With the big unexpected mid-season change at offensive coordinator, there is some optimism that several struggles on offense could change as well. Today, I wanted to explore one of these issues, explosive plays (20-plus yards) through 2023 thus far, which has been problematic on both sides of the ball:
Very telling visual for the Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 season, as well as the upcoming matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. Both AFC North squads are one of just five teams that are well below the mean on offense and defense. Pittsburgh ranks 25th in explosive plays on offense with 30, thanks to nine on the ground which ties for fourth-best in the NFL, and the 21 passing explosive plays tying for a much lower 27th.
Passing explosives have been hard to come by for QB Kenny Pickett and company, especially of late, with only three of them in the last four games, and zero last week against Cleveland. To put this recent lull in perspective, Pittsburgh had four passing explosives in Week 7 alone, and 18 in the first six games (averaging three per game). Hopefully we see a much-needed improvement that coincides with the coordinator change moving forward.
Thankfully, the run game has provided explosives, with two in each of the last three games. This impressive streak was preceded by a three-game stretch with none, and a big reason the offense has treaded above water in the standings despite the struggling passing game.
The biggest catalyst for the Steelers success this season is the defense, most recently holding the Browns to 10 points, which was painfully not enough to seal divisional victory. A glaring issue has been explosive plays allowed though, with 47 on the season, ranking even lower than the offense at 29th. The passing game is the biggest culprit of course, allowing 42 which ranks 28th, compared to five against the run (T-10th).
Last week was the only game that Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t allow an explosive play. They have allowed multiple explosives in every other contest (nine games), with four or more in all but one of them, and five games with five-plus (Pittsburgh’s offense has only one for context). This includes four-of-five games since the bye, allowing a season high of eight against Green Bay in Week 10.
This highlights the “bend don’t break” labeling of the unit many have thrown out, appropriately, often allowing big chunk plays but coming up big late in games. The latter was unfortunately not the case last week on Cleveland’s final drive game winning field goal, and not allowing an explosive play comes with an asterisk, against backups QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson and RB Jerome Ford.
Cincinnati is off by their lonesome on the extreme bottom left, with just 24 explosive plays on offense (29th), along with being dead last league-wide with 53 on defense (only two teams above 50). Explosives should be a crucial element to Pittsburgh’s game plan for Week 12, and while we never wish injury on anyone, exploiting QB Joe Burrow being out by hopefully limiting explosives on defense like last week. The Steelers will be looking to spark the offense, and cashing in against the most susceptible explosive play Bengals defense to date would be a great start.
Diving deeper, I wanted to look at and provide what I call Adjusted Explosive Plays (AEP), which starts with the total count of explosive plays (20 yards or more) on both sides of the ball, then if the play was a double explosive (40 yards or more) adding a multiplier of two, and triple explosive plays (60 yards or more) multiplying by three. For every touchdown, I multiplied by six to give the greatest emphasis on the ultimate goal of scoring points, which is one of Pittsburgh’s biggest flaws (16.6 points per game, 28th). Here are the results:
Pittsburgh is once again below the mean in both, one of six NFL teams. The Steelers 77 OAEP moves up in the ranks to 19th, largely due to three triple explosives (T-second), with each going to the house. Two were passes, the 71-yarder to WR George Pickens in Week Two, and the 72-yard deep shot to WR Calvin Austin III the following game, which is the longest air-yard completion (38) of the season.
These plays seem forever ago and thankfully RB Jaylen Warren ended the six-game drought last week with the only triple explosive run of the season, also resulting in a touchdown. What better way to jump start an offense than a huge chunk triple explosive touchdown, already doing so at a high rate (one of six teams with three-plus), and here’s to hoping there’s more in store for 2023.
The offense has five total explosive touchdowns (T-16th), the aforementioned three triple explosives, along with two others to Pickens: Week Five double explosive 41-yarder and one from QB Mitch Trubisky late in Week Eight (22-yards). These highlight plays have a commonality, YAC opportunities/contributions from the playmakers. Hopefully this is recognized and atop the offensive remedies from the new coaches.
As we saw earlier, totality is the issue, including only four double explosives (26th), with each play mentioned above. So, the offense has an extreme boom-bust nature as well, but unfortunately the latter happens far more often.
The Steelers defense moves closer but is still below league average with a 103 DAEP number that ties for 26th. Of the 47 explosive plays allowed this season, they’ve allowed seven double explosives (T-20th), two triple explosives (T-21st), and six explosive touchdowns (T-17th). While the AED factors are still at or below NFL average, we see a slight improvement from their raw explosive plays allowed.
Of the six explosive touchdowns allowed, one came on the ground in the season opener against the 49ers, a 65-yard triple explosive by RB Christian McCaffrey. Five were passes: Week Three vs. Raiders (WR Davante Adams, 32-yards), Week Four vs. Texans (WR Nico Collins, 52-yards), Week Seven vs. Rams (WR Tutu Atwell, 32-yards), Week Eight vs. Jaguars (RB Travis Etienne, 56-yards), and Week 10 vs. Packers (WR Jayden Reed, 35-yards).
So, two passing double explosive touchdowns allowed, and the lone rushing explosive score was the only triple explosive touchdown allowed. The only other triple explosive play allowed by the defense this season was also a run, coming in Week Two against Cleveland, the 69-yard near touchdown run by Ford. Encouragingly, Pittsburgh’s defense has cleaned this up after allowing two triple explosive runs in the first two games of the year, and hasn’t allowed a triple explosive pass in 2023, keeping a lid on these extreme gains overall.
Of the seven double explosives allowed, five were passes, including the two aforementioned touchdowns. Two were runs, the previously mentioned McCaffrey touchdown, and allowing the other in Week 10 to Green Bay RB A.J. Dillon.
To close, here is a visual of the differentials (offense – defense) on raw explosive play numbers, and AEP across the NFL:
The visual really helps illustrate my overall points. The Pittsburgh Steelers need to make a vast improvement in explosive plays in totality on both sides of the ball, ranking next to last in explosive play differential at -17. Their AED differential is also below the mean, but much closer to average at -26 which ranks 22nd.
On offense, this is largely due to their rushing explosives (T-fourth best), including the Warren triple explosive touchdown run most recently. The common thread on successes through the air came with YAC, including two early season triple explosives, and Pickens in particular. Coaching and play-calling will hopefully latch on to this fact in attempts to right the pass game.
Encouraging trends from the defense overall, particularly against the run (T-10th). They did allow a recent double explosive run, along with passing touchdowns, and keeping the total explosive play number down being the areas to hopefully improve moving forward.
This important element of football often aids so many other key areas, such as third downs and the red zone, where the offense in particular has also struggled mightily. Here’s to hoping for the necessary improvements moving forward, starting this Sunday in the critical AFC North matchup against Cincinnati.
Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.