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For The Steelers, 23 Is An Ugly Number

The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t a franchise that often retires jersey numbers but 23 is one that needs to be banished. Not in celebration but as a hopeful escape. For the past two years, the Steelers have finished exactly 23rd in red zone offense and that’s not a number that’ll win them enough games in the future. A fitting number to talk about here on January 23rd.

The correlation is obvious. Finish more red zone drives means putting up more points which means winning more games. It isn’t any more complicated than that. There’s a reason why the Steelers have ranked in the 20’s in points-per-game each of the last two years, 21st and 26th. It’s hard to be a high-scoring offensive attack when you settle for field goals.

Of the top ten red zone scoring offenses this season, eight of them made the playoffs. Six of them made it to the Divisional Round, including the top three, and three of the top five units remain: the Chiefs (#2), Eagles (#3), and Bengals (#5). Only the San Francisco 49ers are an exception, the 20th ranked red zone offense, adjusting to life with a third-string rookie and benefitting from having the best defense in football.

To the Steelers’ credit, and it was a figure that consistently surprised me, Pittsburgh had some of the longest drives of the season. They led the league with 45 drives of 10+ plays in 2022, five more than any other offense in football. But they only finished with a touchdown on 15 of those possessions, exactly 1/3 of the time, an ugly and unacceptable percentage that ranked bottom-third in the league.

For all of Randy Fichtner’s warts, he improved the red zone offense. #1 in 2018, #11 in 2020 (they were dead last in 2019 but get a pass considering the total lack of talent). The Steelers need to figure out his secret. Maybe it was letting Ben Roethlisberger be Ben Roethlisberger, Fichtner giving Big Ben complete freedom to run the offense exactly how he wanted to. Whatever it was, it worked, and that’s about the only time Pittsburgh’s had red zone success. They haven’t under Canada and even under Todd Haley, the group consistently underwhelmed and underachieved, 22nd in 2017, Haley’s last year coordinating the team. Other units approached top ten but considering the firepower, it never felt acceptable.

Even during the Steelers’ strong second half of the season, a 7-2 finish, their red zone offense was just 54.8%, 17/31. That’s not good enough. So what is? Above 60% is the goal. That should put Pittsburgh on the verge of being top ten if not at #10 itself. At minimum, that’s the mark this team has to hit.

It doesn’t require a radical change, Pittsburgh’s sat in the low-50s each of the last two years, so just a couple more trips could be the difference. But those trips can be the line between winning and losing a game. For a Steelers’ team that plays so many close contests, 12 one-possession games in 2022 alone, what they do (or fail to do) in the red zone is often the line between a W or a L. It’s one of many areas Matt Canada must improve this team going forward if the Steelers want to truly compete and if Canada wants to keep his job.

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