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Steelers pass protection struggles early in the season but finishes strong

It's been a tale of two half-seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers in terms of pass protection. Early in the schedule the last two seasons, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is running for his life. The end of the year, he's barely getting touched. It's not a coincidence the Steelers' record is climbing when the temperature drops.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger declared his team to be "pretty much the worst team in the league" after a Week 4 defeat in London at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings. He was sacked a season-high five times in the loss, dropping the Steelers to 0-4, their worst record to start a season in 40 years.

The sacks kept coming.

Roethlisberger would be sacked five times in a game four times in 2013. A Week 9 loss to the Patriots saw capped off an eight-game stretch in which the Steelers allowed 30 sacks, earning a 2-6 record.

After that, though, nothing.

The Steelers allowed just 12 sacks in their final eight games, winning six of them and narrowly missing the postseason with an 8-8 record. Add in the return of Maurkice Pouncey, optimism was high entering 2014. A new offensive line coach, four of five starters back and arguably the best one, Pouncey, returning to center.

According to a research effort put together by Post Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo, much of the same thing happened.

The Steelers gave up 33 sacks on the season, down 10 from the previous year, but only 10 of those 33 sacks came over the team's final seven games - a stretch that saw them go 5-2 and secure an AFC North championship.

Over the last two seasons, the Steelers are 10-6 when allowing two sacks or less, and 4-1 when not allowing a sack. They're 1-5 when allowing five sacks.

The most compelling stat, the Steelers are 10-5 in games played in Week 10 through Week 17, and they've only allowed 22 sacks in those 15 games. In Weeks 1-9, the Steelers are 8-9 and have surrendered 53 sacks - that's 70.6 percent of the sacks allowed in this timespan.

Even more specific, the Steelers average 3.25 sacks allowed in Weeks 1-4 over the last two years, and just one sack per game in Weeks 14-17. They are 2-6 in their first four games the last two years, and 7-1 in the last four.

These stats likely hold true over the rest of the league. Protect the quarterback and a team likely wins the game.

Fittipaldo wrote, by his own timing, Roethlisberger was sacked after four seconds four times in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger averaged 3.36 seconds before he was sacked, that's 15th of 27 passers who took at least 50 percent of his team's snaps.

The temperature drops, the Steelers' pass protection heats up. In Weeks 1-9, Roethlisberger was sacked once every 19.1 attempts. That average increased to 29.4 over the final eight games in 2014 with roughly the same amount of attempts (37 per game through Weeks 1-9, 38 per game over the final eight games).

In 2013, Roethlisberger was getting sacked on a dismal rate of once every 12.2 attempts in Weeks 1-9. That dropped to once every 25 attempts over their final eight games. He averaged 38.5 attempts per game compared to 34.5 per game over the final eight games.

Heading into 2015 it seems obvious the Steelers need to find a way to better protect their quarterback. While recent history suggests Pittsburgh is a late-season team, preventing the exposure of their franchise passer, along with playing better than .500 football early in the year is a much safer plan.