Redefining ‘Steeler Football’: Is It All About the Passing Game?

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.

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  • BringBackYanceyThigpen

    Interesting. I think there is something to being effective in the running game, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of getting big plays in the passing game. Though, I suspect most people just look at the number of rushing attempts, conclude they’re a running team, and that’s why they win. Game manager and what not.

  • SteelerBill

    Running the ball to me has always been about attitude….Brian Billick (looks around for lightning to strike) once stated in answer to a question about his team’s success when they ran for 100 yards ‘if that were the case then we would just run 50 times per game’…

    Meaning simply it’s about attitude not necessarily any direct correlation to success. Nobody ever feels ‘beaten up’ after a game with the Colts. But it is telling as to what truly wins games….just don’t tell the old guard….

  • Anonymous

    These aren’t independent variables. How much and how well you run is correlated to how much and how well you throw. And note that it’s yard per pass attempt, not passing yards. The divisor is number of passes, which suggests throwing less often just as much as passing yards suggests throwing more often. If you throw once for twenty yards, you have a monster passing day by yards per pass attempt. And yes, I’m guessing you win. Why? Because you were playing so well (running the ball?) that you only had to throw it one time! How often this season did you think, man there’s no way this team can run on the Steelers, all they have to worry about is the passing game? There’s a lot of value in that. The other way around is true too. “Man nobody can seem to throw against our backfield of Polamalu, Reed, Revis, Asomugha, and Samuel. Let’s make sure we stuff the run.”

    • BringBackYanceyThigpen

      The point I took from this is that, while you’re correct in the statement that there’s value in the Steelers dominant run defense, making big plays is even more important. How many Steelers teams did we see in the 1990′s and 2000′s with dominant defenses (against the run and pass) and great running games but consistently come up short, either in the playoffs or regular season, because they lacked big play capablitity on offense because of either sub-par quarterback play or sub-par playmakers in general. Once the Steelers changed their approach with a franchise quarterback and playmaking receivers they started playing in Super Bowls again.

  • Mike L

    Intropy is correct. I remember a Steelers game, I think it was Ben’s rookie season where he was 11 fot 13 for 140+ yds. They ran over 30 times that game. Steelers football? When you can run well you force teams to bring a safety down into the box, this opens up the passing game for big plays. Often the team that has the most passing attempts loses, don’t they? If a team is passing well you may keep your safeties back and this will open up the running game. Passing more does not necessarily give you more big pass plays. Look at the pass/run ratio of Dallas and SF last season when they were losing they were near the worst in the league. Your chance of a successful play goes up when the other team has no idea if it is a pass or run, because the D-line attacks each differently. I think these points were missing in your discussion.

    • Cols714

      Throwing 13 times for over 140 yards will give you a YPA of greater than 10. That’s the stat he’s talking about, not passing yards in the game. I think the guys over at postgameheroes have been banging this drum for quite some time.

      • Gretz

        Right. It’s not about the number of passes, it’s about what you’re doing with them and when you’re doing it. I’ve used the 2005 Steelers as an example in the past. That team had huge rushing totals, but a lot of that season, and especially in the playoffs, they were coming out early in games and throwing the ball down field and building huge leads early in games. Look at the Indianapolis and Denver games. Roethlisberger torched both teams in the first half and gave them 20 point leads going into the half by making big plays in the passing game.

        • Anonymous

          And that makes sense. Obviously offensive what you’re looking for isn’t a great passing attack or an effective running game. You want a good offense, however you get there. You can win very which way, but football tends to have aspects reinforce one another. The run “sets up” the pass and vice versa because the defense has to consider both options. Similarly, a defensive game can be counter-intuitively high-scoring when a lot of turnovers yield short fields.

          There’s no doubt that yards per passing attempt is a great predictor. It correlates well with victories. It also tells at least part of the story of an effective passing attack, which is tremendously valuable. But I’d be careful extrapolating too much from it. I’m not saying you do that in the article (well, except for the YPA/big play connection – that I didn’t get), but it’s an easy trap to trip.

          Mike L’s comment about the team with the most passing attempts losing made me think of another point. When behind, especially later in a game and by larger amounts, you tend to have to pass more. Those passes, then, will on average come in worse passing situations (presuming that you would have run on some of the wost passing downs in an even game). That’s going to lower your YPA. Further, the defense, knowing you are more likely to pass will adjust its scheme to cover passes better at the expense of run defense. That will also tend to lower YPA. In a sense, wins could be a good predictor of YPA.

  • Cobra

    The merits of YPA have been discussed elsewhere add nauseum, and why is it a surprise that this team under Roethlisberger is among league leaders in that category when his strength is extending plays to make throws downfield. Instead, I’m interested in how this team does against quality QB’s who can spread us out defensively. This past season we lost the YPA battle to NO, NE and GB, and those are the teams we’ll have to beat to win another SB. The rest is garbage IMO.

    The team under Roethlisberger is not consistent from drive to drive because his ability to hold onto the ball and extend plays is also a detriment. Over the last 3 years offensively the Steelers have finished 14th in pts/game, 14th yds/drive, 15th TDs/drive, and 13th pts/drive.

  • SteelerBill

    So Cobra/gentlemen…wouldn’t that fact alone lend itself to the need to draft DB in Round One? (all other things being equal)…..

  • SteelerBill

    Gentlemen….good question asked over at SCI – how would the YPA look for the Bengals/Lions etc…?

    • Gretz

      Just looked at the Lions the past two years: When they win YPA they are 4-3. They are 4-19 when they lose it and 0-2 when it’s even.

    • Gretz

      And the Bengals over the last two years: 11-4 when they win YPA, 3-15 when they lose it.