The Pittsburgh Steelers limped into the bye week with only two wins. One win was the stunning victory over the defending AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, and the other a victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6.
There are some easy factors to point to their early season struggles. First, the Steelers toughest part of their season was in the first half, with five of their eight games coming against eventual playoff teams, including two teams that are playing in the Championship round. The Steelers record was 2-3 against those playoff teams though. The Steelers would end the season with a 3-5 record against playoff teams. With those wins the Steelers could afford to go 7-2 against teams that would miss the playoffs and end up 10-7, a record that would have put them in the playoffs.
The problem is the Steelers went 0-3 against teams that would finish the season with a losing record in the first half of the season, before going 6-0 against non-playoff teams in the second half.
So what was the difference? In Weeks 2-4 the Steelers lost to the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Cleveland Browns by a combined 19 points (-6.3 per game). The second half they would beat teams with similar records by an average of 7.5 points per game. That’s a two-touchdown flip in the scoring. And the teams weren’t that different. Outside of the 4-12-1 Colts, the Steelers played one team with 8 wins, six games against teams that would end up 7-10, and one game against a 6-11 team. These weren’t drastically different teams.
The narrative that the schedule got easier explains the blowout losses to Buffalo and Philadelphia, it doesn’t explain the flip in record and scoring differential in games against non-playoff teams.
On The Surface
If you look at those games, the Steelers averaged 17 points a game, and gave up 23.3 points a game in their three losses, they scored an average of 21.3 points a game and gave up 13.8 points a game. A 4-point increase from the offense and a 9.5 decrease in points allowed by the defense. Those numbers point to a big improvement on defense and a mild improvement on offense leading to the change. And that lines up with a stat that I love, the T.J. Watt effect.
The Steelers were 0-3 against non-playoff teams without T.J. Watt (1-6 overall) and 6-0 against non-playoff teams with T.J. Watt (8-2 overall). That lines up with previous seasons where the Steelers consistently win at a top of the league rate with T.J. Watt and win less than anyone else when he is out.
When you look at yards, the Steelers averaged 282.7 yards a game in their three losses, and 343.5 yards a game in their six second half wins. If you project those averages over a season, that’s the difference between the 15th ranked team in yards gained and the 31st ranked teams in yards gained. On defense, the Steelers gave up 417.3 yards per game in their three losses and gave up 249.8 yards per game in their six second-half wins. That’s the difference between being the best defense in the league by a good margin, and being the worst defense in the league by a good margin.
On the surface, the case is closed. In the first half of the season, the Steelers defense without T.J. Watt was bad, and then T.J. Watt returned and it was great. The offense was bad and then was less bad.
But when you dig deeper there’s much more going on here.
Doing Stats Right
Yards per game and total yards rankings will line up in every case except the 2022 Bengals and Bills, who played one less game than every other team in the NFL. The Bills defense allowed the fewest yards of any team in the NFL this season. But they also played one less game. When you look at per-game stats, the Bills rank 8th in yards per game allowed. Still top ten, but not the best in the NFL. You can’t look at the Bills or Bengals seasons as equal to other teams seasons in counting stats because they only played 16/17ths as many games.
The same problem exists in comparing one game to another game. Each game has an unknown number of possessions, and every possession is an opportunity to gain yards and score points. No team can score more than 8 points with a possession, and the only points you can score without possession of the football is a safety. In the same way with only 100 yards on a field, there is a limit to how many yards you can gain in a single possession. The Bills defense shows how impactful the difference having 16 games instead of 17 can make, a 5.9% difference in games played is the difference between 1st and 8th for their defense. But possessions per game can vary even more.
For example, in the Week 9 matchup with the Bengals, the Steelers had 13 possessions, four weeks later against the Panthers, the Steelers had 9 possessions. That’s a 31% difference in opportunity to score. And it goes for both teams as almost every game the two teams are roughly equal in possessions, the vast majority of games see teams within one possession of their opponent, and I’ve never seen a game with a difference of three. The Steelers had 177 total possessions in 2022, their opponents had 177 total possessions in 2022. They tend to balance out.
This is why I prefer per drive stats, especially when there is a big difference in number of possessions between two games or teams. Similar to how any discussion of team yards and points for the 2022 season has to be couched in per game stats or the numbers for the Bengals and Bills will not be relevant, a big difference in possessions will greatly alter the total stats, no matter what the teams were actually doing.
The Example I gave earlier, the Week 11 Bengals game having 13 drives and the Week 15 Panthers game having 9 is a great example. The Steelers offense scored 30 points in Week 11, achieving Todd Haley’s dream for exactly one game in 2022. It was clearly their best offensive game of the season, right? Meanwhile in Week 14 the Steelers scored 24 points, barely above league average.
But when you look at points per possession, how many points you scored divided by the opportunities you had, 30/13 is 2.3 points per possession, while 24/9 is 2.7 points per possession.
The Steelers offense was far more effective against the Carolina Panthers than they were against the Bengals, even if final stats say otherwise.
