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2017 NFL Offseason Review: Pittsburgh Steelers
With the 2016/17 NFL season officially a thing of the past, NFL fans across the league have to contend with serious feelings of withdrawal, as all teams grieve the loss of NFL football from being a part of their lives, and 31 teams have their grief compounded by the fact that their season ended in a way other than how they wanted it to end.
For fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this grieving process is simultaneously both more and less piquant than for most other teams.
The Steelers have it better than most teams due to their uncommon success, both throughout the Mike Tomlin/Ben Roethlisberger era, as well as last season specifically. While losing in the AFC Championship is a very tough blow, winning the division, enjoying two full months of consecutive wins, and winning two playoff games all in the same season is certainly an experience that many fans would kill for.
Steeler Nation certainly has reason to celebrate. But for the diehard fans, this success also has a rather bittersweet flavor. Even without his saying it explicitly on a radio show, it’s apparent that Ben Roethlisberger may not have very many years left as an elite QB, meaning that each year that the Steelers fail to capitalize with a championship can feel like a season wasted for Pittsburgh fans.
And it’s not just Steeler fans that care about the state of affairs in Pittsburgh: After being a dominant, dynastic power in the NFL for over a decade, the rest of the league is licking its chops, hoping to take their place once the music stops.
In this edition, we amble over to the Steel City to take a look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, including what happened in Pittsburgh over the course of last season, what moves they’re going to have to make in order to address their team’s issues, and whether or not the Steelers have what it takes to be a legitimate contender in 2017/18.
Last Season: In Review
The Steelers started out the 2016/17 season feeling as hopeful as any team in the league – more so, in fact. Pittsburgh had made the playoffs in 6 of the last 9 seasons (with two Super Bowl appearances during that stretch), and was returning the same coach/quarterback combination on which their success was built.
Additionally, the dominant impression left by the prior season – the 2015/16 season which ended in a Divisional Playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos – was that the only thing that had really held back the team and kept it from achieving its ultimate goal was injuries.
The Steelers sustained a rash of key offensive injuries in 2015/16, and so with an offseason for rest and relaxation, Steelers fans felt that their goals were in reach in 2016/17, and that they would be able to once again make a run at a title.
The biggest roster changes that the team dealt with on the offensive side of the ball headed into the season was the departure of long-time tight end and franchise standout Heath Miller, who retired after 11 seasons for the Steelers, and the suspension of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, lost for the season with another drug-related suspension.
The defense had also undergone a considerable amount of change in recent years, with the retirement of the old vanguard (players such as future-Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu) and the furious draft focus on bringing in fresh blood on the defensive side of the ball.
It was with these high hopes that the Steelers entered the 2016/17 season, confident in their ability to make a run at a championship.
Pittsburgh opened the season on a very high note, winning four out of their first five games against quality opponents including the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs. Discounting one real stinker of a loss in Week 3 on the road against Philadelphia, the Steelers offense averaged 34 points per game in their four victories.
More important for the fans, though, was to see that their young defense was also performing at a high level. Once again excepting the 34 points given up to the Eagles in Week 3, the Pittsburgh defense averaged just shy of 15 points allowed per game in their first four wins.
This was very rewarding for Steelers fans, particularly considering the amount of resources that had been invested in the defense.
Going into the 2016/17 season, the Steelers had used five out of the last six 1st-round draft picks on defensive players, and had invested every single 1st and 2nd-round draft pick in the prior three seasons in defensive personnel. Even still, going into the season Pro Football Focus had the Steelers ranked in the bottom third of the league for both the front seven (ranked 25th) and the secondary (ranked 21st).
And so, for a unit that contained so many question marks headed into the season, with a huge requirement for young players to step up, to see this unit play well in the first month of regular season play gave Steelers fans a lot of confidence in their team’s ability to potentially make a playoff run down the line.
