I remember watching Kevin Colbert on a local Pittsburgh talk show a few years back (I’m pretty sure it was Sportsbeat) being asked his opinion on the most important statistic in football. His response: yards per pass attempt. He then noted that if you look at that number at the end of any random game, the team with the advantage in that category more often than not would be the team that won. Given that the Steelers have built themselves a nice reputation (or had one built for them by the media) over the past 70 years as the team that prides itself on running the ball and stopping the run, I thought that was an interesting answer. Turns out, he seems to be right.
You can’t watch a Steelers game without hearing announcers carry on about “Steeler Football” and how it’s all about their ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. For the most part, the Steelers have always been a successful team on the ground and have consistently been dominant when it comes to stopping it. But does it always translate to winning, and is it more important than the passing game? Recent history suggests no. It’s actually more important for the Steelers to win in the passing game.
After looking back at every box score over the past three seasons and paying special attention to Yards Per Pass Attempt, I found that the Steelers are a stunning 31-7 (including playoffs) when they “win” the YPA category. They’re 7-9 when they lose it. I’ll go back to the observation JJ made at FanHouse (long live the ‘house!) during the playoffs when he cited Bill Walsh’s philosophy on the importance of big plays. As JJ pointed out back in January, Walsh noted in his book “Finding The Winning Edge” that teams win 80-85 percent of the games when they make two-or-more big plays (20+ yards) than their opponent.
Where do most teams (including the Steelers) make most of their big plays? The passing game. Note the winning percentage Walsh cites when teams win the big-play category (80-85 percent). The Steelers winning percentage the past three years when they win YPA? 82 percent. Breaking news: Bill Walsh might have known what he was doing.
That said, let’s try and compare the Steelers’ recent success when establishing air superiority versus the success when they win the ground battle. Over the same three-year stretch the Steelers are 25-10 (71 percent) when they average more yards per carry than their opponents in a single game. They’re 13-6 when they average less yards per carry in a single game. In other words, losing the edge on the ground isn’t anywhere near as devastating to them as losing it in the passing game.
I tried to expand this to look at full-season performances, and below is a breakdown of every Steelers season dating back to 1980 (excluding the seasons that were cut short by work stoppages … we’re only counting full 16-game seasons) and how their performance through the air and on the ground compared to their opponents. The numbers at the bottom are quick correlations to see how the advantages (or disadvantages) relate to wins. While they’re both important, having the edge in the passing game seems to be a bigger advantage for the Steelers.
Perhaps this is something to keep in mind the next time you read a game preview or watch a pre-game show that starts off by focussing on the running game and referencing “Steeler football.” Running the ball is important. You have to be able to move it on the ground for any number of reasons (keeping defenses near the line, running out the clock etc. etc. etc.) but it’s also important — and perhaps more important — to get big plays out of your passing game, while also preventing your opponent from doing the same.
If nothing else it shows that at least one NFL cliche is somewhat accurate: it really is a “quarterback-driven league.” It’s not a coincidence that the only Steelers teams to win championships were quarterbacked by Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger, while the only team to make a Super Bowl without either one of them came in a season (1995) where they threw the ball 100 more times than they ran it.
I’ll also point out, once again, that for as maligned as the Steelers 2010 pass defense was, and for as many seven-and eight-yard completions they allowed on third-and-five with Bryant McFadden sitting 10 yards off the line, they simply did not give up the big play, while the offense made, on average, between four and five per game.
UPDATE: I just went back over every box score dating back to the start of the 2003 season (I stopped there because that’s when ESPN.com’s box scores stopped) and found that the Steelers are 77-19 when they win the YPA category. That’s a winning percentage of 80 percent. Over that same time period they are just 17-29 when they lose it. A winning percentage of just 36 percent.