BA Stays but Same Problem Remains: Steelers Can’t Score

To all of you who are glad that Bruce Arians is likely staying with the Steelers, I would humbly like to submit the following question: Why can’t this offense score points?

The Steelers are 19th in the league in total touchdowns with 36. Breaking that number down further we are 15th in the league with 13 rushing TDs and 13th with 21 receiving scores (then one each for special teams and defense – that defensive stat has the Steelers tied for second the last … but that’s another issue).

First off, I need to begin by saying that I am not a BA basher. I don’t blame him for all the woes of this team, nor do I put every loss at his feet. There are plenty of reasons why the Steelers, as a team, underperformed this season, from injuries, to clock management issues, and, at times, just plain poor execution on both sides of the ball. But here’s what I want to discuss: the offense and scoring in particular.

Why do we consistently fail to put up points when our team has an elite QB, one of if not the best group of WRs in the league, an elite RB (and an excellent backup), and an average (when healthy) offensive line? Sanchez, Romo, Ryan, Fitzpatrick and Newton all have more passing touchdowns that Big Ben, but few (Editor’s note: no one) would argue are better quarterbacks. This simply should not happen; none of these QBs have a better set of options for the pass.

Now many would say that our problem is poor offensive line play. But a quick look at Football Outsiders tells a slightly different story when it comes to pass protection. According to their stats, Pittsburgh’s O-line ranked 20th in pass pro. But Carolina (21st), Green Bay (23rd), and Arizona (28th) scored at least as many passing touchdowns as the Steelers (the Packers scored 51!) with worse performances from their offensive lines.

Another telling stat: Pittsburgh is 10th in the league in total passing yards this season, yet only 21st in scoring. The full list of teams with a better total scoring rank is a depressing read. These rankings tell a story every Steelers fan knows all too well, this team can move the ball between the 20s on almost any opponent but fails to finish drives. What’s more, this team hasn’t last broken the top ten in scoring since 2007 (9th), Arians’ first year as the offensive coordinator.

My argument is that given this team, with a franchise quarterback, outstanding receiving options including a solid tight end, and a very respectable set of running backs has continued to underwhelm. I have no suggestions for Arians’ replacement, nor am I saying fire him immediately. I just think we should look around and see what else is available.

Jeremy Clark is an attorney and a Steelers fan. He also runs the Lounge Legal Department.

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  • drobviousso

    tldr (though I plan on it later)

    Red zone performance is high leverage (meaning, has a big impact) but not predictive for the future. The same is true of third downs and the very end of the game (aka “clutchness”).

    Of all the problems the Steelers have, this is the last on my list of concerns.

  • Cols714

    Actually, doesn’ this look good for the future? Don’t teams that can gain yards but do badly in the red zone or on 3rd down tend to do better in those situations the next year?

  • Josh

    @openid-101072:disqus They averaged only 3.2 red zone trips per game (15th in the league)!

  • Josh

    Pro-Football-Reference ( puts the 2011 Steelers’ expected record using the Pythagorean expectation at 11.2 wins and 4.8 losses, which says they actually weren’t as good as their record. Pythagorean expectation is a better indicator of future performance than win-loss, let alone red zone or third down efficiency. It’s my understanding that those efficiencies tend not to carry over to the next season, but I don’t know about any yards gained to red zone or third down efficiency ratios that correlate to future success. The Steelers this season gained tons of yards but didn’t score (27th in yards per point) because the defense was last in the league in creating turnovers (less short fields for the offense), the offense was 22nd in giveaways (empty yardage), they didn’t get into the red zone often (15th), and they weren’t terribly efficient when they did get there (14th in red zone touchdowns and 18th in red zone touchdown conversion percentage).

    • Anonymous

      I think the KC game counts as 0.2 of a win.

    • Anonymous

      Josh, I’m not sure if you are disagreeing with my thesis or not.  But I think some of those stats at the end support my point, particularly the red zone trips and efficiency.