Additionally, there was an immense sigh of relief across Steeler nation to see star running back Le’Veon Bell return to the field after missing the second half of the previous season with injury and subsequently being suspended for the first three games of the 2016/17 season for being in violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Bell’s first game of the season coming off suspension came the week after the Steeler’s awful 31-point road loss to the cross-state rival Philadelphia Eagles. In Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Bell notched an impressive 144 rushing yards and 34 receiving yards on 18 carries and 5 receptions.
Bell would not score a touchdown in that game against the Chiefs, primarily because Ben Roethlisberger ended the game with 5 passing touchdowns and the only running touchdown of the game would end up going to DeAngelo Williams.
And while Bell’s first touchdown wouldn’t come until Week 9 and his next 100-yard game wouldn’t come until the following week, it was nonetheless a huge confidence boost for fans to see Le’Veon back on the field, as it started to paint a picture of just how potent the Pittsburgh offense could be when at full strength.
Unfortunately, however, after this initial leap out to a 4–1 record, the offense would not end up at full strength again until much later.
A turning point arrived for the Steelers in Week 6 when, after a 4–1 record to start the season, the Steelers would both lose the following game in Miami, and also lose their star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a torn meniscus.
During the game against the Dolphins, it was certainly a terrible sight for fans to see their franchise quarterback go down yet again, appearing to earn his now-perennial midseason injury. But Roethlisberger did end up going back into the game after being injured in the second quarter, and so fans can’t have felt too much concern at the time.
More concerning, however, was the fact that the Miami Dolphins were running roughshod over the Pittsburgh defense. While the D was certainly still growing and developing at this point in the season, a core piece of their identity was built around the ability to stop the run, and true to form in the first five games the defense had averaged only 77 yards per game (despite having given up 125 yards on the ground in their bad loss to the Eagles).
This came to a screeching halt when the emerging Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins run game gashed the Steelers for 222 yards and three total touchdowns, with two coming from Ajayi and an additional rushing touchdown coming from Dolphins backup running back Damien Williams.
Importantly, this alarming lapse in run defense would continue for the next week, where the Steelers were given the unfortunate opportunity to follow up a tough loss by facing the New England Patriots. In the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers gave up 140 rush yards and lost the game 16–27.
The bye week that followed in Week 8 could not have been more ideally timed, as it gave Big Ben the opportunity to rest and recuperate his torn meniscus. As is his penchant, Ben somehow managed to improbably return to the field much earlier than expected, starting in the following game against the Baltimore Ravens.
However, it may have been better for all considered if he had stayed on the sideline. Roethlisberger went 23 for 45 in this game, a road loss to their hated rivals, for a 51.1% completion rating – his lowest of the season. After three losses in a row, the Steelers were officially in a slump, and the out-of-sync play of the offense was certainly part of the problem.
Ultimately, the team would need to lose one more game before completely pulling out of their slump. Though Roethlisberger came back to form in Week 10 against the Cowboys, going 37 for 46 for 408 yards and 3 touchdowns – a passer rating of 125.4 – the Dallas offense overwhelmed the Steelers, putting up 127 rush yards and ultimately winning the game 35–30.
The important thing for Steelers fans was that they finally felt back in rhythm, and more than ready to break their 4-game losing streak.
At the end of their midseason slump, the Steelers had gone from 4–1 to 4–5, with a lot of national buzz about what was wrong with the team, whether or not the playoffs were still in reach, or even some more alarmist pundits questioning whether or not Roethlisberger still had what it takes.
But over the course of the regular season, the Steelers would do more than silence the critics. Though the race for the AFC North would last all the way up until the Week 16 rivalry showdown, with the Baltimore Ravens lurking as a possible candidate to steal the division away from the Steelers, ultimately Pittsburgh would end the season on a 7-game win streak, (including a win over the Ravens for the division), going from 4–5 to 11–5, and earning them the #3 seed in the AFC.
It’s important to note, though, that despite the fact that the Steelers would end up winning 9 straight games before their ultimate loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, their play was not at all above critique.
