The Steelers winning seven of their last nine games in 2022 didn’t just salvage the Steelers non-losing season streak and keep them in contention for a playoff spot through the end of the season, it also fueled hope in the hearts of Steeler fans that the team wasn’t far off from returning to a team that could be a threat in the playoffs, not just a team that could make a Wild Card game. When you look at statistics from the 2022 season, the Steelers path to victory stands out, and that makes it pretty easy to fill time while waiting for training camp by pondering how feasible it is to replicate that same path to success. Let’s look at the stats that stand out.
The Steelers forced 23 turnovers and committed 19 turnovers in 2022. That +4 turnover margin is good for a top 10 ranking in turnover differential. The Steelers nineteen turnovers committed ranks 4th in the NFL (5th in total turnovers, but 4th per game, because the Bengals played one fewer game and had one fewer turnover). The Steelers forced the 14th most turnovers, and did so in an interesting way. They intercepted 20 passes, tied for the most in the NFL, but only recovered 3 forced fumbles, the lowest total in the NFL. First in interceptions, last in fumbles, that’s not a common occurrence for a defense.
But when we look past the first 8 games of the season and look at the Steelers 7-2 run to a winning season, the numbers get even better. The Steelers forced 13 turnovers the last 9 games of the 2022 season, tied for the tenth most, while committing only 5 turnovers, tied for the 2nd fewest. That’s a very good +8 turnover differential over 9 games, good for third best in the NFL in that time, behind the San Francisco 49ers ridiculous +16 differential and the Lions +10. There were 6 teams with a turnover differential better than +5, one of those teams had a losing record (New England, 4-5) while the other 5 combined for a 38-6 record.
Forced turnovers are one of the stats that vary heavily from one season to another, but turnovers committed are, and the Steelers drop from 14 turnovers in the first eight games to 5 in the last nine gives very solid hope for the Steelers being able to have another good turnover differential in 2023, as does their incredibly low fumble recovery numbers, as that is more likely to regress to a higher number than stay that low. The biggest question mark is whether the Steelers revamped coverage units will come up with interceptions. It’s not going to be easy for the Steelers to lead the league in interceptions again, but even if they don’t, some more fumble recoveries and better ball security than we saw in the first half of the 2022 season should be enough to put the Steelers on the right side of turnover differential.
Controlling the Clock
The Steelers dominated time of possession after their bye week, the run game came together and the team made a concerted effort to take as much time off the clock as possible while they methodically drove down the field. The Steelers ended the season #1 in plays per drive and #2 in time of possession per drive. Controlling the clock led to a lower number of possessions per game, and the Steelers defense was tied for the 7th fewest drives faced all season, and saw the 7th fewest plays of any defense in the NFL. Meanwhile the Steelers offense ranked 24th in total drives, but 5th in total plays. If you look at the Steelers winning streak at the end of the season, and how well they played at the end of the game, a big part of that was likely the fact that the opposing defense had played more snaps, and often a significant number more. The Steelers defense played 35 more snaps than the Steelers offense over the first 8 games of the season, but in the last 9 games the Steelers offense played 120 more snaps than their opponents, which is a significant advantage in how tired a defense is and how many chances the offense has to make plays.
While part of the reason for this stat is the Steelers lack of big plays, it’s also their commitment to running the ball and the general execution of the offense leading to extended drives. The Steelers need to finish drives better in 2023, but the value of having significantly more plays than your opponent has a lot of value, especially when the Steelers have players like T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and even Larry Ogunjobi that are very valuable on the field, and yet will benefit a lot from keeping their snap totals lower.
The Steelers have the personnel to repeat their domination of the time of possession, with the entire offensive line returning alongside a few players that look like clear upgrades and with the addition of a good blocking rookie tight end and a veteran receiver who should be an asset picking up first downs, the Steelers seem to be in an even better position to extend drives and dominate the clock.
I know people are going to scoff at me talking about the Steelers run defense being hard to replicate after the last couple of seasons. But the Steelers were a top ten run defense in 2022, and it wasn’t because they were blowing teams out and forcing them to throw a bunch. The Steelers allowed the 9th fewest rushing yards per game, the 7th fewest yards per rush, and were tied for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed.
The Steelers improved their run defense significantly, especially in the second half when controlling the clock and limiting opponent’s possessions led to a drastic decrease in the number of snaps played without Cameron Heyward on the field. They did so while facing 8 games against top 10 rushing teams, but also while facing 11 games against bottom half of the NFL teams in rushing touchdowns.
The Steelers saw the 11th highest rate of defensive drives ending with a field goal, with 15 of those attempts occurring in the red zone, the Steelers ability to tighten the run defense when it mattered most made a difference in a number of the Steelers wins.
This stat is a clear positive for the Steelers, but it’s also a complex one with a lot of factors. Perhaps the biggest will be the offensive philosophy. If the Steelers are focused on controlling the clock and dominating with the run game, and the offense can score touchdowns at even a slightly better rate, it is going to be very hard for teams to wear down the Steelers by running the ball.
When you look at the focus this offseason adding pieces that upgrade the run game and the investments in revamping and improving the coverage in the secondary, I think the Steelers are looking to double down on controlling the clock, reducing the number of possessions and banking on improvements from their rookie quarterback and his weapons to increase the rate of scoring touchdowns. If that works, the Steelers opponents will be looking at even narrow deficits in the second half as desperation time, where the secondary and pass rush will become the key to closing out games, and they have the talent to excel there as well.