The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the rival Baltimore Ravens 28-24 on Sunday afternoon. The Steelers, now 7-0, are the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team. After informing everyone why the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks weren’t going to win anything, this new take is on-brand for me. The Pittsburgh Steelers are not as good as you might think.
Strength of Schedule: Providing Context to 7-0
First, it’s essential to recognize an important idea when evaluating an NFL team’s win-loss record: not all wins are created equal. Yes, each victory appears in the standings as one win, but it’s irresponsible to look at wins without context. Blowing out the Chiefs on the road is a much bigger deal than eking out a close game against the Jets at home. That should be common sense. Both are wins, but one is superior to the other.
Entering the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the second-easiest strength of schedule in the NFL based on 2019 win percentages. Steelers 2020 opponents won just 45.7% of their games in 2019. Through seven games in 2020, the win percentage of Steelers opponents is 41.2%. Pittsburgh’s next three games are against teams that are last place in their division and have five combined victories. Their schedule has been even more comfortable than the preseason forecast predicted.
TeamRankings.com uses a stat called Team Rating. This statistic boils team performance into a single number for comparison purposes. Pittsburgh is fourth in Team Rating, sitting behind the Chiefs, Ravens, and Buccaneers. The Steelers have played just two teams in the top half of the league for Team Rating and one team in the top 10 (Baltimore). Six of their remaining nine games come against opponents currently in the bottom 10.
It’s easy to fall back on the classic “They Haven’t Played Anybody” argument, but I’m not even going to go that far. The Titans and Ravens are both good, well-coached football teams. Just remember that wins need context behind them to be an accurate reflection of how good a team is. When you play six games against opponents in the bottom six in Team Rating, that should be pointed out. There’s a reason the Vegas odds put the preseason over/under for the Steelers at 9.5 wins.
The Pittsburgh Steelers Score Despite Themselves
The Steelers average 30.1 points per game, enough for fifth in the NFL; that’s pretty darn good. Other stats, however, suggest that this level of scoring isn’t sustainable. Here’s where Pittsburgh ranks in some other offensive metrics:
- Passing Yards Per Game: 24th
- Yards Per Pass Attempt: 26th
- Passing First Downs Per Game: 23rd
- Rushing Yards Per Game: 16th
- Yards Per Rush Attempt: 22nd
- Rushing First Downs Per Game: 16th
The Steelers are somehow a top-five scoring offense without ranking in the top 15 in any of the above metrics. What’s more alarming is that the four offenses ranking ahead of Pittsburgh in scoring are each in the top 10 for the three passing metrics, with one or two exceptions.
There’s a massive gap between the Steelers scoring output and their offense on the field. This isn’t sustainable. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the elite quarterback he used to be. The offensive bubble will eventually burst.
Believe it or not, there is a statistic to measure luck. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in Luck Rating at 2.3. That might seem arbitrary to you, but something interesting to note is that Atlanta has the lowest Luck Rating at -1.8. The Falcons have lost four different games in which they had a 99.9% chance of winning. It doesn’t get much more unlucky than that. Based on the magnitude, Pittsburgh has been luckier than Atlanta has been unfortunate.
Even if you’re not into stats, the eye test alone will tell you how lucky the Steelers have been. They beat the Titans because Stephen Gostkowski shanked a last-second field goal. Jeff Driskel (!) nearly led the Broncos to a comeback victory. The Eagles were within three points at 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. In Sunday’s game, Baltimore had 246 more yards of offense than the Steelers.
They still won all those games. I’m not saying the Steelers should be 4-3, but everyone should be surprised that they are 7-0.
It’s fair to say you have to be a little fortunate to win all your games in the NFL. Winning NFL games isn’t easy. But most teams will find that their luck runs out when they have to play the Chiefs or the Seahawks. I’d say that the same will be true for Pittsburgh. The AFC Playoffs will be a rude awakening.
How Good Are the Pittsburgh Steelers?
The big selling point of the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers is their defense, which is indisputably top-three in the NFL. Defensively, I’d take the Steelers over anyone.
Of all NFL teams, Pittsburgh’s defense has the highest ratio of three-and-outs, surrenders the fewest yards, and allows the fewest time of possession per defensive drive. It’s no wonder they’re able to score so many points on such lackluster offensive production. Their elite defense ensures good enough field position for their league-average offense to succeed.
The thing is, there have been games where the Pittsburgh defense inexplicably decides to take a quarter or two off. That’s what allowed the Titans to get back into the game. When you play an offense like the Cardinals or Chiefs, you don’t get to take quarters off. They will shred you.
Given the state of the Steelers offense, it’s hard for me to say they’re a top-five team in the NFL. The offense is league-average and scores points despite itself. You can’t count on the defense to consistently put you in good field position the way Pittsburgh has and continue to win. It’s not statistically probable that they keep this up.
If Pittsburgh makes it to the AFC Championship Game, I’ll do a whole post about how I was wrong. But when the Steelers fail, don’t forget who called it first.
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