Playoff races are heating up around the NFL. In Pittsburgh, playoff hopes are as icy as Lake Erie in December. The Steelers have lost five games in a row, including a Thursday night shocker at the hands of the Cleveland Browns. Things are so bad in Pittsburgh that Brady Quinn completed a mere 6 of 19 passes for 90 yards — and people blamed the DEFENSE. This was unthinkable after the Steelers flexed their muscles at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver back in November. Times have changed. Pittsburgh is miles away from that victory and is in turmoil following a series of redundant, irritatingly close losses to the dregs of the NFL.
According to Mark Kaboly, the Steelers are unaware of what is wrong with the team. They do not have solutions and are earnestly looking for answers. His article in the Pittsburgh Tribune featured quotes from players like Casey Hampton, Hines Ward and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer. None of them seem to know what the problem has been with this team. Kaboly does a solid job of listing many of the issues, but he doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. AP’s Allan Robinson had the same experience in speaking with Chris Kemoeatu and James Farrior. There is no one single problem and no one single solution. Some problems can be fixed in 2009. Some will take time. The confusion is in the complexity. So here goes…Top 10 Reasons Why the Steelers Are STILL Losing:
- Games begin with a kickoff. The kickoff unit is terrible. No team has done a poorer job of kicking off this season than the Steelers. Jeff Reed, never a strong-legged kickoff artist has regressed from his 9 touchback effort of 2008. This season, he has zero touchbacks. Atlanta’s Michael Koenen has 26. Among kickers who routinely kick in bad weather, New England’s Steven Gostkowski ranks first with 19 touchbacks. The Steelers rank 29th in kickoff return distance and the unit has surrendered a whopping 4 touchdowns. Even the kicks which haven’t been short have been low. The coverage team has missed tackles, neglected lane assignments, and kept inferior opponents in games that should have ended before halftime. Solution: Get a new kickoff specialist. If Dan Sepulveda could, he probably would. The Steelers need more height and more depth. There has to be a legendary “Rudy” type working in the mills of Western Pennsylvania looking for an open tryout. It’s time to open the doors to Heinz Field to find someone willing and able to give opponents the boot. Fire Special Teams Coach Bob Ligashesky. The unit has to work in order for the coach to work.
- Ball security. When the Steelers protect the ball, they usually win. The Steelers had turned the ball over at least once in every game this season until Thursday night’s game in Cleveland. Over the past six seasons, the Steelers have ranked in the top 12 in net turnovers four times. In the two other seasons (2006, 2009), the team ranked 27th and 25th, respectively. In 2006, the Steelers finished a pedestrian 8-8 and missed the playoffs. This season, the Steelers would be fortunate to finish 8-8. This season began with the Steelers losing the turnover battle in each of the first three weeks. A team that could well have been 3-0 was instead 1-2 and looking up at the Cincinnati Bengals. Rashard Mendenhall, pictured below, coughed up the ball at the goal line vs. the Vikings. Since beating Denver while forcing three turnovers, the Steelers are minus 4 on turnovers and 0-5. Solution: Rashard Mendenhall has improved, but he is still not a sure-handed runner. He still relies too heavily on his spin move before getting through the hole. Every time he touches the ball near the goal line, I’m waiting for him to lose his grip because he loses sight of the defense while making his move. The greatest culprit this season, however, has been Ben Roethlisberger. He has thrown an interception in 10 of 13 games this season. Last season, Ben played 7 games without tossing an interception. In many games, Roethlisberger has had as much time to throw as any QB in the league, but his desire to make the biggest play has cost the team possessions — and games. Every interception thrown by Roethlisberger has been with the Steelers leading (9) or tied (2). The Steelers cannot put teams away because careless, high-risk passes are allowing teams back into the game. When Roethlisberger has a Super Bowl win, off-season trouble, and in-season concussions, the team moves the ball AND turns it over. One is an accident, two is a trend.
