4 reasons why Steelers should own 2016’s top offense

Nathan Jahnke explains how the return of Le'Veon Bell and addition of Ladarius Green could give Pittsburgh the NFL's top offense in 2016.

| 6 months ago
(AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

(AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

4 reasons why Steelers should own 2016’s top offense

The Steelers entered the 2015 playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league, but their season ended in disappointment after a divisional-round loss to the Broncos. A big reason for the success of the team was the offense, which finished the season with the fifth-highest PFF grade. Enough has changed over the offseason to believe the offense should be even better in 2016.

Here are four reasons why Pittsburgh’s offense could finish the 2016 season with the league’s top grade.

1. Ben Roethlisberger is in the prime of his career.

Throughout his career, Ben Roethlisberger has constantly been a top-10 quarterback, but he has gotten even better in recent years. In 2015, he had a big-time throw on 8.9 percent of his pass attempts. That isn’t just the best rate for Roethlisberger in his career, but also the best rate for any quarterback in a season over the past four years. This was, in part, because he was the most accurate quarterback on deep passes, with an accuracy percentage of 50.7. Deep passing accuracy is the area where Roethlisberger has improved the most, and led him to be our top quarterback by PFF grade in 2015 (92.7). To have a great offense, you need a great quarterback, and the Steelers have this covered.

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2. Le’Veon Bell was the top RB of 2015 before injury.

Suspension stopped Bell from playing at the beginning of the season, and injury stopped him from playing at the end, but in between, Bell was better than any other running back in football. His 3.4 yards after contact per carry led the league; this was, in part, due to his ability to make defenders miss. He forced a missed tackle on one in every five carries, which was the fifth-best rate for backs. What’s just as impressive as his ability to make defenders miss is his hands. He has just one rushing fumble in his career and no receiving fumbles. He hasn’t dropped a pass in a game since Week 14 of the 2014 season. Even though DeAngelo Williams was one of the better running backs in 2015, Bell forced just as many rushing missed tackles as Williams on nearly half the carries, and Williams had three fumbles. If Bell returns healthy, he should be an All-Pro player.

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3. The Steelers won’t miss their lost receivers.

There are two noticeable receivers the Steelers will be without in 2015: Martavis Bryant due to suspension and Heath Miller due to retirement. While Bryant provided a number of big plays to the Pittsburgh offense, he was also very inconsistent. He had 13 dropped passes (including the playoffs) in 2015, which was fourth-most for NFL receivers. Sammie Coates will be taking his place as a deep-receiving threat. While Coates didn’t play much in his rookie year, in 2014 he had 488 receiving yards on deep passes—eighth-most for college players from Power-5 schools. While Coates might not have as many highlight catches, he also won’t have as many drops.

At his best, Heath Miller was a top-five receiving tight end. In most seasons, he was an average receiving option, but in 2015, his yards per route run hit 1.17 (the lowest it’s been in the nine years we have data on him). In running situations, Matt Spaeth who has been a great run-blocking tight end throughout his career, will be an upgrade. In passing situations, the Steelers added tight end Ladarius Green from the Chargers. He is inexperienced, but when he’s been on the field, he’s been effective. Since 2013, his 1.55 yards per route run has been 11th-best among 42 qualifying tight ends.

While Sammie Coates and Ladarius Green might not be the top guys you want in the starting lineup, they shouldn’t be a step down from where they were at last year. They don’t need to be the focal point of the offense with Antonio Brown and Bell on the field, and with their upside, they could be something special.

4. The offensive line will be better.

The return of Maurkice Pouncey should be a huge upgrade to Cody Wallace at center. Wallace was the fifth-lowest graded center in 2015, while in 2014, Pouncey was the third-highest. Comparing Wallace in 2015 to Pouncey in 2014, Wallace allowed four more sacks, four more hits, and 17 more hurries to Pouncey, even though Wallace had 14 fewer pass blocks. There were only two times in the run game in 2014 where Pouncey had a negative grade, the man he tried to block had a positive grade, or the man he tried to block had a tackle for a loss or no gain. Wallace had 10 of those plays last year.

