The Steelers and their fans might still be wondering how it all went so wrong just a half year ago.
After a 7-2-1 start, the Steelers lost a few too many close games and Antonio Brown lost his cool, altogether. 2018 was a painful one to re-hash, but can the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers meet their current win total at BetRivers (9.5) and even retake the division?
Let’s check out some interesting stats and fun facts as we inch closer to opening kickoff against the Patriots. Credit to @PFF_Steelers.
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Cleanest pockets in the NFL
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Steelers had the highest percentage of clean dropbacks for quarterbacks in the NFL in 2018 at 75.9%. Considering the Steelers were ranked #2 in passing yards in 2018, their stellar pass protection was key and will be essential if they hope to replicate that success again in 2019.
Playing off that stat is on equally impressive. According to PFF, Big Ben was third in the NFL in “Big time throws under pressure” with 12 and second in “Big time throws” on the season, behind only Pat Mahomes. What is significant about this stat? Well, when you take the first stat about how clean the Steelers keep the pocket against everyone else, when they actually do allow pressure, Ben Roethlisberger has been amazing.
In a way, it might incentivize teams to focus on coverage, rather than commit numbers to a pass rush, given the extremely high probability of success from the Steelers. This just further reinforces what an advantage the Steelers have in the passing game and gives us some context as to why their pass to run ratio (2:1 or 67:33) was so highly skewed toward passing the ball. With the departure of Antonio Brown, expect that ratio to be a little closer to 63:37
Conner Was a Good Choice
James Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 9.0 yards per reception in 2018. In 2017, Le’Veon Bell averaged just 4.0 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per reception. Though Bell was used at a much greater volume — Bell had 406 touches in 2017 while Conner had 270 touches in 2018.
It’s easy to look at the sample size here and make judgments, but there are some things to consider here. First off, the running styles of both backs are completely different and by that, I don’t mean how they cut and move. I mean, Le’Veon Bell essentially uses his line as a shield and waits for holes to open. James Conner commits to a hole earlier and runs much more physically.
Both are dynamic, but there is one interesting stat that really stood out about why Conner might be the better back at this point. PFF tracked a stat called “Avoided Tackles Per Touch” (ATPT) and illustrated Bell’s average number of tackles evaded per touch and compared it to Conner’s 2018 season. The results were definitively in favor of Conner. Over his five seasons as the feature back, Bell averaged .19 tackles avoided per touch, while Conner averaged .30. Now, a lot may have to do with the difference in styles, but Conner’s half yard advantage in YPC and advantage in ATPT are strong indicators that letting Bell walk was indeed the correct decision by the Steelers.
As data sets increase, we expect regression to the mean. With Conner showing just how effective he can be at 270 touches, the Steelers should be giving him the occasional series off. With the addition of Bennie Snell and the presence of Jaylen Samuels, the Steelers should be able to work in Snell on first and second downs and Samuels on key passing downs in order to keep Conner fresh and efficient in 2019.
Lucky number seven
Steelers fans will probably admit they’re more worried about the defense than their offense. Last season, the Steelers were ranked 10th in passing defense and the sixth-ranked rushing defense by yards allowed per game. The issue was the poor turnover margin (-11) which ranked 28th. There are two PFF rankings that should calm fans about the defense headed into 2019.
The first is the rush defense rank headed into 2019 (7th). The addition of Devin Bush from Michigan should do wonders for reinforcing the defense at the second level. Sutton Smith and Ulysses Gilbert are both hoping to make an impact in 2019, as Gilbert’s Week 1 performance (92.2) was the second-highest grade among all players at the position that week in the league.
The second PFF Ranking that’s worth noting is the defensive pressure rate (36.5%) of the Steelers ranked 7th among all teams in the NFL. The pressure rates on the quarterback aren’t always indicative of the personnel — it’s about scheme, too. The Steelers seemed to balance their schemes well for most of the season but struggled in close games. More defensive personnel like cornerback Steven Nelson and hybrid linebacker/safety Mark Barron were added to help this defense in a variety of schemes. Third round draft pick, Justin Layne (CB) had a rough start to the preseason but has made some very nice adjustments since, as he received a grade of 84 for his pre-season Week 2 performance against the Chiefs.
Ten wins and a possible division title
Offensively, we know the Steelers strengths: Pass protection, passer efficiency, wide receiver depth, running back. Defensively, the Steelers gave up touchdowns at a rate of 59% inside the Red Zone in 2018. If the Steelers can fix their defensive red-zone scoring efficiency (16th in NFL) and fix their 28th ranked turnover margin, .
The line for wins in 2019 is currently about 9.5 with over 9 wins at -148 and over 10.5 (effectively 11 wins) at +205. I think the Steelers will get to 10 and re-take the division in 2019.
Collin is a former Army Intelligence and Logistics officer who will watch any sport and gamble with anyone willing. He currently resides in Texas and has to deal with Cowboys fans all the time.