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Is the Steelers’ offense any better than it was last season?

Looking at the numbers to see if the 2021 Steelers offense has improved over last season.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers revamped their offense after it collapsed half-way through the 2020 season. People forget how good the Steelers offense was the first half of the season, when they averaged 30 points a game with only 2 non-offensive touchdowns. I’m not going to compare this Steelers offense to that one. That’s not the point here. But what about after that, when the offense fell apart? The offense that convinced the Steelers to get rid of their offensive coordinator and use their top 4 draft picks on offensive players.

Only four of the top eleven offensive players by snaps from 2020 are top 11 in 2021. Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Chukwuma Okorafor and Ben Roethlisberger.

The question we are looking at today, statistically, is has it paid off so far? Is this offense better than the one we saw in the last half of 2020. We are going to look at the last 8 regular season games of 2020, ignoring the first 8 and the wild-card game.


The Basics

The 2020 Steelers went 4-4 in the second half of the season, winning games 9, 10, and 11 before finishing the season 1-4 and then losing in the playoffs. In those games, the Steelers offense scored 175 points, or 21.93 per game. In 2021 the Steelers offense has scored 154 points, 19.25 points per game. Per game stats can be misleading, because not every game has the same pace, teams often have different numbers of possessions, so I always like to look at points per drive, or how many points does an offense score per possession, per chance to score.

In the second half of 2020 the Steelers had 99 possessions, in the first half of 2021, the Steelers have only had 87. So taking the total points and dividing by the number of possessions we get:

2020: 1.77 points per drive.

2021: 1.77 points per drive.

Yep. When you look at offensive points scored per opportunity to score, the 2021 Steelers offense is equally effective, or ineffective, as they were in 2020. For reference, 1.77 points per drive ranks 24th in 2021, it would have ranked 26th in 2020.

Let’s look at how those scores came about as well, and their percentage of total offensive drives.

2020: 20 TDs (20.2%), 12 FGs (12.1%), 32 total scores (32.3%)

2021: 16 TDs (18.4%), 15 FGs (17.2%), 31 total scores (35.6%)

The entire 2020 season had a high touchdown to field goal rate. One of the few positive trends from the Randy Fichtner offense was scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals when the team actually moved down the field. Matt Canada’s offense is more likely to score, but also more likely to settle for a field goal.

How about turnovers?

In the second half of 2020, the Steelers had 9 turnovers, 7 interceptions, a messed up snap and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble against the Bengals. In 2021, the Steelers have 7 turnovers, 4 interceptions and 3 fumbles from Ben Roethlisberger being sacked. A 9.1% turnover rate in 2020 and an 8.1% turnover rate in 2021 are close, that 9.1% turnover rate would be one more turnover in 2021, and with how close the games have been, that one turnover could be argued as the difference between 4-4 and 5-3.

We’ll get more in-depth in a moment, but look at those numbers. The Steelers changed offensive coordinator, running back, four of their offensive lineman and a tight end, and they score the same points and turn the ball over at almost the exact same rate. The answer to the question “Is the Steelers offense any better than it was last season?” is pretty much no. They have one less turnover and one more win because of it. Outside of that, it’s the same results.

Now let’s look a bit deeper, to see where this offense is different, where it is better and where it is worse. The fact that three of the Steelers turnovers were from sacks when the miserable second half stretch from 2020 involved zero turnovers from sacks stands out.


The Passing Game

In the second half of 2020, the Steelers were a ridiculously pass-heavy team. Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 320 times, threw 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions and was sacked 3 times. In 2021 so far Roethlisberger has thrown only 267 times, for 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and has been sacked 16 times. That’s a huge swing in sack rate:

2020: 320 throws, 1 scramble, 3 sacks = 0.9% sack rate, 1.2% sack + scramble rate.

2021: 267 throws, 3 scrambles, 16 sacks = 5.6% sack rate, 7.1% scramble rate.