      • Josh

        I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing, and I’m anything but an Arians apologist (like most fans in section 106, I think he’s a turkey), but in my eyes the turnovers, both too many giveaways and too few takeaways (through 8 weeks, the Steelers had 3 takeaways, fewest in NFL history!) are the reason for this season’s inefficiency. As you pointed out, no Steeler team has truly excelled at scoring in the Arians era, but part of that is because the offense generally doesn’t have to score all that much to win. Point differential (points for minus points against) has been high since Arians took over (6th in 2007, 5th in 2008, 14th in 2009, 3rd in 2010, 7th in 2011).

        I do disagree with your assessment of the team having an “elite” RB.

    • Craig McLaughlin

      12 wins over 11.2 Pyth is just about a standard deviation above their projection, meaning they were within the normal range for a team with their point differential.

  • Cols714

    The Smizik column that Sarah posted below is pretty good. I agree with it all except that pocket passers are the “new wave” of NFL QB.
    The new wave are guys that can move and throw well on the move like Rodgers and Newton. Ben can also do this very well but he’s not in the same class of runner as Newton (by himself) and to a much lesser extent, Rodgers.

    I’m an Arians defender mostly because I think that playcalling is the simplest and dumbest criticism that can be made. If a team runs the ball and fails, armchair QBs yell they should’ve passed. If they pass and fail, armchair QBs say they should’ve run.

    A good example of this is all the bitching and moaning when they fail with empty sets or with bubble screens. They use those formations and plays because they have worked. Sometimes, obviously they don’t, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon these plays.

    I think the offense under Arians has been pretty good, especially the passing game. However, we could use a fresh voice with some new ideas in there.

    But all in all, I’m OK with him coming back as well. Continuity is important. 

    • Craig McLaughlin

      I’m not sure that offensive continuity is what you want if your offensive production is a concern.

      As far as playcalling goes – when Phil Simms is calling out your tendencies on national television, you’ve become predictable. And the WR screen that BA loves not only gains fewer yards than the average Ben pass, it has a higher probability of lost yardage as well.

      And if anyone thinks the problem is that short routes and dumpoffs are there but Ben won’t taken them (which is only partially true – I was shocked during a late-game drive a few weeks ago to see all three receivers run deep inside routes), then maybe Ben needs an OC whom, instead of being his best buddy, will tell him to check down once in a damned while.

  • Cols714

    For those who want to feel better about the team, read the shutdown corner’s post on them.

    “So why are we sitting here mourning the Steelers in the first half of January? What held this team back?

    What if the answer is “nothing”? What if, sometimes, you’re a very good team, and you just happen to be unlucky with the timing of some injuries, and you lose a game you normally win? Is it OK for an answer to be that simple?
    Because that’s all I really see. I know some Steelers fans aren’t in love with how Bruce Arians runs the offense, and everyone would’ve liked to see more depth on the offensive line, but this was still a very, very good team. They had just four losses ‒ all of them to teams that are still playing.”

    • Rob D

      Thanks..that was a good read.
      I never had the feeling that this edition of the Steelers was going all the way. But how many teams could overcome the dire situations we’ve had the last two years at the single most important area of a modern pro team..the O-line…and end up in a SB and then win 12 games the next year? Very few. We all have our criticisms and sore points about the Steelers and many of them are very valid (Tomlin and Co. game mngmt. skills for one) but we cheer for a team that every year fields respectable to elite teams that have a chance.

      As my buddy said to me the other day “Tomlin’s still just a pup and he’s already been to two SB’’re SOOOOO deprived! (he’s a Lions fan) We should not give up or critical faculties but we should also count our blessings.

  • DanKreider#35

    Why not bash BA? Everyone understands that the Steelers’ offense as a unit has been consistently inferior to the defense. An offense which now passes over 60% of the time – BA’s play-calling – must put up a lot more points than the old run-heavy days of Cowher. And perhaps more than anything, I think BA’s play-calling is shortening Ben’s career by years. All those empty backfield formations – all that physical abuse he takes scrambling around? Yikes. BA is bash-worthy!

