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How bad was the Pittsburgh Steelers passing game in 2019?

Looking at the numbers behind one of the worst passing teams in franchise history.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers were not a great passing offense by any stretch of the imagination. Today we’re going to look at just how bad the numbers were, inside of the season and in historical context for the Steelers.

First off, the team numbers.

I was somewhat surprised to find out that the Steelers didn’t rank last in any passing stat this season, but they did finish in the bottom 10 in every stat. No other team in the NFL finished in the bottom 10 in every stat listed above, and only the Carolina Panthers join the Steelers in ranking in the bottom 5 in Y/A, INT% and TD%.

The Panthers had Cam Newton playing poorly in 2 games before shutting him down for the season as his injured left foot just wasn’t healthy enough for him to keep playing. Kyle Allen came in and gave the Panthers a number of adequate games and a few real stinkers before the team replaced him with Will Grier. Grier was far worse, and Allen would replace him at the end of the season. Sound similar? In the Steelers case both Rudolph and Hodges were adequate for multiple games, but the numbers of adequate games to awful games are pretty close.

If you look at the percentage of league average, the Steelers were nearly league average in completion percentage, not terrible at yards per attempts, bad at getting the ball into the endzone and downright awful at throwing interceptions.

For my fellow stats nerds I included Z-scores. for a quick definition a Z-score compares a number to the average, but also to how far apart most teams are from the average to give a better idea of (in this case) whether the Steelers gap from the average is more normal or if it is really rare.

If you look at TD% and Passer Rating you can see the usefulness, as that 77.8% of the average TD percentage isn’t as far out of the expected range of variation as the 84.2% of average passer rating. In this case that’s because more teams had really high and low TD percentages, while with passer rating all the teams tended to be closer to the average. Both % of NFL average and Z-scores agree that the Steelers INT% was significantly higher than the average NFL team.

The combination of low yards and high interceptions is a real killer. In 1989 the Bubby Brister led Steelers ranked 28th out of 28 teams in passing yards but also threw the 3rd fewest Interceptions. That season the Steelers went to the playoffs and beat the Oilers in Houston. I think it isn’t far fetched to look at this past Steeler season and say that if the team could have avoided interceptions there were a number of games the team could have won to get into the playoffs, where as the last seed the Steelers would have faced the Patriots who were ripe for getting knocked off.

Without any silver lining at all the 2019 Steelers passing game instead compares more to the 1998 Steelers, who finished 29th out of 30 teams in passing yards, and also failed to have any passing stat rank outside of the bottom 10. That Kordell Stewart led offense had a solid but not great defense and a top 10 run game, and the Steelers were 7-4 after week 12 and well in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, but would only score 55 points while committing 15 turnovers over the last 5 games, to go out with a 7-9 record.

In 2019 the Steelers sat at 8-5 after week 14, in control of a Wild Card berth, yet would only score 30 points while committing 9 turnovers the last three weeks of the season to end 8-8. The silver lining to a season of epic futility in the passing game is the reminder that even if Ben isn’t his old self in 2020, if he can just be smart with the ball and be more effective at getting TDs while throwing fewer interceptions, this team can easily be a playoff contender. Ben has a reputation for scuttling a game or two with a flurry of picks, but his 2018 season, when he led the NFL in interceptions, he had a 2.5 INT%, when league average was 2.4%. If the Steelers had a 2.5% interception percentage in 2019 they very likely would have made the playoffs.

While so far we’ve largely looked at QB based stats, the wide receiver situation on the Steelers this season has to be accounted for as well. Look at the snap count for WRs in the first game of 2019, and the season totals for each:

Two of the WRs that were viewed as top 3 to start the season failed to even record 30 receiving yards in 2019, and while JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Steelers leading receiver before his injury, his final totals rank 3rd on the team. Of the 6 WRs to get snaps in week one, only three of them would gain more yards than Deon Cain and Tevin Jones. Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer and Johnny Holton would combine for 66 yards and 0 TDs on 41 targets, that’s 1.61 yards per target. That’s less per play than Mason Rudolph gained running the ball. Donte Moncrief wide open? Ryan Switzer is in the flat with no one around him? Just lower your head and plow into the line Mason, it’s the statistically better option.

Finally, James Washington’s team leading 753 yards is the lowest receiving yards leader for the Steelers since 1999 and 2000, the Kordell Stewart years before Hines Ward became a starter. Only 4 seasons since Bill Cowher took over the team have had a lower leading receiver total (1992, 1994, 1999, 2000), and the Steelers had 4 receivers gain more than 753 yards before the league lengthened the season to 14 games in 1961. Oh for the good old days of Elbie Nickel, Ray Matthews, Jimmy Orr and Buddy Dial. . .

If you want to have even more fun, Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 5 receiving TDs, the last time the Steelers failed to have one receiver get more than 753 yards and at least 6 TDs was 2004 when Jerome Bettis scored all the TDs and only Hines Ward had over 753 yards. In 2009 Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller all had more than 753 yards and at least 5 receiving TDs.

Looking forward to 2020, the Steelers passing game can’t get any worse. I mean it technically could, but that would be really, really hard to pull off. Some stability at WR and a starting QB with some NFL experience would really help, and while the WR group for much of the season was a very different look from the start of the season, heading into next season with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington as the top 3 makes a solid group. With a little experience and success under Washington and Johnson’s belts, the WRs could be a unit of strength for this team in 2020.