The Steelers were the No. 1 team in sack rate in 2020, giving up the smallest percentage of sacks in the NFL. In 2021 they have dropped to 16th. It was widely argued that Ben Roethlisberger was the reason the Steelers ranked so well in sack rate, because he was unwilling to take hits. The 2021 numbers show both that the offensive line had something to do with the great numbers before this season, and that Ben Roethlisberger is willing to take hits.

The problem with those sacks is they eliminate gains elsewhere in the offense. The second half of 2020, Ben Roethlisberger averaged 5.8 yards per pass attempt in the Steelers quick passing offense. In 2021 his yards per attempt have improved to 6.7, a significant amount. But when you add in sacks, that 6.7 yards per attempt becomes 6.0 yards per pass play, almost the 2020 level of production.

The statistics back up what we see with our eyes, that Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t have a consistent pocket, his pass protection gives him enough time to throw some plays, but other plays he is in real trouble. That kind of inconsistency, especially when it comes from the left tackle, the QB’s blind side, is hard to account for by the quarterback or scheme.


The Run Game

Lastly, let’s look at the run game. The Steelers in the second half of 2020 had 136 runs by running backs, those runs gained 470 yards, 3.46 yards per rush. In 2021 so far the total runs has gone up, 169 running back runs is a 24.3% increase in running the ball. Those runs have gained 581 yards, a 3.44 average.

While the Steelers drafted Najee Harris, and have shown a commitment to running the ball, the yards per rush by running backs are roughly identical. (.02 yards per rush is less than an inch of difference in the average run) The run game is better in 2021, just not from the running back side.

In the last half of 2020, as the Steelers ran less and less effectively, the jet sweeps became much less viable. In those 8 games the Steelers ran 6 times with receivers, for -5 yards. In 2021, the Steelers have run 16 times with receivers, for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns. When you add in the receiver running game, the numbers look better for 2021.

2020: 142 rushes, 465 yards = 3.27 yards per rush.

2021: 185 rushes, 711 yards = 3.84 yards per rush.

Obviously everyone would like that number to be higher, the Steelers rank 29th in the NFL in yards per carry, the fact that they rank 3 spots higher than last season isn’t much comfort. But the numbers show that the run game is a threat that other teams respect, they respect Najee Harris enough that the jet sweep runs are effective. We saw that heavily in the Steelers win over Chicago this week when the Steelers ran receivers 6 times for 35 yards, and those jet sweeps set up some of Najee’s best runs in return.


Conclusion

If we look at the numbers, and account for the other things we know about this team, I think the message is pretty clear.

The offensive line is worse this year than it was for the vast majority of last season. Until the Steelers third string center, J.C. Hassenauer, was forced to play, the Steelers 2020 line was better than the one we see in 2021. It was also much older. The change from a declining Alejandro Villanueva to rookie 4th round pick Dan Moore Jr. has been a boost in the run game, but a big negative in pass protection. Kendrick Green’s struggles at center have hurt as well, Maurkice Pouncey was dropping off enough that he was cheating on his get-off and it really hurt his snapping. But that version of Maurkice Pouncey was still better than a rookie center. Kendrick Green shows promise, and he’s improving. But he’s not Maurkice Pouncey, not even old Pouncey.

I also think we have seen Ben Roethlisberger answer a lot of the criticism he received in 2020. He learned a new offense, he’s doing things he’s never done before, and he’s doing them pretty well. He’s willing to take hits to make plays, and recently, he’s even throwing to the tight end more. We’ve also seen that he is indeed limited by age and his injuries. He’s able to throw deep, but not anything like what he did even in 2018. He’s not that guy anymore.

We see the young talent in Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth, a young, talented receiver room and a young and improving offensive line and I think there’s potential there for a really good offense in the future. But for this season?

I don’t have a lot of hope for this Steelers offense to become much more than it is, certainly not to a point we could consider it a “good” NFL offense. It could be the last year of Ben Roethlisberger, enjoy the ride, cheer for the wins and know that the offense really does have room to become a good one in the years to come.