Why the Steelers are Stumbling

The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers have a record of 1-2 after three weeks.  This Sunday, they face a perennial playoff challenger in the San Diego Chargers.  The Steelers defeated the Chargers twice last season, including in the post-season.  While last season ended with a win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, this season appears to be headed in a different direction.

Many reasons have been offered as to why the Steelers are not performing as they did last year.  Those reasons include the early season injury to strong safety Troy Polamalu; the continuing struggles of the offensive line and running backs; the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone; and, “the Super Bowl hangover.”

I believe that the issues facing the Steelers in 2009 are essentially the same issues that plagued them in 2008.  I think, in many respects, the Pittsburgh Steelers are performing exactly how they performed in 2008.

Here’s why:

  • Limited Total Offense. The Steelers have lost only six games since the beginning of 2008.  In each of those games, they failed to score more than 20 points.  In three of those games, they managed to score 14 points.  In one game, they only scored six points.  In 2009, Pittsburgh lost 23-20 to Cincinnati and 17-14 to Chicago.
  • Blown Early Scoring Opportunities. Each of those losses were characterized by missed opportunities to score early.  Against the Bears, DE Alex Brown hit Roethlisberger just as he was releasing a ball that Mike Wallace could have caught for a touchdown.  A touchdown at that point would have pushed the lead to 14-0.  That might have been enough to salt away the win.  Against Cincinnati, Limas Sweed dropped a touchdown in the end zone that probably ends the Bengals comeback bid.  The same thing happened in 2008.  Nate Washington dropped a sure touchdown versus the Giants.  Troy Polamalu dropped a “Pick 6” vs. Peyton Manning just before the half.  Roethlisberger missed a wide open receiver vs. the Titans in the first half.  In each of these games, the Steelers were dominant early, but failures to produce touchdowns allowed teams to make comebacks.  Last season, the Steelers started the season 6-6 in the Red Zone.  The Eagles ended that streak; held the Steelers to two field goals; and began what was to become a trend.
  • Fourth Quarter Fizzle. With everything that is going on with this team, I don’t know of any single stat that demonstrates the depth of the problem more than this one:

In 6 losses in 2008 and 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been outscored in the 4th quarter by a score of 62-3.

That’s not a typo.  62-3.

You can’t justify it.  You can’t excuse it or dress it up.  It’s as ugly a number as I’ve seen for any “elite” team in years.  If it’s not fixed soon, this team will need a very serious overhaul.  This is just the tip of the iceberg — and people in Pittsburgh must know that the overall condition of the team merits some very hard looks.

  1. 2008.  Week 3.  Philadelphia Eagles.  4th Quarter: Philadelphia 5, Pittsburgh 0.  Final Score: Phi. 15, Pitt. 6.
  2. 2008.  Week 8. New York Giants. 4th Quarter: NYG 12, Pittsburgh 0.  Final Score: NYG 21, Pitt 14.
  3. 2008.  Week 10. Indianapolis Colts. 4th Quarter: Indy 7, Pittsburgh 3.  Final Score: Indianapolis 24, Pitt 20.
  4. 2008.  Week 16. Tennessee Titans. 4th Quarter: Tenn. 14, Pittsburgh 0.  Final Score: Tennessee 31, Pitt 14.
  5. 2009.  Week 2. Chicago Bears.  4th Quarter:  Chicago 10, Pittsburgh 0.  Final Score:  Chicago 17, Pitt 14.
  6. 2009.  Week 3. Cincinnati Bengals.  4th Quarter: Cincinnati 14, Pittsburgh 0.  Final Score: Cincinnati 23, Pitt 20.

There is no question that this defense is getting older.  There is also no question that the offense suffers from inexperience at some very critical positions.  Mike Wallace is an emerging threat at wide receiver, but he’s a rookie.  Santonio Holmes is a Super Bowl MVP, but he allowed Leon Hall and company to hold him to a single reception last week.  Hines Ward is also a Super Bowl MVP, but his best days are behind him.  Limas Sweed has not emerged as a consistent player.  Rashard Mendenhall has not emerged as a reliable player.  If the Steelers are to right the ship in the 4th quarter on offense, they need Sweed’s size and Mendenhall’s power to show up on time, every week.