    • Cols714

      So the Steelers lose because their defense gave up 10 bombs to Tim Tebow. And yet all we talk about is Arians.

      • GlennW

        With that said, there were still offensive problems in this game (the offense didn’t really get rolling until late in the 3rd quarter), and more importantly over the entire season.  Not grave problems perhaps, but a lack of scoring efficiency, as the article states.

        In the Broncos game, I would highlight the endgame in both halves in particular.  The 1st-half final drive was aborted by Legursky’s snap over Ben’s head (how much Red Bull did Legursky drink before this game anyway?– he was shooting bullets all night long, something I don’t remember him doing before).  The 2nd-half final possession was killed by Dumervil quickly breaking free and and making an amazing hands play to force the fumble.  I know that the coaching staff has come under fire for clock management and rightly so, but in this game the key breakdowns had little to do with the clock or the play-calling (some time was wasted at the end of regulation, but that wasn’t the cause of failure and the situation was still very manageable).  It was once again O-line, folks.

        • Cols714

          Oh I agree. I just hate reflexive Arians bashing. All empty sets are evil!! and such.

          But yes, the offense has problems. I really think it’s mostly a Ben problem. He just isn’t as good as Rodgers/Brady/Brees at the pre-snap stuff. This is where they really get hurt. Especially with a suspect OL.

  • L’eagle.

    The problem, in a nutshell, is that Ben is an elite quarterback but he’s not an elite *passing* quarterback (particularly true, of course, when he’s banged up).  Green Bay, Carolina, and Dallas all have QB who live and die by the passing game, but Ben relies a lot on his RB.  So long as he does that, the offense will score less touchdowns than those other teams that you mentioned because they’re chewing up clock time marching up and down the field, and they’re not giving themselves as many opportunities to score.

    • Craig McLaughlin

      This isn’t 2005. The Steelers have a 55-45 pass-run ratio, over the NFL average.

    • GlennW

      I would add to this comment by saying that it’s not so much that as a supposed “non-elite” passer Roethlisberger relies more on his RBs, bur rather Ben’s style lends itself more to offensive production between the 20s as opposed to in the redzone.  Think about it.  In the middle of the field, extending the play and allowing it to break down results in all kinds of open space to work with, space that the defense can’t hope to cover for so long.  But in the redzone defenses can hold their ground with more straight zone play from their safeties and hold up better.

      So I don’t blame all of this on Arians.  (It is funny to me that in such a relatively improvisational gun-slinger offense– which most of us seem to like– that Arians takes so much grief, but not Ben.  Never Ben, not even when he takes dumb sacks and the like.)   We could use faster decision-making and more precision in the redzone.  I agree that Ben isn’t on par with Rodgers, Brees, Brady etc. in this department.  We can live with that and win with it, but I do think it’s at least a small issue.

      • Anonymous


        I agree with you point about people focusing on Arians and not Ben.  Ben certainly deserves a share of the blame for our low scoring totals (killing drives with INTs, sacks, and he is the only one to blame for his injury).

        BUT isn’t the job of a coach to make a player BETTER?  Shouldn’t BA, MT, and the staff be (1) working on developing Ben (i.e. taking underneath stuff to slow pass-rush, improving his internal clock) and (2) creating a game plan that works with the strengths of your players?  I’m just of the opinion that BA and BB are not going to get any better together and perhaps we can look for an OC who can help take BB and the O to the next level.  After all BA has had 5 years now right?

        • GlennW

          You can make that argument.  Hey, you’d get no complaint from me if Arians were canned, because it would be no great injustice based on the overall body of work.  And change is inevitable.  I just don’t know if it’d make much difference, so I can’t definitively state a preference.  Ben may have already hit the ceiling on his abilities (a ceiling that’s been pretty decent).  And in particular, I think Smizik’s argument that a new OC would be able to rein Ben in more is a real stretch.  Ben’s going to change his style now?  Really?  Such a change might even produce a regression.  Who’s to say that Ben wouldn’t just be a fairly average “system QB”?

