You hear all sorts of narratives after a Pittsburgh Steelers game. One of the most popular among Steelers Nation, especially in a loss, is the team’s ‘Prevent Defense’. Under Dick LeBeau, fans would bemoan how he didn’t send pressure when the team was able to get a lead, and this style would sometimes fail and the team would get the football back trailing.
Many fans were disgusted with the team’s defense in the second half vs. the Chiefs in Week 6, so we put our local Stat Geek (58Steel) on the case. This is what he came up with:
The topic for this week wasn’t difficult to find. I heard rumblings after the Steelers’ victory over the Chiefs: "Why do they go to the only rush three, prevent defense in the fourth quarter? Why don't they stick with what was working?" So I set out to check how often the Steelers sent only three pass rushers vs. Alex Smith. I also charted how often they sent four or five, as well as the results of each.
I charted 40 pass plays for the Chiefs. I included plays on which a penalty was called. As I was looking for frequency of the Steelers’ pass rushers, a penalty doesn’t negate the occurrence of the play call. I didn’t include one pass play: the screen to Travis Kelce on which Mike Hilton tackled him for a 2-yard loss. This play took place so quickly, it was difficult to discern the number of pass rushers, so I didn’t feel comfortable placing it in any of the three categories.
40 total pass plays:
Rush 3: 10 times (one play resulted in an incomplete pass and offensive holding. Steelers accepted penalty.)
Nine pass attempts, five completions, 112 yards, two first downs, one TD, one QB scramble for 2 yards, 11.4 yards/play
Rush 4: 24 times (one play resulted in an incomplete pass and offsetting penalties. one play resulted in QB scramble for 11 yards, but offensive holding at the spot yields only a 1-yard gain)
Twenty-one pass attempts, nine completions, 85 yards, five first downs, two sacks for -14 yards, one QB scramble for 11 yards, 3.54 yards/play
Rush 5: 6 times
Five pass attempts, four completions, 51 yards, two first downs, one sack for -9 yards, 7.0 yards/play
These numbers tend to indicate that the Steelers were more successful when rushing 4. Their success seems to be drastically better rushing four than when the Steelers rushed only three. The narrative that the "prevent defense" only allowed the Chiefs to get easy yardage appears to have legs. When did the Steelers rush only three? Of the 10 pass plays involved, four of them came in the fourth quarter. There you have it, right? The Steelers used an ineffective defensive package, the majority of which came when they were protecting a fourth quarter lead. "Stupid coaches" almost cost us the game! Well, the Stat Geek knows we need to dig deeper to get the real story.
First, as we know, "averages" can skew the numbers. Let's look at the 10 pass plays in which the Steelers rushed only three:
No. 1: 2nd-and-9: incomplete with offensive holding
No. 2: 2nd-and-7: complete for one yard
No. 3: 1st-and-10: incomplete
No. 4: 3rd-and-6: incomplete
No. 5: 2nd-and-10: complete for nine yards
No. 6: 1st-and-10: QB scramble for two yards
No. 7: 4th-and-2: incomplete
No. 8: 2nd-and-10: complete for 57 yards, TD
No. 9: 1st-and-10: complete for 29 yards, first down
No. 10: 2nd-and-10: complete for 16 yards, first down
For the first-seven times the Steelers rushed three, the Chiefs managed to gain 12 total yards, an average of 1.7 yards/play. As far as the "Why don't they stay with what was working?," the "Rush-3" package was working. The 57 yard TD pass was largely the result of Artie Burns looking into the backfield and losing track of the receiver. Okay, but why did the Steelers use it more often in the fourth quarter? Perhaps they should have stayed with mixing that package in, as they had up to that point? Perhaps it was the "surprise" element that made the "Rush-3" effective earlier?
When we look at the % of pass plays by quarter, we see that narrative is not true, either.
Ratios of Rush-3s to the number of pass plays by quarter:
In the first half, the Steelers rushed three on five of the 12 Chiefs’ pass plays, or 40%. As we saw, it was highly effective. In the fourth quarter, the number of times used increases to four, but the volume of pass plays goes up to 20. The Chiefs had as many pass plays in the fourth quarter as they had in the first three quarters combined. The % of plays on which the Steelers rushed three in the fourth quarter is lower than the game as a whole. In fact, the first fourth-quarter occurrence came on the first pass play of that quarter, the 4th-and-2 from the 4-yard line. Dropping eight in a small area makes sense and it worked. After that, of the 19 remaining pass plays by the Chiefs, the Steelers rushed 3 on only 3 of them, or about 16%.
I can see how the narrative of "The Steelers ran that prevent defense instead of what was working," gets started. The Steelers used their "Rush-3" package more total times in the fourth quarter than they had previously. The last three times were highly successful for the Chiefs. So that's what sticks in the mind of the fan. As we can see here, however, the Steelers "Rush-3" was working. They also didn’t use it more (percentage-wise actually it was less), than they had done throughout the game.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself. This just goes to show that sometimes what you think you saw wasn’t actually the case.
Big shout-out to 58Steel for his hard work and dedication all season with these Stat Geek articles. Feel free to give him a tip of the cap in the comment section below.