When I recently reviewed the Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 regular season defensive rushing stats a few things stuck out to me and it caused me to research them further.
For starters, the Steelers defense ranked last in the NFL during the 2016 regular season when it came to yards per carry allowed on rushes scored as going up the middle (5.15). Additionally, the defense ranked next to last in the NFL during the 2016 regular season when it came to yards per carry allowed on rushes scored as going off right end (7.09).
Upon seeing these averages and rankings I immediately guessed that a few long runs allowed in both of those directions attributed to the poor rankings and high numbers and that was indeed the case.
Of the 110 rushes up the middle against the Steelers defense during the 2016 regular season, 145 of the 546 total yards allowed came on three runs. One of those three runs should be very easy to remember as it was the 32-yard scamper by Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott with 15 seconds left in Week 10 game. In case you’re curious, the other two runs were by Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (46 yards) and Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (67 yards). Both of those runs came late in the fourth quarter and on second and long plays.
As for the Steelers allowing an average of 7.09 yards on runs off right end, two of the 23 going in that direction came courtesy of Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi and totaled 95 yards. The other 21 runs gained a total of 73 yards for an average of 3.48.
Now, you certainly can’t just pick out the long runs to fit a narrative, but as you can clearly see, the averages for both those directions were heavily skewed by just a handful of long runs.
In my honest opinion, yards per carry has become a very outdated stat and that’s because I think successful play percentages are much better to use alongside yards per carry. I’ve already defined what makes any play successful or unsuccessful in previous posts. In short a first down play is successful if it gains 45% of the yards needed, a second down play is successful if it gains 60% of the yards needed, and a third or fourth down play is successful if it gains 100% of the yards needed.
When you look at the 110 running plays up the middle against the Steelers defense during the 2016 regular season, roughly 47% of them were successful runs. To give that number some perspective, the New Orleans Saints defense allowed a league-low 2.23 yards per carry on runs scored as going up the middle during the 2016 regular season. Roughly 31% of those 64 runs were successful using the parameters laid out above.
Now, the other thing that I noticed when it comes to successful runs up the middle allowed by the Steelers defense during the 2016 regular season is that 22 of the 49 came in three different games against the Dolphins, Cowboys and the regular season finale against the Browns. That’s roughly 45% of all successful runs up the middle against them in 2016.
So, does the Steelers run defense need to improve up the middle in 2017? Most certainly, but with that being the case, they weren’t as bad up the middle in 2016 as their direction ranking might suggest.
To wrap a bow around all of this, the Steelers defense allowed just 2.32 yards per carry on 22 runs up the middle during their three playoff games. However, 9 (41%) of those runs were successful ones. Only 51 yards were gained with 19 of them coming on two plays. See how these yards per carry averages don’t tell the whole story?
In the coming weeks I will look at the successful run percentages by direction of all 32 NFL teams last season and present those rankings to you.