Barnwell: Steelers Will Only Go As Far As Defense Takes It

Sitting at 4-3 on the season and a favorable two-week stretch in the schedule coming up, things are starting to look up for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021.

Currently, the Steelers sit in third place in the AFC North, and unsurprisingly hold the third-highest chances of winning the division per ESPN’s ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) projections. That projection has the Steelers at 14.1%, which sounds about right at the moment as the Steelers are one game back of the Cincinnati Bengals and two games back of the Baltimore Ravens.

With that in mind, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell broke down all four AFC North teams and their respective FPI projections, while also dishing on the flaws, surprises and strengths of all four teams in the tough division.

For the Steelers, the flaw remains Ben Roethlisberger, who — according to the numbers — is roughly the same quarterback he was one season ago, per Barnwell’s writing.

“By traditional measures, Roethlisberger’s season looks virtually identical to what we saw from the future Hall of Famer a year ago,” Barnwell writes. “His completion percentage in 2020 was 65.6%. It’s 65.1% this season. He averaged 6.3 yards per attempt last season and is now up to 6.6. His interception rate has moved all the way from 1.6% to … 1.5%. After averaging 253.5 passing yards per game a year ago, he’s at 254.4 this season.”

Where Roethlisberger has declined in 2021 in Barnwell’s eyes is in QBR, which is largely due to the amount of sacks Roethlisberger has taken so far (14) compared to all of 2020 (13). Add in the five fumbles through eight weeks and there’s your slight difference in some of the advanced numbers with Roethlisberger.

Then there’s the issue of the offensive line for Barnwell. While the Steelers jettisoned off four of the five starters from a year ago, went with the youth movement and expected growing pains. The offensive line has certainly been better in recent weeks, but the advanced numbers tell a different story at the moment.

“Roethlisberger’s sack rate has doubled despite getting the ball out after an average of just 2.37 seconds, the quickest rate in all of football,” Barnwell writes. “The Steelers as a whole rank 30th in pass block win rate, down from 28th a year ago. First-round pick Najee Harris has averaged 2.03 yards before first contact, which ranks 37th out of the 50 backs with 50 carries or more this season. The line is certainly cheaper, which was hugely important for a team in dire cap straits, but it still hasn’t been good.”

Good news for Steelers fans is that the defense remains one of the league’s best, largely due to the game-changing presence of one T.J. Watt.

Watt has certainly saved the day a time or two this season, while Joe Schobert and Taco Charlton saved the day in Cleveland one week ago, giving the Steelers a one-game lead over the Browns in the divisional race.

“The offense is about what we would have expected heading into the season. The defense, on the other hand, isn’t doing the things we would have put down on paper,” Barnwell writes. “It’s certainly not bad. Watt and Cameron Heyward have been excellent, and Alex Highsmith is coming into his own as Bud Dupree’s replacement. The Steelers rank sixth in scoring defense and 10th in defensive DVOA; the expectations in Pittsburgh on defense are always going to be high, but they haven’t struggled in the way that the Ravens have on defense this season.”

Despite some of those advanced numbers, Barnwell writes that he’s still a bit concerned about two key missing elements in the Steelers’ defense through eight weeks: Turnovers and pressure.

Turnovers played a large part in the Steelers starting 11-0 last season, recording 23 takeaways in that span. So far, the Steelers haven’t come close to that number, which doesn’t help a struggling offense start on short fields and put points on the board. Along with the lack of turnovers, the Steelers have gone through a sort of philosophical shift on defense, blitzing just 20.2% of the time, down from 40.6% in 2020. That decline in blitzing also goes hand in hand with the decrease in pressure rate. In 2020, the Steelers pressured quarterbacks 36.7% of the time. This season, that number is down to 26.6%.

All that said though, the Steelers are the second-best team in the league at turning pressure into sacks, which is why Watt has 8.5 sacks on the season to date, and the Steelers have 19 sacks on the season.

The Steelers will have to keep that rate up if they want to make a postseason run, according to Barnwell.

“We know the Steelers have that sort of performance in their range of outcomes if they can make it to January, although they have just a 1.7% chance of coming away with the top seed in the conference, per FPI,” Barnwell concludes. “Given that the offense has shown few signs of explosiveness or looking much different than the moribund slog we saw for most of 2020, the Steelers are going to go as far as Watt & Co. can take them.”

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