The Steelers tried to play to their offensive strengths in 2020 but still stumbled through the season as the 20th-ranked offense. They had one of the best and deepest receiving cores with Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, James Washington, and Eric Ebron. They had a reliable quarterback who lacked mobility but still threw accurately. But their offensive line was inconsistent at best. So the Steelers implemented a quick-hitting pass heavy offense to keep the pressure off Ben without relying on the running game.
Roethlisberger got rid of the ball extremely quickly all season. They led the league in pass attempts but recorded the 6th-lowest average depth of target. They threw all day, but not downfield. On the season, Roethlisberger threw 676 passes and was sacked only 13 times. Even in the playoff collapse against Cleveland, Roethlisberger was not sacked once. The 14 total sacks allowed by Pittsburgh was 7 fewer than any other NFL team. After a lost season in 2019 without Roethlisberger, the Steelers made it a priority to keep him clean. They accomplished this.
But the emphasis on quick passes had a negative impact on the Steelers offense down the stretch. First, they simply did not run play-action. When the goal is to throw the ball before the defense has any chance to hit the quarterback, there is not enough time to fake the hand off and climb the pocket to make a throw. The Steelers threw for only 234 yards on play action, almost 400 fewer than any other NFL team.
Play Action Passing Yards
|Play Action Pass Yds||% of Total Pass Yds|
|LV (2nd Lowest)||625||14.8%|
As teams watched film on the Steelers they picked up on this tendency. So when Roethlisberger stepped back to hand the ball off to Conner or Snell, opposing defenses collapsed on the running back. It was obvious in the first moment of every play what the Steelers were doing. Over the course of the season, their run game became less effective. They ended up with the fewest rushing yards on an NFL-worst 3.6 yards per carry. And you can see the trend of rushing success go downhill as defenses caught on:
*Omitted Week 17 Game where PIT rested its starters
Despite Pittsburgh’s rushing success early in the season, they were simply pathetic running the ball by season’s end. Offensive line injuries do not account for this discrepancy as one of their best blockers (DeCastro) actually missed Weeks 1, 2, and 5. The primary ball carrier did not seem to matter either, as both Conner and Snell performed well early but struggled late. The only explanation is that teams studied film and learned they could shut down the predictable rushing scheme.
In addition, the short passing offense allowed defensive players to crowd the line of scrimmage and commit to defending the short pass without much fear of getting burned deep. This defensive strategy paid off for the most part, but I think the Steelers were unlucky as they suffered a league-high 43 drops on the season, 19% more than the second highest total of 36. If the receivers had caught even a fraction of these passes they could have extended multiple drives and put more pressure on opposing defenses.
Many analysts claim that Ben Roethlisberger has lost his ability to throw the deep ball based on his low average depth of target in 2020. Age and injury do catch up to quarterbacks. But based on my observation, this was not true. His deep ball accuracy was not off his usual pace. Instead, I think the game plan built around avoiding hits reduced downfield passing opportunities and receivers dropped catchable passes at a crippling rate. We saw Roethlisberger air it out in a 17-point comeback against Indianapolis in Week 16 and when playing catchup in the Wild Card round against Cleveland. His willingness to throw deep also bears out in the defensive pass interference numbers, which do not show up on any other statistical metric such as ADOT because they aren’t technically “targets.”
Teams Who Forced 12+ Defensive PI Calls for 16+ Average Yards
|Team||Def. PI Calls||Yards Gained||Yards Per PI||ADOT||ADOT Rank|
Only three teams (TB, PHI, and PIT) forced 12 or more defensive pass interference calls for an average of 16 or more yards. Both Tampa Bay and Philadelphia were top-3 in the NFL in average depth of target, whereas Pittsburgh was 27th. The Steelers’ ADOT was skewed lower by these calls. With rookie Chase Claypool on the receiving end of several of these plays, I anticipate these deep shots to increase in 2021.
Because the Steelers were so pass heavy on offense they outperformed against teams that were more proficient stopping the run relative to the pass.
*Omitted Week 12 v. BAL due to both teams’ Covid outbreaks that week that led to important players sidelined for both teams
This chart tracks Pittsburgh’s offensive Adjusted Rating against each opponent ranked by its pass defense (adjusted yards per pass) relative to its rushing defense (yards per carry). Teams on the left were better at stopping the run than the pass, whereas teams on the right were better at stopping the pass than the run. Pittsburgh’s worst performances came against BUF (-1.20) and CIN (-1.37), who were more vulnerable to opposing ground games. By contrast, Pittsburgh’s best game came against PHI (+1.40), notorious for stopping the run but vulnerable to the pass.
If the Steelers bring back Roethlisberger with all of his weapons, it will be interesting to see if they improve their scheme or stick to the quick-passing offense. They still may be successful if they drop fewer passes but will likely need to work in a more creative run scheme and include some play action to unsettle defenses. This will require better offensive line play or added risk of hits to Roethlisberger. These are relatively small tweaks for a well-established coaching staff and the Steelers should be more dangerous in 2021.
The Steelers have been building a formidable defense for years and entered 2020 with high hopes. They were absolutely dominant early on and finished 1st in Adjusted Rating despite tailing off at the end of the year. They were strong in every facet of the defense, with a strong pass rush, tight coverage, and solid run defense.