The key to remember is that possessions aren’t just a one-sided stat. In the Week 11 loss the Bengals also had 13 drives. The Panthers had only 8 in Week 15. The more drives you have, the more chances to score you have, but that also means your opponent has more chances to score. If you think 2.3 points on 13 drives is better than 2.7 over 9, imagine the opposition averaging 2.5 points per drive.
The reason we are talking about this is the biggest change between the first half and second half of the season was the number of possessions per game. Before the bye week the Steelers had 88 possessions, and after the bye they had 89. The difference is the Steelers played one more game after the bye. The difference in drives per game from the first half to the second half of the season is 10.1%, significantly bigger than the 5.9% difference in games played for the Bills and Bengals. If you can see that per game stats are important when two teams play one less game, you should also see why per drive stats matter a lot when comparing the first and second half of the 2022 Steelers season.
Beneath the Surface
The reason for the difference in drives is not hard to show. Here’s the Steelers rankings in per drive stats for each time period.
Total drives (pace): 12th.
Yards per drive: 31st.
Time per drive: 20th.
Scoring percentage: 31st.
Turnover percentage: 24th.
Touchdown percentage: 32nd.
Field goal percentage: 14th.
Interception percentage: 32nd.
Scoring chance: 28th.
Scoring - Turnovers: 31st.
Total drives (pace): 30th.
Yards per drive: 3rd.
Time per drive: 1st.
Scoring percentage: 8th.
Turnover percentage: 3rd.
Touchdown percentage: 17th.
Field goal percentage: 1st.
Interception percentage: 6th.
Scoring chance: 2nd.
Scoring - Turnovers: 3rd.
The first stat is just the total number of drives, or pace. The more drives you have, the higher the scoring should be on both offense and defense. The first half of the season the Steelers played at an above average pace, playing more drives than most teams. The only other stat that was better than 20th was field goal percentage, but the Touchdown percentage was so low the Steelers were still second worst in the percentage of drives that resulted in a score.
Then look at the second half. The only stats that aren’t top ten are pace, where the Steelers had the third fewest drives over the last nine games, and Touchdown percentage. Don’t forget that, we’ll get back to it.
Look at how many key stats the Steelers weren’t just top ten, but top three on offense. Yards per drive, time per drive, third fewest turnovers, and first in Field Goal percentage. The last two stats are my own metrics. Scoring chance is just how many drives ended with either a touchdown or field goal attempt. It adds missed and blocked field goals into scoring percentage. The Steelers ranked 28th in the NFL in the first half, 2nd in the second half of the season. The Steelers were one of the very best offenses in the NFL at moving the ball into field goal range. They ate clock, they moved the ball and got into field goal range at a better rate than even the San Francisco 49ers.
Scoring minus Turnovers is a stat that just combines two important numbers, subtracting the number of turnovers from the number of scores. Turnovers are very bad, and greatly increase your opponent’s odds of scoring on the ensuing drive. A kickoff is as good as a punt, so scoring is always a great result. It’s a stat that usually lines up with playoff success.
All four teams left in the playoffs rank in the top 7 in scoring minus turnover percentage in the second half of the season. The Steelers ranked ahead of all four of them. Those four teams also rank in the top 7 in touchdown percentage, the Steelers ranked 17th.
When Art Rooney II stated that he brought back Matt Canada because of the second half improvement, and the biggest place to improve was scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goal attempts, you can see why he would say that now. Because really, the difference between the Steelers offense and the 49ers offense, when you look purely at results, is finishing drives with touchdowns. I say that is the only real difference, but I also understand how huge of a difference a touchdown makes compared to a field goal.
Impact on Defense
So the offense controlled the clock and moved the ball better, if they still aren’t scoring touchdowns how much does that even matter? The answer to that is simple. The Steelers offense kept possessions down and dominated time of possession, and the Steelers defense with Watt back forced more 3 and outs early in games.
Those two factors combined resulted in the Steelers defense playing the fewest snaps of any defense in the NFL. Which naturally should result in better defensive play later in the game, which shows up in the number of game sealing defensive stands the Steelers had in the second half of the season. But perhaps the best way to show how fewer defensive snaps benefitted the defense is this stat: before the bye week the Steelers averaged 20 snaps a game with Cameron Heyward off the field. After the bye week, that number dropped to 11 snaps a game on average. The last 5 games of the season that number dropped even more to 7 snaps a game.
T.J. Watt being back made the defense more effective, but the offense controlling the game helped mitigate the Steelers weak defensive depth. The defense did improve a lot, but the surface level view that the offense improved slightly and the defense made a massive leap isn’t accurate. The offense improved a lot, and the defense improved a good amount as well.
And the truth is the defensive improvements helped the offense and the offensive improvements helped the defense. It’s a team sport, that’s how it works. But it is important to note how important the Steelers turnaround on offense was to the end of the season, and why Art Rooney II decided to keep Matt Canada for another season.