Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recycled Fanatic:
Season in Review: Rushing Yards

Our friends at Football Outsiders have argued that teams do not win games because they run, but run because they are winning. It's an interesting argument, one that deserves some consideration. However there is no denying that the Steelers' identity is wrapped up in its ability to run the football. Given that there is a general perception that the Steelers' offensive line had a sub-par season in 2007 (a perception that Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic shares), it's useful to look at the rushing yards accumulated by the team this season, and compare it to both the team's own performance over the last eight seasons, and the league average over that same period.

First, here's how the numbers look for the Steelers' ground attack from 2000-2007 (inclusive):

Net Rushing Yards2,2272,7742,1201,4882,4642,2231,9922,168

Looking at the ups-and-downs of the rushing performance over the course of a number of years seemingly supports the view that teams that are winning rush, versus rushing teams winning. The 2000, 2003, and 2006 seasons were less than stellar for the Steelers -- i.e. they played from behind in more than a few games -- and the running game had to be set aside. The one exception is 2004, which was Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season (as all of you no doubt recall Mr. Roethlisberger was pressed into duty after Tommy Maddox was injured at the beginning of the season). In that year the Steelers ran the ball in order to limit their young QBs exposure (the number of rushing plays that season -- 618 -- was the highest of any season in the last eight).

But of course the purpose of our post is to compare the 2007 season to others that preceded it, and while this season's rushing total represents an increase of nearly ten percent over last season (though it must be pointed out that the number of carries increased by a nearly identical percentage, and the average gain per carry -- 4.2 -- is identical to last season) it is the second lowest rushing total in a winning season during this eight year period (Note: In our humble opinions a .500 record is not a winning one, so the 1,992 rushing yards in 2006 are judged to have been gained in a losing season).

As for how the Steelers compare to the competition, here's a look (click on the picture for a larger image):

As expected, the Steelers are an above average rushing team, though just barely in 2006 and the general trend is toward a more average rushing attack. The 2007 season represents a slight upward tick, but just marginally. The question to be pondered is this: Given the investment that the team has made in its quarterback and wide receivers (i.e. Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes) is the team moving towards a spread style of offense? And if so, what will the effect be on the types of offensive linemen who are brought onto the team?

All coaches talk about wanting to play physical football, and emphasize the need to run effectively. However, as Mike Tomlin showed when he arrived as head coach, and kept Dick LeBeau and the 3-4 defense (rather than installing his Cover Two), the talent sometimes dictates the system. Given that the offensive talent is in the skill positions it could be that the Steelers' offense may be undergoing a transformation, meaning that 2008 will be an important and interesting season.