Keeping up with the Mahomes'

Everyone knows the saying "keeping up with the Jones'." The neighbors mow their yard, so you have to mow yours. The neighbors paint their house, so you have to paint yours. The neighbors have a new car in the driveway, so you need one in yours. The same thing happens in the NFL, but it's not just about status. It's really more of an arms race, but it's often referred to in terms similar to "keeping up with the Jones'." Especially lately, it seems like all anyone can talk about is "with all the elite QB's in the AFC, how are the Steelers going to be able to keep up with the Mahomes' and Allens' and Burrows' and their high scoring offenses?"

The easy and obvious answer is to try to get better than the Chiefs and Bills and Bengals and doing what the Chiefs and Bengals and Bills do best, and everyone wants their own Mahomes to enable them to do that, but the smart answer is to beat the system not the opponent. You're not going to win by getting better at winning shootouts; you're going to win by making the game something other than what your opponent is good at. In a league where possessions are more likely than ever to turn into points, the key isn't to scrap and claw to be ever so slightly better than others at turning possessions into points, it's to make sure you have more possessions than your opponent.

In basketball, scoring is so easy that at the end of close games teams will willingly commit fouls and concede easy scoring chances in order to try to gain extra possessions. Football is trending that way, only there's no way to foul to get the ball back. Even in the last Super Bowl, as high scoring as it ended up being, it ultimately didn't come down to the Chiefs' ability to score at will. It came down to preventing the Eagles from having a chance to do so. Jerrick McKinnon was literally trying not to score at the end of the game in order to maintain possession, avoiding the end zone and settling for a FG rather than a TD just to milk a little more time off the clock.

The importance of the last possession was a trend overall last year as we saw a record breaking number of games decided by one score. Of course you still need to be able to turn possessions into points and you can't obviously just take that for granted, but with highly efficient passing offenses and a great amount of parity, football is increasingly turning into a contest to see who can get the last possession.

The point of all this is that when it comes to the NFL arms race and keeping up with opposing offenses, the Steelers' less explosive offensive identity isn't behind the times, it's ahead of the curve, or at least on the cutting edge. By playing ball control offense and preventing opponents from doing so, the Steelers are positioning themselves to get that last possession of the half and last possession of the game to tilt the playing field and scoreboard in our favor. They're also taking advantage of the fact that running the football has never been easier or more effective in the NFL, and that gets to the next point.

While using ball control to manage the clock and gain a possession advantage is a powerful "cheat code" that can allow you to some degree to beat the system, you still have to be good at the game. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl as I said because they're good at maintaining possession as well as being highly efficient at turning possessions into points. The Steelers are smart to be looking to build an offense that can possess the football, but they're of course going to also have to be really good at efficiently turning those possessions into points. Fortunately, rushing efficiency is basically at an all time high in the league right now, and that's what makes it doubly smart to try to build an elite rushing offense. It remains to be seen if the Steelers can actually execute a rushing offense at an elite level, or even if rushing efficiency is yet high enough to compete with passing efficiency, but the idea is a good one and it certainly could work if they can pull it off.

The bottom line is the Steelers don't need to compete with Mahomes and Allen and Burrow in a shootout, they just need to be more efficient. If the Steelers can score a TD on a higher percentage of their drives, it won't matter whether that amounts to 42 points or 14, especially if they're not just swapping possessions evenly with their opponents but controlling the ball and the clock to maintain an edge in number of possessions and opportunities to score. Running the football is a slower way to score and won't give your offense the 30 points per game an elite passing offense can register, but if you can run the ball better than your opponent can pass the ball, and play better defense, you're still going to win.

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