The 2014 season ushered in a paradigm shift in Pittsburgh’s philosophy. The secondary—which, just two years earlier, was the best unit in the NFL—was a bottom-5 unit, while the offense came just 29 yards shy of besting the Saints as the NFL’s most prolific squad. Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL co-leader in yards, while both Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell established themselves as arguably the best players in the league at their positions. With Bell, Brown, Roethlisberger and a stable of other solid weapons (including a still-productive Heath Miller and the explosive Martavis Bryant), the Steelers looked poised to maintain their status as an elite offense (debatably the best offense in franchise history) in the years ahead.
For this reason, offensive coordinator Todd Haley established his now-infamous statistical benchmark prior to the 2015 season: to average 30 points per game.
Based on the 2014 statistics, this figure seemed more than achievable. The Steelers averaged 27.2 points per game in 2014, and did so with a statistically average red-zone offense. Basically, had the 2014 Steelers turned four of their red-zone field goals into touchdowns, they would have comfortably met the 30-ppg threshold.
During the past two seasons, the Steelers have been a very good scoring offense (26.4 ppg in 2015; 24.9 ppg in 2016), but injuries and suspensions have left them well short of meeting Haley’s demands (Roethlisberger has missed six games during the past two seasons while Bell and Bryant have missed 11 and 21 games, respectively). In fact, the last time Bell, Brown, Bryant and Roethlisberger shared the same field was in Week 8 of the 2015 season. Before that, it was Week 17 of the 2014 season.
And that’s kind of where the Steelers find themselves currently—stuck with an incredibly talented roster that’s full of question marks. Roethlisberger is essentially playing the remainder of his career on a season-by-season “wait and see” basis. If he retires five years from now, it won’t be particularly shocking. It would also not be shocking to see him announce his retirement next offseason. Bell will be a free agent next March and he’ll be in line to sign a presumably record-breaking deal in Pittsburgh or somewhere else. Bryant has been “conditionally reinstated,” but even one minor off-field mishap would almost certainly end his career with the Steelers. Moreover, Ladarius Green has an extensive concussion history, and both Juju Smith-Schuster and James Connor are hardly assured of major roles in Pittsburgh’s offense in their inaugural seasons.
At this point, the only sure thing on Pittsburgh’s roster is Brown, who is signed through the 2021 season. In simpler terms, the Steelers have a strong nucleus, but their window is shrinking.
Now all of this isn’t to say that 30 ppg is a magical threshold that translates into automatic success. Sometimes it can, as exemplified by the Falcons, the lone team to average 30 ppg last season, who lost the Super Bowl only because of Tom Brady’s heroics and their own monumental collapse (somewhat ironically, Atlanta’s offense did kind of blow that game). Conversely, 30 ppg can be meaningless, as evidenced by the Saints, who have averaged 30 ppg or very close to it in each of the past three seasons, while posting mediocre, 7-9 records in each campaign.
Although the Steelers haven’t accomplished Haley’s mission, they have made three straight postseason appearances. Most people—talking heads, bettors, common football folk—expect Pittsburgh to contend for a Super Bowl once again in 2017. In 2017, much like in previous seasons, the Steelers’ biggest obstacle will unquestionably be the New England Patriots, who eliminated Pittsburgh in last season’s AFC Championship Game.
This is where the whole 30-ppg goal kind of comes into play. Pittsburgh’s defense simply isn’t good enough to contain Brady (then again, who is?). But the offense—at least on paper—is good enough to keep pace with New England’s offense for an entire game.
If you told me right now to bet $500 on the winner of a Steelers/Patriots game, I would bet on New England without hesitation. However, if you told me that the game would come down to the final drive, that’s a much tougher bet to make. In general, bet on Brady, but in the vacuum scenario, it’s more of a toss-up, in my opinion. Getting into a shootout with New England isn’t ideal, but it at least gives the Steelers a chance to play to their own strengths.
Overall, the Steelers definitely have the pieces in place to average 30 ppg this season, although good health and good off-field behavior are going to be major determining factors in the pursuit of Todd Haley’s goal.