Will Steelers Deliver Tomlin a Losing Season?

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How do you go from 11-0 to 1-5 to close the season with a blowout loss in the Wild Card round, particularly when you don’t have massive injuries (the Steelers were the fifth-healthiest roster in 2020)?

It was because of the schedule that they started 11-0 and because it got harder they finished 1-5, coupled with an offense that was predictable, lacked creativity, and had bad play calls.

It looked like a choke job by the Steelers, but it was not. They were simply playing above their heads against bad teams the first two months of the season.

In 2020, behind the offensive design of then coordinator Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offense was predictable, uncreative and bland.

In a nutshell?

The Steelers just stood there in 11 personnel on 82% of pass plays (2nd most). They didn’t motion anyone anywhere (lowest rate). They didn't use play-action (lowest rate). What the defense saw, it got. They got the ball out as quickly as possible (fastest time to throw) and as short as possible (lowest completed target depth).

here was no attempt to disguise, fool, or gain an advantage.

Let's dig in.

Ben Roethlisberger averaged 4.6 completed air yards per attempt, virtually no improvement over Rudolph or Hodges in 2019.

A whopping 315 of Roethlisberger’s 501 attempts traveled no more than six yards downfield. Defenses eventually just squatted on these routes and dared the Steelers to throw the ball deep.

401 of Roethlisberger’s 514 dropbacks came from 11 personnel. During the regular season, the Steelers used 11 personnel on 82% of their passes, the second-highest rate in the NFL (behind only the Jaguars).

Using a lot of 11 personnel isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s not my ideal offensive system but given the right circumstances, it can work.

Take the 2018 Rams, who used it at a 94% rate and went to the Super Bowl. See the 2020 Chiefs who used it at an 82% rate and went to the Super Bowl.

But you know what both those teams had in common that the Steelers did not? An unabashed, passionate, lustful relationship with motion.

Look at the motion rates on pass plays, either pre-snap or play-action, of those teams compared to the Steelers on early downs in a game’s first three quarters:

2020 Steelers: 36% of plays had motion, 64% of plays had no motion
2020 Chiefs: 78% of plays had motion, 22% of plays had no motion
2018 Rams: 52% of plays had motion, 48% of plays had no motion

Just stand there in 11 personnel on 82% of pass plays. Don’t motion anyone anywhere. Don’t use play-action. What the defense sees, it gets. No attempt to disguise, fool, or gain an advantage. It was gross. How low was the 2020 Steelers rate of motion when passing?

Last year the Jaguars ranked 31st in motion rate, using pre-snap motion or play-action on just 44% of these early down passes in the first three quarters.

The Steelers ranked 32nd, all the way down at 36%.

Criminal.

You want more predictability?

If the Steelers had less than three wide receivers on the field, regardless of the down, they were 70% run. That was the most run-heavy team in the NFL. If the Steelers had three or more wide receivers on the field, they were 72% pass, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL.

Switching from 70% run to over 70% pass based on the number of wide receivers is far too easy for a defense to discern what the offense will likely do. There’s a reason not a single other team was more predictable run-pass split based on receivers.

But wait, it gets worse. You want even more predictability?

When the Steelers were under center, they ran the ball 85% of the time. When they were in shotgun, they passed the ball 76% of the time.

Fichtner’s run rate when under center was the highest in the NFL. No team’s play type was more defined based on where the quarterback stood pre-snap than Pittsburgh’s.

You want to see something simply uncalled for?

The Steelers’ EDSR ranking (Early Down Success Rate) was BETTER in 2019 with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges (EDSR rank of 29th) than it was in 2020 (31st), despite the 2020 team going 12-4.

We all thought it was cool when Bill Parcells said “you are what your record says you are,” but there’s nothing further from the truth, and the 2020 Steelers season was a perfect example of that.

The Steelers haven't had a losing season in any of Tomlin's 14 seasons. They’ve made the playoffs in five of Roethlisberger's last six healthy seasons.

In fact, it’s been 17 years since the Steelers posted a losing record. That’s far and away the best in the NFL. The next closest teams are the Seahawks and the Chiefs at nine and eight seasons, respectively.

I’ve had mixed emotions about Tomlin because the Steelers have too much talent to make some of the dumb mistakes they make from a coaching perspective and it gets highly frustrating.

But you can’t deny what he’s been able to do from a big picture perspective is extremely impressive. Ensuring the Steelers have a solid floor each season? Tremendous. Dealing with headcases like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown while they were in Pittsburgh, before their true nature exploded outside the Steel City? Phenomenal. Handling the “complicated fella” that is Ben Roethlisberger? Tremendous.

The problem is, the team has gotten further from ultimate success than closer to it of late.

In Tomlin’s first four years in Pittsburgh, the Steelers played in seven playoff games and won five.

