If I had to pick a single word to describe the Steelers' 2015 season, I know exactly what it would be.
Really, really weird.
Okay, since I make the rules, I'm breaking them. We'll stick with those three words: really, really weird.
It's all sorts of weird just on the surface: Ben Roethlisberger missed four games and parts of three more, then got his first career win off the bench.
Off the what now?
Yeah, it's been that weird. A season ago, Roethlisberger was a Pro-Bowl quarterback, and this year he comes off the bench to replace Landry Jones. Like I said, really, really weird.
The numbers bear it out, too. In a season where little is as it seems, the stats back it up. Here are five of the stranger ones.
The Steelers are fifth in the NFL in sacks with 38, but no single player has more than six.
Defensive end Cam Heyward leads the Steelers with six sacks. Let that sink in for a moment, because a defensive end leading this team in sacks has been an odd concept for more than a decade, at the very least. Brett Kiesel was pretty good at getting after the quarterback in his prime, but it was rarely actually his job. Under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, though, the defensive linemen are doing more than just taking up space and blocks, and Heyward has had the best success at getting to the passer. James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree also are at or beyond four sacks apiece. But that still only adds up to less than half of the team's total. This new defense, which is making heavy use of rotations at key positions, has seen fourteen players get at least half a sack.
Bonus weird: with three games remaining, the Steelers are already five sacks beyond their 2014 total.
Their 3,627 passing yards given up are second worst in the league, but they have the 11th best scoring defense.
Talk about bend but don't break. The Steelers are giving up a lot of yards between the 20s. A lot. But they are forcing field goals, enticing teams to go for it on ill-advised fourth-down attempts -- and getting turnovers. Specifically, they are getting a lot of interceptions. Their 14 picks are good for sixth in the NFL. Each of those 14 interceptions stopped a drive, many of which had gotten well into Pittsburgh territory.
The defense's interceptions are also netting the offense good field position -- or netting points on their own.
Speaking of interceptions, the Steelers are doing something else better than most teams: they are getting those interceptions upfield in a hurry. The Denver Broncos lead the league by a country mile -- actually, by roughly seven yards -- averaging 26 yards per interception return. The Steelers sit second in that category, at 19.2. They've also returned two for touchdowns, including WIlliam Gay's 23-yard pick six against Bengals.
Why are they so good? Because this team has long been coached to swarm to the ball on a turnover. When they intercept a pass, there are immediately several defenders around the ball, switching from tackler to blocker. James Harrison's 101-yard return in Super Bowl XLIII may be the gold standard in demonstrating team interception return techniques, but they still do a great job of it today, almost seven years later.
Even without all-world running back Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers are arveraging 120.1 rushing yards per game.
DeAngelo Williams is, quite possibly, the best free-agent acquisition in the league this year. He turned out to be critically important too, as Bell went down with a season-ending injury in just his sixth game of the year. And, despite a distinct drop-off in catches out of the backfield, the running game has not faltered. The team's 120.1 yards per game is good for ninth in the league, and they are doing it on fewer plays than most of the teams ahead of them, too. They are fourth in the league in yards per carry at 4.7.
If you buy the narrative that the Steelers live by the short pass, you aren't looking at the numbers.
Okay, I had to include one strange stat about the passing game.
Todd Haley's offense is designed to keep Roethlisberger on his feet. Ben is becoming a pocket passer. Sacks are down, high-percentage throws are up. Blah, blah, blah, I've heard it before. And it's a lie. It's something the talking heads like to spout off. Yeah, Haley likes the wide-receiver screen and swing passes. But the Steelers have the fourth-highest yards per passing attempt in the league. And before you give all the credit to the receivers for yards after the catch, just re-watch any of the last five games and count the deep throws. It's become a staple for the offense on third and short. So much so that the only people who didn't know it was coming on 3rd and 1 on the Steelers' opening drive was the Cincinnati defense. Heck, I called it:
Betting on a deep ball here on 3rd and 1.— Mike Frazer (@MPFrazer) December 13, 2015
And yeah, I gloated a bit afterward.
Like I said, deep ball on 3rd and 1. #Steelers— Mike Frazer (@MPFrazer) December 13, 2015
Result? A perfectly placed, 31-yard strike. It's no longer a secret that they like to go deep, and Ben's longball has been surprisingly accurate this year, given his lack off success in recent years. They have 19 passing plays of 40 yards or more, which is six -- almost 50 percent -- more than the next-best team.
It's been a strange season for the Black & Gold so far, and the numbers prove it. With three games left -- two against bitter, division rivals -- it figures to only get weirder from here.