When defensive leader and middle linebacker Devin Bush tore his ACL in Week 4 I was concerned they would lose their edge. They did not, as Robert Spillane stepped into the role and the Steelers did not miss a beat. They clawed their way to an 11-0 start on the strength of their defense heading into a Week 13 Monday night game against Washington. The week before, star edge rusher Bud Dupree had torn his ACL. Despite this, the defense absolutely smothered Washington in the first half as they built a 14-0 lead. But when both Spillane and Joe Haden got hurt in the second half, the collective impact was too much and Washington took advantage.
PIT Defense in Week 13 v. WAS
|Yards||Yards Per Play||Drives||Points|
When everyone on a defense handles their responsibility in a well-designed scheme, the trust level allows you to plug a player into one spot and see no real drop in production. But when a defense loses several key players, including the defensive play-caller and leader, holes open up and the trust disappears. Frustration sets in and players no longer pursue their assignment with the same focused intensity. This is why defensive dynasties are so hard to maintain. For Pittsburgh, this crucial Week 13 injury barrage precipitated a late-season fold.
After an 11-0 start, many opined that the Steelers were a fraud. Then, in that Monday afternoon game against Washington that nobody was watching, they succumbed to this onslaught of injuries after dominating in the first half. The crowd of people ready to write off Pittsburgh felt like they had been right all along.
In addition to these crucial injuries, the schedule did them no favors. Instead of playing against the Titans in Week 4, they were forced to take an early bye week due to a Covid outbreak in the Tennessee organization. With such an early bye week, particularly an unplanned bye week in which they likely had to game plan anyway, the long season really took its toll on Pittsburgh. The Steelers were not the only team affected by an early bye. In the 2020 playoffs, teams that had an earlier bye week than their opponent went 3-10 overall. Two of the three wins were KC (v. BUF) and GB (v. LAR), both of whom had a first-round playoff bye to offset this effect. The only other win was NO (v. CHI), which was a total mismatch.
Obviously the combination of injuries and fatigue set in for Pittsburgh and hurt them as the season went on. Their net Adjusted Rating, factoring in both offensive and defensive performance, steadily declined over the season. As the chart below shows, when factoring out a game against Baltimore in which 19 players (including Lamar Jackson) were out due to Covid, each of the Steelers’ 5 best overall performances came in the first 6 games:
*Omitted Week 12 v. BAL because the Ravens had 19 players on the Covid list, including Lamar Jackson and several other key pieces.
Prior to this late season regression, opposing offenses struggled for consistency against the Steelers but did connect on some big plays. As a result, teams paradoxically performed better compared to their season average against Pittsburgh if they were already a turnover-prone team. These teams took more risks, and a conservative offense had no chance against the Steelers.
*Includes Weeks 1-13 before the defensive injuries piled up
This chart ranks each of the Steelers’ first 12 opponents by how frequently they turned the ball over on the season. Some of the Steelers’ worst defensive performances came against turnover-prone DEN (+0.65), PHI (+0.44), and DAL (+0.02). By contrast, their best defensive performances came against the more conservative CLE (+2.44) and TEN (+1.53) offenses. To succeed against Pittsburgh you did not want long, drawn-out drives trying to churn out first downs. You needed to be aggressive and take chances, leading to defensive penalties and big plays.
Depending on how the offseason goes, the Steelers defense in 2021 will likely resemble the early version instead of the late version, which is promising for another solid year. Casual fans will have the late-season swoon in their heads but their defense is stacked with talent and they implement a solid scheme. There is always risk when staking success on the strength of a defensive scheme because a few injuries can knock the team off course, but Pittsburgh should return one of the top defenses in the league in 2021.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, Pittsburgh is underrated going into the offseason. Naysayers felt vindicated when they performed poorly at the end of the season but injuries and schedule had an outsized impact on their performance.
- Expect Pittsburgh to outperform offensively against teams that are stronger against the run than the pass.
- Anticipate a step forward offensively with fewer drops and better offensive line play. With Claypool emerging in his second year and positive target depth regression, expect a more aggressive and successful offense overall.
- Respect Pittsburgh’s defense as one of the best in the league. Expect them to outperform defensively against more conservative offenses that rely on sustaining drives with consistent first downs and avoiding turnovers.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Roethlisberger is underrated coming out of 2020 due to the amount of drops his receivers suffered and big defensive pass interference penalties that did not show up on the stat sheet. He provides a safe floor as a late-round quarterback to pair with a high-upside option who may not be proven yet.
- Roethlisberger spreads the ball around well, limiting the season-long upside of Johnson, Smith-Schuster, and Claypool. However, they will all likely have big games over the course of the season. Claypool flashed the highest upside as a rookie and should emerge as the primary touchdown threat. I would bet on the talent and predict Claypool will be the #1 fantasy WR in this offense in 2021.
- Avoid running backs in this offense unless they are heavily featured in the passing game. While they do not run much, Ben does like to dump off to his running backs when the receivers are not immediately open.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 6, the Steelers brought their 4-0 record into a game against the 4-1 Browns, laying only 3.5 points at home. The defense had been ferocious and they were fully healthy. Cleveland is the type of team that relies on running the ball well, converting key third-down passes, and not turning the ball over offensively. In other words, a perfect matchup for the Steelers. In a game where I predicted the Browns would struggle offensively, the Steelers would only need to score a few touchdowns to force Cleveland to abandon its run game and turn away from its strength. In addition, the Browns were playing without Nick Chubb, their best offensive skill player. I put 4 Units on PIT -3.5 and they crushed Cleveland, 38-7.