The Steelers also added offensive tackle Ryan Harris from the Denver Broncos, who could become the Steelers’ starting left tackle over incumbent Alejandro Villanueva. Where this should help the most is pass protection. When Ben Roethlisberger dropped back 7 yards away from the line of scrimmage or fewer, Villanueva was just fine in pass protection and didn’t allow a sack. When Roethlisberger dropped back 8 yards or more, Villanueva wasn’t nearly as effective. Ryan Harris, on the other hand, isn’t as good on shorter drop-backs compared to Villanueva, but is better on deep ones. More than two-thirds of the time, Roethlisberger is dropping back at least 8 yards, making Harris the better option, and therefore an improvement.

 Pass-blocking efficiency
7 yards or less 8 yards or more
Ryan Harris 96.3 92.3
Alejandro Villaneuva 98.4 90.7

When you add in the return of Ramon Foster (82.3 overall grade in 2015), David DeCastro (83.4), and Marcus Gilbert (75.3), the Steelers should have one of the better offensive lines in football.

Put all these parts together, and Pittsburgh likely has the best offense on paper. They will need to stay healthier than they did last year in order for them to have the best offense on the field, however.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Tim Edell

    The Steelers still have a big question mark at LT. Saying Ryan Harris is a better option than Villaneuva may be true but, especially in pass pro, its a huge drop off from a healthy Beachum. And IMO losing Bryant was a huge blow to this offense. While Coates may be able to pick up some of the load he is by far on the same level as Bryant.

    • Bob Loblaw

      Yeah, because there’s no way Villanueva improves or Coates is better than you think, huh Nostradamus?

      • Tim Edell

        Well genious.. Villanueva was PFFs 51st ranked OT last year. So yes he could improve just like you could improve your knowledge of the NFL!!

        • JD McGirt

          They did pretty good behind him last year. You realize he played most of the year last year and played most extremely well in the pass game locking up con miller TWICE. He got it done every week last year and can do it again

          • Tim Edell

            Well if you come to this site I would think you would follow their grading. And being graded bad both vs.the run and the pass and being the 51st graded OT is not playing “extremely well”.. Far from it!

          • JD McGirt

            On paper. A lot of things on paper are different than the actual play of a person. Actually watch footage of him blocking Ben’s blindside and you’ll see him manhandle some of the best edge rushers

          • Tim Edell

            Well there grading is watching him every single play and graded horrendously!! Im sure your a Pitt fan but their grading doesnt have any bias towards him bro.

          • Wayne Padgett

            The Steelers offensive line will be better in 2016. Remember Beachum only played 6 games due to injury and Villaneuva played admirably, he done a fantastic job if not just as good and will improve with further training. If they would have resigned Beachum they wanted him to move to guard as they believe after the year Villanueva had was ready to start at LT. Villaneuvais the same guy that tried out at TE a year prior. The Steelers getting back Pouncey at center gives them 2 Pro Bowl lineman along side DeCastro, and RT Justin Gilbert is getting better those two games against Denver shut down Von Miller. Signing Ryan Harris helps with depth on the O-line as they didn’t have much of depth going into this offseason. Harris will compete against Villaneuva for the starting LT job this spring. The better man deserving to start. I don’t think the LT position will be an issue. Big Ben was sacked fewer times in 2015 than any year he has played which says a lot that the line has improved and without Pouncey, Beachum and lack of depth. Signing Harris makes the O-line better and people needs to understand that. They didn’t have Pouncey for the entire year and Beachum for only 6 games and yet had one of the better O-lines in 2015 allowing only 20 sacks.

        • CP72

          If you’re going to bad mouth some and call them a GENIUS….you should spell it right.

      • Limousine Liberal

        Best screen name/avatar on the web. Well done!

  • jonathan

    they have antonio brown

  • Limousine Liberal

    If you’re fielding an offense with a healthy Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Lev Bell and an even average offensive line (which the Steeler’s is much better than average) you’re going to have the most dynamic offense in football. The other pieces are gravy. Bell will keep the safeties honest while picking up 100yds in most games while making blitzing defenses pay with ridiculous yac and AB routinely beats double coverage all over the field. You throw in capable compliments at #2 and 3 receiver and a deep middle threat/red zone machine TE and look out. IFF they stay healthy.

  • Udontknowjaq

    #5 Antonio Brown.. Enough said