The Pittsburgh Steelers may have finished ranked 16th in rushing offense in the league last season, averaging 109.5 yards on the ground per game, but I believe it’s safe to say that that does not paint a complete picture of the team’s performance as a running team.
There was a time—very early in the season, admittedly—when the Steelers were, in fact, leading the league in rushing, and even late in the year, they still had a top 10 rushing offense before they ultimately finished dead in the middle of the pack.
There are two specific reasons for this, or at least two events that stick out in the timeline, and they curiously have nothing to do with the offense struggling.
Some of the team’s worst performances running the ball, either by volume or efficiency, game during the teams’ mid-season three-game winning streak and during their four-game tear at the end of the year that vaulted them to a 11-5 record and a division title.
The former had much to do with Ben Roethlisberger’s unprecedented passing performance, while the latter had everything to do with opposing defenses targeting Le’Veon Bell after a historic performance of his own.
The Steelers did not run the ball efficiently at all between Weeks Seven and Nine, but in those games, Roethlisberger threw for 1127 yards and 14 touchdowns versus zero interceptions, converting on well over 70 percent of his passes. Pittsburgh also happened to win those games.
Late in the year, following three straight impressive performances—both on the ground and in the air—from Bell, the Steelers’ last three opponents keyed their game plan around stopping him. And it’s worth noting that they all lost.
In the last three games, Bell carried 14 times for 42 yards, 20 times for 63 yards, and eight times for 20 yards (before, of course, getting injured). In all, he carried 42 times over the span of the last three games for just 125 yards, an average of just under three yards per carry, and well over a yard and a half shy of his season average.
But he also had three rushing touchdowns in those games, the defense had improved, and Roethlisberger was able to more than enough through the air to secure each victory.
It would be fair to say that the Steelers’ two worst all-around efforts as a team in the ground game came in their losses to the Buccaneers, during which they averaged 3.1 yards on 21 carries for 85 yards, and especially to the Jets, where they gave up trying, rushing just 17 times for 36 yards at 2.1 yards a clip.
No doubt the offense still has room to improve when it comes to the ground game, but I believe that what last year showed, more than anything, is that the Steelers have one of the most balanced offenses in the league.
When the ground game isn’t clicking, Roethlisberger can air it out. After all, the Steelers did finish second in the league in terms of passing offense and total offense. In fact, they placed quite well as a rushing team when you compare them to the other top passing offenses of last season.