There’s a new narrative in Steelers Nation, born over the last three years, but often discussed as though it’s a long-term problem. It says that the Pittsburgh Steelers tend to collapse in the late season.
This is built upon a real observation. The past three seasons, the Steelers were in position for deep playoff runs, before bottoming out in the closing sprint.
The last three years
That’s a disturbing trend, and three years is enough consistency to take it seriously. Professional wet blankets like Mark Madden have noted it more than once, but so have more mainstream writers, like Gerry Dulac or USA Today’s Jarrett Bell. It’s becoming troubling for those of us who trust the team.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. In fact, the five years prior to 2018, the story was quite different:
The previous five years
Some years a team finishes strong and some years it doesn’t — that’s not terribly unique. But the consistency of these trends is remarkable. This was a team you could count on to start cautiously every year, and then finish like tigers. And now it’s a team you can count on to dominate at mid-season, but then close with a whimper.
So what changed?
We might be tempted to blame Ben Roethlisberger’s passing, since his two seasons of highest passing attempts came in 2018 and 2020 (he led the league both years). But don’t forget that the 2019 team suffered a similar fade, despite finishing 26th in passing attempts. Moreover, the Steelers were in the top 10 in attempts three times from 2013-17, and top 5 in passing yards every one of those years except 2013. So it’s probably not the passing game that’s the issue.
Maybe the problem was the defense, which trailed off in the season’s final month in 2020. That doesn’t really hold though either. The defense from 2013-17 averaged 12th in points and 14th in yards, while from 2018-20 they averaged 8th in points and 4th in yards. In other words, they are consistently stronger today than they were in those previous years. In particular, the Steelers have been the NFL’s best team (by far) at getting sacks and forcing turnovers for the last couple years — two areas in which they were quite inconsistent for the previous five or six. These metrics matter, but they clearly aren’t the answer.
The offensive line might also factor — after all, the 2013-17 stretch was coached by OL savant Mike Munchak, and was probably the strongest unit on the team. There’s some merit here, but let’s remember Munchak was still the line coach in 2018, and his line featured three Pro Bowlers, but the team still endured a 1-4 streak down the stretch. (I have to also acknowledge that the Steelers were the NFL’s best team from 2008-11, and fielded a spectacularly bad offensive line.)
So what’s been the problem? Well, there are two figures who arrived right around 2013 and left in 2018.
First was offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was hired in 2012. His offense was comfortably in place by 2013, and he was let go after 2017, while Randy Fichtner was promoted to OC in 2018.
Second was Le’Veon Bell, who was drafted in 2013 (and backed by DeAngelo Williams in 2015-16). Both were gone as of 2018.
Haley’s influence on the offense was mixed at times — I always thought he crafted a great game plan, but called a mediocre game in real-time — but the overall results were hard to miss: the Steelers became an offensive powerhouse during Haley’s tenure. But they also nearly lost their Hall of Fame quarterback to retirement after six years under Haley’s stewardship. I suspect there will be a lot to say about the transition from Fichtner to Matt Canada in 2021, but I’m not sure I’m the guy to say it. I simply don’t feel like I have enough info on Canada yet to gauge.
However, the influence of Le’Veon Bell is a little more in my wheelhouse.
Learning from 2013
The running back position has been devalued over the last decade or so. In fact, Bell’s miserable failure at “resetting the market” three years ago contributed to burying the position, financially. (He’s not helping his cause by trash-talking Andy Reid either.) But that doesn’t mean that runners are truly interchangeable, or unimportant to winning.
In 2012, the Steelers fielded the NFL’s #1 defense (1st in yards, 1st in passing, 2nd in rushing, 6th in points). They were still outstanding. They started that season 6-3, but Big Ben was injured in an overtime win over Kansas City, and missed the next three games, during which the Steelers sputtered to 1-2. When he returned, he wasn’t 100%, and the Steelers lost three straight close games, in which they committed seven turnovers and didn’t rush for 100 yards in any contest. Their top runners that season were Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards) and Isaac Redman (418 yards). Ben threw 26 touchdowns on the season, against only 8 interceptions, and their backup QB situation was probably the strongest in the league, with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich holding clipboards. Couple that with the powerful defense and veteran leadership, and this team really ought to have been able to weather an injury to Big Ben. And yet...