The Steelers started out their 7-game stretch of regular season wins with three strong defensive performances against the Browns (9 points allowed), the Colts (7 points allowed), and the Giants (14 points allowed). However, their next three wins – each of which was meaningful for their very playoff livelihood – had an average of just over 22 points allowed, against the Bills, Bengals, and Ravens.
Furthermore, one could say without fear of contradiction that the play of Ben Roethlisberger during this stretch of games was very erratic. Despite being sacked only 3 times Ben threw 6 interceptions to 9 touchdowns during the last 6 games of his season (Roethlisberger was sat along with other key starters for the team’s meaningless game against the Browns in Week 17).
Big Ben also showed stretches where he was generally inefficient with the football, reaching a season low passer rating of 37.8 in Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills. Roethlisberger threw 3 interceptions and 0 touchdowns in this game.
This and other factors combined to keep the fan base from being quite as excited as they could have been going into the playoffs as the #3 seed. In particular, their strange and sloppy Week 17 overtime win over the Cleveland Browns left a bad taste in the mouths of some Steelers fans.
Even still, the team responded well in the first round of the playoffs, enjoying the presence of Le’Veon Bell in his first career playoff game, a dominant win over the Miami Dolphins (who at that point were missing their starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill). The game kicked off at 1:05 PM eastern time, and at 1:25 PM eastern time fans on both sides felt like the game was over, with the Steelers jumping out to a very quick 14-point lead.
But this strength of play did not continue into the Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs, primarily because the strength of the opponent went up considerably. The Steelers did squeak out a win but were unable to score a touchdown, and benefitted greatly from the many mistakes made by the Chiefs.
In the following game, Pittsburgh was soundly beaten by the New England Patriots, and in a bit of dark irony ended their season yet again in a playoff game featuring an injured and absent Le’Veon Bell, who left the game early with injury.
In summary, from mid-November to mid-January was certainly a stretch that included a lot of wins for the Steelers, and there were undoubtedly moments when the team looked dominant. But it would be incomplete not to conclude that this stretch of football – ultimately ending in a rather hopeless loss against the eventual Super Bowl champs – certainly raised some questions about the team’s identity.
Pittsburgh’s Strengths and Weaknesses
By reviewing the story of the Steelers’ 2016/17 season in this way, we see that while the team did enjoy a level of success much higher than the average NFL team and did make it all the way to the final four teams remaining, it’s certainly the case that there are holes in the roster that should be explored and explained.
In general, all teams that are facing the turnover from great aging players to a younger crop of new players will have to undergo an identity change, as the young replacements come into their own in the NFL and develop their own leadership style.
In the case of the Steelers, however, the effect is compounded: Not only have they been going through a longer-term identity change of this sort on the defensive side of the ball for the last few seasons, they could potentially also be facing the end of the Ben Roethlisberger era within the next few years.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Pittsburgh Steelers unit by unit.
The Steelers’ offense ended the 2016/17 regular season with one of the most statistically prolific offenses in the league, ranked 10th in the league in points scored, averaging 24.9 points per game, and ranked 7th in total yards gained, averaging 372.6 yards per game.
The larger portion of this offensive production came through the passing game, with the team ranked 5th in passing yards and 4th in touchdowns off of the 9th-most attempts in the league. By contrast, their rushing stats cluster right around the middle of the road, ranked 14th in rush yards and 16th in rushing touchdowns off of the 16th-most attempts in the league.
It’s also important to note, when discussing the overall statistics of the offense generally, that the Steelers do not rank highly in offensive efficiency, having the 11th-most turnovers in the league primarily due to their 15 interceptions on the season (good for 14th-most in the league).
For an elite team to turn the ball over this many times gives us two clues about their offense: 1) that any decrease in production or stop in their gameplay is likely to be because of the drives ended by turnovers; and 2) that the “aging gunslinger” model set out by quarterbacks like Brett Favre may be taking hold in Pittsburgh, with Ben starting to become less efficient with the football.
