Icy Issue: Pittsburgh must win through the air
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 06, 2007
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts issuer of issues
This week we focus on just one Icy Issue, because it relates to the biggest game of the week, Sunday's Pittsburgh-New England donnybrook, and because it refutes so thoroughly and completely the conventional wisdom of the "pundits" ... and because this one issue is already long enough as it is.
Icy Issue: Do the Steelers have to run the ball to beat the Patriots Sunday?
Icy Response: No, no and no. A million times no!
Icy Response: No, no and no. A million times no!
How many times have you heard this week – or in most weeks involving most teams – that Team X had to "run the ball" to win?
You hear it incessantly about traditional running teams like the Steelers, especially when they're playing high-powered offensive teams like the Patriots.
All these people are wrong. Mark it in your book. Take it to the bank. Inject it into your bloodstream.
The Steelers don't have to run the ball well to win.
The Steelers have to pass the ball well to win.
Pittsburgh is no different than any of the teams throughout history that we typically consider great running teams: the Packers of the 1960s or the Dolphins of the 1970s, to cite two of the most obvious example. Sure, these teams ran the ball quite often, and usually quite effectively, as do the 21st-century Steelers.
But those teams didn't win because they ran the ball often, or even well. As the Cold, Hard Football Facts have proven in the past, running the ball often, or even well, is never a key to victory.
Nope. These great teams of the past won because, after softening up the underbelly of the opposing defense, they had Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks capable of shredding that softened defense and putting it out of its misery with a few bullets to the back of the secondary.
History is littered with great running teams with nothing to show for it (the 1997 Lions, anyone?). In almost every single instance these great running teams where not great teams because they offered nothing to balance their desire and ability to run the ball.
History boasts only a few great teams that ran the ball often and won championships. In every single case, you find this reputation (in many cases deserved) for running the ball overshadowed statistically by some of the best and most efficient passing attacks in history.
The aggressive ground game will fire up the spirits of old-school, dirt-and-spittle football fans. But a great passing attack will grind and opposing team's spirit into the dirt much more effectively.
THE 1960s PACKERS
The 1960 Packers are widely remembered as one of the dominant ground games in history, thanks to the legendary Green Bay sweep powered by Hall of Fame running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung.
And those Packers teams were great on the ground – in their first two championship years (1961 and 1962).
The 1965, 1966 and 1967 teams, however, won because quarterback Bart Starr shredded opponents through the air, to the tune of a career average of 7.65 yards per attempt – the 8th best mark in NFL history. The Packers led the NFL in passing yards per attempt in both 1965 (an amazing 8.9 YPA) and again in 1966 (8.3 YPA). Not one of their three straight championship teams (65-67) were very effective on the ground.
But all five Green Bay championship teams of the 1960s passed the ball well. Every single one averaged 8.2 YPA or more over the course of the season. To put that into perspective, only two teams this year (Dallas and New England) average more than 8.2 yards per attempt. The Packers reached that mark every year they won a title.
Green Bay might be know for its sweep. But it sapped the will out of its opponents via the pass.
THE UNDEFEATED DOLPHINS
The 1972 Dolphins marched to the Super Bowl on the feet of running backs Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris.
But they never would have been the undefeated Dolphins – in fact, they probably would have been no different than the many other great running teams with nothing to show for it – if not for the highly productive, spirit-crushing play of quarterbacks Earl Morrall and Bob Griese.
The two quarterbacks shredded opposing defenses to the tune of 8.63 yards per attempt, No. 1 in the NFL that year and No. 18 of the Super Bowl Era. The Miami ground game that year, conversely, averaged a very solid 4.8 YPA. But that average was a mere second in the league in 1972 (Pittsburgh, 5.1).
That's right: the 1972 Dolphins were a run-first team, no doubt it. But it was their historically productive passing game that proved the difference between being just another great running team and the only undefeated team in history.
THE 21st-CENTURY STEELERS
Everyone remembers that the 2005 Steelers marched to the Super Bowl on the feet of running backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis. But they would have been no different than the many other teams in history that played run-first football with nothing to show for it, if not for the devastating play of second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In 2005, Big Ben averaged a league-leading 8.9 yards per attempt – a surprising 0.6 yards per attempt better than No. 2 Peyton Manning (8.3 YPA) a full yard better than every other QB in the league but Manning and Marc Bulger (8.0 YPA).
Roethlisberger remains No. 3 in the league this year (8.0 YPA), behind only Tony Romo (8.8) and Tom Brady (8.6).
He also entered the 2007 season with – buckle your chinstrap, folks, this is good – the highest average per attempt (8.25) of any quarterback since Otto Graham retired in 1955. His career mark still stands today, 12 games into the 2007 season, at 8.20 YPA, third best in history behind only Graham (8.63) and Sid Luckman (8.42) (among passers with at least 1,000 career attempts).
And here's why Roethlisberger deserves mention as one of the game's very elite quarterbacks (in fact, you could argue he's the second best quarterback behind Brady):
He's almost singularly responsible for Pittsburgh returning to championship-contender status each year.
For the decade before Roethlisberger arrived, the Steelers were essentially the same team they are now: they played strong defense, they ran the ball often. But they NEVER passed the ball effectively. Ergo, they never won a championship and usually because they suffered meltdowns from their quarterbacks in the playoffs.
With Roethlisberger annually one of the leaders in passing yards per attempt, Pittsburgh is as good as its ever been. The Steelers:
- went 15-1 his rookie season
- won the Super Bowl his sophomore season
- struggled through last year's 8-8 season in which he was plagued by off-field medical issues (and, not so coincidentally, he posted a career-low 7.5 YPA)
- has returned to championship-contender status here in 2007 – a season in which Roethlisberger is again one of the most productive passers in football.
There have been a lot of teams throughout history that ran the ball well. Few of them did anything in the playoffs if they didn't have a quarterback who could make opponents pay for cheating up to stop the run.
The Steelers have that quarterback. And if they're going to ruin New England's undefeated season on Sunday, it won't be because they ran the ball well or ran the ball often.
Pittsburgh will win if its quarterback makes big plays and connects on big passes at key times in the game.
After all, that's how run-first teams always win.
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