Pittsburgh Steelers: The Biggest Early Season Storylines
With two games in the books, we are finally starting to get a good look at this year's version of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 80th roster to suit up in the black and gold already has several storylines attached to it. All of them have the potential to impact the season in a positive or negative way.
Here's a look at six of the most compelling storylines thus far.
Success of the Haley Offense
Todd Haley's new offense has been a huge success so far.
This has to be a huge relief for Mike Tomlin and the Rooney family. They all endured endless questions during the offseason about the decision to move from Bruce Arians, the team's previous coordinator, to Haley, a fiery coach who'd most recently been the head coach in Kansas City.
Well, for all of the hoopla about how the offense was so different and how Ben Roethlisberger did or didn't like it, things seem to be going pretty well for all concerned.
There are still some issues that need to be sorted out, but by and large this is a much better and more consistent offense under Haley. The Steelers are markedly better on third down, where they struggled at times in previous seasons, and with using long drives to kill the clock. Against the Jets, Pittsburgh authored its longest offensive possession in five seasons.
That, in case you're curious, covers Arians' tenure in Pittsburgh.
The results have been a game in which the Steelers were able to utterly dominate their opponent and another where they came up just short, mostly due to a timely turnover for Denver and a defense that was having some serious issues.
So far, so good for Haley. The real test will be when his offense struggles early and he has to make adjustments to get them back on track. If he can do that too, then Pittsburgh will finally have the offense to match their top-ranked defense.
Injuries to Key Players
The Steelers have lost several key players for various periods due to injuries.
It's hard to grade the defense through two games simply because they've been missing multiple starters in both contests. It's equally hard to evaluate the growth of the offensive line because rookie David DeCastro has yet to take a regular-season snap and won't until much later in the season.
Injuries are part of doing business in the NFL. Teams that can overcome them are successful. Teams that cannot end up succumbing and falling apart. The Steelers, particularly under Mike Tomlin, have always found a way. They'll need to do that again.
James Harrison's body is reminding him he's in his mid-thirties. Troy Polamalu is going through another season where he's already banged up and missing time. DeCastro won't be back until after midseason. Ryan Clark missed the Denver game because of his sickle cell trait.
Oh yeah, and starting running back Rashard Mendenhall still hasn't suited up for a game yet.
Will we ever get a look at a fully-healthy Steelers team? Probably not. Will the Steelers be able to overcome those injuries? So far, the answer seems to be yes. The biggest loss at this point has really been either DeCastro or Harrison. Neither has, by itself, cost the team a win.
At least, it hasn't cost them yet. There's still plenty of work to be done.
Jekyll and Hyde on Defense
Pittsburgh's defense has been both stiflingly difficult and disastrously porous in two games.
This is a trend that we started to see throughout last season. The defense has good and bad moments. It happens for entire games or just for pieces of them at times. There's no real rhyme or reason to it and it seems to happen against both good and poor opponents.
People label the defense as old, but age is only a part of why this happens. The Steelers have some schematic problems with their defense that didn't show up for years but are finally coming home to roost.
First among them is that the defense is grounded too much in what Troy Polamalu can bring. After years of punishment to his body and game film for opponents to study, his effectiveness has diminished to some degree. This was evident against Denver, when he did play, and against the Jets, where replacement Ryan Mundy actually made more plays in Polamalu's spot than Polamalu did in the first game.
Beyond that, the defense tends to blitz from the outside spots. They don't bring a ton of pressure in the middle anymore and that has allowed teams to adjust and roll quarterbacks away from blitzes or give them the option to step up into the pocket to avoid the rush. This was corrected some against New York, but the consistency needs to come next.
There are also issues with the secondary play, but I want to cover those in even more depth. That's a different story entirely.
Pressing or Zoning in the Secondary
The Steelers have had issues with their corners, and it can be fixed with a simple switch in style.
Here's the full story on the problems in the secondary. These ones have virtually nothing to do with Troy Polamalu. They have everything to do with how close the corners play their opposing receivers before and after the snap.
Zone coverage gives the corners the ability to roam a little more. They are expected to cover a receiver within a specific zone. This means they play five or 10 yards off the receivers before the snap.
Press coverage means that they stay with the receivers from the snap all the way through the play. The danger here is that a good move or a fast receiver might shake the corner.
The problem with Pittsburgh is that they play zone almost exclusively without the personnel to match the system. All three of the top Steelers corners are physical guys that are at their best playing in tight. Against the Jets, when the Steelers adjusted to a press coverage, they silenced the Jets.
The storyline will play out over the coming weeks, but the early bet is that Dick LeBeau has learned his lesson about letting his corners play so far off of their coverage assignments.
Special Teams Enigmas
After sending one coordinator packing, the Steelers have yet to really find out what their special teams can do.
I keep waiting for an answer on the special teams. I'm not an advocate of preseason or in-season changes to a coaching staff unless they're severely warranted. So far, I don't see how the team has improved with a different guy running special teams.
Here's the issue. Mike Tomlin made the change because he felt the units were below his performance expectations. So far, they look like the same units they were last season.
Coverages have been adequate but still give up too many yards. Returns have been okay but haven't broken open yet. The kicker and punter have been just fine, but that was the case for the most part last year as well.
Part of the issue is that there hasn't been a lot of chances to really see these guys in action. What we have seen, however, hasn't allayed any fears that the team's long-suffering special teams are just as poor as last year.
Running out of Steam
The team's rushing attack hasn't been very good at all yet, but the news isn't all bad either.
So far, we haven't seen the same running game we saw during the preseason. I don't and won't buy the argument that Rashard Mendenhall will make a gigantic difference when he returns in the coming weeks. The problem isn't the system either.
The problem is the offensive line. Here's how it breaks down:
Good blocking has yielded effective runs by any back carrying the ball. Bad blocking has led to plenty of busted plays regardless of the ball-carrier.
Isaac Redman has struggled slightly more than Jonathan Dwyer. I think part of that is that Dwyer simply is better at handling contact than Redman. The difference is slight, but it's been noticeable enough that I'd expect to see more of Dwyer this week early in the game.
We haven't gotten much of a look at Baron Batch or Chris Rainey yet, so the jury is still out on those guys.
We won't get a really good look at this unit until David DeCastro and Mendenhall are both back at full speed. That probably won't be until late this year. That's when we'll know for sure if this backfield can support the offense.
The good news? They've done just enough to keep the passing game fresh and dangerous. So far, it hasn't hurt them. That could change, but the Steelers seem to have a plan in place in case they can't revive the attack sooner than the end of their injury woes.