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The real villain in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 late season collapse

If you want a scape goat, the stats are here to hand you one.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

First off, I want to be clear that J.C. Hassenauer is not the reason the Steelers were bad down the stretch. I’m not going after him personally. He’s a hard working young man who has earned his spot in the NFL.

He was a top high school center and a big recruit to Alabama, but there he was overshadowed by all the other talent on their line and was a backup his whole career. He stepped in as a replacement starter in his senior year and won SEC offensive lineman of the week for his work. He played key games down the stretch including the bowl win over Clemson to reach the championship game, and the championship win over Georgia. He went undrafted in 2018, got cut from the Falcons, played in the AAF and turned that into a roster spot with the Steelers.

If his career track to this point says anything about the 25 year old interior lineman, this season will not define his career.

So why is his picture featured on a post citing the real villain of the Steelers collapse? Because the stats paint a picture that is too clear to ignore.

No one correlates to the Steelers offensive failures like J.C. Hassenauer does. Hassenauer played 25% or more of offensive snaps in 5 of the Steelers 17 games this past season. In those 5 games the Steelers offense scored a combined 90 points. That’s 18 points a game when Hassenauer played. In the other 12 games the Steelers scored 363 points, just over 30 points a game.

The Steelers defense gave up 30+ points exactly once in 2020, the awful Wild Card loss to the Browns. That’s also the only game the Steelers lost when Hassenauer didn’t play. The Steelers were 1-4, beating the injury riddled Baltimore Ravens 19-14 with Hassenauer starting for Maurkice Pouncey. Without Hassenauer the Steelers were 11-1, losing 37-48 to the Cleveland Browns after a nightmare start and down far too many of their defensive playmakers.

The Steelers went from the Todd Haley dream of averaging 30 points a game, to the 2019 horror of not being able to score 20 points based on their offensive line depth.

And that’s the real villain of the 2020 season, offensive line injuries. Hassenauer was the Steelers #3 center entering the 2020 season. A young man who had worked hard to make the NFL and shown enough to get that coveted spot on the team, but not someone the Steelers anticipated ever playing.

But then Stefan Wisniewski struggled mightily and was injured, and then Maurkice Pouncey missed games and in week 15, both Matt Feiler and Kevin Dotson were unavailable and Hassenauer started at guard, giving way to practice squad tackle Derwin Gray for a significant portion of the game because of his struggles. Hassenauer is unlikely to ever be an NFL caliber guard.

All those injuries forced Hassenauer into taking the place of Maurkice Pouncey, who contrary to popular opinion, was actually one of the better players on the line this year, and was doing a lot to keep the line functioning with the injuries around him.

If you take the Steelers start of season line, Hassenauer would be 9th on that list. He made the top 5 for 4 games because the Steelers didn’t have other options. He earned praise from Head Coach Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger for coming in to start on very short notice and knowing his responsibilities on every play and not messing up any assignments or snaps, but while he was in the right place at the right time, you still need to win those battles, and the Steelers offensive line wasn’t.

On film the change is easy to see. With the center going from a strength to a weakness teams collapsed the middle of the pocket and Ben Roethlisberger went from his quick release to forcing the ball out even quicker, whether the play had developed or not.

In week 16, with Pouncey, DeCastro and Dotson all playing, the Steelers made a big comeback to win after Roethlisberger gained comfort in the pocket and took more time, pushing the ball downfield more effectively.

Ben Roethlisberger’s stats show the difference very clearly, based on whether Hassenauer (#60) was playing.

The biggest difference? From an over 5-1 TD-INT ratio to nearly 1-1. That’s what you get when the quarterback is forcing throws because the offensive line is too banged up to protect him.

It also shows up huge in one of my favorite stats: Scoring minus turnover percentage. Here’s a quick overview if you aren’t familiar:

Scoring percentage minus turnover percentage is simply the percentage of drives that end with a score minus the percentage of drives that end with a turnover. Drives started by turnovers have much higher scoring rates than drives following a punt or kickoff, scoring points is really good, turnovers are really bad. A punt is roughly equal to a kickoff in what happens on the following drive, so punts are basically neutral.

The Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger and without Hassenauer scored on 42.1% of their drives, which ranked 15th in the NFL. They only committed turnovers on 7.1% of drives, the third lowest mark in the NFL. When you subtract the turnover percentage from the scoring percentage you get 35%, the 9th best mark in the NFL, on par with the Buffalo Bills and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

When Hassenauer was forced into the lineup with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers scoring percentage dropped to 22.6%, 2nd worst in the NFL, and their turnover percentage rose to 11.3%, 19th lowest in the NFL. That led to the Steelers posting the second worst Scoring minus turnover percentage mark in the NFL at 11.3%, only outdone by the amazingly bad Jacksonville Jaguars in those four games.

The Steelers had an offense that was one of the ten most efficient in the NFL, and on par with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when the line was only a little banged up. When the Steelers defense was healthy it was better than the Tampa Bay defense.

The Steelers were Super Bowl contenders in 2020, until their offensive line was too hurt to function, and then in the playoffs, their defense was too banged up to even be good, let alone the greatness they had shown when healthier.

When people make the argument that the Steelers can compete for a Super Bowl next season with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback if they build their offensive line and keep the defense rolling, the statistics back that up.

J.C. Hassenauer wasn’t the problem, he was just the guy in over his head called on to try and hold together a banged up and struggling offensive line, and that causes him to correlate to the Steelers collapse much more than anyone else.