The average fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers (a contradiction, perhaps?) carries with him or her several pet theories about the Steelers' offense under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. With Pittsburgh's #1 scapegoat having been retained, perhaps thrown a life preserver by his quarterback, for at least one more year, we'll "go to the tape" to examine some popular hypotheses:
1. Arians loves those double tight end sets; Matt Spaeth's on the field for 90% of the plays: FICTION: Whereas Matt Spaeth was on the field for just under 50% of all offensive plays in '08 while starting one game, the double-tight set, never really the Steelers' base, has diminished in usage in '09, with Spaeth on the field for just over 36% of all offensive snaps. Excluding plays negated by penalties, and kneeldowns from Victory formation, the Steelers ran multiple tight ends on exactly 1/3 of all offensive plays (333 of 999). Conversely, the Steelers ran three or more wide receiver sets on 62.4% of all offensive plays (623 of 999) with No. 3 wide receiver Mike Wallace being on the field for over 59% of all snaps.
2. Arians lovers those triple tight end sets; he runs them all the time: FICTION: The Steelers ran 3 tight ends on 50 of 999 offensive plays during the '09 season. Perhaps fueling this confusion is the Steelers' usage of tight end D.J. Johnson as a fullback, thus having #83, #85 and #89 on the field at the same time. The Steelers did run a double tight-end with fullback on 68 additional offensive plays.
3. The Steelers are simply awful on "yard-to-go" situations. They're not able to ever run for the first down. FICTION: This was my belief as well, and I had a handy explanation, and sought the data to offer support. Guess what? It really wasn't there. I've postulated a number of times that the Steelers' perceived difficulty on "yard-to-go" was due to their not having invested adequately in their offensive line, and no longer having a back with "lean," ala Jerome Bettis.
Comparing "yard-to-go" situations from '04 and '05, with a line consisting of three No. 1 draft choices, a 2, and a 3, with that of the '08 and '09 seasons and an offensive line that's highest pick was a No. 3, yielded some results which were expected, and another that was surprising.
In the '04 season, the Steelers converted 71.7% of their "yard-to-go" challenges, moving the sticks on 33 out of 46 chances, running on 42 of those plays, 31 times (73.8%) successfully. Three of the 11 stoppages came on consecutive second, third and fourth-down carries by Bettis during a winning effort at Cleveland.
In '05, the success rate was nearly identical, converting 40 out of 56 opportunities (71.4%), including 39 successful yard-to-go runs out of 53 attempts (73.5%). Again, two of the unsuccessful attempts were against the Browns, this time in Pittsburgh, on consecutive third and fourth-down attempts by Bettis and Charlie Batch.
In '08, reputed to have the worst offensive line of any previous Super Bowl champion, the Steelers struggled on yard-to-go. They converted at a rate of only 51.7% (30 out of 58), running successfully 57.4% of the time (27 out of 47). Notably, the Steelers attempted to gain the down by passing with yard-to-go 11 times in '08, compared to only four times in '04 and three times in '05.
There were memorable but not fatal failures in the championship season of 2008. The Steelers didn't convert either yard-to-go opportunity in the Monday Nighter vs. the Ravens, but lived to tell about it. Mewelde Moore was stonewalled in consecutive attempts from the one-yard line against San Diego, but the Steelers won without scoring a touchdown. The following week, his failure to convert inside the Colts' five-yard line was key in a losing effort. The Steelers were stopped on the goal line against the Cowboys as well, and later during the Divisional Playoff game against the Chargers, but won both games.
With my theory one step away from apparent validation, it fell flat on its face in examining the '09 campaign. The Steelers, in this non-playoff year, converted 40 of 53 yard-to-go chances (75.4%), running successfully on 35 of 45 attempts (77.8%). Both marks were the highest of the four-year period.
There were certainly some notable failures this year as well, some contributing to the Steelers spending January in front of their fireplaces rather than on the gridiron. Commencing with the opener vs. Tennessee, a third-and-one handoff to Mewelde Moore late in the fourth quarter was unsuccessful, and the Steelers kicked to tie the game on fourth down. Fortunately, they converted a key third-and-one in overtime on a slant to Santonio Holmes, and won the game. Perhaps the most damaging failure came at Paul Brown Stadium on the Steelers' first possession, when a failed Willie Parker attempt on third down from the Bengals' one resulted in a field goal attempt, and an eventual loss. We all remember the failed third and fourth-down tries in the shadow of the goal line against Oakland, as well as the infamous sack on third-and-1 on the shores of Lake Erie on a frigid Thursday night. 4.
Those empty sets are awful, never work; Steelers always are sacked in the red zone FACT and FICTION: Steelers employed an empty set 81 times in the '09 season. They threw 67 times, completing 44 for a completion percentage of 65.7% (compared to 66.6% total), picked up 511 yards, 7.6 yards per attempt (compared to 8.6 total). Two passes were intercepted, 3.0% (compared to 2.3% total), and the Steelers suffered seven sacks (one for every 9.6 attempts, compared to one for every 10.7 attempts total). It's fact that this set was largely ineffective in the red zone, completing only three of 10 passes for 24 yards, one touchdown, with one interception, and two sacks. Rounding out the numbers, the Steelers ran two reverses out of empty sets, and the results of five plays were negated by penalty.
For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com