The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will the Steelers be able to build off the success of their running game in terms of scoring production?
Ever since the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger in the first round, the team has slowly but surely morphed into a passing offense, which has resulted in the team relying more upon scoring through the air rather than on the ground. Of late, they have often scored rushing touchdowns for an entire season in the single digits.
Since Roethlisberger’s rookie season, in fact, the Steelers have only scored at least 20 rushing touchdowns once, in 2005, the year they finally reclaimed the Super Bowl title, when they had 21, although that included three rushing touchdowns from Roethlisberger himself.
The Steelers had 16 rushing touchdowns in each of Roethlisberger’s other first five seasons, with the exception of 2007, but they have struggled to reach even 15 touchdowns since. From 2009 to 2015, in fact, they have done so twice, in the only years in that span that they have won a playoff game: 2010, and last season.
Last year, the Steelers totaled exactly 15 rushing touchdowns, including 11 from DeAngelo Williams, which was the most from a Steelers back since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010. Le’Veon Bell also had three of his own.
There is plenty of reason to believe that the team can continue to improve upon those numbers, and it starts up front, because the interior offensive line has been run-blocking better than it has since Alan Faneca left. This season, they will be replacing a journeyman center with an All-Pro.
Williams’ results in particular are impressive, and it is worth considering that they were all of the short-yardage variety, almost exclusively in goal-to-go situations. the Steelers have been seeking answers in improving their red zone production for years, but their success in these situations on the ground last year suggests they must not abandon the run close to the goal line as they have tended to recently.
It is also worth pointing out that Bell’s most successful stretch in terms of scoring came at the end of the 2014 season. He also had moderate success scoring in his five-plus games played in 2015, but he was playing with a weakened unit.
With a team at full capacity, the Steelers should find themselves in more goal-to-go situations than Bell saw last year, and he and Williams have shown capable of taking advantage of those opportunities. And I also expect to see a couple of breakaway touchdowns mixed in that were missing from last season.