In honor of the Steelers season coming to a de facto end against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 23 (known to Seinfeld fans as "Festivus"), I decided to partake in the age-old Festivus tradition of having an Airing of Grievances. Today I'll be taking a look at the Greivances I have with the Steelers Offense.
Running The Ball
For all the talk that was made in the offseason about committing to the running game, the Steelers fell well short of that this season. Obviously, some situations dictate passing over running, but when you look deeper into the numbers, the Steelers were flat out bad. Football Outsiders ranked the Steelers O-line as the 5th worst run blocking line in the league. By their metric, the Steelers ranked next-to-last in the league in Second Level Yards and in the bottom 10 in the league in Open Field Yards. To make matters worse, the Steelers distribution of running plays is downright sickening. Of their 346 rushing attempts, a staggering 74% of them have been up the middle. more than two standard deviations higher than the league average. The biggest problem here is that the Steelers rate as the second worst team in running up the middle. Meanwhile, Advanced NFL Stats has the Steelers line ranked dead last in the league overall as well as having league-worst numbers in Win Probability Added metrics for both run blocking and pass blocking.
In the fantasy football-dominated landscape of the current NFL where most people are only concerned with yards and stats, one of the often-overlooked aspects of the game is the ability to control field position. The Steelers were downright terrible at this all season, particularly in the second half of the year. In the second half, the Steelers did not have an average starting field position past the 30 yard line and in four of the seven games their average starting point was more than 75 yards from the end zone. Against Cincinnati, the Steelers were backed up behind their own 20 three times. Each of those drives resulted in points for the Bengals. The biggest problem the Steelers had was that even when they were able to drive the ball out of their own end to midfield and flip the field, the defense would let the other team pick up a few first downs and flip the field right back. The Steelers inability to control field position directly effected the lack of points and offensive production this season.
Ben's Bad Decisions
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at extending the play and making things happen with his feet. We have seen this happen countless times and it has produced a number of big plays for the team. However, down the stretch run of the season Ben made some awful decisions. In the Cowboys game, he threw a horrible pass behind Mike Wallace that got intercepted and set up the Cowboys winning score in overtime. If Ben throws that ball to the sideline rather than to Wallace's inside shoulder, Carr has no chance of picking it off. This week against Cincinnati, Ben stared down Heath Miller and threw a pass right to Leon Hall who was all over Heath and Hall ran it back for a touchdown. Late in the game, Ben had Mike Wallace open but overthrew him by 10 yards, throwing it right to Reggie Nelson. One of the worst decisions Ben made came after a Cortez Allen interception set up the Steelers in Bengals territory. The Steelers had the ball right on the edge of field goal range and Ben took a sack on 3rd down rather than throwing the ball away, knocking us out of field goal range.
In the first half of the season, Todd Haley's offense was well-balanced between running and passing and the Steelers ran for over 100 yards in 4 of the 5 games following their Week 4 bye. Over the second half of the season, the play-calling got much more predictable with first down runs up the middle and the Steelers landing themselves in more third and long situations. In the first half of the season, the Steelers did a much better job of controlling down and distance and getting themselves into manageable third down situations. As a result, they had the best third down conversion rate in the league, converting more than half of their third downs. Their second half down-and-distance struggles resulted in a third down conversion rate that now sits at 42.2% and culminated with a dastardly 2-for-14 effort against Cincinnati. I was a big critic of Bruce Arians' offense because it lacked any cohesive design and resembled a schoolyard offense that was reliant on Ben to make plays with his feet and one of the receivers to improvise to get open. Todd Haley's offense seemed like a departure from this during the first half of the year when the Steelers utilized short passes and quick slants with the idea of getting the ball to their receivers and letting the receivers make a play with the ball in their hands. This changed over the second half of the year and things seemed to revert to the schoolyard-style that plagued us the last five years under Arians.
Game and Clock Management
Mike Tomlin has never excelled at clock management, and this season his decisions were just as bad as in years past. Tomlin's decisions to call timeouts on defense have given opponents the chance to add points at the end of the first half and his numerous ill-advised challenges have cost the Steelers useful timeouts. Tomlin's decisions to kick long field goals (56 in Tennessee and 53 against Cincinnati) both resulted in short fields for the opposition that ultimately resulted in the Steelers losing. In Tennessee where the defense hadn't stopped the Titans all game, Tomlin left Tennessee with plenty of time on the clock and a short field with a tie game. Against Cincinnati, Suisham's field goal attempt fell short and even though the defense stopped the Bengals, the Steelers were left with a long field and Ben threw an interception on the ensuing drive which set up the winning score for Cincinnati. In the first game against Baltimore, when the Steelers were dominating the Ravens on the ground and drove the ball down the field on the strength of the running game, the coaching staff opted to call a low-percentage throw for Byron Leftwich (a lob for Wallace in the corner of the end zone) rather than running on 3rd and 1 from the 4. The pass was incomplete and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal that left them trailing 13-10. A touchdown there would have put them ahead of the Ravens and the defense had been shutting down Baltimore's offense the whole game.