Good news and bad news for Steeler fans: the bad news is, the black and gold have dropped four in a row, leaving them 6-6 and currently on the outside of the playoff race looking in.
The good news is: tonight, they face the NFL’s cure-all, the 1-11 Cleveland Browns. Whatever is ailing your team this season, you can fix it if you play the Browns. They have lost seven in a row, have a total point differential of -167 points, and their only win was a 6-3 snoozer over the Buffalo Bills (4-8).
Seriously, they’re THAT bad. Not to mention they fired their general manager, they can’t figure out who they want to start at quarterback, and half the team hates the coach. (See? It almost makes you forget the problems the Steelers have!)
But in all honesty, let’s put it in perspective here: with the Browns facing the Steelers at home, in prime time on NFL Network, with the opportunity to all but end the Steelers’ playoff hopes? Make no mistake about it: this is Cleveland’s Super Bowl (or, at least their closest equivalent — gotta keep it real, folks). The Browns will not roll over in this game.
Anyway, let’s get back to the Steelers’ problems because they have a few, and then we’ll talk about how to fix them:
1) Pass Defense
- PROBLEM: The Steelers’ D has allowed the game-winning drive in three of those four weeks, including the game-tying drive against Baltimore. It came to a head last week against Oakland when backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw for three touchdowns in the 4th quarter, including the game-winner with nine seconds left. The Steelers’ cornerbacks have yet to intercept a pass in 12 games this season. The team’s interception leader is Polamalu with three, and he has only played in five games. It’s clear why the team’s turnover differential is -5.
Coach Mike Tomlin, formerly a secondary coach and defensive coordinator, has publicly voiced his displeasure with his DBs, saying in his weekly press conference that this is a “first time for me, and of course I’ve been around some secondary play. Not good enough.”
- HYPOTHESIS: It’s too simple to say Troy Polamalu’s absence is affecting the secondary, much less the whole defense. What’s important is why he’s so vital. He’s the team’s best open-field tackler, has the best on-field instincts, is their best man-to-man defender and knows how to react to the football. When your strong safety is the guy that represents all four of those things, your defense is headed for trouble. There was too much miscommunication, too many blown coverages, and too many missed interception opportunities just on that final drive alone. The Steelers are 4-1 with Polamalu and 2-5 without him because team’s have exploited the defense’s weaknesses that his absence exposes.
- SOLUTION: There has to be better play in the secondary, better communication in the huddle, and better ball skills all around. This unit has to be more aware when the ball is in the air and, for the love of God, catch it. In each of the last three losses, interception opportunities that could’ve halted game-winning drives were wasted (including two against Oakland — one by IkeTaylor and one by Joe Burnett). Safety Ryan Clark has gotten into the bad habit of looking to make the hit on a receiver, instead of taking opportunities to make a play on the ball and force a turnover. Backup safety Mundy needs to stop trying to be the next Clark; if he’s going to try it, he needs to lead with his shoulder like Clark does (just a thought). Mundy’s careless leading with his helmet cost the Steelers Willie Gay, one of their starting corners (whom he gave a concussion when he missed the receiver), and an unnecessary roughness penalty that put the Raiders in their red zone.
2) Red Zone Offense
- PROBLEM: The offense has struggled scoring in the red zone during this losing streak. Consider: 0/4 against Cincinnati, 1/3 against Kansas City, no red zone opportunities against Baltimore, and 2/5 against Oakland.
- HYPOTHESIS: There has been a very bad habit of falling out of favorable field position with Ben Roethlisberger taking sacks and bad play-calling resulting in lost yardage and low-percentage field goal tries. The running game has been abandoned often in short-yardage situations, and
third-down efficiency has been low (58/146 for the season – 39.7%).
- SOLUTION: The best way to succeed in the red zone is to play off your running game. Running plays on first down, if used effectively, can be the difference between a 3rd-and-short and a 3rd-and-long situation. Also, it opens up opportunities for the play-action pass, where Big Ben’s numbers are off the charts. There also has to be better play-calling on third down. The packages, personnel and plays we have seen on third down haven’t reflected the down and distance, and at times the offense seems doomed as soon as it lines up. The lone exception has been in the no-huddle, where Roethlisberger is also very effective.
3) Special Teams
- PROBLEM: Opponents have scored four touchdowns on kick returns this season, the most recent being against Kansas City, when Jamaal Charles took the opening kickoff 97 yards to the house. They are also averaging over 25 yards per return, and have benefited from favorable field position.
- HYPOTHESIS: The issue is two-fold. First, the coverage teams have done a horrible job of tackling (remember what I said about Polamalu being their best open-field tackler?). There have been missed tackles that have come in bunches and a lot of bad angles taken by tacklers where the returner is given too much open space to cut back. Most importantly, Jeff Reed has done a very poor job of kicking the ball deep. In 59 kickoff attempts this season, 56 have been returned, and only one has resulted in a touchback. This means he hasn’t been putting many in the end zone, and the ones that have are being returned and, on average, taken further than they would be if downed in the end zone.
- SOLUTION: Tomlin has already resolved one of the issues of personnel by bringing in Rocky Boiman and Corey Ivy, two veteran players that have made their careers on special teams, and also starters like Ike Taylor and James Harrison have been inserted on kick coverage. But it can’t just stop with personnel. Reed has to put the ball in the end zone more consistently. His 61.0-yard averageper kickoff is his second lowest since his rookie season in 2002, and he has his lowest number of touchbacks since that season.When your kicker can’t kick the ball deep enough, your coverage team can’t get down the field, the opponents’ return team gets more time toset up its blocks, and the returner has a better line of vision, allowing him to pick up speed before the first tackler is within reach. (Special teams rule of thumb: if the return man is at full speed before the first tackler gets downfield and engages a blocker, he’s more likely to break a big return.)
Ultimately, these three problems are the difference between what were the best defense against the pass, one of the most efficient scoring offenses, and one of the best kickoff coverage units last season and all three of the aforementioned being totally average this season. But hey, don’t take my word for it, here’s what Tomlin said at this week’s press conference:
“When you’re squandering your scoring opportunities offensively, you’re giving up plays and not making plays at critical moments defensively, you have a pattern of behavior that’s unacceptable, that’s going to produce some losses, which of course is what has happened… Obviously, we’re a very average football team as we sit here today. Our record indicates that, and our recent record indicates that that might be a kind assessment. I’m just being very realistic about where we are, and I think we all need to do that because that’s going to give us the necessary clarity to change it.”
That being said, this team will get back on the right track against Cleveland, or at least they should. If they were to lose, I’d rather not see this team in the playoffs.
After all, if you can’t beat Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City, or Chicago, how much disappointment could the playoffs bring?