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Would stepping back in one area to improve another be worth it for the Steelers?

Many things in the NFL come as a tradeoff in order to improve. But is the trade always worth it?

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Things do not work out perfectly in the National Football league. From one year to the next, every team is hoping to improve their team, both with specialized goals and in overall performance. Even the Super Bowl champion cannot become complacent and think that the status quo will continue to be good enough.

In most cases in life, improvements in one area come at a sacrifice in another. While an ideal situation would be to simply improve everywhere across the board, in reality it is much more difficult to do so. If an NFL team wants to increase the number of interceptions, they might sacrifice the number of receiving yards they surrender as defensive backs may take more chances at trying to get their hands on the football. If an offensive line needs to improve their pass blocking and bring in players in order to do so, they could be sacrificing their skill in blocking for the run game.

While it would be great if the team could simply be the best in the NFL at one thing and continue to get better at everything else, it doesn’t always work out that way. Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers are doing their best to improve certain parts of their game, so are 31 other NFL teams. So should teams simply be satisfied with what they do well and try to minimize weaker aspects of their game, or should they try to become more balanced?

For the 2020 to Pittsburgh Steelers, I’m going to look at two aspects of the defense, one in which they were the best in the NFL and the other in which they were the worst. In looking at these two things, would it be worth sacrificing the success of one in order to improve the failure of the other?

By now, you might have realized that I’m speaking about the Steelers pass rush versus their run defense. The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL with 55 sacks. The very same defense was last in the NFL in rushing yards surrendered per game at 146.1 yards and rushing yards per attempt of 4.99 Y/A. While those two run stats generally run hand-in-hand, they don’t necessarily have to be the same ranking as the number of rushing attempts a team sees throughout the season can vary things slightly. But for the Steelers, they were last in both categories so we’ll group them together for this exercise.

While these two items do not have to necessarily be trading one for the other, it could be possible to go with that philosophy. The Steelers could insist on filling their defensive front with players more apt to stop the run which could, in turn, sacrifice their ability to rush the passer. Although it does not appear the Steelers have gone this route, it’s just something to remember.

So here is the ultimate question: Would Steelers’ fans be satisfied sacrificing the number of sacks in order to reduce the rushing yards? Rather than being the best in the NFL at one thing and the worst at the other, would being average it both be a reasonable trade?

Here is how the numbers work out based on the 2021 season. If the Steelers went from first in sacks down to 16th, they would see a reduction of almost one sack per game as they would finish the season with 39 sacks. When it comes to improved run defense, the Steelers would go from giving up 146.1 yards a game to 113.6 yards per game and the yards per carry being decreased from 4.99 Y/A to 4.32 Y/A.

Would this tradeoff be worth it?

What if the Steelers did a complete flip-flop of these statistical categories? Fans would likely be ecstatic to see the Steelers giving up only 86.4 yards per game and 3.65 Y/A. But would they be satisfied with only 18 sacks on the season, barely averaging one per game? The fact this total was less than what T.J. Watt had himself in 2021, I’m not sure Steelers’ Nation would find it acceptable to get home against a quarterback that rarely in order to keep opponents to under 90 yards rushing a game.

Although not the focus of this exercise, getting the best of both worlds is not out of the realm of possibilities. In fact, in 2020 the Steelers had 56 sacks in 16 games and surrendered 111.4 yards per game on the ground with a 4.31 Y/A. Based on those numbers, the Steelers would get their average run defense while still maintaining the league’s best pass rush. So the answer of “get better at run defense and keep the same pass rush” isn’t a crazy thought.

If it came down to an either/or situation, how much would you feel the Steelers should be willing to sacrifice rushing the quarterback if it meant an improved run defense? Are the Steelers on the right side of the imbalance by being great at getting sacks but struggle to stop the run, or would they be better off the other way around? Make sure you leave your thoughts in the comments below.