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The NFL is a passing league, but the Steelers need to run the ball

Running the ball correlates to success for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The NFL is a passing league. The league has passed numerous rules throughout its history to make it a passing league, from the “Mel Blount rule” to the “Hines Ward rule” to the recent focus on protecting quarterbacks that penalizes defenders for hitting a quarterback too hard and has led to holding on passing plays becoming an endangered species of penalty.

The game has been engineered to drastically favor passing, so of course passing is going to dominate game.

But does that mean running the ball is less important than ever? Or in an era where mediocre quarterbacks put up stat lines that rival Hall of Fame players, is running the ball still important. And I mean that statement, in 1992 Dan Marino led the NFL with 554 pass attempts, 330 completions and 4116 yards. In 2020 those numbers would rank 9th, 17th and 11th respectively. The top completion percentage was from Steve Young at 66.7%, lower than Mitchel Trubisky’s 2020 completion percentage, and he ranks 13th in 2020.

I’m not going to go over the league wide numbers that show the importance of passing, because frankly, the league has engineered passing to be more effective, to the point that passing is the majority of offense, so if your offense is good, your passing is likely even better. We don’t care about 31 of the 32 teams in the NFL though, this article is about the Steelers.

You should all know the numbers coming next, you’ve heard them in some form or another for years.

Since the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, they are 123-24-1 when they run for 100+ yards. An 83.4% win rate.
In that same time frame the Steelers are 56-68 when they run for less than 100 yards, a 45.2% win rate.

Nice and simple, but it isn’t enough. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback he was in 2004 or 2010, but the bigger problem is rushing is skewed to blowouts. teams that are trailing pass more, teams that are leading run more. Running may correlate strongly to winning on the surface, but a lot of the time, the cause is winning, and running the ball is the effect.

So let’s narrow this down. We’re going to look at the three years since the Todd Haley, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown offense broke up. In that offense the run game and short passing game were incredibly interchangeable with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. From 2014-2017 the Steelers were 20-10 when they failed to run for 100 yards, a 66.6% win rate. Todd Haley countered a lot of run defense with quick routes to Bell and Brown.

We are also going to look at results based on the halftime score margin. If the game is close at the half, the offense still benefits from running the ball, if you have a lead, even more so.

In the last 3 seasons, the Steelers have been tied or leading at the half in 30 of their 48 games. In those games, when the Steelers run the ball for more than 100 yards they are 14-0-1. When they run the ball for less than 100 yards, they are 6-9. When the Steelers are leading at the half, and establish the run, they win. When they don’t, they are more likely to lose the game than stay on top. That number is heavily based on defense as well. In 2020 with Ben Roethlisberger and a top 3 defense, the Steelers went 3-1 in those games. In 2018 with Ben Roethlisberger and a not great defense they were 1-5. In 2019 they were 2-3.

A key takeaway here is the Steelers failed to run effectively and lost the game 30% of the time when they were tied or leading at the half. The 50% of the games when they did run the ball, they were undefeated.

Taking a lead into the half, and failing to establish the run puts the game almost entirely in the hands of the defense, the offense is no longer driving the win. And that has been happening far too often, a full 50% of the time the Steelers lead at the half.

For the Steelers, who no longer have an Antonio Brown level wide receiver, running the ball is critical to securing wins. With a strong running game and a great defense, a halftime lead is untouchable, with a run game and a mediocre defense the Steelers were 6-0-1 in 2018 when they had a lead at the half and established the run.

But what about when they are trailing?

In the 18 games the Steelers trailed at the half they failed to run for 100 yards in 15 of them. They are 6-9 in those games. With Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers are 5-4, without him they are 1-5.

When the Steelers trail at the half, and don’t establish the run, the game is almost entirely in the hands of the quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger is really good in those situations, always has been. But even with Roethlisberger and a top 3 defense, the Steelers were 3-3 in 2020, Ben Roethlisberger can still do it, he just can’t do it 6 times a season. When the Steelers are able to run for 100+ yards when trailing at the half, they are 3-0 in the last three seasons. Including 2 wins in 2019. Which should tell you something.

The Steelers were 3-5 in 2019 when trailing at the half, they were behind in half their games, and they won the two when they still could run the ball. Which brings me to the reason establishing the run matters.

Running the ball sets up the passing game. When you have Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback you don’t need the run to help the passing game, but the killer B’s are gone, and the offense needs that run game.

The Steelers failed to reach 100 rushing yards in 10 of their 16 regular season games in 2020. They were 6-4 in those games, and had a TD to INT ratio of 22-9. In the six games they ran for 100+ they won all 6 and had a TD to INT ratio of 13-2.

It’s not that complicated. When Ben Roethlisberger was looking like a dark-horse MVP candidate the Steelers were running the ball. When he looked like he was done and needed to walk away, the Steelers were not running the ball.

So no matter what the stats say for long term NFL league wide trends, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to run the ball. They are saying the same thing themselves, hopefully they pull it off.