I won’t bury the lede.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers can prevent teams from gains of 35+ yards, they win. When they don’t, they lose.
That’s why this was one of Dick LeBeau’s core principles and made the Steelers’ defense so tough to beat. Keith Butler has carried the torch to a similar philosophy but this season, carrying it out has been more difficult.
The research doesn’t take long. I plugged in data on Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder for plays – run or pass – of 35+ yards against the Steelers this year.
They’ve allowed nine of them, seven in the air and two on the ground.
Eight of those have come in losses. Three against Miami, two against New England and Philadelphia, and one against Baltimore.
The only one given up in a win was against Kansas City, Spencer Ware’s 46 yard scamper in the dying moments of a game long decided. So to recap the 35+ yard plays.
In Wins: 1 allowed (.25 per game)
In Losses: 8 allowed (2 per game)
Simple as that. No X’s and O’s required here. When the Steelers’ defense keeps a lid on things, they win. When they don’t, they lose.
The team is on roughly the same pace as last year. Gave up 19 such plays last season, on pace for 18 this time around. And this upward trend began in 2013. Let’s compare it year-by-year under the Mike Tomlin era.
2016: 18 (projected)
Of course, the Steelers’ defense has gotten worse from a personal standpoint so it’s no surprise to see these numbers shoot up. Plus other factors, like the progressive passing nature of the game, a more high-powered Steelers’ offense that has compelled teams to pass more, you get the idea.
But for the Steelers to get back on top, this number has to drop off in the second half of the season. If they can even end the year at 15, their lowest in that 2013 to now span, they’ll have a chance to turn things around. That means allowing an average of under one per game; a tough but necessary task.