Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Team Study

Part 12 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 11 here: Cleveland Browns. Part 13 now available: Detroit Lions.

Offense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
4.43-0.5530th
Offensive Eff. Rating (black and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate
26th17th13th

The Steelers wanted to keep Big Ben clean in the pocket. He was too old to be taking hits. With a bad offensive line and an immobile quarterback, there’s only one way to accomplish this: get the ball out quickly. The Steelers implemented a quick passing game comprised of short route concepts and gave the ball to Najee Harris as much as possible. They tried this in 2020 as well. Defenses figured out that they could overplay short routes and it became impossible for receivers to get any yards after the catch because defenders were already on them. Yards after the catch are crucial for a short passing attack to be successful.

They weren’t fooling anyone this year. They didn’t run a lot of play action or RPOs and they used only a handful of motion plays that defensive coordinators figured out and stopped. Aside from the occasional jump ball to Chase Claypool (who is excellent at contested catches), their defense was vanilla and predictable. They got away with this in 2020 because the approach led to just 14 sacks on the season. They avoided negative plays and did just enough on offense to let their defense win.

But in 2021 their defense took a step back, which put more pressure on the offense. After allowing just 14 sacks in 2020 they allowed 38 sacks in 2021 despite running essentially the same style of offense with the same quarterback and an equivalent offensive line. This obviously had disastrous consequences for an offense that struggled to pick up chunk yardage in the passing game.

It also meant that the Steelers offense did not heavily depend on the quality of the opposing pass defense. They tried to negate pressure with short passes, which are so easy to defend and don’t allow elite pass defenses—which typically create natural pressure—much of a chance to establish an advantage. Chart A shows how the Steelers’ offense performed in each game relative to the average performance allowed by each of its opponents, ranking each opponent by its defensive passing efficiency on the season.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent pass defense measured in net yards per pass play allowed on the season.

All of their best relative offensive performances came against top pass defenses in Buffalo (+0.15 Adj. Eff. Rating), CLE (+0.09), LV (+0.24), and DEN (+0.45). They didn’t dominate these teams obviously, but they limited themselves to avoid extremely negative performances against these really good defenses. But the approach also limited their ability to capitalize against bad defenses, like KC (-1.22 and -1.62).

There were some bright spots. Claypool and Diontae Johnson flashed play-making ability in the passing game and Najee Harris showed at times why the Steelers took him in round one of the draft (almost certainly a mistake but he is a good player). His yards per carry suffered from poor offensive line play and forecasting run plays but he passed the eye test. But there was only so much they could do within this limited scheme. They did make the playoffs, of course, but nobody gave them a real chance to win and that was justified.

I am not sure how much the scheme was limited by Roethlisberger and how much was just coaches tailoring the offense to the quality of the offensive line. If the limitations were Roethlisberger’s, then new quarterback Mitch Trubisky is entering a favorable situation given the weapons at his disposal, as long as they can improve on the offensive line. But if the flaw was primarily in the offensive line, I’m not sure Trubisky is even an upgrade over Roethlisberger. He does have more mobility at this point, which could open things up a little bit. As hard as it is to doubt Mike Tomlin, this offense has a long way to go however you look at it.

Defense

Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
4.95+0.1211th
Defensive Eff. Rating (black and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate
11th27th17th7th

Even though the Steelers defense was much better than their offense, it was ultimately the more disappointing unit. They had built a dominant defense over the years that helped carry them to the playoffs in 2020 with talent across all three levels, good scheme, and strong chemistry and trust. But the defense never established itself in 2021 the way it had in previous seasons. After an impressive win against the Bills in Week 1, they got off track and never recovered.

As always tends to happen when defensive dynasties end, injuries played a major role. They lost Tyson Alualu in the first quarter of Week 2 against the Raiders and he did not return all season. Stephon Tuitt started the year on IR and never returned. T.J. Watt also hurt himself against the Raiders and missed a few games (as well as significant snaps in others). Alex Highsmith missed time. And they had already let Bud Dupree go in the offseason. This once-fierce defensive front was just not all there in 2021.

And a lack of continuity has a domino effect on a defense built on trust and chemistry. When you can rely on the players around you covering their assignments and making plays, it frees you as a player to play aggressively and focused. Defensive players do their job better when they know their teammates can be relied upon. With all the players who had to play meaningful snaps due to these injuries, that trust was eroded and the Steelers defense came down to earth.

And this lack of trust was justified. They missed the 4th-most tackles in the NFL on their way to allowing a league-worst 5.0 yards per carry in the run game. They were terrible against the run. But counter-intuitively, their best performances came against teams that wanted to run. Chart B shows their Adjusted Effectiveness on defense against each opponent ranked by its passing efficiency relative to its rushing efficiency. Teams on the left (CIN, LV, LAC, KC, etc.) were better at passing than rushing, whereas teams on the right (CLE, SEA, CHI, BAL, etc.) were relatively better at running the ball. This demonstrates how little the run game matters ultimately. The most efficient run games in the league are still less efficient on a per-play basis than the league’s worst passing games, so the Steelers let it happen.

Chart B

They exerted good pressure on the quarterback without relying on an abundance of blitzes. This is how you establish a good pass defense. They also turned those pressures into sacks at a high rate, thanks mostly to Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. They were an above-average defense. The only reason it felt like such a letdown was because they had been one of the league’s top defenses for years, so this was a step back.

The problem with these kinds of downturns on defense is they are tough to bounce back from. It’s not as simple as hoping that they’ll get their stars back and they will return to form. Maybe they will. But everybody is a year older and those trust issues have a lingering effect on a defensive unit. It’s safe to wonder whether 2021 was the new norm instead of an aberration for an ongoing defensive stalwart.

It’s also really tough for a defense to keep playing at a high level when the offense takes so little time off the clock before it punts or turns the ball over. The Steelers offense averaged the 4th-lowest time per possession on offense. And a lack of success on the offensive side can impact the morale and intensity of the defense as well, when it doesn’t reap positive benefits of good play. There’s a chance they’ll be back to form, in which case this defense is probably underrated. But that’s an optimistic look. It will be important to keep a keen eye on off-season developments in projecting this defense.  

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Steelers: With a lot of uncertainty on both sides of the ball, I’m not looking to get involved with the Steelers early on. I don’t think they showed enough in 2021 despite making the playoffs to have confidence in them heading into 2022.

When to fade the Steelers: I’m also not looking to fade the Steelers. Betting must be tailored to perception, and perception is so low on Pittsburgh that there is no value to be had going against them. Mike Tomlin routinely overachieves and there is talent, particularly on defense.

What to look for in the offseason: My focus will be on how they look on defense heading into 2022. Will they get Tuitt and Alualu back? How do they address the holes they had last year? I’m not sure how much we can learn about the offense with Trubisky until we see them on the field, because they could significantly alter the scheme.

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