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. Stay tuned for part 13 on the Detroit Lions.


Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
4.43 -0.55 30th

Offensive Eff. Rating (black and gold) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
26th 17th 13th

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.

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