Pittsburgh’s Path To A Super Bowl

The Pittsburgh Steelers have entered a new era. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and General Manager Kevin Colbert have both retired after a combined 40 seasons with the franchise. One of Colbert’s final acts with the team was drafting Ben’s successor behind center, Kenny Pickett. But can he be Pittsburgh’s path to a Super Bowl?

Pickett hopes to pair with Head Coach Mike Tomlin to bring the Steelers their next Super Bowl trophy. But how can this team accomplish that?

There is one team in the NFL that has been in Super Bowl contention for the last three years that looks very similar to this Pittsburgh team. From their well-respected head coach to a quarterback with less than elite arm talent to everything else surrounding them. That team has laid out Pittsburgh’s path to a Super Bowl.

That team is the San Francisco 49ers.

Quarterback Play

A team’s ability to compete for a Super Bowl really starts and stops with the play of the quarterback. And for the last several seasons the quarterback for the 49ers has been Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G” has been in San Fransisco since 2017 but has really only had two consistently healthy seasons since that time. In those two years the 49ers have lost in the Super Bowl (2019), and in the NFC Championship Game (2021).

Despite his good looks, moxie, and high praise from his teammates, Garoppolo is a limited quarterback compared to his peers. He does not possess elite athleticism with his legs or his arm, and is prone to turnovers (less than a 2:1 TD/INT ratio over last three seasons). In his two seasons as the full time starter Garoppolo has been middle of the pack when it comes to yards and completed air yards per pass attempt. However he is at the bottom of the league when it comes to intended air yards per pass attempt, aggressiveness percentage and air yards to the sticks (AYTS). You can see these advanced stats and their definitions at NFL Next Gen Stats.

These statistics are all telling us the same thing: Jimmy Garoppolo does not push the ball downfield. In fact, his longest completed air distance pass last year was tied to the decimal with Roethlisberger (53.1) as well as his AYTS (-1.9). Continuing to compare these two, we can see how both teams decide to mitigate their QB not pushing the ball downfield.

Staying on NFL Next Gen Stats and using their individual game passing charts there is one distinct difference between Garoppolo and Roethlisberger. That is a willingness to throw the ball in the middle of the field (MOF). The MOF helps a QB in multiple areas:

  1. The ball goes a shorter distance when throwing the MOF than to the sidelines. Even short throws to the sideline require some arm strength and ball velocity to avoid interceptions.
  2. The MOF is a more open space and can result in more open receivers at shorter distances, rather than trying to beat defenders deep.
  3. The same openness in the MOF can result in great Yards After Catch (YAC) opportunities, and increase a passing game’s total value. Even if the air yards are not that high.

While Garoppolo was very happy to use the MOF and was quite good at it, for one reason or another Roethlisberger was not comfortable utilizing the MOF. Perhaps it was because of his issues with passes being batted down at the LOS.

However the MOF is something that Pickett loves to use and is proficient in. According to charting by Ben Solak of The Ringer, Pickett was exceptionally accurate over the middle of the field. This will be helpful for the new QB considering arm strength is one of the biggest knocks on his game.

Running Game

Now before deciding where to throw the ball if your quarterback isn’t elite, you want to decide how much you’ll have to throw it. Obviously a great way to keep this number down is by having a strong running game. There 49ers were one of the top running teams in the league last year. They were seventh in total rushing yards and tied for fourth in rushing TDs. Digging into the advanced stats they were fourth in Rush DVOA.

They weren’t only proficient in the run game but they were committed to it. During the regular season they were fourth in the NFL in rush attempts on first down and 11th in rush attempts on second down according to Sharp Football Stats. They were ninth in the league in successful run plays on those downs, which created manageable situations on third down. Third-and-shorts are easier for QBs to manage, and gives them a lot of space to work with even without having a strong arm.

Pittsburgh is certainly no stranger to running the football. But between an aging then inexperience offensive line and injuries at running back, they’ve struggled to do so as of late. Add on top of that a HOF QB and you don’t want to run that much. But they have been preparing for this day over the last few years.

