Now that Mike Munchak has been named the new offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, most of the excitement associated with his hiring revolves around what he might bring to the running game. While that excitement is certainly justified, perhaps we should look at what Munchak brings to the table in the form of potential pass protection.
Dating back to 2004, Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked a total of 428 times, which averages out to nearly 43 times a season. Ben Roethlisberger has been on the receiving end of 386 of those sacks and that wear and tear needs to start slowing down if he expects to play five more seasons.
During his 14 seasons as the offensive line coach in Tennessee, quarterbacks playing behind Munchak's offensive lines were sacked a total of 396 times for an average of 28.3 a season. In fact, there were only two seasons during that span of 14 that Tennessee quarterbacks were sacked more than 40 times.
Now, the late Steve McNair was certainly not afraid to tuck it and run during his time in Tennessee and he was of course succeeded by Vince Young, who like his predecessor, wasn't afraid to take off with the football. During those 14 seasons, McNair and Young combined to start 172 of the 224 regular season games played and combined they ran 836 times for 4,612 yards. That's an average of 4.9 times and 26.8 yards per start. During his entire Steelers career, Roethlisberger is credited with having rushed 345 times for 1,135 yards in his 142 regular season starts.
Last season, Roethlisberger was sacked a total of 43 times but 32 of them came in the first eight games. At that point he was well on his way to shattering the Steelers single-season record for times sacked. Once the running game and no-huddle offense came alive in the final 8 games, the sacks went way down and if you throw out the four times he was sacked in the ninth game, he was only sacked seven times over the course of the final seven games of the season. That's outstanding.
Now, did the running game really come alive during those final eight games, or did the offense just run better and more during that span? As a team, the offense averaged 20.5 rushes for 3.6 yards per rush in the first eight games of the season. In the second half of the season, however, they averaged 27.1 rushes per game for an average of 3.76 yards per rush. So while they weren't necessarily gaining that many more yards per rush, they were running an average of 6.6 more times a game. That's 6.6 less chances a game that Roethlisberger risked getting sacked.
Let's dig deeper into those numbers.
In the first eight games of the season the Steelers offense had a total of 35 runs that went for zero or negative yardage when you subtract out the kneel downs. In the second half of the season they had 44 runs that went for zero or negative yardage if you subtract the botched field goal run and kneel downs. That doesn't look too good on paper so we need to dig a little deeper to find the success.
Now let's look at successful run rates based on down and yards needed for a first down or touchdown. In the first eight games of the season, the Steelers offense had a successful run rate of 41.5%, while in the second eight games that rate jumped up to 45.6%. To give you some perspective, the Philadelphia Eagles led the league in yards per rush with 5.1 yards per carry and they had roughly a 51.3% successful run rate. (Successful runs are based on a runner gaining 40% of the yards needed on 1st down, 60% of yards needed on 2nd down and 100% of yards needed on both 3rd and 4th down)
Now, just because the Eagles had a great run success rate, didn't mean that it led to less sacks. In fact, their quarterbacks were sacked a total of 46 times and their 9.06% sack rate as a team was worse than Roethlisberger's 7.34%. Like Roethlisberger, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles now has the reputation of holding on to the ball too long. Roethlisberger is seemingly getting better in that phase of his game and it really showed in the second half of the season.
So how do we tie all of this back to Munchak? I don't think that we should expect his addition to lead to Roethlisberger being sacked less than 30 times next season, but the fact that he should help the running game should result in more runs per game and a better run success rate. Ben is still going to be Ben at times, but a better running game should result in him being sacked less than 40 times next season.
While none of the study in this post is conclusive or evidence of future success, being excited about what Munchak brings to the run game, in my opinion, should also include excitement about Roethlisberger possibly being on his back less in 2014.
In a future post, I will take a look at the successful run rates that the Tennessee running backs had while Munchak was the offensive line coach there to see if we can find any proof that he may indeed help the Steelers running game, which in turn should lead us to believe that Roethlisberger will be sacked less.