- Mediocre Play Calling, Mediocre Execution. Over the past three years, the Steelers have been solidly in the middle of the pack offensively. The team has averaged a 15th place finish in points and 16th place in yards. The team has been routinely criticized for abandoning its time-honored power principles. Bruce Arians’ preference for 5-wide sets on 3rd and short limit what this team can do. That’s not a recipe for success in the AFC. Since 2004, the Chargers scoring offense has been ranked 3, 5, 1, 5, 2, and 4. Indianapolis has ranked 1, 2, 2, 3, 13, and 5. New England has been ranked 4, 10, 7, 1, 8, and 6. The Steelers have ranked 11, 9, 12, 9, 20, and 16. In order to sustain success, the Steelers need more production from the offense. This season, the offense is also ranked 17th in 3rd down conversion percentage, just a tick ahead of the DETROIT LIONS. Among the elite, big play offensive teams (New Orleans, Indianapolis, San Diego, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston, the Giants and Dallas), the Steelers have the lowest scoring average (21.4 points per game). The longest pass play this season went for 57 yards (You can’t make this stuff up!). That’s the shortest among this elite group. The Steelers rank 3rd in interceptions among the top 10 passing offenses. The Steelers have caught 21 touchdowns, but only run for 8. That’s good enough for 20th in the league and puts them right between a team they should have beaten twice (Cincinnati) and a team they’d love to play twice (Denver). The Steelers haven’t had more than 16 rushing scores in a season since 2005 (Bettis’ last season.) Solution: Fire Bruce Arians. Arians is not an elite offensive coordinator. I’m sure he is a wonderful person who shares a common vision with Ben Roethlisberger. So what! I wouldn’t normally ask any such thing — but somewhere along the line between Parker’s slow healing and reticence to punch it in there and Mendhenhall’s overly lubricated lunges, the Steelers decided they would be better off with the ball in the air. I’m not against the passing game, per se. I’m in favor of wearing down the opposing defense with power running. I believe the benefits of power running serve teams dynamically (1+1=4). Passing in Pittsburgh is contingent on too many things. This is simply not a sustainable approach. You can throw like the Chargers and Colts when you have WEATHER like the Chargers and Colts. The Pittsburgh Steelers have enough offensive talent to score more efficiently and effectively than they do. Arians has also been unable to cure Roethlisberger (at least in part) of his unshakable desire for the huge play. The Steelers need to increase the percentage of plays where they take what the defense gives them. They need to sustain drives and keep an aging defense on the bench. Roethlisberger is ranked 8th in number of plays over 20 yards; he is ranked 9th in number of plays over 40 yards. He has the fewest attempts of any passer on the list. He also has the 2nd most sacks (Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay). Rashard Mendenhall, conversely, has only 8 rushes of 20+ yards this season. Only Ray Rice and Michael Turner have had comparable big-play ability on so few carries. Tennessee’s Chris Johnson has 20 such plays (plus 7 rushes over 40 yards).
- Red Zone Burn Out. Ben Roethlisberger has a rating of 77.6 in the Red Zone. He has completed 25 of 45 passes with 12 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He has taken 7 sacks. Last year, Roethlisberger threw 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions, with a rating of 95. This season, he is making bad decisions at money time. I’ve been saying a great deal of these troubles were evident last year. Remember the game at Tennessee? The Steelers were having their way with the Titans and had no trouble moving the ball up and down the field. In the Red Zone, Roethlisberger fumbled trying to run over the entire defense. He forced throws that weren’t there — and eventually, the defense tired of playing on a short field against a talented team. A final score of 31-14 looks like the defense didn’t show up. It should never have come to that. The story has been similar in several games this season. The team’s troubles in the red zone are due partly to Roethlisberger’s willingness to take sacks, but also to the predictability of the offense. Versus Cincinnati at home, the Steelers were desperate for a red zone score and lined up in a 5 wide formation that eliminated the run option for the offense. The Bengals blitzed off the edge and held Pittsburgh to a field goal. The same thing happened in Week 1 vs. the Titans. Rashard Mendenhall has not proved to be a reliable Red Zone runner. There is no doubt that Mendenhall makes Tomlin nervous. While he hasn’t lost the ball since the Viking game, there have been enough close calls to keep Mewelde Moore in the mix. Limas Sweed has not emerged. So, the Steelers cannot use his 6’4″ frame to their advantage. He dropped a sure touchdown pass vs. the Bengals that would have iced the game. Solution: The Steelers simply have to run the ball more frequently in the Red Zone. Mendenhall is on the roster — he has to get those touches. Adrian Peterson has 56 Red Zone rushes and 11 touchdowns. Rashard has 27 carries and 5 touchdowns. They also have to use Heath Miller to attack the deep seam once they get inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. Between mid-field and the Red Zone, Ben has a rating of 108.6, but only 6 touchdown passes. Miller has 10 catches and five touchdowns in the Red Zone, but only 10 catches between mid-field and the Red Zone. More than half of Miller’s catches are in the Steelers own end of the field. He is being used, essentially, as a defensive weapon — to prevent big losses as the team fights its way out of its own end. That’s not enough. Miller must be used on both sides of the field. Two years ago, Heath Miler had 9 plays of 20+ yards. Five were between the opponents 50 and the Red Zone. Arians is not setting the table for the offense by using Miller aggressively. This must change.
