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How are the Pittsburgh Steelers turning it around?

A look at some keys to the Steelers’ three game winning streak.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
For Halloween, Mike Tomlin went as the #2 winningest coach in Steelers history.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

A couple of weeks back, with the Steelers sitting at 1-3, I wrote a three-article series looking back at ways past Steelers teams have turned their seasons around. Looking at the Chuck Noll years, the Bill Cowher years, and the Mike Tomlin years, the pieces tracked the apparent catalysts for the respective reversals (some of which were collapses, and others rebounds). There were ultimately a lot of reasons for the various script-flips, but the most frequent factors (it seemed to me) were running offense and turnover margin (or specifically, takeaways on defense).

Well, a month has passed, and the Steelers now sit at 4-3, riding a three-game winning streak and with two winnable contests coming up. It’s not ridiculous to imagine the team 6-3, on a five game tear, as they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers in week 11. In other words, there’s a lot of football left (more, in fact, than ever before), but the season appears to have been pulled back from the brink. And my question is: how have they done it so far?

Well, there are probably a lot of factors, as always, but I think we can isolate a few big changes that have made some visible differences. Here’s my take:

1: Rushing Offense

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
For being a big-bodied bruiser, Najee Harris LOVES going airborne.
Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Yup. The same thing that turned around so many other seasons appears to be helping the Steelers turn around this one. Many of you are probably thinking, “well sure, this is obvious.” But I think the difference from the first four weeks to the last three is probably bigger and more far-reaching than it even seems to the naked eye.

Let’s set some numbers.

Team Rushing

Team Att Yards YPC TDs
Team Att Yards YPC TDs
Wks 1-4 16.5 55.3 3.35 0.5
Wks 3-7 32.3 128.3 3.97 1
Difference 15.8 73.0 0.62 0.5
The above numbers are per-game averages.

This is a HUGE change. They’ve doubled their attempts, which indicates a commitment that simply didn’t exist before. And they’re getting over a half-yard more per carry, so it’s working on more than just volume; the run-game is more efficient as well. But that raw yardage number is what shocks me: they’re getting 73.1 more yards per game over the last three weeks (an increase of 132%). Yikes.

We know that Najee Harris is powering the run game. How is he doing:

Najee Harris

Najee Att Yds Avg TDs
Najee Att Yds Avg TDs
Wks. 1-4 13.8 46.3 3.36 0.3
Wks. 5-7 24.3 98.0 4.03 0.7
Difference 10.5 51.7 0.67 0.4
The above numbers are per-game averages.

If you read those earlier “Steelers turnaround” essays, you might remember 1972, where the catalyst was another running back named Harris. Franco averaged 19.8 yards per game during the team’s lackluster 2-2 start. He averaged 97.6 during their 10-1 hurricane finish. I think I’m seeing a symmetry.

If the Steelers have doubled their rushing attempts, as you might imagine, their passing attempts have dropped. Ben Roethlisberger throws 10 fewer pass attempts per contest now than he did in the season’s first month. The more cynical among you might be saying, “good – keep the ball out of the old man’s hands,” but there’s actually more to it than that. Because Ben is passing MUCH better now too.

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben Comp Att % Yds YPA YPC Tds Ints Rtg.
Big Ben Comp Att % Yds YPA YPC Tds Ints Rtg.
Wks. 1-4 27.3 42.5 64.2 258.3 6.1 9.5 1.0 1.0 79.0
Wks. 5-7 22.0 33.0 66.7 249.3 7.6 11.3 1.3 0.0 102.2
Difference -5.3 -9.5 2.4 -9.0 1.5 1.9 0.3 -1.0 23.3
The above numbers are per-game averages.

You’ll notice that Ben’s passing yardage has only dropped by nine yards per game (hardly noticeable). Square that against his reduced pitch count, and you’re seeing a man throwing 1.5 yards per attempt better than the beginning of the season, and nearly two yards per completion. Moreover, he hasn’t thrown an interception since the Packers loss in week 4, but is throwing slightly more touchdowns per contest than he was then. You’ll notice his completion percentage is also slightly better, despite throwing downfield considerably more. And his rating has exploded.

Last season, I thought it was insane that a 38 year old quarterback, coming off major elbow surgery, led the league in passing attempts. Many of us saw the same tendencies early this season. But that’s not the case anymore.

I mentioned John Elway (Ben’s hero) the other day in another post – how he practically willed the Broncos to three Super Bowls as a young man, but didn’t get his rings until his last two years. By the time the Broncos were winning Lombardis, Elway was definitely still the team leader, but he wasn’t carrying the team on his back; that was Terrell Davis’ job. I think the same can be true here too. It matters that Ben is a Hall of Famer; it matters that he knows what he’s doing. And when he’s not expected to be 2014 Ben, he’s actually still capable of playing fearless Ben Roethlisberger football (case in point: his awesome two-point PAT dive that the refs called back for a bogus hold). The man can still rise to the occasion. You just don’t want him throwing 50 passes or expecting routine 400 yard days. Ask him to do a little less, and it appears that you’ll get a lot more.

