In the ongoing debate over Ben Roethlisberger’s “elite” or “non-elite” quarterback status, a look at scoring -- the bottom line for any offense—both in terms of actual points-per-game (ppg.) and in terms of scoring rank, is very revealing.
First off, I am a huge Big Ben and lifelong Steeler fan. And no one has been more instrumental in returning the Steelers to their bygone glory days than Ben.
But in terms of offensive scoring, which is really the only way to measure an offense’s effectiveness, the Steelers under Ben and Offensive Coordinator (OC) Bruce Arians have been somewhat pedestrian.
In Ben’s seven years under center (four under Arians’ leadership) the Steeler’s have averaged just 23 ppg., which in today’s high flying NFL hardly puts the Steelers in the realm of elite offenses.
The Steelers’ highest offensive ranking during this period has been 9th, which they’ve achieved twice: in 2005 with 24.3 ppg. and in 2007, Mike Tomlin’s first year as Head Coach, in which the Steelers scored 24.6 ppg (their highest avg. during Ben’s tenure).
The past two seasons, the Steelers have ranked 12th in scoring. And despite the fact that Ben threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2009, the Steelers’ scoring average that year was actually slightly lower than it was in just his 2nd season (under then-OC Ken Wisenhunt).
2005 was also the last year in which the Steelers mustered a higher scoring avg. (a very slight one of .6 ppg.) than the New England Patriots, who have become the gold-standard of NFL offenses, averaging a league-leading 32 ppg. In 2010, and a whopping 37 ppg. in 2007. Even during the year QB Tom Brady was out, 2008, the Pats under Matt Cassell outscored the Steelers by an average of five ppg.
The Colts, Pats, and Chargers, have all, in recent years, consistently surpassed the Steelers in scoring avg. In 2010, Peyton Manning led a group of free agent receivers and had no running game to speak of. Nevertheless, he produced a 4th ranked scoring offense @ 27ppg. With a lack of much established talent, and an equally suspect running game, Brady did even more.
Even in terms of Steeler history, league scoring rank under Ben and Arians has failed to equal levels achieved by the likes of Kordell Stewart (7th in 1997) and “Touchdown” Tommy Maddox (8th in 2002). Hall-of- Famer Terry Bradshaw led an offense that ranked 5th in 1975 @ 27ppg. (Highest team avg. ever)) And one that jumped a full four ppg. From 22ppg. in 1978 to the Steelers’ sole top NFL scoring rank in team history, in 1979 @ 26 ppg..
The facts show that the Steelers in recent years have been skating by offensively, and have depended heavily on their top-ranked defenses in securing victories.
Several times this past season, an opportunistic Steeler “D,” led by 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, Troy Polamalu, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. In fact, outside of the 2009 mid-season collapse (when Polamalu was out) Roethlisberger and Co. have been the near-constant beneficiaries of top-ranked, and frequently game-changing defensive play. Subtract key takeaways from closely-contested Superbowl victories in ’06 and ’09, and those “W’s” might well have been “L’s.”
Of course, the same could be said of Green Bay’s win this year, where Packer -- and former Steeler-- Defensive Coordinator, Dom Capers, turned the table on his former team by coaching a ball-hawking defense that sealed the Packer victory. Defense still wins championships, but dynasties require an elite level of offensive scoring punch that matches the "D" in excellence. This we have not seen in the Ben/Arians era.
Moving forward, as several Steeler defensive stalwarts enter the twilight of their careers, the question looms: can the team continue to skate by with a non-elite scoring offense? And perhaps an even more daunting question is: why have the Steeler’s, under the guidance of Arians and the quarterbacking of Big Ben, failed to become an elite-scoring offense, instead of just a slightly above-average scoring one? (2010 league avg. was just over 20 ppg. And closer to 21 ppg. if Carolina’s abysmal 12 ppg. avg. is omitted from the calculation.)
As the NFL continues to evolve more and more as a pass-first run–second league, with elite QBs who can quickly decipher the best of defensive schemes, the answer to the first of the above-raised questions seems obvious: the Steelers are going to need to score more than 23 ppg. to remain one of the league’s premier franchises. The answer to the second question is less obvious.
That Big Ben has matured and improved since his first few years as a pro is undeniable. While there has been some instability in the receiving corp in recent years (especially with the departure of Santonio Holmes), Ben’s had decent receivers. But he could surely benefit from some tall and physical wideout targets like Philip Rivers has had. By the way, the Charger’s during Rivers’ first five years under center have ranked among the top five teams every year, averaging 28 ppg.
Plaxico Burress was a boon to both Ben (in 2004) and Eli Manning (2005-07), catching the latter’s winning TD toss in SB XLII. Eli also has led offenses that have averaged more than the Steelers have during this era (by an avg. of 3 ppg.)
With Hines Ward nearing retirement, and Limas Sweed in a state of perpetual limbo, it seems that the Steelers are again going to need a Burress/Anquain Bolden-type of receiver. The current roster of speedsters: Mike Wallace, Emmanual Sanders and Antonio Brown may be insufficient to elevate the team to the elite-scoring level they need to achieve.
Run/pass balance has become a somewhat dated offensive measuring stick in today’s NFL. Teams with elite QBs -- Indy, S.D., N.E., and G.B.—are using the running game situationally as opposed to strategically, and are scoring more points.
Is Roethlisberger, under Arians, capable of taking the Steelers into the elite-scoring realm where Brady, Rivers, Rodgers, and Peyton Manning have taken their respective teams? So far, it hasn’t happened. And there’s no evidence of a blueprint in place to make it happen. It may be time to re-tool the Steeler “O,” if the team is to maintain and even exceed the championship standard that Tomlin and all Steeler fans desire and expect. #
UPDATE: AFTER LEADING THE 2011 STEELERS TO THEIR WORST SCORING RANK IN MODERN HISTORY (21st) ARIANS FINALLY FIRED!!!! AMEN, THANKS BE TO GOD. GO TODD HALEY!!!!