- The 2006 and 2008 Draft. The Steelers management of personnel in the draft and free agency is generally unassailable. Still, Colbert and Tomlin are facing the outcomes of drafting players who are not yet ready to perform at a consistently high level. In 2008, Pittsburgh drafted five players who were expected to pay dividends sooner or later. Two are out of the league. One is in the doghouse, and another is a recent visitor to that same doghouse. Only Dennis Dixon has performed in a manner commensurate with expectations since his selection. Rashard Mendenhall has played two spectacular games (vs. San Diego and at Denver), but he was benched this season. Limas Sweed has effectively been returned to Austin, Texas. Bruce Davis and Tony Hills might just as well be hawking flat screens for Best Buy. Mendenhall, to my mind, is a viable “back of the future.” However, it is worth noting that some of the players passed on in 2008 are effective. A partial list includes Ray Rice (BAL), Mario Manningham (NYG), Pierre Garcon (IND), JerMichael Finley (GB), Tashard Choice (DAL), Brandon Carr (KC), Trevor Scott (OAK), and Jason Jones (TN). Drafting is an inexact science and you cannot hit on every pick. The 2008 Steeler Rookie of the Year was undrafted free agent linebacker Patrick Bailey. From 2006, only Santonio Holmes and Willie Colon paid dividends to the franchise. The Steelers missed on two third rounders that year. Quality players selected after Steeler picks include Owen Daniels (HOU), linebacker Stephen Tulloch (TENN), Stephen Gostkowski (NE), Leon Washington (NYJ), Domata Peko (CIN), Elvis Dumervil (DEN) and Brad Gradkowsky (OAK). Solution: Get back to drafting high-quality performers from highly productive programs. Don’t reach on guys who are modest achievers or under-performers or who are saddled with health issues. Sweed was not an exceptional receiver at Texas. Hills had serious health issues. Davis’ learning curve was steep and he may not have perceived this clearly as a rookie. He’s on the Patriots practice squad now, so who knows.
- Playmakers in the Secondary. The front seven of the Steelers is as good as it gets in the NFL. In particular, the unit excels at stopping the run. The unit has also been known to register a sack or two over the past few decades. Over the past six years, the unit has ranked first, third, eleventh (2006), second, first and tenth (2009) in points allowed. If the offense hangs on to the ball, the defense will finish in the top 3 in points allowed. For all the accomplishments of the defense over the past decade, I don’t believe “Sudden Change” situations have been a strength. I can’t find statistics on this, but I believe the Steelers have tended to struggle in situations where the offense or spical teams create a short field. The turnover statistics bear this out — but that’s not enough to draw an ironclad conclusion. The Steelers defense entered Week 12 ranked FIRST in fewest touchdowns allowed. The offense and special teams had surrendered a whopping 8 touchdowns (See #2 above.) On the final drive versus the Raiders, the Steeler secondary featured Ike Taylor, William Gay, Ryan Mundy, and Joe Burnett. None of these players has established the type of ball-hawking andreturn ability that served the Steelers so well in Bryant McFadden. With Polamalu out and McFadden in Arizona, the best “hands” in the secondary belong to 34 year-old Deshea Townsend. Townsend was drafted when Bill Clinton was President and facing impeachment for “not having sexual relations with that woman.” Townsend was taken in the 4th round after Alan Faneca (26th overall) and Hines Ward (92nd overall).