To this point, we believe it emblematic that Derek Carr passed Ben Roethlisberger in the quarterback rankings set out by Pro Football Focus at the end of the 2016/17 regular season. It could be said that both of these quarterbacks follow the tough gunslinger legacy of Favre in a sense, and yet now the younger has surpassed the elder in terms of overall production and efficiency.
Of course, this is only the case when limiting the field of view to just last season, as Roethlisberger clearly has a much larger and more prolific body of work than Carr. And there’s no doubt that Roethlisberger still has what it takes to perform at a high level: it’s simply not as consistent anymore. Most telling is the fact that Roethlisberger is simultaneously 4th in the league in the number of passes that could have been intercepted, and also 3rd in the league in percentage of big-time throws.
And this completely makes sense when examining Roethlisberger’s style of play. Every Steeler fan knows that at least once or twice a game Roethlisberger will toss up a 50-50 ball, giving his receiver (and the defender) a chance to go up and make a play. And the reason this seems to work so well for him is that most of the time, his receiver wins that battle.
Specifically, the Pittsburgh receiving corps profits greatly from having Antonio Brown on the roster, who despite his colorful postgame activities remains firmly fixed as one of the top three receivers in the league, and should always be included in the conversation of who is the league’s best receiver.
Other than Brown, however, it’s difficult to say that the Steelers have a very deep receiving corps. While Sammie Coates certainly had stretches of solid play throughout the course of the season, he also made some inexcusable mistakes in the AFC Championship game. It’s definitely the case that the youth and inexperience of the Pittsburgh receivers in that game was one of the primary reasons why they lost.
In addition, the tight end position has yet to completely recover from the loss of long-time tight end Heath Miller, whose contributions to the team over the course of his 11 seasons cannot be overstated.
The organization tried to address this by going out and picking up San Diego backup tight end Ladarius Green, but Green ultimately ended up only catching a pass in five out of sixteen contests last season. While of course the injury rate in the NFL is 100% and you can’t blame a player for getting injured, it’s nonetheless true that dividing the $5 million he’s scheduled to make per season by the 18 catches he had last season will certainly make Steeler fans question Green’s value going forward.
Fortunately, the inconsistent play from the Steelers receiving corps was often covered over by their very strong backfield, ranked the best in the league by Pro Football Focus. Anyone who has watched Le’Veon Bell carry the ball in a game immediately understands why he and his style of play is special.
His ball security is nearly untouchable among backs with a comparable number of carries.
In addition, having DeAngelo Williams as a backup – an experienced veteran who has held starting responsibilities on several different teams, including the Steelers in the absence of bell – is really what makes the unit the most dangerous in the league. Very few teams are able to trot out a real-life starting-caliber tailback when their superstar back needs a breather.
It helps, too, to have the 3rd-ranked offensive line in pro football to run behind. Everyone loves to comment on Le’Veon Bell’s patient style of running, where he waits for what seems like minutes for the hole to open up in front of him. And yet at the same time, those same people are too quick to forget that this style only works if the offensive line does, in fact, open up a hole for Bell while he waits.
Left guard Ramon Foster was one of the brightest spots over the course of the season, earning both a #6 rank among guards overall as well as the #4 grade in pass blocking, helping to give the oft-pressured Ben Roethlisberger one of the lowest sack totals in his career last season. In addition, the return of center Maurkice Pouncey from injury and the dramatic improvements seen from Alejandro Villanueva were ultimately the pieces of the puzzle that finally pushed this unit over the edge into greatness.
In summary, if this were the days of the Steel Curtain, with the 1970s rough and tumble style still prevailing in modern NFL culture, the Steelers’ offense would dominate, because the strengths of their team are the intelligence of their veteran quarterback, their unmatched talent in the backfield, and the stoutness of their interior line.
