Eight games into their season, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain undefeated. As any close observer of the NFL knows, Pittsburgh's stifling defense has been the primary driver of the team's success. The Steelers have allowed the sixth-fewest yards and fifth-fewest points per game, rank second in the league in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA, and are one of just three teams with top-five units against both the run (fourth) and the pass (third).
The offense, as many predicted, has improved from where it was last year. Of course, it would have been difficult for the offense not to improve with Ben Roethlisberger back under center in place of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Roethlisberger has played more than a game and a half and the offense has indeed improved, but not by quite as much as one may have expected. The Steelers are one of just three teams to manage at least 24 points in every game so far this season and thus rank fifth in points per game, but they're just 25th in yards per game and 15th in DVOA.
But just because the Steelers aren't quite among the league leaders in offense, doesn't mean they're not worth taking a look at. In fact, this is one of the more interesting offenses in the league right now, in large part due to the way it's been designed.
First, the Steelers have dramatically increased their usage of pre-snap motion. They used it on only 26.6 percent of snaps from 2016 through 2019, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, compared with 42 percent of snaps this year. And with that increase in motion has come a dramatic remaking of the team's passing game.
Roethlisberger is completing just about 68 percent of his passes, but per NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, he's actually completed a lower percentage of passes than expected (68.1 vs. 68.7 percent). Why? Well, Roethlisberger was long one of the league's most aggressive throwers, averaging 8.78 air yards per attempt from 2010 through 2019. This year, though, Roethlisberger is averaging only 6.80 air yards per attempt, which ranks 27th out of 33 qualified passers.
Roethlisberger's 172 pass attempts of less than five air yards are fourth-most in the NFL, per PFF and Tru Media, and they make up a nearly 60 percent share of his throws. It is not at all uncommon to see the Steelers have their wide receivers run a route that involves them running a straight line down the line of scrimmage to provide Roethlisberger what should be an outlet if nothing opens up downfield, but more often than not turns out to be his first look.
Those passes are extraordinarily low-risk, and while they might ordinarily not be very high-reward, that's not necessarily the case for Pittsburgh, simply because the team's receivers are so good.
On five-yard-or-less routes, JuJu Smith-Schuster has caught 27 of 29 throws for 239 yards and a score, Diontae Johnson has caught 21 of 28 for 140 and a score, and Chase Claypool has hauled in 17 of 21 for 135 and a touchdown. Smith-Schuster and Johnson have really been peppered with these types of targets -- so much so that they rank 14th (Smith-Schuster, 6.64 yards) and 10th (Johnson, 6.38 yards) in average route depth out of the 145 wide receivers who have been on the field for at least 100 snaps.
Given that Smith-Schuster works primarily out of the slot (he's been there on more than 70 percent of his snaps, per PFF), it makes sense that he's often targeted close to the line of scrimmage. But a receiver like Johnson -- who primarily aligns on the perimeter -- seeing targets that close to the line is quite unusual. And it's because of the incredible volume of those remarkably short crossers, as well as the absurd amount of screens the Steelers throw to their wideouts.
Only two quarterbacks have thrown more screen passes than Roethlisberger (41) so far this season, per PFF and Tru Media, and those passes have accounted for a 14.2 percent share of his throws. Smith-Schuster has caught the fourth-most screens of any receiver in the league, but the Steelers will throw those passes to Johnson, Claypool, James Washington, and even Ray-Ray McCloud.
Pittsburgh's level of trust in its wideouts has resulted in Roethlisberger averaging only 4.4 air yards per completion, per NFL.com's Next Gen Stats, which means the pass-catchers are averaging 5.5 yards after catch per reception. The goal of their passing game seems to be to get the ball out of Ben's hands as quickly as possible, even if that means the throw comes extremely close to the line of scrimmage and the burden of creating a big gain falls on the shoulders of the receiver rather than the quarterback. That strategy is borne out of Roethlisberger's averaging only 2.27 seconds to throw, the fastest time in the league.
Even on the rare occasions where the Steelers take shots down the field, it seems to be out of the quick game. Rarely has Roethlisberger sat at the top of his drop for more than one hop-step before unleashing the ball. He simply puts it up there and trusts that his man will come down with it. He's hit just 11 of 36 passes 20-plus yards down the field, per PFF. And it's something of a shame because these receivers can really get open down the field, and they can go up and get the ball even in contested situations. (Claypool, in particular, is excellent at this, which isn't surprising given his size, speed, and strength.)
It's tough to say whether the shift in Pittsburgh's willingness to attack downfield is related to Roethlisberger's elbow injury that required surgery last year, but it certainly seems like it is. He rarely sits in the pocket and throws the ball down the field and outside the numbers. The Steelers rarely ask him to do much more than play point guard and get the ball into the hands of the playmakers on the outside.
The good news is, just doing that is good enough to give Pittsburgh a league-average offense, even while the run game is struggling badly. The quality of the receivers is so high that just getting them the ball, even close to the line of scrimmage, often results in something good. If the Steelers can build on that and test defenses just a little bit further up the seam or down the sideline, they can take another step forward. If their offense begins approaching the top 10 instead of remaining toward the middle of the pack, they'll become really scary.