Steel Curtain Network: A Pittsburgh Steelers podcast

For the Steelers to keep winning games, an elite run game will do the trick

I found myself discouraged by the response to the Steelers win this past Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. During our Post Game podcast, so many fans made the game about Kenny Pickett and claiming “he’s not it” after throwing for only 126 yards and no touchdowns. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t get it now.

I thought Kenny Pickett did exactly what he needed to do for the Steelers to win that game. Was he called on to make a heroic fourth-quarter comeback? No. What Kenny Pickett did most in the game was exactly what has been what has paid off for the Steelers for a very long time…

He handed the ball off.

Of course, the other large thing Kenny Pickett did to help win the game was by taking care of the football. Even though there were some throws that potentially could have been turnovers, the Steelers still ended the game with a big is zero in that department which is something they have done when Pickett has been the quarterback over the last four games.

I was overjoyed and all ready to go to share in the excitement of a Steelers team who rushed the football for over 200 yards. I hooked up my microphone and was ready to start our Post Game Show live on YouTube with the excitement that the Steelers running game, the true catalyst to their success, was getting going. But for too many fans, it didn’t matter. It was all about the passing game.

But is it really all about the passing game with the Pittsburgh Steelers?

I decided to take a dive into the numbers for the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast. I looked at games over the years where the Steelers had a poor passing performance versus an exceptional passing performance. I then looked at the games where the Steelers had a poor run performance versus an exceptional rushing day. I set the numbers myself because I had to go somewhere. I’m sure plenty of people will have an opinion of how I shouldn’t have set them where I did, but I didn’t have a chance for the input before I spent hours searching the data.

When it came to a poor passing day, I set the standard of being 150 net passing yards or less. Of course, this takes into account if the Steelers gave up a lot of yards on sacks but I went with net yards. For an exceptional passing day, I went with the standard of 350 net passing yards.

When it came to running the football, I looked at a poor rushing day as being 75 rushing yards or less throughout the game. And when it came to having an exceptional day, I went with 150 rushing yards or more.

To set a frame of reference, I decided to look at these numbers for the entire league. This was quite a task as there were pages and pages of data. In order to actually be able to sort through it, I decided to use the most recent trend and use the last 3.5 seasons. So here’s the data since the 2020 NFL season of when all NFL teams, in both regular and postseason, fit into these two extreme categories. These games were done completely independent of each other as I did not compare rushing and passing statistics within the same game.

Entire NFL since 2020:

Under 150 yards: 113-183-1 (.382)
Over 350 yards: 91-38 (.705)

Under 75 yards: 117-318-1 (.269)
Over 150 yards: 343-130-4 (.723)

To get a larger sample size, I decided to go back to the year 2000 and include all of Ben Roethlisberger‘s career in order to look at these numbers for the Steelers. I also gave the data for when they fell in between. First, let’s check out the passing numbers:

Steelers since 2000:

Under 150 yards: 35-17 (.673)
Over 350 yards: 16-17-1 (.485)
In between: 205-113-2 (.644)

Notice the Steelers do not follow the trend in the NFL. When they’re forced to throw the ball with a quarterback has 350 or more passing yards, it doesn’t equate in a victory nearly as often as the league average. Also, they win at a higher rate when throwing 150 yards or less compare to throwing 151 to 349 yards.

Now let’s take a look at the rushing yards:

Steelers since 2000:

Under 75 yards: 42-70 (.375)
Over 150 yards: 98-8-2 (.915)
In between: 118-69-1 (.630)

When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers, how they run the football dictates their outcome more than anything. They have an extremely high winning percentage when it’s an elite rushing day.

So for me, if I’m going to choose between 150 rushing yards or 350 passing yards, give me the running success all day.

Of course the NFL has changed. Perhaps this was true in the year 2000 but not in today’s NFL. So I decided to look more recently despite a smaller sample size to see if there was a significant difference in the trends. So here are the numbers for both passing and rushing for the Steelers since the 2015 NFL season:

Steelers since 2015:

Under 150 yards: 6-3 (.667)
Over 350 yards: 8-7 (.533)
In between: 76-45-2 (.626)

Under 75 yards: 23-30 (.434)
Over 150 yards: 23-1-1 (.940)
In between: 44-24-1 (.645)

While it was good to see the Steelers finally had a winning record on games they passed over 350 yards, it wasn’t that much of an improvement. But the biggest thing that stands out above anything else, when the Steelers rush for over 150 yards they almost always win the game.

Looking at that 28 –1–1 record since 2015, what stands out to me are the two games that weren’t victories. The tie came in Week 1 of 2018 in that crazy, rainy game against the Browns. The loss for the Steelers game in overtime on a Thursday night in 2015 against the Ravens, a game that I’m more efficiently call “The Scobee Debacle.” The Steelers had no business losing that game until their kicker couldn’t make a basic kick in the NFL when given multiple opportunities. But in both cases, the Steelers did not pull out the victory in a game which went to overtime.

I want to see the Steelers have an elite quarterback. I don’t know a single fan that doesn’t want the Steelers to have an elite quarterback. But putting all your feelings about the Steelers onto that one position isn’t backed up by the data. The Steelers have much more success when they don’t have to call on their quarterback to be great.

To hear more about these numbers, check out the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below:

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