View Full Version : The Pittsburgh Paradox

09-22-2010, 11:55 PM
The Pittsburgh Paradox
Cold, Hard Football Facts for September 22, 2010

Itís safe to call the Steelers the premier NFL franchise of the Super Bowl Era.

You know the story: Theyíre a model of stability, with just three coaches since 1969, and each won at least one Super Bowl. They were the first franchise to win three Super Bowls, the first franchise to win four Super Bowls, and the only franchise thatís won six Super Bowls. They suffer a losing season about once every presidency (seven since 1972).

The same family still owns the team. The fan base is the most rabid in the nation Ė easily the best traveling fans in pro football Ė and the entire region of Western PA is committed to the quaint notion that you win by playing defense and running the football.

(Ah someone need to tell Cold Hard Football Facts that it's jut not that we are "the best traveling fans in football", it's because WE ARE ALREADY THERE! - mesa)

The unprecedented success in the Super Bowl Era represents quite a paradox. Those of you who study football history know that the Steelers were easily the worst NFL franchise in the pre-Super Bowl Era. The organization was founded in 1933 and it not only failed to win a championship, it failed to win so much as a division or conference title until 1972. Thatís four decades of futility without a single taste of postseason success.

That paradox is nice, but it's also ancient history. A new Pittsburgh Paradox, a more profound Pittsburgh Paradox, defines the team in recent years, and in this very 2010 season.

As we noted earlier this week, the Steelers as of today rank:

No. 1 in our Defensive Hog Index
No. 32 in our Offensive Hog Index

In other words, the Steelers field the best defensive front in football and the worst offensive line in football. Sure, itís only two weeks into the season. But two weeks are also 12.5 percent of the schedule. The train has left the statistical station.

And it's not just the two weeks of this season that are the problem. If it were, we wouldn't have a story. Instead, it's the fact this these 2010 trends are part of the much larger Pittsburgh Paradox.

As we noted in the overviews of our Hog Indices this week, the Steelers are going on three straight seasons with outstanding defensive lines and terribly weak offensive lines.

The 2008 Steelers ranked No. 1 on the Defensive Hog Index and ranked No. 28 on the Offensive Hog Index.
The 2009 Steelers ranked No. 12 on the Defensive Hog Index and ranked No. 22 on the Offensive Hog Index
The 2010 Steelers, as noted, rank No. 1 on the Defensive Hog Index and rank No. 32 on the Offensive Hog Index.

Itís great to field a shut-down defensive front, as Pittsburgh showed in 2008, when it parlayed the leagueís best Defensive Hogs and a clutch QB into a Super Bowl championship despite a really bad offensive line.

But itís odd that an organization that's prided itself for so long on smash-mouth football and on winning the war in the trenches would struggle so badly on the offensive line.

Of course, there is a place to point to find the downfall: Alan Faneca was an All-Pro stalwart at left guard for the Steelers from 1998 to 2007, a period during which Pittsburgh routinely ran the ball well. During Fanecaís last year with the Steelers, Pittsburgh fielded the No. 14-ranked Offensive Hogs and averaged 4.24 YPA on the ground, the NFLís seventh-best ground attack in 2007.

Faneca was so good that Pittsburgh fans named him to the franchiseís 75th anniversary All Star Team. Then, at the end of 2007, he left to sign a major-bucks deal with the Jets that the Steelers would not match. Pittsburgh's Offensive Hogs immediately fell apart in his wake. Maybe itís coincidence. But, the fact of the matter is that Faneca's departure coincided with the downfall of Pittsburghís OL.

The player whoís suffered most has been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It was something of a miracle that he was able to guide the team to a championship in 2008, despite playing behind guys who couldnít run block (29th with 3.68 YPA on the ground) and who couldnít pass block (28th with 11.5% Negative Pass Plays).

The instinct, including the famously near perfect pigskin instinct of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, was to blame Big Benís style: he held on to the ball too long, he tried to run too much, he didnít make good decisions, etc. The fact that he consistently won and consistently delivered big plays, including one of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history, should have squashed many of those criticisms. But, regardless, the criticisms existed and had statistical merit.

But Big Ben has missed the first two games of 2010, and itís already clear that the problems attributed to him are largely problems with the poor quality of player Pittsburgh puts in its front five: the Steelers after two weeks are No. 15 running the ball (3.89 YPA), No. 31 in Negative Pass Plays (16% of dropbacks), and dead last on third down (20.7% success).

Despite these weaknesses, the team is still 2-0, yes. But itís also scored just one offensive touchdown in more than eight quarters of play. (The one offensive score was the winning TD in Week 1 overtime against Atlanta.)

So expect the offense to improve dramatically when proven winner and clutch big-play maker Roethlisberger returns to the line-up in October. Just donít expect the Offensive Hogs to get much better any time soon. They've been this bad for a while now.

The bright note in the Steel City is that the Pittsburgh Paradox proved to us in 2008 that the team can win a title behind its Defensive Hogs and its Big Ben, no matter how poor the unit is that pretends to protect him.