2: Pass defense is slowly remembering how to play

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
Uh oh, pal. Collision, in 3... 2...
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Here are some numbers to note:

From weeks 1-4, the Steelers gave up 258.8 passing yards per game, and recorded 2.00 sacks per game.

From weeks 3-7, they gave up 214.3 passing yards per game, and recorded 3.67 sacks.

This is a 44.4 yard drop in passing yards allowed, while nearly doubling their sack totals. These are significant differences. And they go a long way toward explaining the Steelers’ improvement.

What’s tricky to me is this third stat: the Steelers recorded one interception in the first four games, and one interception in the last three. That’s two picks in seven games. That’s spectacularly bad, and it’s no better now than it was earlier in the year.

I can’t exactly explain this. During the first month of the season, I figured the terrible takeaway numbers were a result of a struggling pass-rush, but the sack numbers are starting to pick up, and the INTs are not. Maybe the team is coaching their coverage teams to play conservative because there are so many new/young players in the secondary. Maybe everyone got Ike-Taylor’s-Disease this summer, and forgot how to catch. I don’t know. But the Steelers led the NFL in interceptions last year, and were second in 2019 (with 18 and 20, respectively). If that pace picks up over the second half of this season, look out.

3: Third down defense is on fire

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
I like that it seems like they’re saying the same thing, except TJ thinks it’s funny and Cam thinks it’s dead serious.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Check this out:

Third Downs

Defense Convert 3rd Downs Percent
Defense Convert 3rd Downs Percent
Wks. 1-4 27 55 49.1%
Wks. 5-7 8 34 23.5%
Difference -19 -21 -25.6%
The above numbers are raw-totals, not averages.

I ran those numbers three times – I simply couldn’t believe that the Steelers only gave up eight third down conversions over the last three games. But it’s legit. The Broncos were 2-12; Seahawks were 3-12; Browns were 3-10. That’s eight.

To think in terms of “per game” numbers, for the first four weeks, Steelers opponents averaged 7-14 on 3rd downs. Over the final three, they average 3-11. That means teams are getting fewer opportunities, and converting fewer of those. By a mile.

You can win a lot of games with a defense that knows how to get off the field. (Side note: the Steelers offense has been ridiculously consistent on third downs – converting 40.7% in the first four weeks, and 41.0% in the last three. So this is really a defensive thing.) If you can’t get takeaways, get punts, I guess.

So how to explain all this:

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
Every time I see this catch, it’s more impressive. That DB was ALL OVER him.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

I think there are two big causes for these turnarounds. The first (and somewhat inconvenient) cause is that the competition has been a bit weaker.

The Steelers first four weeks were against truly the NFL’s best. Those opponents have a composite record of 21-8, for a blistering .724 winning percentage. All four of them have held their conference’s projected #1 seed at some point this season. Meanwhile, the most recent three opponents have a collective record of 11-12, or .478 (though, of course, three of those losses were to the Steelers, so maybe it’s more accurate to think of them as 11-9, or .550). So, while every team is full of NFL players (and the Browns are supposedly among the “best rosters in football”), this hasn’t been an exact apples-to-apples comparison. (Then again, the Steelers also beat the Bills in that opening stretch, so there’s a lot of moving parts here.)

As consolation, Pittsburgh’s upcoming record is not nearly as brutal as we were once told. The forthcoming ten opponents have a collective record of 38-36, or .514 – and if you don’t count Baltimore twice, that record falls to 33-34 (or .493). The strongest record left on the schedule is Tennessee, who just lost Derrick Henry for an indeterminate amount of time. So maybe “strength of opponent” is a wash here.

Anyway, the more interesting catalyst for these improvements, I think, is about patience.

When I think about the running game, for example, I immediately think of the offensive line. On the eve of the season, Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette exhaustedly told fans, “give the them some time to gel… there’s a lot of new guys; give them some time…” During the opening stretch, those guys looked horrible, but now they’re starting to push opponents around, particularly on the ground. Perhaps he was right – it took a few weeks. (Frankly, it was faster than I’d have expected.)

On the defense, the secondary has sported a number of new (typically very young) contributors; the starting ILBs include a guy coming off a torn ACL and another guy signed after the preseason was over; the OLBs dealt with injuries for the first few weeks; and the DLine has two new starters, neither of whom were supposed to be on the field much this season. It’s taken some time, but each of these units is starting to turn the corner too. Health probably explains the improved pass rush, but this patience and growth (new players feeling more comfortable in the scheme; new teammates communicating better and anticipating each other’s movements) has to be factoring in on those third down conversions.

The bottom line is, this team appears to be heading in the right direction. And, importantly, they seem to be doing it the right way – by gelling and growing as a team, rather than relying on surprise, trickery, fluke plays, or one or two dominant individuals. This may be what long-term improvement looks like. Here’s hoping.

Go Steelers.