Football is the ultimate team sport. We hear that stated, and if we pay attention, we can find evidence for that statement constantly. Think about the discussion over the last two seasons about the Steelers passing game.
We can look at the numbers and see that since Ben Roethlisberger returned from injury in 2020, the Steelers haven’t thrown the ball downfield as often, and haven’t been as productive doing it as before that injury. But why is that? Is it Ben Roethlisberger losing arm strength? Is it the offensive line? Is it the wide receivers? Is it the offensive game plan? Not a single one of those options is sufficient to explain the change on its own. It’s a combination of most of those if not all of them, and trying to deduce which part of the problem is more to blame is a fruitless endeavor unless your goal is to get into arguments on the internet. The nature of the game makes it so that it is nearly impossible to single out the accomplishments of one player apart from the team he is a part of, and the team he is against. You can’t truly separate a player from his team and claim that they did anything on their own.
I like to look at the opposite, when a player misses time, what difference is there when they don’t play versus when they do. One of my favorite examples of this is Bud Dupree, who despite having mediocre sack numbers for his career, correlated to team sacks in a way no other Steeler has. Take a quick look: (numbers include playoff games)
2014 Steelers: 34 sacks, 2.0 per game.
2015 Steelers: 52 sacks, 2.9 per game. (Butler in as DC, Dupree 16 games as a rookie)
2016 Steelers: Dupree misses first 9 games, Steelers record 13 sacks in those games (1.44 per game), Dupree returns for last 10 games, Steelers record 33 sacks in those games (3.3 per game).
2017-2019 Dupree misses one game Steelers record 56, 52 and 54 sacks. Steelers average 3.3 sacks per game with Dupree, and over 3 a game in each season.
2020 Steelers: Dupree plays first 11 games, 41 sacks, 3.73 per game. Last six games of the season the Steelers record 15 sacks, 2.5 per game.
2021 Steelers: Through 14 games the Steelers have 41 sacks, 2.93 sacks per game.
Since Bud Dupree took over a starting outside linebacker role in 2016, the Steelers recorded 229 sacks in the 68 games he played, 3.37 per game. In the games he missed? 35 sacks in 17 games, 2.06 per game.
It also stands out that with T.J. Watt having an MVP level season rushing the passer in 2021, the Steelers sack rates are right around where they were in Bud Dupree’s rookie season when he wasn’t a full-time starter.
You can look at that and say that Bud Dupree correlates to team sacks more than any other Steeler pass rusher of that time period, and you would be right. You could argue that Bud Dupree, in the context of those Steeler teams, was a bigger factor in team sacks than T.J. Watt was, and you would have a sound argument.
If you tried to use that information to say Bud Dupree was a better pass rusher than T.J. Watt, you’d be wrong. If you look at film and QB rushing stats you can see how Dupree’s presence could create such impact. Dupree was one of the best in the NFL at containing a quarterback in the pocket as things broke down. Quarterbacks couldn’t escape, and they were sacked a lot because of that. The other pass rushers produced more because Dupree increased opportunities for them to produce with his skillset and role in Keith Butler’s pass rush schemes.
Does that help explain what I mean by keeping players in the context of their team? I hope so. Because there are a few numbers that really stand out this season that I want to go over.
First off, T.J. Watt’s value to the 2021 Steelers. We’ve talked about it a good bit this season, but the Steelers win with T.J. Watt playing, and lose when he doesn’t in 2021. In the games T.J. Watt has missed the Steelers are 0-2. When he plays but leaves the game with injury they are 0-2-1, in his first game back from missing a game they are 0-2, and when T.J. Watt is fully healthy the Steelers are 7-0.
That’s crazy. To understand how Watt can have that kind of impact, we need to look at another interesting stat.
The Steelers offense averages 20.8 points scored per game. In their wins they average 22.29 points, and in losses 19.83 points. That’s the second smallest difference in offensive production in the NFL. The Steelers offense is remarkably consistent in scoring. The defense shows more variance, and that variance is driving wins and losses. A lot of that variance is driven by the team’s lack of depth and struggles at a number of positions. This isn’t a Steeler defense that can lose a few top players and still be great, and that creates a situation where T.J. Watt’s value jumps off the charts. When T.J. Watt plays 50% or more of the snaps, the Steelers give up an average of 20.6 points per game, and when he doesn’t they give up an average of 28.3 points per game.
The team situation makes his production, especially sacks, very valuable as the teams struggles against the run and solid play against the pass make longer yardage situations a big deal for the defense.
But there is an argument for one of his team mates being even more important. Joe Haden has missed 5 games this season, and while the Steelers do have one win in those 5 games, the difference in points allowed when Joe Haden plays (19.1 points per game) and when he doesn’t (32.6) is even more stark than the difference for T.J. Watt. It also bears remembering that the Steelers are 1-8 since 2018 when Joe Haden misses the game, and 35-17-2 when he plays.
In the 5 games Joe Haden has missed, four of them involve less than 100% T.J. Watt. Watt was injured and left the Vikings game, missed the Raiders and Chargers games and was back but visibly limited in the second Cincinnati game. Those games include the Steelers 3 highest points allowed, and their 6th highest.
The Steelers defense doesn’t have the players to make up for the loss of Watt or Haden, and the team struggles in those games. The Steelers win against the Titans provided plenty of film evidence to support those players value, as both were a part of numerous big plays that helped lead the Steelers to a much needed win.
But there’s another player I want to bring into this discussion.
Kevin Dotson played every offensive snap of the season until he left the game against the Detroit Lions with injury. He hasn’t returned, but he has been activated off of IR and may be back before the season ends. That could be a very big deal for the Steelers offense. The Steelers offensive line was improving every game early on in the season, and when week 5 hit, and they faced the Denver Broncos, they had the Steelers first 100 yard rushing game since they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 11 of 2020.
From Week 5 through the Detroit game, the Steelers rushed for 631 yards, averaging 126.2 yards per game. In the Detroit game, one of the biggest complaints was how quickly they went away from the run game that had been having so much success early in the game. The run game success hasn’t returned though, the Steelers have rushed for 332 yards in the last 5 games, 66.4 yards per game. That’s a 60 yard per game drop since they lost Kevin Dotson.
When you consider that Dotson was anchoring the line between two rookies who have had their share of growing pains, the context paints the picture of how Kevin Dotson’s presence could make such a difference on the offensive line’s performance.
A main story of this season is just how different the Steelers look from game to game and in different parts of the season, and much like the 2020 Steelers, these differences can be traced to the health of key players.
When Kevin Dotson was healthy and the line was building experience the Steelers run game was getting going and the Steelers went on a 4-game win streak, a win streak that also happened to have T.J. Watt and Joe Haden healthy throughout it.
T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Kevin Dotson all left the game against Detroit with injuries. Those injuries were a huge part of that awful tie and the 1-3 stretch that followed it. With Haden and Watt returning in week 15 the Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans. If the Steelers can somehow keep things together and push for the playoffs and they can get a healthy Kevin Dotson back, this team will be a real threat to make some noise in the playoffs. If they aren’t healthy...well, we already know what that looks like.