On defense, the inability of Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel to get pressure on Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler is no surprise.  That neither James Harrison nor Lamarr Woodley could impose their will is troubling.  Lawrence Timmons, while a better performer than Sweed and Mendenhall, has to justify his draft status.  He was selected just after the Jets Darelle Revis.  Revis has already notched excellent games against every single elite receiver the Jets have faced.  Timmons has to build his resume right now.  Larry Foote is gone.  William Gay is young.  DeShea Townsend is old.  Tyrone Carter is old.  Keiwan Ratliff is Keiwan Ratliff.  And, with all of that said, Troy is out.

Polamalu can make many things better, but he cannot do it alone.  The Steelers have a systemic flaw that will be fatal unless they get significant production from players who have yet to produce.  If the youth don’t step up, this team and its fans will not be served.

10 comments

  1. Good post. I was chatting with some of my Steeler hating co-workers yesterday, and they wanted to know what happened to the Steelers. To make it simple, I said that they score field goals when they should be getting touchdowns.

    When Wallace caught that pass on Sunday, and stepped out, I knew there was going to be trouble. The Steelers used to have a very reliable red zone offense when they were a running team. With the transition to more of a passing team, the red zone offense isn’t as reliable.

    I realize that the offensive line is not as good as it was in it’s heyday during the early 00’s. But, it seriously pains me that the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t just ram it down other teams throats any more. This line seems better suited to pass block, which at times they do very well. I don’t know if it’s because they are bigger, just poor footwork, or just aren’t very good. Maybe it’s a side effect of Russ Grimm not being there anymore.

    The defensive line was a known deficiency. It should have been addressed a little more in the offseason. Ziggy Hood is a good start, but I’m sure that the team could have found another quality lineman somewhere in the draft.

    Limus Sweed = Nate Washington
    Mike Wallace = future Hines Ward replacement
    Let’s hope that Limus improves up from Nate Washington status (lots of speed, poor hands). Wallace looks like he’ll line up opposite Santonio Holmes once Hines retires.

    Mendenhall could be a star if he gets his head on straight. He might be what the Steelers need close to the goal line and on short yardage situations. Parker has been running well. Moore is Moore. A good third down back.

  2. Great post T3. I had no idea they’ve been outscored 62-3 in their last 6 losses. Wow. That’s crazy man. That HAS to be fixed right away.

    I also agree about Timmons. I think the reason why Farrior is struggling at times is because Timmons hasn’t replaced Larry Foote as people easily predicted he would. Although Foote was the “weak-link” of the four horsemen from last year but he and Farrior worked well together. Without Polamalu, the entire field becomes much bigger to defend.

    I just heard that the team re-sgned Carey Davis because Summers and David Johnson both are injured. I suspect Summers will be placed on IR.

  3. Thanks fellas.

    GN:

    Check this out — http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07119/781988-194.stm

    Now, if you’re going to compare Timmons to Derrick Brooks AND Greg Lloyd (damn — talk about high expectations!!), why do you want him to play inside linebacker? When I look at him, all I see is an outside linebacker. He’s played outside his entire life. According to Rivals.com, he was ranked #4 at the position in high school. He did nothing to hurt that estimation in college…

    And now, he’s playing inside. I said it earlier — I’d rather see Woodley inside. Woodley already has 15+ sacks and I know that they want him to be able to stack up the strong side runs by playing over tight ends, but I don’t think this process is working out. They know more than I do —- by a LONG SHOT, but damn.

    I think Woodley could play anywhere in that defense except nose tackle and cornerback. I’d like to see a bit more bulk in the middle – other than King Casey, Lord of the Wide Bodies.

  4. T3,

    Interesting article. They compared him to Derrick Brooks and Greg Lloyd but are playing him inside.

