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Pittsburgh's Rush Defense Is Second Best Among Super Bowl Teams

The Pittsburgh defense allowed only 3.02 yards per rush attempt in the regular season, and so far in the playoffs, that ridiculously low number has gone down, as the Ravens and Jets combined for 105 yards on 40 rushes (2.65 ypc). As it turns out, that is the second lowest defensive rushing yards per carry among the 90 Super Bowl teams, behind only the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

Here is the list of every Super Bowl participant that allowed less than 3.5 yards per carry in the regular season. It has lots of Black and Gold on it.

Team Year YPC
Baltimore 2000 2.69
Pittsburgh 2010 3.02
Oakland 1967 3.21
New York 2000 3.22
Minnesota 1969 3.23
Dallas 1971 3.24
New York Jets 1968 3.25
Denver 1977 3.26
Buffalo 1992 3.27
Pittsburgh 2008 3.29
Atlanta 1998 3.33
Pittsburgh 1979 3.38
Pittsburgh 1974 3.41
Pittsburgh 2005 3.42
Oakland 1980 3.45
Pittsburgh 1978 3.46
New England 1996 3.46
Kansas City 1969 3.47

While we don’t have play by play of every team, to see how tough these teams were to run against, I think it’s pretty fair to say that these teams were tough defensively and rarely gave up big running plays. We do, however, have the Super Bowl game play-by-plays available at pro-football-reference.com at their Super Bowl play finder. You can search any number of things, from specific games to specific situations. You can run a search of a game in ascending play order and see a chronological account of the game. The only thing that aren’t listed are penalties and special teams play.

I used that Super Bowl database to see how the opponent’s of those stout rush defenses attacked them. I checked two different situations: first down plays in the first half, and all short yardage situations (2 yards or less to go) on third down.

Teams ran more than they passed on first down, though the numbers–both the season rushing numbers against those defenses and from the Super Bowl games themselves-show they probably should have avoided running on first down more. These teams passed 105 times and ran 125 times on first down. It’s tempting to think this is because teams used to run way more than they do now (which is generally true). The four opponents in the 1960’s actually passed the ball on first down as much as their recent counterparts, and the Packers in Super Bowl II were one of only five opponents of teams on this list to throw more than they ran on first down in the first half.

Here were the results based on first down play call against these great run defenses:

Play Total Comp Att Sack Net Yards FD/TD TO NY/P
Pass 105 60 100 5 761 31 6 7.25
Rush 125 364 11 0 2.91

These teams averaged a very healthy yards per play when they passed, and even taking into account the cost of turnovers, the value per play on first down was roughly double when passing. 11 of the 125 rushes resulted directly in a first down; when they didn’t, the median second down distance was between 8 and 9 yards. Unsurprisingly, these great rush defenses were great on first down, allowing 2.9 yards per rush.

Third and short is one of the situations where teams should run the ball more frequently than they do, because the success rates are higher with runs than passes, offsetting the difference in yards. However, that may not be true against the top rush defenses.

Here were the results based on third down play call on third and two yards or less:

Play Total Comp Att Sack Net Yards FD/TD TO NY/P
Pass 14 11 13 1 133 11 0 9.50
Rush 25 83 18 0 3.32

We’re dealing with small sample sizes here, but the pass converted as frequently as running the ball (79% versus 72% on rush attempts), while the yards per play shows that several teams were able to hit big plays by throwing on third and short.

Chase Stuart writes about a game back in 2006 between the Patriots and Vikings, when Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was defensive coordinator. The Patriots came out and spread the field and threw, threw, and threw some more, refusing to “establish the run” against a team that ranked #1 against the rush. He and I both think the Packers need to employ a similar plan in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is an elite quarterback, and I would put it on him to win the game.

Does this mean it will be successful? No, the Steelers could generate turnovers and are no slouches at defending the pass. I do think the Packers’ best chance is to spread the field and throw, throw, and throw some more and trust Rodgers to get the ball out. I would also take my shots on third down rather than butt heads against the Steelers. History shows that it has been a good way to generate big plays.

[photo via Getty]

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