Why Pittsburgh Steelers 2020 offense was insanely predictable

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) talks with quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) talks with quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Snap count statistics show that the Pittsburgh Steelers had the most predictable offense in the league last season. Here’s how they can fix that in 2021.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the most predictable teams in football last year on offense. This is more than just a subjective narrative; there are actually some statistics that help prove this.

Since 2016, Sharp Football Stats has been tracking the snap rates of each team. They have tallied how often teams are under center or in shotgun, and what percentage of run and pass plays they call from each. I think you will find the results for the Steelers to be more than just a little disturbing:

If you are having trouble interpreting what these percentages mean, allow me to offer a brief explanation. Numbers that are too far at either end of the spectrum indicate higher percentages of predictability. For instance, let’s look at run snaps under center. When the Steelers decide to run the ball, they are going to do so from under center 85 percent of the time (the highest rate in the NFL last year). Because their total percentage of snaps under center is so low (just 17%) defenses are tipped off that, if Ben Roethlisberger is under center, there’s a great chance they are running the football.

Compare this number to what we saw in 2016. While running the ball from under center 73 percent still seems like a lot, it’s still significantly less than as predictable than they were this year. The same can be said about the pass.

Randy Fichtner doesn’t just get a bad rap for no reason: He was quite literally the most predictable offensive coordinator in the NFL last year. Here’s where the Steelers ranked in terms of snaps rates in each of these categories in 2020, via Sharp Football Stats:

The fact that the Steelers ranked either very high or very low in each category is additional proof that Pittsburgh’s offense was incredibly predictable last season. How does this compare to an elite NFL offense?

Let’s use the Kansas City Chiefs as an example. While you might be under the assumption that the Chiefs pass the ball from shotgun all the time, they did so at a lower rate than the Steelers. In other areas, they are far less predictable. When running the football, the Chiefs had just 69 percent of runs come from under center (compared to 85% for Steelers), and when passing, they threw 31 percent of their passes from under center (compared to just 15% for Steelers).

How do the Steelers fix this?

So how do the Steelers fix their predictability issue in 2021? The answer is really quite simple: they need to do a better job mixing up the run and pass in certain formations. I’m optimistic that this is something new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, is going to be focused on.

When Pittsburgh was in shotgun, there was a very high probability that they were passing the football (typically without the threat of any play-action whatsoever). Likewise, when they were under center, the Steelers were more likely to run the football than any team in the league.

This is no doubt partly due to the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has expressed how he likes to operate from the shotgun when passing the ball. However, this severe lack of creativity has made it easy for defensive coordinators to hone in on what the Steelers are going to do.

Additionally, Fichtner called play-action just 48 times last year for Big Ben. In comparison, Bills quarterback Josh Allen threw 160 passes from play-action, while former and current NFL MVPs Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers threw at least 140 passes each from play-action last season.

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It’s no wonder Pittsburgh’s offense collapsed the way it did late in the 2020 season. The Steelers were far too predictable last year, and some big changes are needed to mix things up on offense in 2021.