However, given the fact that the 2010s instead find the NFL enamored with the precision downfield passing game that we saw on display in Super Bowl 51, the inconsistent and often inefficient play of both the quarterback and wide receivers give the Steelers’ offense the only real dark spot that holds them back from dominance.
The Steelers’ defense managed to track exactly with their offense in 2016/17, averaging 20.4 points allowed per game, a mark good for 10th in the league just as their points scored per game on offense had been 10th in the league. They were 12th in the league in yards allowed, with opponents gaining an average of 342.6 yards per game.
Few things stand out about the Steelers’ defense looking purely at the stat sheet. They gave up the 16th-most yards in the league through the air – exactly average – on the 9th-most passing attempts, and gave up the 13th-most rushing yards on the 4th-fewest attempts. They were much more likely to give up a rushing touchdown than a passing touchdown, being ranked 5th in passing touchdowns allowed to 18th in rushing touchdowns allowed.
As it turns out, taking a closer look at the Steelers’ defense beyond the stat sheet also reveals that they are very much in the middle of the road in terms of individual performance, with their front seven ranked 16th in the league and their secondary ranked 11th.
In the front seven, the unit is bolstered and held together by the play and leadership of ageless 38-year old veteran James Harrison. Considering the amount of coverage given to the fact that Tom Brady plays quarterback at age 39, with full protection on every play from both linemen and officials, how much more credit should be given to the 38-year old linebacker, who has to make contact on every play!
The biggest thing hampering the front seven is simply the lack of experience and discipline. 23-year-old defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt missed 12 tackles on the season, and 24-year old Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier missed 21, ranking them #1 and #4 among their position groups across the league in that category.
The simple fact is that the unit needs time for the young players to learn what it takes to play fundamentally sound football throughout the entire course of a 60-minute game, and the entire course of a 16-week season.
The same could be said of the secondary, whose highest-graded players (William Gay and Mike Mitchell) are also the longest-tenured. 23-year old safety Sean Davis, on the other hand, did enough to earn the honors of being the Steelers’ 2016 Rookie of the Year, but also missed 18 tackles on the season.
In summary, the influx of draft talent into the defensive unit over the last few years has certainly made the Pittsburgh D strong enough to hold their own and to make plays when called upon, and there isn’t really one specific position group or one particular player that immediately stands out as a glaring weakness for the team.
The Steelers’ defense simply needs time to grow and develop, and for the young players to improve their ability to display mental toughness and leadership for longer periods of time.
Next Season: A Preview
In this way, by looking at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ strengths and weaknesses across all units of the team, we see that the team’s overall character and ceiling headed into the 2017/18 season varies widely between the different units of the team.
The run game and short passing game, involving most heavily Ben Roethlisberger, the running backs, and the offensive line, is very stout. Antonio Brown is also an off-the-charts standout in the passing game. However, the other receivers and the majority of the defense doesn’t quite match this level of production, and ultimately drags down the team as a whole through inexperience and inconsistency.
This could be the reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl odds, listed at the Bovada sportsbook, fall right in line with the rest of the late round playoff losers. The Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, and Seattle Seahawks all sit even with the Steelers at +1400, meanwhile the Falcons, Cowboys, and Patriots are all receiving more favorable odds.
However, we’re not so sure that the gambling public is correct in their assessment of how likely the Steelers are to come out on top in Super Bowl 52.
To get a better idea of whether or not Pittsburgh has what it takes to rise to the highest peak in 2017/18, let’s take a look at the upcoming offseason for the Steelers. We’ll consider what roster moves we expect Pittsburgh to make from now until September, where their needs lie, and what information we already have to help us determine what the Steelers season will look like next year.
Given our appraisal above of the state of the roster, in which we ultimately came to the conclusion that most if not all of the team’s units have the talent necessary to get over the hump and make it to a championship but simply need time and experience, there aren’t very many outstanding roster issues that need to be addressed this offseason.
