The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2021 season as a playoff team, but made it no further than playing one extra game. While some fans looked at the season as an unexpected success, others viewed it as a major disappointment. Whether or not expectations going into the season were met, the bigger question is if the team out-executed their play on the field.
So what am I actually asking? There are a number of people who felt the Steelers should have won more games with the lineup they put on the field. While this group may be small, there’s also another group which felt the Steelers’ record over-performed their actual on-field product.
To try to better quantify this, I’m going to compare the Steelers 2021 finish with where they ranked throughout the regular season. By looking at where the Steelers finished in the standings, as well as where they ranked in key team statistics, it could paint a better picture to how the season played out.
To start, it must first be determined where the Steelers ultimately ranked in the standings for 2021. This is actually a pretty simple process because the numbers line up easily. The Steelers finished the 2021 regular season as the 13th-placed team in the NFL. They had the 13th best record. They made the Top 14 by making the playoffs, but by not escaping Wild Card Weekend they did not move into the top eight. The Steelers also have the 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, which is 13 places up from the end of the round. The only team with a worse record than the Steelers to make the 2021 postseason was the Philadelphia Eagles at 9-8. Since Philadelphia did not make it past Wild Card Weekend either, they are the 14th ranked team. The other teams eliminated the first weekend of the postseason— the Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys, and Cardinals— all had a better record than the Steelers.
Long story short, the Steelers finished 13th in the NFL in 2021.
So where did the Steelers rank in various team statistics for finish out the season? First, let’s look at the offense:
Total Yards: 23rd (5,361)
Points: 21st (343)
Rushing yards: 29th (1,583)
Passing yards: 15th (3,778)
As you can see, even the best category the Steelers finished offensively still did not reach where they placed to finish the season. In fact, looking at some other key statistics, the only one which really made the Top 10 for the Steelers was being in a tie for tenth for the number of turnovers surrendered on offense (20). Otherwise, nothing on the offense reached the Top 13.
Since this is the case, it must be that the Steelers defense was pulling the weight for the offense as they went through the regular season. Here are the difference of ranks in the same categories:
Total Yards: 24th (6,139)
Points: 20th (398)
Rushing yards: 32nd (2,483)
Passing yards: 9th (3,656)
Wow. The defense didn’t really have much of a difference from the offense. While they placed one spot higher in points than what the offense did, they were one spot lower in total yards. The only category, both offense and defense, which did better than their 13th overall ranking was passing yards surrendered, which was ninth in the NFL. The biggest reason this also comes into play is because of where the Steelers led the NFL in a major team statistic of sacking the quarterback (55).
So, how did the Steelers rank so poorly and yet finished 13th in the NFL in the standings? Is it possible they were playing better than statistics showed?
Let’s take it one step further. Love them, hate them, or be completely indifferent on the subject, let’s look at the Steelers’ ranks according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades in all the team categories:
Overall: 24th (69.8)
Total offense: 28th (65.1)
Passing: 29th (56.2)
Pass blocking: 15th (68.3)
Receiving: 28th (67.2)
Rushing: 24th (71.7)
Run blocking: 24th (60.1)
Total defense: 14th (66.0)
Run defense: 13th (55.7)
Tackling: 15th (58.8)
Pass rush: 3rd (81.9)
Pass coverage: 24th (56.0)
Special teams: 25th (73.4)
According to PFF, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished nine spots higher in the standings than what they ranked overall as a team. On offense the only statistic were they were within 10 spots of their final standings was being ranked 15th in pass blocking. On defense, things were much closer with total defense and tackling coming in just behind where the Steelers finished, run defense coming in the exact same at 13th, despite giving up the most rushing yards in the NFL, the pass rush blowing it out of the water, and pass coverage coming in as the weakest spot on defense. Even the special teams finished 12 spots below where the Steelers finished in the standings.
So how did the Steelers finish 13th in the standings with the team they put on the field? Is it that the Steelers pass rush made that much of a difference? Did the Steelers play just well enough to win in their victories, and play awful in their losses? Did this team simply over-perform in the standings compared to the product they put on the field?
One thing which can’t be chalked up to the Steelers finishing 13th is having an easy schedule. Being ranked as the most difficult schedule going into the season, based on 2020 results, the Steelers played all but one of the teams who represented the AFC in the playoffs as well as the top seed in the NFC. So, if the thought is the Steelers only won some of the games because of their schedule, the numbers don’t appear to match up.
So what do you think? How did the Steelers finish 13th in the NFL and qualify for the postseason with a team which did not perform well either statistically or according to PFF grades? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.