Flash forward to 2013, after Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert committed to Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round of the draft. Bell was injured in the preseason, and missed the first three games of the year. The Steelers went 0-3 during that stretch, averaging 51.7 yards rushing, led by Felix Jones, Dwyer, and someone called LaRod Stephens-Howling.
Once Bell joined the team in week 4, the season took a particular turn. The final 13 games saw the Steelers at 8-5 (for an 8-8 finish that nearly made the playoffs). In fact, their 6-2 second half was nearly 8-0, as Emmanuel Sanders dropped a potentially game-tying 2-point PAT in the final seconds of a loss to Baltimore, and Antonio Brown heartbreakingly stepped out of bounds on a Stanford-band conclusion against Miami. In other words, this team finished like a freight train.
I want to stress: Le’Veon Bell didn’t tear up the league in 2013. The Steelers averaged 94.5 yards rushing during his 11 games in uniform, which is hardly a league-leading number. Moreover, the Steelers passing game was more-or-less the same, averaging 258.7 without Bell, and 249.3 with him. The defense, meanwhile was actually worse in the winning stretch, with the rushing D almost identical (115.3 to 115.6 ypg), and the pass defense regressing tremendously (182.7 yards given up before Bell arrived; 230.6 yards given up after).
In other words, adding Bell was not akin to the Broncos adding Payton Manning, where they were suddenly an historic offense and Super Bowl favorite. Bell didn’t become Eric Dickerson and the Steelers didn’t become a run-first team. Rather, the Steelers suddenly had a running game that the defense had to respect, and that could deliver when needed. Bell could protect a lead, picking up first downs against a stacked box; he could convert third and short on the ground (or mid-level distances in the air); and defenses had to respect the line, freeing up big-play masters like Antonio Brown and eventually Martavis Bryant.
You can see these tendencies play out over the ensuing years.
In 2014, during a 27-24 win over Tennessee, Bell carried 33 times for 204 yards, on a day in which Big Ben was sacked 5 times and only threw for 207 yards. Two weeks later, in a rout over Cincinnati, Bell rushed for 185 yards, while also catching 6 passes for 50 more (and three total touchdowns), allowing the Steelers to turn a 4-pt fourth quarter deficit into a 41-21 victory.
In 2015, with Michael Vick under center during Roethlisberger’s injury stretch, Bell took the direct snap on the game’s final play against San Diego — a make-or-break moment, in which the Steelers needed to make that yard or lose. Of course, he made it. DeAngelo Williams later played the role as well. You might remember the 38-35 week 9 victory of Oakland for Antonio Brown’s 17 catch, 284 yard receiving performance. But Williams was a significant part of freeing up the passing game, as he rushed 27 times for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns.
In 2016, the Steelers averaged just 90.7 rushing yards over their 4-5 opening stretch. After consecutive losses to Baltimore and Dallas, in which the team rushed for 36 and 48 yards respectively, they recommitted to rushing, and went on a nine game winning streak (counting two playoff contests) in which they averaged 143.8 rushing yards. You might thnk the highlight was the playoff run, in which Bell set the Steelers playoff rushing record against Miami, then broke it the next week at Kansas City. But I’d point to the 27-20 week 14 win in the snow at Buffalo. Ben was off that game, hitting just 54.1% of his passes for 220 yards and zero TDs against three INTs. Brown only caught 5 passes that day for 78 yards. But Le’Veon Bell rushed 38 times for 236 yards and all three touchdowns.
Bell (or Williams) wasn’t the centerpiece of the team in most of these examples. It’s been Big Ben’s offense since about 2007, and Bell played alongside all-timers like Brown as well. But the running game didn’t have to be the centerpiece. It just had to be for real; it had to be ABLE to get the job done. In those years, Ben didn’t have to do it all and Bell didn’t have to do it all. There just had to be the threat.