          In conclusion I’m not outraged by Arians being retained.  I think 2012 might very well be our last decent shot at the brass ring before a more major overhaul is necessitated.  It’s difficult to time such an overhaul (arguably it might be happening this offseason), but ideally that’s when the transition from both coordinators should take place.

          • Cols714

            Like you I would not be upset if Arians was fired. I’m also not upset that he’s retained. Continuity and all that.

            I totally disagree with you on 2012 being our last shot. I think we’ve been hearing this argument for the last 4 years. They will after 2012 still have a young offense and a defense that is making the transition and will have Timmons, Woodley, Harrison, Heyward, Taylor, Polamalu, Hood, etc. still around.

            Not going to be an overhaul, just a steady replacing of the ageing players.

          • GlennW

            You may be right about 2013 not being the major transition year.  Mostly I’m talking about whatever year Harrison, Polamalu, Clark and Taylor finally cease to be effective.  I don’t know when that will be, but they’re all getting up there in years.  You’d like to plug in comparable elite talent on the defense (okay, Ike and Clark are not elite) but that’s not easy, especially if the older talent all fades at once.

          • Rob D

            In my weaker moments, I think the overhaul has already started and we may suffer for the next 2 years with inferior teams as they fix the O-line, decide if they have anything worthy as successors in Brown and Cortez in the secondary and bolster the ILB position. We all like the Heywards on this team but there is no gurantee they will ever approach the level people like Aaron Smith reached over time in this system. WE have a lot of unproven talent (promising as it may be) and some key  guys running on fumes (Farrior, Ward).

            I watch other teams and the machine like way they go about scoring and wonder if we are missing the boat in terms of play design and in game adjustments. Someone posted about the few times we actually throw to our backs and it was kinda shocking. We need to improve in a lot of areas. Perhaps finding actual above average O-line people will help. We have gone with “buncha guys who are interchangeable) for too long.

          • Dean Keaton

            Most definitely the overhaul has begun – a whole new corps of WRs, two new DEs in the first round over the past 3 yrs, Woodley and Timmons are now the premier LBs on the team, Keenan Lewis will soon be the #1 CB, a new OT, new center, YET THE STEELERS STILL WON 12 GAMES THIS YEAR.

            Ryan said it in another post recently, but as long as Ben plays at the level he is and stays healthy, the rest of this team is good enough to keep the Steelers contending at the top of the NFL. The biggest place that concerns me is safety where nobody is developing behind the stud starters, but even Polamalu and Clark are only 30 and 32, respectively, so it’s not a particularly urgent need.

            Maybe I’m overly optimistic looking at a very good 2011 Steelers team was one win away from having home field advantage and an extra week to get healthy for the playoffs, but I say to those lamenting and worrying that Warren Sapp was right at the beginning of the season, “wake up, the window for this team is still wide open!”

  • hoosierSteeler

    Here’s an interesting question that has started to bug me: Is LeBeau’s philosophy outdated with the changing rules in the NFL? His philosophy is built on:
    1. stopping the run and making teams one dimensional (passing)
    2. forcing teams to make many shorter plays to work down the field
    3. assuming teams at some point will slip up and be unable to generate a first down and thus punt
    4. not give up big plays (avoid taking risks, except for Troy)

    I’m concerned because (particularly for playoff teams):
    1. more teams are pass-first and happy to be one dimensional (passing)
    2. more teams are happy to take quick, short completions out of spread-style formations
    3. penalties against defenses in passing situations (illegal contact, pass interference, defenseless receiver, etc) are approaching BIG PLAY distances, are more frequent, and often are effective
    4. the blitz concepts often don’t get to the QB soon enough to stop the first read if the D is playing a soft zone behind it.

    The defenses that we see succeeding at least this year (besides SF) are built on:
    1. disregard yard totals
    2. take risks to generate turn overs (at the expense of big plays)
    3. focus on preventing TDs when in the red zone
    4. trust your offense can score 25 points on average (maybe a bad assumption with the Steelers O)

    I think our D failed this year on point 2 (32rd this year and average of last 3 years on generating turn overs: and point 3 (14th this year with 50% TD rate:

    In the new NFL, defenses need to take risks with their secondary or be elite at rushing the passer (21st in sack per pass play percentage this year: The Steelers are neither and that (combined by with the lack of offensive consistency) is why they play close games against inferior teams and often lose to playoff caliber teams.

