You hear the term "football is a team game" every week when reading about the sport. I've always interpreted this to mean that what one player does can affect what the rest of the team does. While keeping this sentiment in mind when reading the first part of Chris Carter's excellent Film Room Series about the Steelers short running game, I started wondering if there was a way to quantify what it means to lose so many members of an offense for various amounts of time. I looked up the Steelers rushing numbers in short situations over the last two years. I only did the last two years because I figured the Steelers had a dominant offense both years, yet one year they were very healthy and the other not so much, so how did things change?
When running the ball on any down when there is four or less yards to go, NFL teams reach the first down or end zone 58-percent of the time in 2015. The Steelers also achieved that goal 58-percent of the time, or exactly average.
Not great, but not bad, definitely room for improvement. What about when it really matters on third and fourth down? The whole NFL succeeded at a 66-percent a clip. The Steelers checked in at 50-percent, a whopping 15-percent worse.
How did the 2014 team fare? In 2014, the prolific Steelers offense was much better at running the ball. They achieved a first down 64-percent of the time when running between 1-4 yards. The NFL was successful only 59-percent of the time. On third and fourth down they were successful 60-percent of the time running the ball in that scenario.
Ready for another cliché? Football is a game of inches.
So those seven and ten percentage points of drop-off between the two seasons could be the difference between a game clinching first down, and the stop that allows the other team to escape with a win. So what was the big change between 2014 and 2015?
The easy, and no brainer answer, is the injury to Le'Veon Bell. But other factors contributed. There was no Ben Roethlisberger for large chunks of year. Kelvin Beachum missed over half the year while Maurkice Pouncey missed the entire year. Also, Martavis Bryant missed part of the year with suspension and injury. Now, Beachum is a good tackle that was rewarded with a big contract this offseason and Pouncey is an All Pro player, but how do Roethlisberger and Bryant impact the run game?
With no Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers went to Landry Jones and Michael Vick, neither of them have the arm strength or accuracy of Ben. That allows defenses to sell out to stop the run, making life difficult for any opposing ball carrier. What about Bryant? Bryant's biggest upside is his speed. Without out that speed in the lineup the safety doesn't have to back up so much which allows them to come up in run support when needed or force the less accurate and weaker armed backup quarterback to beat them over the top. All these seemingly unrelated actions combined to influence the drop off of the short running game which in turn affects how Todd Haley calls plays.
A defense that played better than it got credit for kept the 2015 Steelers afloat while they waited for their teammates on the other side of the ball to get healthy. And that is an encouraging sign, it shows that while some players on offense may miss time, the defense, which should be even better in 2016, can keep the team going. The dynamic passing game with a healthy Ben and stellar wide receiver group also prevented the offense from slipping too far. A healthy Steelers offense will return to its above average success when running the ball in short situations. When combined with the passing game, a dominant short game adds balance to an offense. This bodes well for games where the Steelers are playing with a lead and need to run out the clock, and it adds another wrinkle to the offense should the Steelers opt to go for two points after ever touchdown like Roethlisberger has discussed this offseason.
As the numbers between the two years bear out, this time you can believe the cliché, football really is a team game.