- Townsend caught a game winner last season vs. the Dallas Cowboys. It was the last big play by a Steeler secondary player other than Troy Polamalu. Ike Taylor can still provide solid coverage against most teams. Chad Johnson has not had a 100-yard game since Ike became his “personal shadow.” Derrick Mason scored his first touchdown vs. the Steelers (after 30 seasons with Tennessee and Baltimore) just two weeks ago. Taylor, however, simply cannot catch. McFadden provided the Steelers with a critical complement on the other side of the field. He missed 8 games last season and it showed. This season, he has been replaced by William Gay and it continues to show. Gay is not a capable replacement for McFadden. Gay was a 5th round pick and performed well, considering. McFadden was a second round selection and was pivotal in the 2005 Super Bowl run. He was targeted twice by Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne in a playoff game at Indianapolis. Twice he met the challenge and kept Wayne out of the endzone. The Steelers missed out on the chance to take former Pitt Panther Darrelle Revis when the Jets moved up in the draft a few years ago. Instead the team selected Lawrence Timmons. With the loss of McFadden, the secondary is still wanting. Solution: The easiest solution would have been to break with tradition and re-sign McFadden to a new contract. The team believed that William Gay showed significant promise and did expend two draft picks on defensive backs this year. Gay leads the team in tackles, but 2009 may be most memorable for two hit he sustained rather than dished out: the posterization at the hands of Adrian Peterson and the knock out blow delivered by teammate Ryan Mundy. The team needs playmakers. If the DBs drafted in 2009 are really capable of getting the job done, there is no better test than a game versus the rejuvenated Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. Otherwise, it’s back to the draft. Troy Polamalu still leads the team with 3 interceptions. He’s played in 5 games.
- Poor Late Game Pass Rush. The Steelers defense has surrendered 4th quarter leads to five teams this season. This, however, is not a new phenomenon. From the beginning of 2008 through Week 3 in 2009, the Steelers were outscored 62-3 in the 4th quarter. No one noticed because they were busy winning the Super Bowl. I think this boils down to a couple of simple factors. One – the secondary is not as talented or as healthy as it was last season. There are fewer coverage sacks this season. The Steelers secondary isn’t built to chase speedy receivers all over the field. The defense is built to beat receivers up off the line of scrimmage, to make swift, sure tackles, and provide solid run support. Right now, there is a mismatch between the game plans of the opponents and the talent in the locker room. Two – the defensive line is missing Aaron Smith. Smith’s strength at the point of attack allowed the Steelers to prevent quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket to avoid James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. This season, quarterbacks have been stepping up, avoiding the sack, and patiently waiting to attack William Gay. That’s why he leads the team in tackles. He is the focal point of the opposition’s game plan. Harrison and Woodley could very well match their sack totals from last season, but the impact will not be the same. Third – Lawrence Timmons has been injured several times during the season and has missed significant time in certain games. He was on the bench at the close of the Viking game. In previous years, Larry Foote (even with his limitations) was on the field. When the rush has been there, as it was versus Minnesota, the linebackers (not the DB’s) produced big plays. Remember Woodley and Keyaron Fox returns for scores to seal the deal? Fourth – the defense is aging. Even though they were first in fewest touchdowns allowed entering Week 13, the team lacked the overall speed of a season ago…and it also appears to lack the endurance. Solution: The lone stud performer on this defense under age 28 is LaMarr Woodley. Every single high-quality performer on this defense is at least 28 years old. When you factor in the number of high-powered playoff games these men have played, you know that the best years are in the rear view mirror. The Steelers have to get younger and better on defense. And, in doing so, they need to claim their future defensive identity. Will they stay with the 3-4 and remain steeped in an increasing competition (with New England, the Jets, Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Kansas City, and San Diego) for limited talent? Will they go with Mike Tomlin’s preference for a 4-3 defense loaded with ball-hawking Cover 2 corners?
- Run to Daylight. The Steelers have had two dominant offensive games. Not exactly. The Steelers have played two dominant halves in two separate games this season. The first half vs. San Diego and the second half vs. Denver were the highlight reels for the offense this season. That’s it. The Steelers ran for 170+ yards in both games. The Chargers suited up without hefty Jamal Williams, and the Broncos are under-sized. Critics lambasted the offensive line at the beginning of the season after the Titans had four sacks in Week 1. I looked at the tape, as did an analyst at NFL.com, and we arrived at the same conclusion. Pass protection is not an area of weakness for this line. Run blocking is another story. Since winning at Denver, the Steelers have rushed for 80, 114, 153, 132 and 75 yards. Rashard Mendenhall has had only one hundred yard game and scored only one rushing touchdown. Solution: The team needs some new “bread and butter.” The team loves to pull Chris Kemoeatu to the right side…just as they did with Alan Faneca for years. It still works against some teams. It just doesn’t work like it used to. The Steelers don’t have effective quick hitting runs for Willie Parker. All of his plays seem to take an eternity to get going. He usually needs to make someone miss in the backfield or wait for a tight end to move in motion. Parker, if he is to have any role, needs to have access to a few plays that capitalize on his straight line speed. None of the Steeler running backs will be able to tap into these straight ahead plays until they get a stronger center for the run game.
This is the 9th item on the list because I believe that the Steelers, like much of the league have entered an era where they pass to set up the run. That’s fine — as long as you pass in a manner that actually sets up the run. Holding the ball, taking sacks, and passing up open receivers doesn’t support the running game. To support the running game, the Steelers have to change play calls, personnel packages, and tendencies to capitalize on defensive game plans. Arians’ (or Roethlisberger’s…it’s hard to tell sometimes) play calling vs. Denver in the 2nd half was brilliant. The game plan shifted and kept the Broncos off balance with a mix of screens to wide receivers and quick hitting runs. That cannot be done against every team every weak, but the offense has to place a premium on establishing a flow in the run game. If the Steelers are to make the most of their bad weather advantage, they have to run the rock when it matters most.
- Coach to the Inner Champion. If Mike Tomlin wants to threaten veterans with benching. He has to do it. When you watch this team often enough, you can see when they believe they’re going to win a game just by showing up. The Cincinnati game in Pittsburgh was one such game. The Bengals could have cared less. In the 4th quarter, their defensive linemen were on the sideline dancing. That’s when you know you have more work to do in the trenches, offensively. The Steelers threw 40 passes that week — and Rashard Mendenhall had 13 carries. When I see things like that, I think the offensive coordinator is attempting to audition for a job. I think he’s trying to show how smart he is by passing the ball all over the yard. Solution: The Steelers have to be coached in a manner that keeps the present in clear focus. The team cannot be coached in the past or in the future. Of course everyone studies tape and tendencies, but there is a time in every game where the coordinators and coaches must be fully present and aware of the conditions on the field. When Mendenhall ran only 13 times, it screamed to the Bengals that the Steelers were in no mood for a fight TODAY. When Roethlisberger missed on relatively easy passes to Holmes and Wallace in the 4th quarter, it said this team is not sharp TODAY. And it said to Cincinnati, “We will beat them today.” The memo on beating the Steelers has been passed from Cincinnati to Kansas City to Baltimore to Oakland to Cleveland. The only team that hasn’t read it is the Steelers — and they need to read it TODAY. Tomorrow is no more.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are not better than the record they have achieved this season. They are what they are. The Steelers are a 6-7 football with five consecutive losses. Three of those losses have come to teams ranked at the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category. There are only one or two teams in the league who may still believe they have no chance against the Steelers, but if they have a good return game and a Cover 2 defense, anything is possible. There is a great deal of work to do and much of that work simply cannot be fixed before the off-season.
In 2007, the Steelers lost to Eric Mangini’s 1-8 New York Jets. At the time, that was arguably the worst loss in franchise history. The Steelers lost that game because they didn’t believe there was a possibility that they could lose. It’s called a Trap Game. In 2009, this team has fallen into traps in Chicago, at Kansas City, at Cleveland and at home to the Raiders. After awhile, you realize maybe you’re not really a bear caught in a trap. Maybe you’re just a mediocre shadow of your former self.
This is not a team losing close games because one player is injured. This is a team of 52 men who have to work on how they do what they do so that when Troy Polamalu does return, he comes back to an elite unit on an elite team. For my money, Troy Polamalu is the best and most exciting player in the NFL. He was one horrific call away from finishing Peyton Manning for good in 2005. His presence forced Kurt Warner to look away from him and into the waiting arms of James Harrison in last year’s Super Bowl. Polamalu is an athletic freak of nature. He is relatively short, compact and possessing of blazing speed and tremendous strength. To what does he attribute this slide? The kicking game.