By all indications, the Pittsburgh Steelers are focused on improving their league-worst 1,351 rushing yards during the 2021 season. The Steelers have taken several steps showing they are working towards an improved run game, the first of which was team president Art Rooney II stating the team will get back to running the ball. Between using a first-round draft pick on a running back and making changes in both offensive coordinator and offensive line positions, the running game should look different this season.
But if the Steelers truly are dedicated to running the ball more in 2021, will it be that easy to tell?
The reason I ask this question is because game situation can greatly affect how often a team runs the football. If a team has a substantial lead late in the game, they can rack up rushing attempts as they work towards running out the clock and holding on to the ball. On the contrary, if a team is battling from behind as time is winding down, they are willing to put the ball into the air on almost every play in order to fight their way back into the game.
For these reasons, it may be difficult to see if the Steelers are running the ball more early on in the season. Simply looking at the rushing totals may not give a full picture of the story.
So where should Steelers fans look to see if they are dedicated to sticking with the run? I have one place which could be a good indicator if the Steelers are really going to be sold on continuing to establish a running game…
Third quarter rushing attempts.
Before getting into the stats as to why this would be somewhere to check for the Steelers, I’ll break down the philosophy. First, it is very rare that an NFL game is so far out of hand the team cannot stick with an adjusted game plan coming out of halftime based on the game situation. If running the ball is what a team likes to do, even being down three scores they could still look to establish the run early in the third quarter.
Additionally, when a team comes out on the first couple drivers of the game, there is a good indication of what they are trying to do. When it comes to the first drive or two of the second half, an offense is basically saying what they believe will work using the data from the first half. If a team comes out chuck and the ball down the field in the third quarter, it’s because they have drawn the conclusion that running the ball will not get the job done as effectively as passing.
When it comes to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, they ran the ball in the third quarter less than any other quarter all season. Of the 373 attempts in 2020, only 78 occurred in the third quarter. As for the other quarters, the Steelers ran the ball 97 times in the first quarter, 93 times in the second quarter, and 105 times in the fourth quarter. Even if taking out the quarterback kneel downs which occurred in the second and fourth quarters, the third quarter still had the fewest amount of attempts of any quarter for the Steelers running the ball. The Steelers were ranked 31st in the NFL in third-quarter rushing attempts as 15 of the the 32 teams had at least 100 rushes in the first 15 minutes following halftime.
Of course, it takes a team effectively running the ball in the first half to come out with a game plan to continue to run the ball. If the Steelers are getting nothing done on the ground in the first half, it would be foolish to come out of halftime and simply run the ball for the sake of doing it. The exception would be to identify something within the running game which may not have worked in the first half and make an adjustment to fix it in the third quarter.
In 2020, the Pittsburgh Steelers were quick to abandon the run and go strictly to a short passing game in order to have the most success. Unfortunately, it also made them easier to defend at times. To add an improved running game into the mix would definitely be beneficial to the Steelers, hence why they dedicated certain moves in the offseason to help remedy the situation.
If the Steelers are truly dedicated to run in the football both more frequently and effectively, the best place to see if they are continuing to believe in what they can do running the football is if they are continuing to do so in the third quarter. If the Steelers halftime adjustment is to dedicate more plays to the passing game even before game circumstances dictate them to do so, it would be a fairly large indication that they don’t believe the run game is at the level where it should be. Even if the Steelers were to struggle to run the ball in the first half of a given game, if they are able to tweak something they think will work in the second half and keep pounding the ball, it would show there is more confidence in the rushing attack than there was in 2020.