Last year they drafted a running back, Najee Harris, in the first round. Harris is an extremely talented runner who had a good rookie season. Unfortunately he played behind a poor offensive line with two rookies and two other new starters. This year they revamped the offensive line which is now a little more experienced and talented all together. Add in the rookie QB and this team is ready to run.

The Steelers should be able to get their run game back on track this season. Both in volume and production. Doing so will greatly improve the offense.

Yards After Catch (YAC)

When it comes to the 49ers and their receivers, YAC is the biggest component. Last year the 49ers had three players in the top 12 in the league in YAC/reception. Wide Receiver Deebo Samuel led that category with 10.4. Going back in the previous two seasons, Samuel was first in 2020 and second in 2019, and Tight End George Kittle (12th in 2021) was eighth in 2020 and fifth in 2019. San Fransisco makes their big plays in the passing game with the method “catch short, run long”.

Whether or not Pittsburgh has players who can create this sort of output remains to be seen. Dionte Johnson and Chase Claypool have both shown they aren’t proficient in the MOF. However both certainly have the athleticism to make big plays once the ball is in their hands. Tight End Pat Freiermuth could turn into a YAC creator with his combination of size and athleticism. He won’t necessarily run away from anyone, but is strong enough to break a tackle, and nimble enough to get on the move afterwards. The increased likelihood of boot plays this year also bodes well for him catching passes on the move.

Rookie Wide Receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III will be interesting additions for this category. Pickens is an outside receiver with good speed and strength, but hasn’t shown a lot of YAC. What will be most interesting is if his presence moves Johnson or Claypool into the slot more, despite their past struggles. Austin III is a great slot candidate with his stature and speed. If he can get on the field enough, he might have the best odds of being a lethal MOF option.

For a great piece describing how San Fransisco uses the MOF and YAC to fuel their offense, check out this article by Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders here.

Defense

If you want to compete for Super Bowls but don’t have an elite offense, you better have an elite defense. The 49ers have just that. Last year they were 10th in points allowed, seventh in rushing yards allowed, sixth in passing yards, third in total yards and were tied for fifth in the league in sacks. Looking at the advanced numbers they were seventh total defensive DVOA (15th in pass, 2nd in rush).

The 49ers defense starts up front which is led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. The Steelers absolutely have their equivalent with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. San Fransisco has the linebacker advantage with All-Pro Fred Warner roaming the middle. An elite pass defender and sideline-to-sideline mover, he can cover up a lot on defense. Pittsburgh hopes to have something of that sort this year. Devin Bush needs to have his best season as a pro. Now a season and a half removed from the torn ACL, he should bounce back after a down year last year. They also brought in Myles Jack from Jacksonville.

The secondary is definitely where Pittsburgh has an advantage. Led by their own All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh was eighth in the NFL in Defensive Pass DVOA last year and has a slew of good players in the defensive backfield. As always rush and coverage go hand in hand, and once again the Steelers had a great pass rush last year. They led the league in sacks in 2021 for the third season in a row.

The main thing Pittsburgh will need to do is get back to stopping the run. I mentioned the 49ers elite run defense from last year. Whereas Pittsburgh was basically the worst run-defense team in the NFL. This stemmed from injuries on the defensive line to key players and poor play from the middle linebackers. With a (hopefully) healthy defensive line and improved play up the middle, we should see the Steelers get back to form in this regard.

Conclusion

Leading up to the NFL Draft I had my concerns with this quarterback class, especially Kenny Pickett. Like so many others I watched the AFC Championship game last year and wondered how any team could hope to compete for a Super Bowl without a quarterback that resembled the two I just watched. Throughout the draft process I comped Pickett to Garoppolo, and not as a compliment.

When the selection was made I thought back on my comp to decide if I was too harsh. I then stopped to think about the fact that the 49ers have been in Super Bowl contention with Garoppolo. And despite the fact they seem ready to move on to their more “toolsy” QB Trey Lance, you can’t argue with the results.

If the Steelers can get back to an elite defense with a healthier defensive line. If they can improve the running game with the investments they’ve made the last two offseasons. And if they can create a passing game that utilizes the best parts of their passer and pass-catchers. Then there’s no reason this team can’t compete for a Super Bowl. This is Pittsburgh’s path to a Super Bowl.

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