Analyzing statistics in a vacuum rarely paints a comprehension picture of what is and what isn’t, and this is true for virtually every conceivable field. In the 2016 NFL season, for instance, Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton led the league in receiving yards. Now, T.Y. Hilton is a very talented wide receiver, but is he among the five best receivers in the NFL? What about the top 10? Hilton’s 1,448 receiving yards tell us that he is an excellent receiver, but common sense tells us that, despite his excellent production in 2016, Hilton still falls behind several other receivers in terms of being “the best.”
Pittsburgh’s 5,962 yards of total offense ranked 7th in the NFL, which tells us something about the Steelers offense, but not everything. For this exercise, I wanted to pick out some statistics that might tell us a little more than baseline yardage or point totals. Let’s grab and expand on a few of these:
The Steelers scored touchdowns on 54-percent of their red zone trips in 2016.
This particular figure—which is the 16th-best in the NFL—indicates that the Steelers are leaving a bunch of touchdowns behind. Consider this: eight of the top 10 offenses in the NFL in terms of yardage also ranked in top 10 in red zone touchdown percentage. Pittsburgh and Washington were the lone exceptions. While many teams would be thrilled to achieve Pittsburgh’s statistical average-ness, the Steelers should be more adept at spacing the field once they reach the red zone. Reaching Todd Haley’s infamous 30 points per game goal will depend on Pittsburgh’s ability to translate red zone trips into touchdowns.
Antonio Brown had 1,284 receiving yards in 2016, which was his fewest single-season total since 2012...
Which tells us that Martavis Bryant is even more valuable than we initially thought. Indeed, lining a receiver who averages over 17 yards per catch up across the formation from a living god tends to strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators. In 2015, Brown caught 136 passes for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns and the year before that he had 129 catches for 1,698 yards and 12 touchdowns. It was, without a shred of hyperbole, the best two-year receiving stretch in NFL history, and it was due in large part to Bryant’s role as the No. 2 receiver. With Bryant back in the lineup in 2017, Brown is looking at a 115-1,400-10 season as his baseline.
Pittsburgh offense contributed over 120 expected points last season.
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of expected points, permit me to provide an abridged technical summary: expected points take various offensive aspects into account that aren’t considered by traditional measures such as yards per game or yards per whatever kind of attempt. So, since yards are generally tougher to gain near the goal line or on third-and-short, and positive net results should be judged higher than, say, a six-yard dump-off on third-and-16. By adding over 120 expected points last season, the Steelers were among the most potent and effective units in the NFL.
Steelers quarterbacks were sacked on just 3.4 percent of their dropbacks in 2016.
In other words, the Steelers’ offensive line is objectively one of the best units in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger held the ball for an average of 2.59 seconds last season, which was about on par with the league average, so it isn’t as if the offensive line is only benefitting from a quick-trigger quarterback. Injuries or other unforeseen camp factors notwithstanding, the Steelers will open the 2017 with the same offensive line that the closed the 2016 season with. The benefits conferred by this continuity were evident in Weeks 11 through 16 (aka “we better win all of these games since we started the season 4-5” time), the Steelers allowed just three sacks. Obviously, keeping Roethlisberger uninjured boosts Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl hopes, but allowing their star quarterback ample time to run the offense will enable the Steelers to keep pace with any team in the league.