PITTSBURGH – Look, everyone knows the 2021 version of Ben Roethlisberger was not the same player that comprised the overwhelming majority of his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Big Ben was very limited in regard to his game, to put it mildly. Therefore, Matt Canada had to adjust to his players’ strengths, as any good coach would do.
Unfortunately, those strengths turned the Steelers offense into one of 2021’s worst units in regard to overall production. For example, Pittsburgh averaged slightly over 20 points per game (21st) and ranked 25th in overall offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
The offense suffered in singular ways, as well. One such way was the passing game. Overall, the Steelers passing attack fielded a final mark of -0.12 EPA/att and the third-lowest positive play rate in the entire NFL, per Sports Info Solutions.
Roethlisberger had obvious issues pushing the ball down the field, which resulted in a ton of targets for Najee Harris, the Steelers’ No. 1 running back. In fact, per Sharp Football Analysis, the Steelers targeted their running backs at the second-highest rate in the NFL in 2021 (26%). The Saints (27%) were the only team to target the position at a higher rate.
That’s already a concerning statistic, but what takes it to the next level is the fact the Steelers tied for the fifth-lowest ANY/A and had one of the lowest EPA/att rates in the league (-0.12) when targeting the running back position (a league-high 106 total targets), per SIS. Per Sharp Football, they also had the 10th-lowest success rate (40%) when targeting the position, as well.
Harris produced in the passing game, but he wasn’t necessarily an efficient option, evidenced by his mark of -0.07 EPA/tgt. That was the 11th-lowest mark among backs with at least 42 targets in 2021. This is nothing against Harris: he is a good back. However, when it comes to basic philosophy, it’s typically not a good idea for a team to heavily involve its running back in the passing attack.
The receivers suffered, as result, in regard to target share. The Steelers targeted their wideouts at the third-lowest rate in the league (55%). Two of the top-4 teams that targeted their receivers -the Bills, Rams, Commanders, and Bengals- finished in the top-10 of overall offensive DVOA and three of the four finished in the top-10 of points scored. Washington was the only one avoid a top-10 finish in either category.
This has to change if the Steelers want to become a better and more efficient offense in 2022. If you look at the offenses with the highest target share at running back -the Saints, Steelers, Panthers, Lions, Raiders, and Eagles- none finished as a top-10 offense in terms of overall offensive DVOA and five of the six finished 19th or worst. All six finished 18th or worse in terms of points per game, as well.
The good news is that Kenny Pickett and/or Mitch Trubisky should go a long way in helping the Steelers offense evolve the way it needs to. Both players have the proper skill set to take Canada’s offense and turn it into a much-improved unit in 2022.
This isn’t to say the Steelers shouldn’t target their backs. They just need to find more efficient ways and create better opportunities for the guys in the backfield. While not actually relying on the position as much. And a lot of that is possible thanks to the new signal callers behind center.
Featured image via Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports