The Pittsburgh Paradox

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 21, 2010



It's safe to call the Steelers the premier NFL franchise of the Super Bowl Era.
 
You know the story: They're 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 that's won six Super Bowls.
 
They suffer a losing season less than once every presidency (eight presidents since 1972, seven losing seasons in the Steel City since 1972).
 
The same family still owns the team. The fan base is the most rabid in the nation – easily the best traveling fans in pro football – and virtually every baby in Western PA is born with the quaint notion coursing through its blood that you win by playing defense and running the football.
 
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. That's 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, has emerged in recent years and its come to define the team, including here in this very 2010 season.
 
As we noted earlier this week, the Steelers as of today rank:
Sure, it's only two weeks into the season. But two weeks are also 12.5 percent of the schedule. The train has left the statistical station. Thanks to 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, who already has three sacks here in 2010, Pittsburgh's D-Hogs are shaping up as the best in the biz. The O-Hogs are shaping up as the worst in the biz.
 
But 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.
It's great to field a shut-down defensive front, as Pittsburgh showed in 2008, when it parlayed the league's best Defensive Hogs and a clutch QB into a Super Bowl championship despite a really bad offensive line.
 
But it's 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 on the offensive side of the ball: Alan Faneca (pictured) 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 Faneca's last year with the Steelers, Pittsburgh fielded the No. 14-ranked Offensive Hogs and averaged 4.24 YPA on the ground, the NFL's seventh-best ground attack in 2007.
 
Faneca was so good that Pittsburgh's Offensive Hog-loving fans named him to the franchise's 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 it's coincidence. But, the fact of the matter is that  Faneca's departure coincided with the downfall of Pittsburgh's OL.
 
The player who's 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 couldn't run block (29th with 3.68 YPA on the ground) and who couldn't pass block (28th with 11.5% Negative Pass Plays).
 
The among fans and pigskin "pundits," including the famously Ninja-like near perfect pigskin instinct of the Cold, Hard Football Facts, was to blame Big Ben's style: he held on to the ball too long, he tried to run too much, he didn't 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 it's 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).
 
And remember, the Steelers recognized their problems and devoted their No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft to the O-Hogs: center Maurkice Pouncey was taken with the No. 18 overall pick and has started both games this year. But so far, nothing has improved.
 
Pittsburgh has scored just one offensive touchdown in more than eight quarters of play (the winning TD in Week 1 overtime against Atlanta). Despite these weaknesses, the team is still 2-0.
 
So expect the offense to improve as Pouncey learns the pro game and when proven winner and clutch big-play-maker Roethlisberger returns to the line-up in October. Just don't expect Pittsburgh's Offensive Hogs to erase the memory of Russ Grimm and the 1982 Redskins anytime soon. They've been too bad for too long 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 top-rated Defensive Hogs and its Big Ben, no matter how poor the unit is that pretends to protect him.

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