With roughly $36 million dollars in cap room, the Steelers sit right in the middle of the pack among NFL teams in terms of how much capital they have available to put towards free agent signings.
In addition, the Steelers have one of the shorter lists of free agents this offseason of any team in the league, with only 11 players who received significant snaps last season set to hit the market in free agency, two of whom (cornerback Ross Cockrell and offensive tackle Christopher Hubbard) would be restricted free agents.
Both of the Steelers’ starting running backs are set to become unrestricted free agents. There’s absolutely no doubt that the Steelers will keep Le’Veon Bell on the team; the only question is whether or not it makes more financial sense to use the franchise tag on Bell for this upcoming season rather than sign him immediately to a long-term deal.
One would think that the Steelers’ front office would also be able to come to a mutually acceptable agreement with DeAngelo Williams, who likely commands comparatively little market value as a 33-year old tailback.
And not only do the Steelers have few to no pressing roster fires to put out coming out of the 2016/17 season, and not only do they have few to no immediate decisions to make concerning their 2017/18 roster, they also are limited this offseason by the fact that they have several big contract negotiations pending for the following season, the 2018/19 season.
Specifically, star wide receiver Antonio Brown is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018/19, as will former 1st-round pick Ryan Shazier and former second-round pick Stephon Tuitt.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown are probably the Steelers’ top three best players on the team, and yet when all three are on the field together, one could argue that Antonio Brown is the best player on the field. For this reason, there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Brown will get received, and will likely receive the most lucrative contract of any wide receiver in the league.
Additionally, Shazier and Tuitt are two of the core players on the defense, and given that their rookie contracts were so cheap compared to their current and future value to the team, there will likely need to be serious capital devoted to those two players as well.
In light of this situation, the Steelers have been unusually active for it being still very early in the offseason. It seems as though the Steelers are attempting to lock down some of the less important areas of the roster, like special teams contributors and practice squad participants, in order to focus more in days to come on the more pressing long-term issues.
The team first signed 11 players to reserve/future contracts in late January of 2017, a move that primarily represents the maintenance of the practice squad that every team undergoes immediately following the end of the season.
Subsequently, the team released cornerback Justin Gilbert (a former Browns first-round pick who played 12 games for the Steelers in 2016), signed long-snapper Greg Warren and 6-year veteran special teams contributor Steven Johnson to one-year contracts, and also signed six players in late February including linebacker Akil Blount (son of Steelers Hall of Famer Mel Blount) and offensive lineman Mike Matthews (son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews), all 6 of whom were players that either went undrafted originally or were waived by a team last season.
In terms of the draft, the Steelers have the 30th pick, and as of the time of this writing they have each of their 7 original draft picks intact as well as a putative 5th-round compensatory pick likely to be awarded due to the departure of left tackle Kelvin Beachum in free agency.
There’s no clear and obvious position groups for the Steelers to target in the early rounds of the draft; potentially outside pass rushers or the eventual replacement to James Harrison in the linebacking corps. Late rounds would do well to fish for quality cornerbacks and wide receivers, to add depth to those groups.
The only real question lurking for Steelers fans concerning the draft is whether or not the team should go ahead and draft a quarterback, given that Landry Jones is a free agent and Ben Roethlisberger has so far been noncommittal about his return to football.
In press conferences, Steelers owner Art Rooney seemed to leave the impression that he was open to drafting a quarterback, but subsequent comments by general manager Kevin Colbert seemed less optimistic that the Steelers would draft a QB. Ultimately, it will depend on Roethlisberger, who we believe is very likely if not guaranteed to come back and play for the Steelers next season.
But in general, the Steelers’ offseason picture going into the 2017/18 season is likely to revolve around simply resigning those players that have been solid, loyal contributors to the team.
Aging defensive veterans Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison are not likely to command significant value on the market, and are certainly likely to do whatever they can to be resigned by the Steelers. The running back group and upcoming 2017/18 free agents also merit being resigned.
