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2014 AFC North Postmortem: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Examining the 2014 Steelers with advanced analytic methods and a look to 2015

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh completes offensive and defensive inversion

The 2014 Steelers were very deserving division winners, closing out with a sweep of the Bengals to earn a 3rd division title under Mike Tomlin. However, their flaws were obvious even before Bell's injury and most of them were on the defensive side of the ball.

I wrote earlier this season that Pittsburgh had been on a clear and discernible downward trend defensively that would be cause for concern. They had steadily declined each year since 2010.  The Steelers finished first in defensive DVOA in both 2008 and 2010. They fell to a still respectable 7th in 2011 but suffered an ignominious defeat to the Broncos when their pass defense failed them in pursuit of a risky scheme that dared Tebow to throw. In 2012, the defense fell again to 13th and then again to 19th in 2013 where the Steelers missed the playoffs in both years.

However, 2014 was their worst year yet, with the defense falling to 30th in DVOA. Perhaps not surprisingly, Pittsburgh found itself wanting to move on from Dick LeBeau even though it is debatable whether coaching and scheme was the problem as much as lacking production from its high defensive draft picks. I personally found their decision to bring back James Harrison an act of desperation but I was proven wrong because Harrison was great for them. Then again if a 36 year old who was out of football returns and becomes one of the team's biggest impact players, that's not a good sign overall for the defensive roster.

Offensively, Pittsburgh continued its tear from 2013 and carried the team. I spoke with friend of the site "steeler fever" in the offseason and noted to him that Pittsburgh had finished 2013 on an offensive explosion with a weighted DVOA that placed them in the top 8 offensively and overall finish of 12th despite being an awful team through its first eight weeks. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh continued that tear into 2014 where the offense utilized an old school "triplets" construct much like the 1990s Cowboys with Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell turning in career years and broken franchise records. Their offense would finish 2nd in the league.

2014 completed the inversion.  The Steelers achieved their largest disparity between offense and defense perhaps ever. As I noted in October, the Steelers have actually been an offensive team since 2012 but it took record breaking seasons from their triplets in 2014 to cause everyone to notice.

Pittsburgh actually overachieved in 2014

Some Pittsburgh fans understandably but wrongly believed that they were one or two blown plays from being a 13-win team, referring to their losses to the Jets and Buccaneers.

I beg to differ.

The Steelers were actually closer to a 9 or 10 win team than it was 13 if we examine their points scored and points allowed. Pittsburgh finished with 9.7 Pythagorean Wins, 1.3 wins below its actual win total of 11. Teams finishing between 1 and 1.5 wins above their expectation on average decline by 1.5 the following year. What does that mean in layman's terms?  It means Pittsburgh was a tad lucky in 2014 but probably will not be in 2015. As Barnwell said in his article:  you can cheat Pythagoras, but not for long.

Think of it this way:  that the Bucs, Titans, Falcons, Jets, Browns, and Jaguars were all very much in the game late against Pittsburgh should tell you that the Black and Gold were far from a real threat to win 12 or 13 games by any stretch.

Looking ahead to 2015

I actually think Pittsburgh will be a better team  in 2015 while still remaining in the 10 or 11 win range if for no other reason than their defense probably can't get worse.  Pythagorean expectation doesn't tell us how good a team will be next year — only whether they were a "lucky" or "unlucky" team  this year, and therefore, whether what they are likely to do the following year. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, but mostly it's better to just be good in the regular season. Then, you need all the luck you can get from then on out, like Seattle.

Moreover, the Steelers' offensive prowess is unlikely to remain at its lofty pinnacle. Pittsburgh got career years out of their triplets, but because those three were so productive in 2014, it is a statistical likelihood that they won't sustain that same level of league dominance again 2015. Just like Adrian Peterson was never going to run for 2000 yards again in 2013 and Peyton Manning was never going to throw for 55 TDs in 2014, Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger probably won't lead their position groups in 2015. Take note, fantasy football enthusiasts.  Regression to the mean is real. But I thank Antonio Brown for carrying my team all the way this year nonetheless...

All in all, Pittsburgh is a team of extremes right now. Their offense has nowhere to go but down but their defense has nowhere to go but up. I never count Big Ben and Co. out until they are actually out and I suspect we'll be back to fighting them for the division again next year.