Why the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are the anti-thesis of NFL analytics


Highlights The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive struggles defy all logic and statistics, ranking in the bottom 10 in multiple categories, with fans even calling for the offensive coordinator’s job.
Despite their offensive ineptitude, the Steelers have shown signs of life, scoring touchdowns on opening drives and finding success in the running game. Their turnover ratio has also been a key factor in their narrow victories.
The Steelers’ defense, while not playing at an unprecedented level, has excelled in forcing turnovers, which has helped them win close games. Head coach Mike Tomlin’s ability to grind out one-score wins has been a hallmark of his career.
The 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers defy logic, reason, common sense, and football history with their “ugly” but effective approach. So far, they persist as the only team above .500, going all the way back to the Leatherhead days, that lost the yardage battle in each of their first nine games.
They’re bucking 90 years of chronicled NFL events in the most unsightly way possible. In an era of analytics and chicks digging the long ball, the Steelers represent a throwback to caveman football, where the defense scores nearly as often as the offense, interceptions outnumber passing touchdowns, and opening drive scores occur as often as cicadas. Here’s how the 6-3 Steelers continue to win while scoffing at conventional wisdom.
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Putrid Offense
Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom 10 in points per game, total yards per game, passing, offensive points, Expected Points Added (EPA), success rate, dropback EPA, dropback success rate, red zone touchdowns, yards per play, and probably a lot more. Essentially, if it can be measured, the Steelers’ offense is probably bad at it.
Fans in the Steel City have been calling for offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s job going back to last season. It’s gotten so bad that chants of “Fire Canada” rained down during the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game!
This season they’re averaging a paltry 278.5 yards per game, their lowest number through eight games since 1990. That’s when the legendary Chuck Noll was coaching and players were allowed to use two-by-fours to make tackles. They also haven’t topped over 400 total yards in their last 56 games. The last team with such offensive impotence was the 2005-2010 Oakland Raiders.
Signs of Life
In an attempt to turn around that cavalcade of offensive woes, Canada recently moved from the press box down to the sideline. Head coach Mike Tomlin hoped it would give him “perspective.” Since the change, they have scored touchdowns on their opening drive in consecutive games after failing to do so in their first seven games. The running game has also shown signs of life, notching over 100 yards in back-to-back contests.
Another reason for their uncanny ability to pull wins out of their rear ends this season is second-year signal caller Kenny Pickett’s ability to turn up the quality in the final frame. While he has generally struggled this year, his fourth quarter stats certainly paint a picture of a guy who’s three game-winning drives this year slot him second in the league.
4th Quarter Stat Kenny Picket Stat Kenny Pickett Ranking Completion Pct 69.4 7th Yards Per Attempt 8.8 4th Passer Rating 101.5 6th Game-winning Drives 3 2nd
Their turnover ratio has also played a large factor in pulling out these narrow victories. As Tomlin put it:
We’ve talked a lot about our warts. But that turnover ratio hasn’t been one of them. … It’s probably the difference in these tight games. … We’ve got to be able to win those drives and fight for those four points, make people settle for field goals.
Opportunistic Defense
With such an inept offense, you’d think the Steelers defense must be playing at a near-unprecedented level to get them to 6-3. However, that’s not really the case. Here is a smattering of their rankings:
As noted, the Steelers are living on a razor’s edge, thanks to their incredible ability to force turnovers. As a general rule, turnovers are high-variance plays. Obviously, they are amazing when they happen, but you never know when your turnover luck will shift. Nevertheless, it does sound like the Steelers players have embraced life in close games. As outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said:
It just shows in those pressure moments, we come up making the big plays. We should just be better in certain ways so that you don’t have to have such a heart attack at the end of the game. But whenever we’re in those ‘got to have it’ moments, we’re capitalizing.
At this point, running back Najee Harris just assumes it’s part of being a Steeler: “I’m just so used to (close games), I don’t even realize it. That’s just how we are.”
The Tomlin Way
Of course, it’s difficult to bet against the man in charge. Mike Tomlin’s won a statistically insane 95 one-score games since he took over in 2007. That far and away ranks as the most in the NFL during that span. So, while the numbers might say that they can’t keep getting away with this, that’s exactly what Tomlin’s done during his entire career. He’s like Walter White, but instead of building a meth empire, he’s grinding out one-score wins at a ridiculous pace.
Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers are rated as one of the premiere franchises in all of sports, impeccably run by the Rooney family for decades, as evidenced by just three head coaching hires since 1969. But Tomlin presided over some questionable rosters, especially the last couple of Ben Roethlisberger years when Big Ben sort of lost the ability to throw the ball forward. The fact that he’s never had a losing season in over 15 years needs its own statute at Acrisure Stadium.
Season Outlook
With a 2-0 divisional record and games against the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots, and Indianapolis Colts, it’s hard to picture Tomlin’s incredible streak coming to an end. However, their playoff chances don’t look entirely cemented. Besides those three semi-cupcake games, Pittsburgh’s got a doozy of a schedule left.
They take on the surging Cincinnati Bengals twice, tangle with the Cleveland Browns’ ferocious defense, enter the house of horrors that is Seattle, and play the divisional rival Baltimore Ravens again. They only sit a game behind Baltimore, but the Browns are really the team they need to worry about.
After their victory against Green Bay, the New York Times puts Pittsburgh’s chances at 60 percent to make the playoffs. If they can beat Cleveland in Week 11, those odds go up to nearly 80 percent. If they lose, they drop to 50 percent. Ultimately, it’s likely that only three of the Browns, Bengals, Buffalo Bills, and Steelers will make the playoffs. So get your popcorn ready.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference and all contract information courtesy of Spotrac unless stated otherwise.
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