    Remember during the offseason when you, myself, kos and someone else (I can’t remember) were talking about the Steelers and I asked if Timmons would be better served playing on the outside because of his weight and speed (235lbs)? I also said that I think Woodley could make the transition to inside simply because of his size and ability to cover.

    To make a long story short, I thought the same thing. 🙂

  5. Maybe one of the reasons why so many teams are having trouble in the run game — and in the Red Zone is the proliferation of 3-4 defenses around the league. Maybe the lineman aren’t really all that bad.

    When people went off on the Steelers line, they were saying that teams like New England and San Diego and so many others had great offensive lines. The Patriots don’t have an effective running game. Their outburst against ATL (minus Peria Jerry one week after they up 144 to CAR) is misleading. The Chargers, Pats and Steelers are all having trouble scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone. That’s a big deal — and I don’t think it simply boils down to their line play.

    Then you have teams like the Giants and Saints who both use fullbacks in the run and pass game — and they can score from ANYWHERE. I’ll have to look deeper, but I don’t think that Bruce Arians has the answer to this one. The game is cyclical. It may be time to go backward instead of forward.

  6. Yeah — I remember that.

    I think the rationale was and is that Timmons’ coverage skills in the middle of the zone make him very attractive. I think we agree that they may be outsmarting themselves.

  7. Temple,

    The thing about the fullback says it all. I’ve been saying for the past couple of years that the Steelers should go back to having one. I know Arians doesn’t like it, but if Tomlin tells him to put in a fullback for short yardage, he’ll do it. Sometimes, the Steelers will put a tight end in the back field, but there is no substitute for a real blocking fullback a la Dan Kreider. I also think a top flight full back will help Willie Parker. Having one more blocker would definitely help the speed back break a couple more. Of course, maybe this rant is really more about how much I hate Arians one back offense! 😦

  8. I wonder if Timmons is the classic case of someone who looks great at playing his position in practice, but put him in the game, and he’s not the same player. If the Steelers keep losing, I could see some shakeups coming, including trying Woodley on the inside and moving Timmons to the outside. I think Woodley can play either position. He could always be moved to the outside on obvious passing situations. Timmons on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have the instincts of an insider linebacker.

  9. Re: Arians…I still don’t know how he got the job. It couldn’t have been off of his track record. Did Ben vouch for him? Was it a quid pro quo for his latitude to audible at will? I don’t know the deal, but it defies reason that a mediocre coordinator with a few years experience in Cleveland (of ALL places) would merit this job at this time.

    OR

    Last year, the Steelers played 9 games against Top tier run defenses. They faced #3 twice, #4, #6, #8, #9, #11, #12 and #15. New England was #15. So, we’re trying to evaluate the Quality of the Running Game against that level of defense.

    When they didn’t play elite defenses and Willie Parker was healthy, they went for 186 against Houston; 120+ vs. Cincy (2x); San Diego (124 and 165). The only non-elite team that didn’t get mauled last year was Arizona and we know how that ended.

    This year, they’ve played Tennessee and Chicago who finished #5 and #6 versus the run LAST YEAR. It’s not they were getting stuffed by scrubs. They were facing teams that have stopped the run for a decade (when healthy).

    So, maybe we don’t really know how good the running game is. From looking at the 2009 schedule, unless things have changed in Denver, the only teams with legit run defenses left on the schedule are Minnesota and Baltimore. The Bengals have improved and the Dolphins are mediocre. So, you could be about to witness the Great Steel Run Off of 2009. Stay tuned!!!

  10. kos,

    Timmons had 5 sacks last year in a limited role. If i’m not mistaken, I think all 5 came from playing on the outside in passing situations. I think that his natural position is on the outside.

    I remember a game last year(forgot who they were playing) when the team needed a sack, he shot through the B gap from the outside to the inside and straight crushed the QB. I think he’s a great talent but just needs to be put in the right position. I think the outside is the right position for him.

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