    • Cols714

      I think they were working on this and made some strides verse NE by playing more man to man coverages. 

      Except the two biggest losses of our season we played exactly the opposite of the normal Steelers defense. Instead of making Flacco and Tebow make many short throws to get down the field, we played press man coverage and were beaten by bombs. Which may be why they didn’t use this defense in the past.
      The press man worked against NE though which gave us all hope verse passing offenses. However this year we were beaten by mediocre (Ravens) and bad (Broncos) passing offenses.

      So to answer, I don’t know. I do think some new ideas and healthy OLBs would probably help.

      • hoosierSteeler

        I think there is a difference between playing press-man coverage and taking risks to generate turnovers. In your two examples the Steelers D generated 0 interceptions. I’m fine with them playing a zone or man, but it’s about taking risks rather than playing it safe and waiting for the other team to make a mistake.

      • GlennW

        In general I liked the press coverage when we employed it.  It was its use in game situations where we absolutely, positively couldn’t allow a TD that was problematic.  Especially in the second Ravens’ game, where an extreme prevent defense should have been in place.  That was criminal.  No idea what LeBeau was thinking there (again, Clark did screw up, but you’d think there’d have been an explicit coaching emphasis to “protect the goalline!”).

        In any case, I’d continue to use the press approach against the better passing offenses, no questions asked.

        • Cols714

          Agreed. Press coverage against good passing defenses like NE. However the Ravens end game and the Broncos OT I don’t think it made sense.

          The nice thing is we now have the CBs to do it, barring Ike Taylor melting down of course.

    • Dean Keaton

      I don’t think that any case can be made that LeBeau’s scheme is outdated when his defense has been a large part of 3 Super Bowl contending teams in the last 6 yrs, winning two, and the Steelers still won 12 games this year. Plus, it’s the same defense that Capers runs in GB, and their defense was pretty damn good last year when they won the SB. Are there specific types of offenses that can counter what he does that call for adjustments at times? Sure. Does that make it outdated? Not by a long shot.

  • GlennW

    To back up the point made earlier about the non-predictiveness of redzone scoring efficiency which might portend a rebound next season, believe it or not FO had the Steelers rated as a surprising #6 in the NFL in offensive DVOA (the defense was #7) in spite of the redzone problems and the #21 scoring offense.  This includes the 4 games of crappy offense when/after Ben got hurt.  I’m not sure that DVOA can properly account for some inherent shortcomings to our redzone offense (such as the “Ben style factor” I mentioned), but even still, this scoring picture might not be quite as bad as it seems.  I also have little doubt but that our #1 scoring defense held our own scoring down– teams score more when they have to, like when they’re getting blown out in a game.

    In Mike Tomlin’s five seasons 2007-11 our offense has ranked in scoring as follows: #9, 20, 12, 12, 21.  That #20 was the Super Bowl champion (granted, one that legitimately struggled on offense for much of the season).  I just feel that there’s enough variablity here with some mitigating factors present such that the scoring ranking isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.  Per DVOA and the like, our offense really has been above average overall in Arians’ tenure.  Not great, not special, but above average.

  • Rob D

    Indeed. Also, any injury to players in their 30`s usually end up lingering for longer than you would normally expect and sometimes end careers. Is Casey ever playing for us again after his serious knee? Is Kiesel? We don’t know but you can’t be surprised if that’s it..that’s all. Suddenly that vet presence you take for granted is gone and the bench guy has to step up immediately. Then you have the learning curve, the inevitable mistakes/setbacks and the time it takes to become competent at your position.