In Tomlin’s last four years in Pittsburgh, the Steelers played in two playoff games and won zero.

Two Super Bowl trips and one Lombardi in his first four years.

Zero playoff wins in his last four years.

So here we are in 2021, needing to build a team that has one playoff trip in three years and it was a blowout loss… but hasn’t had a losing season since 2003.

How do they take the next step?

For starters, they fired Fichtner, and rightfully so. They replaced him with Matt Canada, a move that I saw coming a mile away back when they first hired Canada to be the quarterbacks coach. I literally wrote in last year’s book: “I wonder how these two offensive minds will co-exist because I can see Canada justifiably wanting to change up several elements.” Canada, in prior stops, has loved motion. He loves crafting offenses to support his personnel. He used spread sets with a dual-threat QB at Northern Illinois, switched to a heavy power rushing attack with Wisconsin and worked in a pro-style system with the Pitt Panthers and at NC State.

Canada loves using lots of personnel groupings, lots of shifts and motions and read options and varied tempo. Do you see why I thought it may not work between Canada and Fichtner?

Canada is the anti-Fichtner.

But because of Fitchner, Canada is being tasked with something that he must do, even if he’d rather not.

The Steelers say they want to get back to the run in 2021. And when I say the “Steelers,” I mean it.

Owner Art Rooney, in March of this year, sent a stern message to the Steelers: “We’ve got to be a lot better in running. We don’t want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing again ever. I think it’s something our coaches are focused on and we’ll be looking for ways to improve in the draft. It’s something we’ve got to fix, and we are working on it.”

That message resonated when the new offensive coordinator made his first public comments in June at the start of mini-camp: “Mr. Rooney sent out a very clear directive to Mr. [Kevin] Colbert, to coach [Mike] Tomlin and to me. We have to be able to run the ball. We have to run it.”

Let’s start with what we know is more important than a specific running back, the offensive line.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line got old quickly. And then they left. Maurkice Pouncey retired. Alejandro Villanueva went to Baltimore. LG Matt Feiler went to Denver. The Steelers’ 2020 Week 1 starting lineup of Villanueva, Feiler, Pouncey, Stefan Wiśniewski, and Zach Banner are all gone save for Banner. DeCastro was released late in June due to some injury concerns and Trai Turner was signed as his replacement.

There is another pattern that is evident which we know integrates into everything but isn’t discussed as much as it should be, and that is coaching. Examine the Steelers offensive line’s run blocking performance by season per PFF grades:

2012: 28
2013: 22
2014: 14 – hired Mike Munchak as O-Line coach
2015: 11*** best rushing season for Pittsburgh of the last decade
2016: 4
2017: 7
2018: 12 – last year for Mike Munchak in Pittsburgh
2019: 23
2020: 31

Right now, the Steelers don’t have the talent along the line they did when they were great, nor do they have the coaching of the line when they were great.

For several years now, the Steelers defense has been absurdly good. In 2019, they ranked third. Last year, they ranked first. But it wasn’t long ago (2018 to be precise) when this defense ranked outside the top-10. What carried the Steelers to four-straight playoff appearances from 2014-2017 and four-straight 10+ win seasons wasn’t the defense. It wasn’t the run game. It was the passing offense.

Examine the Steelers defensive rankings x their strength of schedule:

2018: ranked 14th, played the fifth toughest schedule
2019: ranked third, played the 18th toughest schedule
2020: ranked first, played the 29th toughest schedule

Guess what I predict the Steelers’ defense will face this year? The third toughest schedule. Baltimore’s offense will be better. Cleveland won't be worse. Last year, the Steelers played the NFC East and AFC South. This year, they play the NFC North and AFC West. The last time they played the AFC West was 2018 and they went 0-4. They haven’t played the NFC North since 2018, and while they won’t go 0-4, Pittsburgh is currently underdogs in two of those games. Pittsburgh also plays the Bills, Seahawks, and Titans (who just traded for Julio Jones). Every single one of those offenses can be scary good this year.

The bottom line is, I’m glad it’s Canada not Fichtner calling plays, but I predict the Steelers defense will regress some, and potentially a fair amount. Even if Canada can build a strong run game around the 24th overall pick Najee Harris, that won’t be enough. Canada must fix this passing offense. Frankly, there are a lot of easy fixes to be had and I’m optimistic he can make some simple changes to add efficiency. In a competitive division, the Steelers will need every efficiency edge they can get in 2021.

Linesmakers anticipate that same regression. The Steelers are even money to win over 8.5 games (per PointsBet). They're expected to have their first losing season of Mike Tomlin's illustrious career. Want to bet this team misses the playoffs? That'll cost you $215 just to make $100. Linesmakers intelligently lowered their forecast win total despite a 17-game season, but that hasn't stopped bettors from fading the Steelers in 2021.

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