Let’s Get Nerdy: What’s Really Wrong With the Steelers

Pittsburgh is atwitter with allegations of ineptitude following Sunday’s mildly surprising loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who, with all apologies to the late Mr. Cope, no longer appear to be bungling anything.

Steeler Nation quickly raced to their telephones to drown their sorrows in an all-day, talk radio Blame Game party that wasn’t broken up until a whambulance had to be dispatched for a Penn Hills man who nearly died of pessimism.

Thankfully, YOU, sensible Pittsburgher, are in luck, because Pulling No Punches came to work this morning wearing its pocket protector. Let’s get nerdy and go inside the numbers to see what precisely is ailing the 6-3 Men of Steel.

Yinzer assertion #1:

“Kicker Jeff Reed is the problem. Cut him!”

The statistics:

81.3% – Reed’s field goal percentage; 17th in the NFL.

1 – Touchbacks forced by Reed this season; the worst in the NFL.

The verdict:

Sort of true. Reed is not the whole problem for the Steelers’ woeful special teams defense. A kicker is not paid to make tackles. Reed is paid to do two things: to make field goals, for which he is rather ordinary, and to boot the football really, really far on kickoffs, for which he is abysmal, at least in 2009.

Reed has been criticized for his lack of tackling temerity. In reality, it’s his leg strength that is the real concern. His 60-yard average kickoff ranks his right leg as the weakest in the league. I suggest implementing towel dispenser high-kicks into his workout routine.

Yinzer assertion #2:

“The offensive line still stinks! Bring back Dermontti Dawson!”

The statistics:

2.9 – average sacks per game let up by the Steelers offensive line; tied for 26th in the NFL. Their company at the bottom of the rankings? Oakland (2-7), San Francisco (4-5), Detroit (1-8), Washington (3-6) and Kansas City (2-7).

4.3 – Steelers’ average yards per rushing attempt; 15th in the NFL.

The verdict:

Actually, false. This is once instance where the numbers do not tell the whole story. The offensive line has significantly improved in 2009, especially in holding the line for the running game. In 2008, they were breached faster than a Tijuana border fence. This year, they’re unspectacularly workmanlike.

However, Big Ben continues to hold onto the ball for longer than he probably should. Many of the sacks the Steelers have given up this season have been coverage sacks – where Roethlisberger has had plenty of time in the pocket, but no open receivers to throw to.

Don’t like Ben’s never-say-die approach in the pocket? What are you, French? Tough baguettes, mon frère. Yes, it’s true that the Steelers are treading in dangerous waters by letting up so many sacks, but the payoff is usually worth it.

Case in point: The Steelers average 8.2 yards per pass attempt (4th best in the NFL) compared to the aforementioned 4.3 yards per rushing attempt (15th in the league). Why not play to your strengths? The Steelers did so last season, and they won a big, shiny Super Bowl ring.

If you listened to the misguided Yinzers on the talk-show yap lines, you’d think evil-doing offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was aerially obsessed. In reality, the Steelers’ pass-to-run ratio is 12th in the league.

I’m no doctor, so take it from licensed professional Dr. Dre: “The game done changed, folks.” Passing works. If you want to see ugly running, go to an Ohio State co-ed volleyball game.

Yinzer assertion #3:

“The Steelers need to get back to SMASH-MOUTH FOOTBALL to salt away games. And on another note…..BEER RUN!!!”

The statistic:
32 minutes, 1 second – average offensive time of possession; 7th in the NFL.

The verdict:

False. This assertion is marinated in misguided nostalgia. The Steelers are doing a fine job of possessing the football for long stretches of time. Because Ben Roethlisberger’s completion percentage is a stunning 67.9%, the Steelers are able to keep the clock rolling in the second half without tucking their chins and settling in for a predictable 3-to-6 runs and a punt.

The Steelers have lost three close games in 2009 because of the following two numbers:

3 – Special teams touchdowns allowed by the Steelers and…

25.9 – Average yards given up by the Steelers per kickoff; 4th worst in the NFL.

Why are these two numbers, specifically, so crucial? 

These stats are paramount because they show that even though the Steelers defense is still second-best in the NFL in yards allowed (sans Troy Polamalu no less), and despite Ben Roethlisberger having the most efficient season of his career (8th best QB rating in NFL), the momentum of a football game can swing dramatically a span of just 20 seconds – the time it takes for an opposing returner to find a sliver in the special teams wall and jet to the endzone.

It’s deflating. It’s demoralizing, especially when it happens in front of the home crowd.

For the Steelers, special teams lapses have cost them three winnable games, and perhaps the NFC North crown.

The Steelers, probably more than any other team in the league, live and die off of momentum. 60 Minute Men win Super Bowls. 59-and-a-Half Minute Men get bounced in the Wild Card round.

If there’s one coach in the NFL who can motivate his players to put in the overtime necessary to get the little details right, it’s Mike Tomlin.

Either that, or start making “Renegade” mandatory for every kickoff.

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