Data Shows Steelers Both Avoid Play-Action Passing And Are Bad At It

I still remember the time that Todd Haley was brought in as offensive coordinator, and he talked about how big a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense play-action passing would be. For much of his career, Ben Roethlisberger liked to utilize play-action passing and was very successful doing it. That hasn’t bene the case for most of the past decade, however.

In fact, thanks to numbers posted by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, we can see not only how little the Steelers have actually used play-action in the past half a decade, but also how poorly they have executed it—or at least how poor their results have been.

“Last year was the FIFTH straight year that Pittsburgh had a backwards relationship with play-action”, he wrote on Twitter, meaning that they have had more success on offense when they passed the ball without play-action rather than with it. The purpose of using it is, of course, to gain better results. And basically every other team manages to do this.

Not only have they had their fifth consecutive season in which they have been less successful using play-action than not, they also posted their fifth consecutive season in which they used play-action less often than every other team. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger under center, evidently.

On average, the Steelers have used play-action passing about 13 percent of the time over the course of the past five years. the past two years, they have even averaged fewer yards per pass attempt when using play-action, which is striking, since much play-action passing consists of deep targets enabled by drawing in the safeties and linebackers.

One doesn’t necessarily know for sure what to conclude from this data. Would the Steelers be more successful running play-action if they simply did it more often? Or is the data telling us that Pittsburgh should not be running it, and are better off without it—or at least in very small doses?

While I’m of course a fan of play-action in concept, it only makes sense to use it if it’s working, just as with anything else. The numbers at least do clearly show that there is a lot of room for improvement if they do ever want to run it more.

But there is no indication whatsoever that the Steelers are or would consider changing course and using it more. Randy Fichtner is going into his third season as offensive coordinator and has a long history with Roethlisberger, who, chances are, if he wanted to run play-action more, would do so.

The only real hint of a possible change is the hiring of Matt Canada, who has a long history of being an offensive coordinator at the college level, and Mike Tomlin has said that he will have some input. He did use movement and things like that a lot in his offenses. But his impact may be years in the development.

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