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As It Turns Out, You Do Need A Run Game. Just Ask The Steelers.

Though it feels much longer, it has only been a few weeks since the Pittsburgh Steelers had the best record in the NFL. They were sitting at 11-0, and critics were asking if Pittsburgh was not only the best team in the AFC, but possibly the best team in the league.

Now, Pittsburgh enters the playoffs having lost four of five, including a Week 17 game played without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the Cleveland Browns, whom the 12-4 Steelers will face again this week in the wild-card round. But even when Roethlisberger has played, the offense has been a shell of itself through the second half of the season.

Critics have not been reluctant to divvy out blame among various position groups. But the team’s running backs have played a significant role in its struggles. Since starting the season with five consecutive 100-plus yard games on the ground, the Steelers have turned into the worst rushing team in the league, with only 667 yards in the last 11 games — not exactly where an offense wants to be entering the playoffs.

Early in the season, Pittsburgh’s offense was exceptionally balanced. The unit entered a Week 7 matchup with the Tennessee Titans averaging 33.2 pass attempts and 31.8 rush attempts per game. On the ground, the Steelers’ 4.30 yards per carry was among the top half of the league, and the team’s 7.9 yards per carry on rushes outside the tackles led the NFL.

During this time, the offense rushed for 684 yards and seven touchdowns while running on 47.7 percent of its offensive snaps. The commitment to running the ball forced opposing defenses to account for it with more defenders in the box. Through the team’s first five games, opposing defenses stacked the box on 49 offensive snaps — the 10th most in the NFL.

The Steelers found balance to start the season …

Through Week 6 of the 2020 NFL season, top 10 teams by share of all offensive snaps run as rushes

Yards per play Share of all snaps
Rk Team Pass atts. Rushes Pass atts. Rushes
1 Baltimore Ravens 7.02 5.45 45.8% 50.3%
2 Cleveland Browns 6.57 5.24 47.2 50.3
3 New England Patriots 7.09 5.07 46.8 49.8
4 Los Angeles Rams 8.26 4.31 49.4 48.8
5 Pittsburgh Steelers 7.13 4.30 49.9 47.7
6 Tennessee Titans 7.92 4.84 50.6 47.7
7 Los Angeles Chargers 8.20 3.80 49.9 46.9
8 Minnesota Vikings 8.43 5.00 49.2 46.9
9 Arizona Cardinals 7.25 5.28 51.6 46.1
10 Las Vegas Raiders 8.24 4.14 53.2 44.4

Offensive snaps do not include field goal attempts or fake punts.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But since the Steelers’ win over Cleveland in Week 6, the team has struggled to get the run game going. The offense was held to under 50 rushing yards in six of its last 11 games and had only four games with over 75 rushing yards during that span. The unit posted the fewest rushes of 10 or more yards in the league and scored only five rushing touchdowns through the rest of the regular season while rushing on just 19.5 plays per game.

To make up for its inability to run the ball, Pittsburgh was forced to attack defenses through the air. The team asked Roethlisberger to throw the ball a league-leading 443 times between Week 7 and Week 16. Most of them came on quick, short passes. The Steelers finished the season with the lowest average time in the pocket and the lowest average time before passing.

This season, Pittsburgh’s receivers lead the NFL in the share of routes run that were outside short routes (27.4 percent) and screen routes (4.6 percent). They also ranked ninth in the percentage of inside short routes run (12.4 percent).

… but they’ve let up the run since Week 7

From Week 7 through Week 17 of the 2020 NFL season, bottom 10 teams by share of all offensive snaps run as rushes

Yards per play Share of all snaps
Rk Team Pass atts. Rushes Pass atts. Rushes
23 Los Angeles Chargers 6.90 3.84 58.3% 39.0%
24 Chicago Bears 6.61 4.38 57.7 38.8
25 Washington Football Team 6.44 4.32 57.3 38.8
26 Atlanta Falcons 7.25 3.54 58.6 37.2
27 Houston Texans 8.86 4.42 58.5 36.4
28 Jacksonville Jaguars 6.05 4.59 61.0 34.7
29 Kansas City Chiefs 8.04 4.25 63.0 34.5
30 Detroit Lions 7.63 3.98 61.7 34.1
31 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 8.05 4.04 63.8 34.0
32 Pittsburgh Steelers 6.01 3.12 69.0 30.1

Offensive snaps do not include field goal attempts or fake punts.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Prior to Week 7, the offense was playing with more precision in the passing game than it did down the stretch. Despite being near the bottom of the league in total passing yards through the team’s first five games, Pittsburgh was near the top of the league in completion percentage, passing touchdowns and passing touchdown to interception ratio.

Although the team has since increased its average passing yards per game from 221.2 to 263.4, the offense took a step back in many other categories. The team’s completion percentage, share of deep pass attempts and yards per pass attempt all declined.

What does this mean for their Super Bowl ambitions? The Steelers enter the postseason with the odds stacked against them. Averaging only 3.12 yards per rush since Week 7, this is the seventh-worst rushing playoff team through the last 11 weeks of the season since the 1970 merger and the worst since the 2003 New England Patriots.

Since that Patriots team won it all in 2003, only nine of the bottom 20 rushing teams to have appeared in the playoffs were able to get a single win in the postseason. But of those nine teams, three won the Super Bowl: the 2008 Steelers, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and the 2011 New York Giants.

If history is any guide, the Steelers may have trouble making a deep run this postseason without a reliable running game. Can they regain their early season form in time? We’ll find out this weekend.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

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