When Bell refused to report in 2018, the Steelers marched forward with James Conner, who played admirably that season, rushing for 973 yards and making the Pro Bowl. But Conner’s output was inconsistent.
During the 2018 opening stretch, in which the Steelers went 7-2-1, the team surpassed 100 yards rushing six times, going 5-0-1 in those games. During their 2-4 closing stretch, the only 100 yard game that the Steelers posted was in their 17-10 upset win over New England, in which Jaylen Samuels rushed for the only 100 yard game of his entire life.
Looking more directly at those losses, the Steelers dropped a 24-17 clunker at Denver in which Big Ben passed for 452 yards, but James Conner could only muster 53 yards on the ground. The Steelers held a 17-10 lead midway through the third quarter, but couldn’t hold the lead.
Then there was the 33-30 home loss to the Chargers the following week, in which the Steelers led 23-7 at the half, and then managed to lose on a last second field goal. They rushed for just 65 yards on the day, despite holding a double-digit lead for nearly the entire third quarter.
You could see this potential early in the season as well. In week 4, the Steelers lost 26-14 to Baltimore. The halftime score was 14-14, but the Steelers were shut out in the second half, while the Ravens kicked four field goals. James Conner rushed 9 times for 19 yards on the day (other Steelers carried twice for zero yards). One wonders whether opposing coaches recognized that they didn’t need to respect the running game after performances like this.
I won’t go through 2019 and 2020 with that detail, but let’s say that the same trends hold. In 2020’s 11-0 start, they averaged 99.1 yards rushing, surpassing 90 yards on the ground seven times. In their 1-4 conclusion, they averaged 52.2 yards rushing per game, never reaching 90 in that whole stretch. Meanwhile, the passing game was more-or-less the same (247.5 in the opening run; 256.2 in the closing).
2019 is even more pronounced: the team opened 1-4 and closed 0-3, but went 7-1 mid-season. During that 7-1 stretch, they averaged 111.9 yards rushing, including all five 100 yard games the team recorded. During those 1-7 bookends, they averaged 69.5 yards on the ground. (The passing yards are, stunningly, the same again: 184.1 when they were winning; 188.5 when they were losing.)
What does this all add up to?
I don’t think this is quite as simple as, “we have to run more!” Ben Roethlisberger was probably the best passer in the NFL in 2014-15, routinely throwing for 400+ yards and recording six-touchdown games back-to-back in ‘14. If he wouldn’t have gotten injured in 2015, I suspect both he and Antonio Brown would have broken all-time single season records.
Moreover, it’s not a big surprise that the running game will look better when the team is winning. Winning teams do things well, after all. And you bleed the clock when you’ve got a lead.
Instead, I think the implication is that the running game has to be a legitimate threat. You don’t need to become “a rushing team.” And you don’t need some particular number of carries or yards. But you need a runner that you can lean on when you need them; a guy the defense has to take seriously. A “decent” back who “can play in the NFL” is fine off the bench, but it isn’t enough for a team with championship aspirations. You can win plenty of games with James Conner, Benny Snell, Jon Dwyer, or Fitzgerald Toussaint, but if you want to get over the hump, you’re going to need a Le’Veon Bell (or DeAngelo Williams in a pinch).
And in 2021?
There are a million reasons to like Najee Harris. He’s a down-to-earth kid who hasn’t forgotten who he is, and is remarkably generous at giving back. (I absolutely love his draft-day story.) He’s also already a legendary worker with a highly productive record and a wildly flexible skillset. He’s going to be fun to root for.
But perhaps most importantly, he appears to be a back that opponents will have to take seriously. Whether he sets rookie records or leads the conference in anything is immaterial. He looks like the real thing as a back. And given that the Steelers have a first-rate defense, one of the league’s best kickers, a Hall of Fame quarterback, a deep and talented stable of pass-catchers, and a scrappy young offensive line, the biggest hole remaining appears to be behind Big Ben. If Harris is the guy he looks like, this might be a fun season after all.
No pressure, kid. Go Steelers.