    Harrison wasn’t tthe same force this year..I suspect his back is the reason why.At his age, does he ever get back his former form? Great players usually rebound but ..not a guarantee. That’s 1/2 of our only 2 real pass rush threats with Woodley on the other side. We saw what our pass rush did without those two in the lineup or with one hobbled as Woodley was after the hamstring. We simply didn’t have one. Perhaps we need to find an ILB who can bring it in this draft. I used to think Timmons would be that guy but I am still not sure he has the heft to ward off blockers and get to the QB. Good player though not a Patrick Willis who he if often compared to. He’s probably an answer for all the athletic TE’s coming into the game and that’s invaluable.

    • Dean Keaton

      Don’t forget Worilds – he’s in his second year and took a big step this year, and after watching him in college I think he will end up being a pretty good replacement to Harrison coming off the edge full time in 2013, maybe even next year if Harrison is injured again or ineffective at some point

      • Rob D

        Very true..almost forgot about him. The flip side to a lot of the inexperience is that guys like him can blossom after going through the fire of an NFL season. He and Heyward played probably more than the coaching staff expected and they showed a lot of flash

        Same could be said for Antonio Brown and E, Sanders and others. I think we have equal reasons for optimism and worry this offseason. But if you look at our organzations track record, they find a way to get it done.

    • Cols714

      Let’s look at the aging players
      Hampton – He’s probably done, we need to draft his replacement in this draft, but with the way the NFL is going we should probably not need to use a 1st rounder here

      Harrison – Still pretty effective, Worilds looks like a decent replacement
      Farrior/Foote – I thought Stevenson was the next in line, but maybe not. Would not be surprised if a pick in the 1st three rounds is used at ILB
      Polamalu – Irreplaceable
      Clark – Still playing well, probably has 2-3 more years
      Taylor – Still playing well, probably has 2-3 more years
      Keisel – I thought he was having a great season, probably still be effective for a couple of more years, Heward is his replacement
      Smith – Done, Hood is here but he hasn’t really lived up to his draft status quite yet

      Am I missing anyone? Seems like we are in pretty good shape. A young DT to take over for Hampton, an ILB, and safety seem to be the priorities here.

  • GlennW

    > “wake up, the window for this team is still wide open!”

    Every third season since 2001 we’ve dropped a non-playoff stinker in there though.  It’s a trend I hope we break in 2012.  I don’t consider myself a pessimist or anything; it’s more that I don’t take anything for granted.  Especially in the NFL.  For one thing we’re likely going to be facing a tougher schedule next year, and this is a team that could move in either direction.
    Nonetheless there’s enough there to fuel championship hopes under the right circumstances, and that’s all I ever ask for– a chance going into the season.  Expectations for anything more is to be spoiled, given the NFL system.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    In terms of the D creating not turnovers, there were some obvious factors (mostly playing WRs with a sizeable cushion, injuries to Harrison and Woodley). But one somewhat less obvious one is that Troy seemed to play close to the line in run support or play an extremely deep CF. It seemed like he used to play a shallower CF, allowing his burst to disrupt or pick off more 12-20 yard passes.

  • Pagejoseph1

    I’ve had the opportunity to read the blogs and comments. The truth is we all had high expectations of the Steelers going to th SB, despite injuries. Issues of consern:
    1. Ben, needs to be committed to working out, if he’s going to continue to take a pounding, he should be in shape. Secondly, football IQ. Blogger indicated elite quarterback, do you think Ben has same football IQ as Rogers or Breez? Come on Man. Ben is good, but elite…no! Arrogant…yes!
    2. O-line, D-line, and corners have been suspect. Yes, the went 12-4 (reg. season) statistically outstanding for the D, but flawed.

  • The Public Professor

    I think you’re overrating the receiving corps.  The WRs are great after the catch, but not big targets and a bit redundant to each other.  Heather Miller is a good receiver, but no where near as good as the new crop of elite recieving TEs in the NF (Graham, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Davis, etc.).  Plus, the reason their line play was decen is because Miller had to stay in and block so much.  

    In short, Roethlisberger doesn’t have as many and as many kinds of weapons as the other high scoring offenses.  They need someone who can work the seam and/or a better receiving option out of the backfield.