Ultimately, it will simply be the job of the front office to do whatever is necessary to preserve the core of the team and keep the dream alive to continue competing for Super Bowls before the clock runs out on the Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh.
Given our optimistic view of the Steelers’ roster going into the 2017/18 season, we find the Super Bowl odds posted on the Bovada sportsbook for the Pittsburgh Steelers to be a little bit unfair.
Assuming Roethlisberger comes back and there are no other significant changes to the team’s general composition, there’s no reason to think that the Steelers won’t simply be better next year by virtue of their young players having another full offseason to train and improve.
And while it’s difficult to look into the crystal ball this early in the offseason, given that free agency and the draft haven’t happened yet, there are still some things that we can know at this stage about next season. These predictive factors include the statistical formula called Pythagorean expectation, as well as the list of teams that the Steelers will face next year.
The first important statistical factor to consider in predicting a team’s future performance is called Pythagorean expectation.
Pythagorean expectation is a statistical formula originally developed by sabermetric wizard Bill James for use in baseball; it was later modified for the NFL by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The idea behind Pythagorean expectation is to use advanced statistical modeling to more accurately assess a team’s past performance, in the hopes of better predicting their future performance.
Specifically, Pythagorean expectation is a modified version of the original Pythagorean theorem that we all learned back in algebra class, used to deduce the length of one side of a right triangle based on knowledge of the other two sides.
But the NFL’s Pythagorean theorem doesn’t deal with triangles and lengths: Instead the numbers that are manipulated in the theorem are the amount of points scored and the amount of points allowed by a particular team. By plugging these points totals into the formula, the number that ultimately gets spit out is an expected win percentage based purely on points.
The idea behind this is that in the NFL, not all wins should be valued the same amount. For example, when the 2016/17 Indianapolis Colts lost 7–28 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s a pretty terrible loss. That loss should certainly mean more than when the same Colts lose 23 to 26 in overtime in Houston. And yet, at the end of the season, all we remember is that the Colts were 8–8, with both of these two losses receiving the exact same weight in the loss column.
By the same token, when the 2016/17 Buffalo Bills beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16–12, even though there’s a W on the win column, this shouldn’t impress anyone. However, when those same Bills beat the San Francisco 49ers 45–16, that same lone W should go a whole lot further to tip us off that the Bills could be legitimate contenders. Once again, though, at the end of the season, the Bills are just 7–9.
In this way, utilizing Pythagorean expectation gives us a way to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season using statistics that truly capture not just whether a team won or lost games, but how well they won or lost games. We learn more than just how many games a team won; we learn how many games that team should have won.
In the case of the 2016/17 Steelers, the team ended up scoring 399 points over the course of the season and allowing 327, a point differential of 72 that ranks them 5th in the league in terms of point differential, and thus also in terms of expected record based on Pythagorean expectation.
Specifically, the formula spits out the value of 9.9 for the Steelers, which means that if their points scored and points allowed had been distributed more evenly amongst their 16 games, we would expect them to have won 9.9 games. Given that they ended up winning 11 games in real life, we find that the Steelers slightly over-performed last season.
The reason that this happens, in reality, divorced from the numbers, is that over-performance generally signifies that when a team won, they won by few points, but when they lost, they lost by a lot of points. Alternatively, it can mean that they played a lot of close games, and ended up on the short end of the stick more often.
In the case of the Steelers, the former story is true, though not entirely. The Steelers gave up one 31-point loss to the Eagles which is very significant, given that their point differential for the whole season was only 72, but they also beat the Chiefs the following week by 29, and won four other games by 14 points or more.
It’s also crucially important to put this over-performance in the context of the second statistic that clues us in to how well the Steelers will play next season, and that is the schedule that Pittsburgh played over the course of the 2016/17 regular season.
According to the meticulously calculated “DVOA” value, which accounts for every single play of every game individually, the Steelers played the 13th-most difficult schedule in the entire league in 2016/17, which holds right around league average.
