Year in and year out, the Pittsburgh Steelers are among the most successful teams in the NFL. Like other elite organizations, the Steelers maintain greatness by evolving in an ever-changing league; gone are the days of a balanced offense and blitz-heavy defense. This isn't your father's Steelers team; they pass 60.2 percent of the time, including on 61.3 percent of plays through three quarters, both well above the league-average. The Steelers are ranked just 18th in the NFL in sack rate and 31st (ahead of you-know-who) in interceptions, yet they're still among the league's most dominating defenses. They're simply doing things a bit differently in Pittsburgh these days.
6.2: Net yards per attempt (YPA) from Steelers' passing offense.
Net-YPA, a stat that adds sacks into passing efficiency, is the most predictive single stat in all of football. It's no surprise that the Broncos, Redskins (a team that's succeeded in spite of a lackluster defense), and Patriots lead the league in the category. Pittsburgh ranks just 18th in net-YPA this year. Part of that is of course due to Ben Roethlisberger's recent absence and other injuries to some key offensive play-makers.
34.1: Success rate on Steelers' runs.
Only 34.1 percent of Pittsburgh's running plays have increased their chances of scoring on a particular drive. Even the Cowboys, the team ranked last in the NFL with only 3.4 yards per carry (YPC), have a 38.3 percent rushing success rate. The lack of a running game is a major reason the Steelers have relied so heavily on their passing offense in 2012.
98.4: Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating when blitzed.
Blitz or not, pressure or not, Roethlisberger is the same quarterback. His passer rating when blitzed is just 0.2 points lower than when defenses send four or fewer rushers, according to Pro Football Focus. Even in the face of pressure, Roethlisberger's passer rating is 95.0 in 2012, which is simply remarkable. He uses his strength to ward off sacks and even make throws with defenders draped all over him.
5.6: Pressure rate from left tackle Max Starks.
The Steelers have struggled with pass protection in recent seasons, but they've cleaned things up some this year. Despite a quarterback who tends to hold onto the ball longer than most, the Steelers have allowed the 12th-lowest sack rate in the NFL. If there's a weak spot, though, it's on the outside. Rookie right tackle Mike Adams has allowed seven sacks, the same number I've attributed to Doug Free, and Starks has allowed a much higher pressure rate than any other starting lineman in Pittsburgh. Look for the Steelers to give Starks help since he'll be matched up primarily on DeMarcus Ware.
5.1: Net-YPA allowed by Steelers' pass defense.
So how have the Steelers kept themselves alive for yet another playoff berth despite an offense that has been mediocre up until this point? Like usual, it's the defense. The Steelers have the league's second-most efficient passing defense, due in large part to their secondary.
91: Targets at cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Only two cornerbacks in the NFL have been targeted more than Lewis, but the big, physical defensive back has excelled this year. Lewis has allowed only 5.62 YPA and a 74.9 passer rating in 2012. With cornerback Ike Taylor out, Cortez Allen has also been thrust into the starting lineup. The 5.84 YPA and 80.0 passer rating he's yielded are right on par with Lewis.
If there's a weak spot in Pittsburgh's secondary, it's nickel corner Curtis Brown. In limited action, Brown has allowed a 75.0 completion percentage, 9.67 YPA, and a passer rating of 132.6. Look for the Cowboys to utilize three-receiver sets, whether they want to run or pass, to get Brown on the field.
7: Defensive interceptions.
The only knock on Pittsburgh's secondary is that they haven't been able to force turnovers; their seven interceptions rank them 31st in the NFL, ahead of only Dallas. Like the 'Boys, the Steelers haven't gotten the same amount of pressure they're accustomed to generating. As I've shown in the past, pressure is strongly correlated with takeaways, so the interceptions will come for both teams as the pass-rush improves.
To recognize just how poorly the Steelers' rush has been in 2012, consider that their 6.0 percent sack rate ranks just 18th in the league and they've pressured the quarterback fewer than three-quarters as many times as Dallas.
55.6: Pittsburgh's defensive run success rate.
YPC can be a bit misleading because it doesn't account for game situations. A defense that allows a two-yard gain on fourth-and-1 will benefit in terms of YPC, but they really haven't done their job. Success rate accounts for game situations.
On the season, the Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in YPC allowed at 3.7. That's good, but Pittsburgh has also benefited from favorable game situations, such as goal-to-go, in which high rushing efficiency is either unlikely or impossible. In terms of success rate, the Steelers rank just 22nd in the league.
Thus, my bold prediction for the game is that the Cowboys, the team averaging a league-worst 3.4 YPC, will be able to get a little something going on the ground against the Steelers' somewhat overrated run defense.