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Previewing Packers-Steelers by the numbers: T.J. Watt, Big Ben, & a bad O-line

In a battle of two old quarterbacks at opposite ends of the productivity spectrum, can Pittsburgh overcome their shortcomings?

Syndication: PackersNews Tom Lynn/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In a rematch of the Green Bay Packers’ most recent Super Bowl appearance, the Packers host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday afternoon in CBS’s game of the week. Along with New England and Green Bay, Pittsburgh has been one of the beacons of consistency this millennia, but is that still the case?

Let’s dive into the numbers to see how Pittsburgh is doing in the twilight of Big Ben’s career.

What is this offense?

Last season I termed Ben Roethlisberger as “Thicc Alex Smith” because his passing spray chart had become littered with games where he was nearly exclusively operating within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. In 2021, it has gotten even more pronounced. Like, what is this?!

That shows 58 passing attempts, most of which were from a trailing position, and yet only 13 of them were beyond ten yards. Through three weeks, Roethlisberger’s aDOT is the eighth-shortest in football, but his completed air yards ranks the fifth-shortest and the third-shortest of quarterbacks who started all three games so far.

There are a few reasons for this. One is that Ben’s arm just looks pretty washed at this point. Unless he’s able to line up his mechanics perfectly, there just isn’t much left in that arm, and that’s been the case since he came back from his elbow injury. The other is that the Steelers’ offensive line is a disaster. Their pass block win rate ranks T-29th in the NFL at just 48%. They don’t even win half of their pass sets at 2.5 seconds! With this, Ben’s time-to-throw ranks as the shortest in the league at just 2.35 seconds, a full 0.12 seconds shorter than the second fastest time. The difference between and Andy Dalton, who is the second quickest, is the same as the difference between Dalton and Tua Tagovailoa, who has the eighth-quickest time-to-throw. There’s nothing wrong with having a quick time-to-throw, but when you have a time that short, you just can’t threaten teams down the field at all.

The overall numbers aren’t pretty, as Pittsburgh ranks 24th in passing offense at -0.005 EPA-per-dropback. DVOA is only slightly kinder at 22nd. Green Bay’s defense played a much more aggressive form of defense in the past six quarters, and I would expect that to continue against Pittsburgh. There isn’t much of a need to put a cover over Pittsburgh’s offense, because they’re not going to threaten it anyway.

So Pittsburgh can’t throw it, but can they run it? Uh, no. Only Las Vegas runs less efficiently than Pittsburgh does. Pittsburgh’s -0.255 EPA-per-rush is an absolute tire fire. Their offensive line ranks dead last in adjusted line yards in the run game and their run block win rate ranks 29th. Rookie running back Najee Harris was seen as an interesting fantasy play this year, and he may end up as a valuable PPR player because he’s just being force-fed targets due to the lack of arm strength for Roethlisberger, but he has absolutely nothing going on the ground whatsoever. Green Bay was stout against San Francisco last week, and despite not having the strongest run-stopping talent, there are just no excuses against this team. The Packers need to absolutely dominate this offense in the trenches.

Still the Steel Curtain?

There are two Steelers defenses: The one with TJ Watt and the one without. Watt is currently recovering from a groin injury, which means he’ll probably be 100% sometime between December and next May. Watt is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate every year he’s healthy, so if he misses this game, it will be a major boost to the Packers offense.

Despite their strong play last year, the Steelers defense has not lived up to the billing so far this year. Despite some mediocre point totals by opponents, the defense has been below average as a unit. The Steelers rank 21st in EPA-per-dropback allowed and 23rd in pass defense DVOA. Their front has been stout against the run, ranking 8th in EPA-per-rush allowed. The Steelers front is obviously the strength of their defense, ranking third in both pass rush win rate and run stop win rate. The unit is much different without Watt, however, who can almost carry a pass rush by himself. Watt’s 43% pass rush win rate laps the field. The next closest EDGE defender in the NFL is Joey Bosa at 34%.

Pittsburgh is more of an old-fashioned 3-4 zone-pressure defense, so we should expect some exotic blitz packages this week as they try to force splash plays and turnovers. The Packers’ ability to handle those will probably dictate how successful the offense is this week, as the Steelers’ defensive backs have struggled in coverage this year when the front hasn’t gotten home. This is an interesting chess match this week as Green Bay wants to marry their passing game to the run, but it could be tough sledding this week in the running game against this front, even without Watt. It is worth noting that the Steelers have played three teams who either have poor offensive lines (Cincinnati and Las Vegas) or have struggled to the run the ball efficiently under their current offensive regime (Buffalo), so it is possible the level of their run defense is a bit of a mirage. We may find out on Sunday.