’t work out well for the Steelers in Week 15

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Hindsight is always 20/20. When a team does not perform well statistically but is able to win the game, everything is about how they managed things properly. When a team puts up great numbers and comes up short on the scoreboard, it’s all about how things didn’t quite fit right. It’s what analysis of an NFL game comes down to a lot of the times. And of course, I’m going to fall right into the trap.

There was a glaring change in the Steelers offensive philosophy in their defeat on Sunday night to the Buffalo Bills. It was substantially different than what the Steelers had done in other games played by rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges. Particularly in his starts, and even in his relief appearances, the Steelers have not asked Hodges to carry the team through the air. On Sunday night in the 2019 home finale at Heinz Field, this philosophy completely changed.

One of the things that had bode well for the Steelers, even if it was something that I didn’t particularly like, was they did a good job of protecting their young quarterback by establishing a run game they did not abandon. By not asking Hodges to throw the ball more than 21 times in a game before Week 15 seemed to be quite a good recipe for Steelers victories. In Hodges’ three previous starts, the Steelers vastly ran the ball more than they threw the ball. Against the Chargers in Los Angeles, the Steelers rushed 36 times to 20 pass attempts. In Hodges next start against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers rushed 32 times with only 21 passing attempts. And Hodges start the previous week in Arizona, the Steelers ran the ball 35 times and only passed 19.

On Sunday night, the Steelers rushed the ball only 15 times while attempting 38 passes.

Just to clarify, these past attempts do not include plays in which the quarterback was sacked. Additionally, run plays where the quarterback scrambled are included as running plays even though they began as a pass. Either way, these numbers are so few as to not skew the results completely.

In Hodges two other appearances in 2019, the Steelers had a nice balanced attack during his time on the field. Against Baltimore, the Steelers had 11 rushes and 10 pass attempts, one of which was Jaylen Samuels. When Hodges took over in the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers ran the ball 14 times versus 11 pass attempts.

To summarize, Week 15 against the Bills was the first time in a regular season NFL game Devlin Hodges had more passing attempts than running plays while he was at quarterback.

In his press conference on Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin chalked up the discrepancy in passes versus running the ball as being what happens when the Steelers lose the game.

“You’re going to pass more when you lose,” Coach Tomlin stated “That’s just the reality of it. We didn’t anticipate it being that way, but we didn’t anticipate not being in control of the game through the latter part of the third and fourth quarter. It was what it was. That’s not how we like to function, particularly under the current circumstances in terms of our youth and inexperience at quarterback and receiver. But that’s how the game unfolded.”

As great as that statement sounds, the numbers behind the game just don’t back it up.

There’s a key question to ask about the statement coach Tomlin gave. Did the Steelers pass the ball more because they lost, or did they lose because they passed the ball more? It’s all about cause and effect. The only way to truly determine the answer is to see how the Steelers were playing when they were not losing. And based on that, coach Tomlin’s statement doesn’t hold up.

Against the Buffalo Bills, the Steelers threw 38 passes and had 15 rushing attempts. Of those 38 passes, 15 of them were attempted once the Bills took a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Over that time, the Steelers did rush the ball one time. While these numbers make the discrepancy very large in pass versus run, it also means before the Steelers lost the lead in the second half, they had already attempted 23 passes compared to 14 rushes.

Based on the numbers from the Steelers first nine drives when they were either within one score, leading, or in a tie game, they had committed to passing the ball more than running.

I have to admit, I am eating some of crow on this topic. Well, at least I am for the most part. I did want the Steelers to get away from their “run, run, pass” pattern they had it many of their drives. I wanted the Steelers to change it up and pass on different downs. But at the same time, I did not wish for them to basically abandon the run completely.

Another reason that the Steelers should not have abandoned the run was it wasn’t completely ineffective. They were averaging 3.5 yards per carry prior to losing the lead in the fourth quarter. While this average is not setting the world on fire, it’s also not completely inept. Actually, the Steelers and Bills had almost the exact same yards per carry in the game. The Bills rushed for 130 yards on 38 attempts for an average of 3.42 yards per rush while the Steelers rushed for 51 yards on their 15 carries for a 3.40 average yards per carry. So the only reason the Bills had a significantly higher total in rushing yards was because they an the ball so much.

As I admitted earlier, The Steelers were doing some things in which I had called for with Devlin Hodges as the starter. The Steelers did give Hodges the chance to throw the ball and make plays. But never did I imagine they would take it as far as they did. With four interceptions for the night, it goes to show more than anything why they had played it conservative in previous games.

It appeared as if the Steelers were primed to run the ball against Buffalo. James Connor was returning from an injury. They decided to dress all five running backs. Yet when it was all said and done, the Steelers only had 15 rushes. Of those rushes, one was a quarterback sneak while another was the fumbled hand off to Diontea Johnson out of the wildcat formation. As for the run distribution, James Conner received eight carries while Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels, and Kerrith Whyte Jr. each recieved two rushing attempts. Trey Edmunds did not touch the ball for the Steelers and only had one snap on offense.

I honestly don’t know what went awry for the Steelers in regards to why they passed the ball so often Sunday night. Was it the way the Bills were playing defense? Did the Steelers feel like they were not running the ball effectively enough? Where they just trying to do something different in order to keep the defense on their toes? Like I said, I don’t know the answer. So any insight anyone can give in the comments would be of great benefit to those of us who are still wondering why the Steelers game plan was what it was against the Bills.