By comparing this strength of schedule against the list of teams that has already been published, we gain the ability to assess whether or not we would predict a slide in performance for the Steelers based on the way their 2017/18 schedule compares to their 2016/17 schedule.
The reason that we already know Pittsburgh’s opponents even though the full schedule hasn’t yet been released is that each year, the 16-game schedule for each NFL team is always made up of the same scheme of games: 6 games against division opponents (3 at home, 3 away); four games against teams from a single division within the same conference; four games against teams from a single division within the opposite conference; and finally two games against opponents within the same conference that finished in the same position in their division.
For the Steelers, this means the following:
- 3 home games against the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens
- 3 road games against the Bengals, Browns, and Ravens
- 4 games against the AFC South: the Jaguars (home), the Titans (home), the Colts (away), and the Texans (away)
- 4 games against the NFC North: the Packers (home), the Vikings (home), the Bears (away), and the Lions (away)
- 2 games against AFC division leaders: the Patriots (home) and the Chiefs (away)
In terms of overall strength of schedule based on last year’s performance, the Steelers actually lucked out with this schedule, as the opponents listed above combined for the 6th-fewest wins and the 6th-lowest win percentage in the NFL last season, though they did combine for a slightly higher point differential (only 9th-worst).
The reason for this is probably that the AFC South and the NFC North were two of the weaker divisions in football last year, with the AFC South definitely the weakest division in the entire league and the NFC North probably the weakest in the NFC.
In conclusion, when we combine together all of our thoughts and aggregated statistics about the Steelers 2017/18 campaign, we have to conclude that the Steelers are set to maintain roughly the same pace that they were on last season.
While Pittsburgh did statistically over-perform by a game last season according to Pythagorean expectation, they also have an easier schedule next season than they did last, and we foresee relatively significant improvement on the team – particularly among the younger defenders – and relatively little change to the veteran core that they had last year.
After going 11–5 last season, winning their division, and being only one game away from the Super Bowl, we predict that the Steelers will take a slight step forward in the season to come.
Predicted regular season record for the 2017/18 Pittsburgh Steelers: 12–4
Conclusion: The Story of the Pittsburgh Steelers
Going into the 2016/17 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again felt that they were on the cusp of something great, feeling that the only real reason they hadn’t surged to the world championship at the end of the 2015/16 season had been the rash of offensive injuries that they had faced.
Surging into the season 4–1, with the injuries and suspensions all worked out, they started to gain confidence not only that their offense was dynamic enough to make a run at a title, but also that their young defense could do its part to keep the team in games.
Though a four-game skid in the middle of the season was a major blip on the radar screen (due in large part to Ben Roethlisberger’s torn meniscus), the team ended the regular season winning seven straight games, taking the AFC North crown and the #3 seed in the AFC. Ultimately, though, their Super Bowl dreams were dashed when they were soundly beaten in the AFC Championship game by the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.
We learned throughout the course of the season that the Pittsburgh offense has very few holes, besides an aging quarterback who may or may not have the physical or mental strength to continue for very much longer, as well as a young and mistake-prone receiving corps. Their defense certainly lacked discipline in certain parts of the season, but they did improve steadily throughout the year and should eventually grow to have great depth due to the solid drafting of recent years.
For these reasons, there are actually comparatively few offseason moves that the Pittsburgh Steeler fans should feel are necessary in order to bring them back to the championship level in the 2017/18 season. Furthermore, despite the fact that they do have roughly $30 million in cap room, it would behoove the team to devote these resources to working out long-term deals with upcoming key free agents including Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Ryan Shazier, and Stephon Tuitt.
In looking forward to next season, we concluded that with the core of the team looking very similar, as well as the leadership of the team remaining the same in terms of owner, GM, coach, and (likely) quarterback, the Steelers should be poised to make another run in 2017/18, and to take another shot at a Lombardi Trophy before the clock runs out on the Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh.