clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tweaking 4 fan narratives of the Steelers using statistics

It’s not that some of the narratives are completely wrong, they just need a slight adjustment.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Here we go again being told how what we are thinking about the Steelers is wrong…

Not this time.

Well, may be a little. Simply pointing out that some of the things being said by fans are not entirely accurate based on the data seems to be taken differently depending on if a team is winning or losing. When a team is losing several games in a row, everything bad seems to be magnified. Oftentimes when a team is winning some of their inadequacies get overlooked based on record. Bringing things back to reality, whether by quelling the enthusiasm or squashing the negativity, can be helpful.

In this case, I’m taking a few statements that I’ve seen or heard, many of which come from BTSC staff members in either the spoken or written word, and giving them some slight adjustments in order to have them more accurately align with the statistical data available from the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers. Some of these things will just have a slight tweak while others get more of an overhaul. Regardless, isn’t it better to base our opinions on things that can be backed up using the data?

For this exercise, I am going to be taking four different statements about something ailing the 1–2 Pittsburgh Steelers and tweaking them to align with the numbers. I will start out with a statement of a narrative I have heard since the Steelers previous game and then I will tweak that narrative based on the stats by using the strikethrough function to eliminate words and italics to note words that have been added.

Statement: Mitch Trubisky doesn't throw the ball downfield.

While I’ve heard some estimate Trubisky‘s deep passes to be as few as four or five on the season, this isn’t the case. In the statistics recorded by Pro Football Focus (PFF), Trubisky has thrown 19 deep passes, passes that are 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which has him tied for the second most in the NFL through Week 3. When looking at how this number compares to how many passes he’s thrown overall, 18.4% of passes Trubisky has thrown this season have been for 20 yards or more. This percentage has him fourth in the NFL of all quarterbacks throwing at least 10 passes.

Tweak: Mitch Trubisky doesn’t throw the ball downfield well.

The reason some Steelers fans may not recall Trubisky pushing the ball down the field very much through three games is because these plays haven’t exactly been memorable. Of the 19 passes, Trubisky has only completed six of them which is a 31.6% completion percentage. Through three weeks of the season, this has Trubisky ranked 22nd in the league. While this ranking doesn’t look great, it is still ahead of players such as Tom Brady, Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Burrow. But those players haven’t thrown as many deep passes. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how many shots the Steelers take down the field if they are not connecting on them enough to make it worthwhile.

Statement: The offensive line is only pass blocking well because they are throwing quickly.

For those fans who think the Steelers are throwing the ball quickly like they did last season, it’s not really that close. Of all quarterbacks who have thrown at least 10 passes this year, Mitch Trubisky is ranked 15th in regards of the most time on all dropbacks at 2.69 seconds according to PFF. To put this number into perspective, Ben Roethlisberger‘s number in 2021 was 2.26 seconds. On plays where Trubisky has been sacked, it has occurred 4.72 seconds after the snap of the ball which is the third-highest number in the NFL only behind Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert. So for those who are thinking the ball is coming out faster than other offenses, it’s actually pretty much in the middle of the pack on regular passing plays.

Tweak: The offensive line is only pass blocking well because they are throwing quickly.

So if passing the ball quickly is not the issue, is it that the offensive line is blocking well? Actually, it is. Of the Steelers five sacks surrendered in 2022, none have been attributed to the offensive line as three were attributed to Trubisky as he spent too much time outside the pocket, and the other two were given to Najee Harris on blitz pick ups according to PFF. The only other team who has not given up a sack by any of their offensive linemen this season is the Kansas City Chiefs. But it’s not just sacks. PFF uses statistics for sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries. For them, quarterback hits are a separate category from sacks as they only count it as one or the other (meaning a sack is not also a quarterback hit). The same thing can be said about quarterback hurries. When looking at the total pressures given up by the Steelers offensive line, the total of all three categories comes to 11 through three games which is the fewest in the NFL. The next fewest pressures are the Atlanta Falcons with 15 and the only other team with less than 20 are the Philadelphia eagles with 17. So the offensive line is getting the job done and it is not because the ball was coming out so quickly.

Statement: The Steelers need to run the ball better to be more successful with play action.

Through three games of the 2022 season, Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky has the greatest difference in his completion percentage between play action and non-play action passes according to PFF. Trubisky has completed 33.6% more of his play action passes than he does his regular dropbacks. With a completion percentage of 88.2% on play action, Trubisky is third in the NFL and he is tied for fourth in yards per attempt at 10.4 yards. When the Steelers are not using play action, Trubisky‘s completion percentage is 54.7% which is 30th in the NFL and his yards per attempt is 4.5 yards which is 34th. Yes, that’s really 34th out of quarterbacks from 32 teams.

Tweak: The Steelers need to run the ball better to be more successful with play action.

In case you didn’t realize it, I’m not touching the Steelers ability to run the ball at all in this issue. If they can run better it will help with play action passing. But as stated in the previous section, the Steelers are already seeing success with play action passes with their current running game. The problem is how often they do it. The Steelers have thrown 17 passes through three games using play action compared to 86 where they have not. Trubisky’s 17 passes from play action has him tied for 28th among NFL quarterbacks. The Steelers simply aren’t using play action as much as other NFL teams. While it could be that the Steelers simply aren’t running as many pass plays because of their lack of time of possession, Trubisky ranks 10th in non-play action pass attempts. With only 17.1% of the Steelers drop backs coming as play action, it has Trubisky ranked 27th in the NFL. While running play action more frequently may not make it as effective as it is now, the fact that there’s such a discrepancy in its success versus the amount of time it’s used shows that it’s something the Steelers should at least attempt to do more.

Statement: Diontae Johnson’s drops are a problem again.

When it comes to tracking drops, they are not an official NFL statistic. I use two different references for the stats in Pro Football Reference (PFR) and Pro Football Focus (PFF). Both of these sources have the Steelers with four total drops in 2022. The problem is, only two of them are in agreement in regards to the players. Both sources have Diontae Johnson with one drop and Pat Freiermuth with one. PFF has the additional two drops attributed to George Pickens. As for PFR, they have an additional drop attributed to Pat Freiermuth and another one given to Jaylen Warren with no drops by George Pickens. Either way, Diontae Johnson only has one drop attributed to him in 2022. It should also be noted that the two sources do not have the same drop attributed to Johnson has PFF has his drop in Week 3 but PFR has his drop in Week 1. While there appear to be more passes that Johnson possibly should have been able to come down with, they weren’t necessarily considered drops by either source.

Tweak: Diontae Johnson’s drops are could become a problem again.

Since Diontae Johnson only has one drop this season, it’s not something to be overly concerned about yet. But moving forward, it’s something that could quickly spiral out of hand with one already under his belt.

Rather than go on with this topic too much, I have a different tweak I would like to have in regards to Diontae Johnson but looking at something else that’s more concerning…

Tweak: Diontae Johnson’s drops yards after the catch are a problem again.

When looking at the advance statistics, one stat that could be concerning is Diontae Johnson’s yards after the catch with his 21 receptions this season. Once again both sources are not in agreement on Johnson’s yards after the catch as they are not an official NFL statistic, but neither of them show anything overly impressive. PFR has Diontae Johnson with only 8 yards after the catch on the season with -2 yards in Week 1 and 5 yards each in Week 2 and Week 3. As for PFF, they have the breakdown even worse as they have Johnson with -2 yards after the catch this year with -1 coming in Week 1, 5 coming in Week 2, but -6 coming in Week 3. While the big discrepancy from Week 3 likely comes from the final play of the game, even if Johnson has the higher number from the two sources he would still have the lowest yards after the catcher per reception (YAC/R) on the Steelers. Although this is not good as Johnson has averaged at least 4.5 YAC/R each year of his career, it’s not necessarily him who is to blame as the route called and the ball being delivered could also be a factor.

So there are some tweaks to narratives that some are sharing about the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers. Whether or not you are a person who has bought into any of these previous thoughts is irrelevant as I hope you now feel better equipped having the data to support the correct claims.

For an even more detailed breakdown of the statistics, check out the latest episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: