Can the Steelers Afford to Run the Ball?

It's been a rough year for running the football in the NFL so far. The league is averaging just 3.8 yards per rush through two weeks, a full half-yard behind the pace set in 2012. With passing offense steady at 5.4 yards per play, the league continues to tilt towards the aerial attack.

The running game has suffered the most in Pittsburgh, where the 0-2 Steelers have averaged an AFC-worst 2.4 yards per carry and a league worst 16 percent success rate on the ground. The Steelers are the classic "hard-nosed identity" team and as such have a reputation as a team that wins with its work on the ground. This has been a bit exaggerated during the Ben Roethlisberger era -- the 2010 AFC Champion team, for example, finished just 18th in yards per carry, and the Super Bowl champion squad in 2008 finished 29th.

Still, the club has always presented the run. The 2008 Steelers were ninth in rushing attempts at nearly 30 per game. Surely this is partially due to clock running, but the 15-1 Packers in 2011, for example, finished 26th in rushing attempts despite a large amount of garbage time.

Through two games this year, Pittsburgh's rushing attack has been too feeble to even be an option. Observe, the Steelers' 31 rushing attempts in 2013 by location and yardage gained:

The Steelers haven't had success in any direction. The loss of Maurkice Pouncey is wreaking havoc on this offensive line, and the absence of Le'Veon Bell has removed the one promising piece of the backfield. Although the Steelers have managed a respectable 4.2 yards per carry up the middle, no other run has netted more than three yards per rush. As a result, both games have seen the Steelers abandon the run despite never falling behind by more than two scores. The club attempted 14 non-Roethlisberger runs in Week 1's 16-9 loss to Tennessee and followed up with 15 in the 20-10 loss Monday night to Cincinnati. At this point, the question becomes if the Steelers can even afford to run the ball 15 times. Roethlisberger, as poorly as he has played, is still averaging 6.3 yards per attempt and 4.0 adjusted yards per attempt -- not good, but far better than anything the Steelers runners have shown they can do. Additionally, failure at running back tends to feed into itself. On second down, running success rate plummets from 47 percent with three yards to go down to 42 percent or worse with four or more to go. Passing success rate on second down, however, is relatively stable:
And by third down, it becomes imperative to get within three or four yards regardless of whether the plan is to pass or run:

Even when the Steelers had a merely mediocre running game, they were able to use it to keep pressure off Ben Roethlisberger and to set him up with easier third down passes. At even three yards per carry, the Steelers run game may serve some use. But with Pittsburgh's line and running back corps in shambles and averaging under 2.5 yards per carry, every run fuels a feedback loop of failure.

The obvious solution is to fix the personnel issues, but the NFL is not a league teeming with freely available talent. If Pittsburgh is to make something of this bad situation, the answer may be to just drop back and gun it -- anything's better than the current options running the ball.

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5 Responses to “Can the Steelers Afford to Run the Ball?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    "And by third down, it becomes imperative to get within three or four yards regardless of whether the plan is to pass or run:"
    At first, I just thought that was a ridiculous statement based on your graph for pass SR. Then I realized you simply made a plotting error (2nd down and 3rd down plots are the same for pass SR). I'll be interested to see the actual plot here. I'm assuming the pass SR must still be better than run SR ceteris paribus

  2. John Black says:

    I agree with with Anonymous; math has nothing to do with football. Running wins superbowls, it's that simple.

  3. TPM says:

    I respectfully disagree with John Black's statement "Running wins superbowls, it's that simple." Last year's Super Bowl is a good example of the contrary: Baltimore won that game through the air and with the help of a great special teams play (J. Jones TD kickoff return TD) and a few key penalties. They were not very successful moving the ball on the ground; they totaled 93 yards on 35 carries which amounts to 2.7 yds/carry. The 49ers, on the other hand, dominated on the ground, totaling 182 yards on 29 carries for 6.3 yds/carry. Advanced stats such as EPA and WPA give the same story - San Francisco was more successful running the ball that day. And yet, somehow, they lost.
    The bottom line, for me anyway, is that winning an NFL game, especially the Super Bowl, is rarely "that simple".

  4. TPM says:

    Regarding the article itself (wasn't trying to sidetrack with my other comment!), I totally agree, the Steelers are in a bad spot right now. There might be some hope if those 2.4 yards/carry were getting them crucial first downs, touchdowns, etc., but they're not; this fact is shown in their horrible rushing EPA of -14.7 through Week 2, ranked 30th in the league. By comparison, Jacksonville also has a low yards/carry stat, 2.5, but their total rushing EPA is -5.7 (ranked 22). Still bad, but not nearly as bad as Pittsburgh's.

  5. Mike says:

    Any chance of getting the 3rd down plot corrected?

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