Pittsburgh Steelers' Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses Through First 3 Games
At 1-2 in this still-young season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have revealed some surprising strengths and weaknesses in their game.
These have the potential to both help and hurt their chances of making the postseason and a successful title run. The work they put in during their bye week will go a long way toward making the strengths better and also at shoring up the weaknesses.
Here’s a look at where things stand, so far.
Strength: Ben Roethlisberger and the Passing Game
One of the most encouraging developments, so far, this season has been the stunning performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger, said by many analysts to be on the cusp of ranking among the elite passers of the NFL, is making a good case, so far, this season.
The Steelers' passing game has been deadly in all respects. Roethlisberger himself has made only one interception against eight touchdown passes. While Big Ben has always been accurate, this near-certainty in the passing attack is a welcome development.
The Steelers' success in the air has offset a stunning lack of production from the ground game. Receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are positioned for huge years, and a healthy Emmanuel Sanders is providing excellent work all over the place as the third option.
There’s a long season still ahead, but so far, the passing game and the quarterback, who make it all possible, are the absolute biggest strength of this team.
Weakness: The Running Game
Isaac Redman and the rest of the team's backfield had a dominating preseason effort that left many people wondering if Rashard Mendenhall would be needed once he was healthy.
Their performance, through three games, is making everyone long for Mendenhall to get back on the field as soon as he possibly can. Pittsburgh's backs have produced more poorly than any other combination in the league.
The Steelers haven't really needed their running game to score points. Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers have done more than enough on that front. But, that doesn't mean that the running game can take the year off.
The Steelers need their running backs to be productive, particularly late in games, so that the Steelers can outpossess their opponents. That will help offset the woes of the defense, which has been particularly awful in two of the three games.
Mendenhall should be back after the bye week, and all reports on him have been positive. If he is effective like he was before his injury, the Steelers should be just fine. The backs themselves aren't the biggest part of their ground problem. That falls to another weakness we'll get to later.
Strength: Third-Down Offense
For many years under Bruce Arians, the Steelers were hit or miss on third down. They'd convert and surprise people. They'd fail in situations that looked easy. There was no real easy spot to place blame. It was partially schematic and partially the execution.
Whatever the issue was, the Steelers seem to have solved it. So far this season, they have been very good on third down and have kept defenses on the field regularly. Heath Miller has been a huge part of that success. His revitalized role in the offense has placed him in a prominent spot.
Third-down offense is always important, but the Steelers need it more than most because of their defensive struggles. The fewer times they have to punt and put their defense on the field, the more successful they will likely be this year.
Ben Roethlisberger seems to find another gear on third downs as well. It's like he suddenly cannot be stopped. If that continues, the Steelers might be the best team in the league when their backs are against the wall.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a problem. They haven't invested in their cornerback position since the turn of the century. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but the Steelers don't like to spend draft picks on corners. They haven't spent a first-rounder there in a very long time.
That will need to change soon. The current crop of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen are not working out, and the lack of attention is really showing now that the front seven is getting older and is banged up.
Taylor has been a head case ever since the Denver Broncos torched him in the playoffs last year. Lewis predicted a Pro Bowl bid this year, but he may want to focus on holding onto his starting job. Allen hasn't been much better, but he may end up starting soon after Lewis once again failed to step up.
The corner play has hurt the team. They don't cover well and can't keep up with receivers. They've been fooled by double moves. They're a huge mess.
The biggest fear? There are no reinforcements waiting in the wings unless you believe in Curtis Brown. After what I saw in the preseason, I don't.
Strength: Red-Zone Offense
With the improvement on third downs already on the books, there's also been an improvement in the red zone. The Steelers were hideous in the red zone last year. In fact, they've been hideous in the red zone for a good while now.
That's not true now. The Steelers can score. It's one of the few areas where they can punch it in on the ground too. The Steelers have a fearsome passing attack there too. This is another area where Heath Miller has been huge. He caught two touchdowns against the Raiders in the red zone.
Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have been big parts of the success there too.
This was probably the area where the Steelers needed the most improvement from last season to this one. They've done well, so far, and it's a big reason they've been in three straight games while their defense has been falling to pieces.
Weakness: Offensive Line
This is a broken record that I really wish we could stop playing every year. This looked to be the year too. The Steelers spent two high draft picks on offensive linemen. So far, one is hurt, and the other is hurt and ineffective. That is likely to get better, but right now, the team could use a few good linemen.
Maurkice Pouncey is overwhelmed because Ramon Foster is struggling at right guard. That means he has to pull double duty.
Willie Colon gets called for too many penalties. That hasn't changed from his days at tackle. His play is steady, but holding calls and false starts that slaughter momentum are a huge problem.
Max Starks and Marcus Gilbert have been OK, but Gilbert is banged up.
There's not much behind anyone either. Doug Legursky is a terrible guard. Kelvin Beachum's roster spot is still a huge mystery to me, and he did nothing against the Raiders to change that. He's a terrible lineman and about as useful there as a screen door on a submarine.
David DeCastro returning healthy and effective would be a big boost, but right now, the line can't block at all in the running game and is inconsistent in the passing game. The good news is the pass blocking was actually very good against Oakland.
The bad news is that Sean Kugler could lose his job after this season if the line doesn't fix their issues.
Strength: Punting and Field Position
When your defense can't hold anyone back, the best thing you can do is give them a lot of field to protect. That lessens the chances of a touchdown and puts more pressure on an offense to get things done early in a drive.
Drew Butler, minus one shank last week, has been excellent and steady. He has a booming leg and can pin back a team with great directional punts. That's helped out the defense a lot.
Field position is something that doesn't get a lot of press time for importance to a game. But, ask an offense whether they'd like to start at the opponent's 40 or its own 10 and it'll probably tell you it'd love to have fewer yards to travel.
Butler and the offense have helped the Steelers dominate field position defensively, and the offense has dug themselves out of poor spots almost every time.
The Steelers have to hope this continues as it is probably the only fix to their defensive woes until other things there can be changed. The one thing they need to shore up is their coverage, but that's something that can be fixed with some minor tweaks.
Weakness: Pressure on Defense
And now, we've arrived at the part of the program where I talk about how the injuries aren't the problem for the defense. Age isn't either. It's the scheme. The way it's asked to play is archaic. It worked great in the 1990s. It doesn't fit today's game at all.
Teams have spent two decades investing heavily in an offensive line that places a great emphasis on a left tackle who can keep a quarterback safe. They've learned how to counteract zone blitzes. They've figured out how to turn Dick LeBeau's defense into a laughingstock.
It all starts with the lack of pressure on quarterbacks. The Steelers inconsistently got to Mark Sanchez in the second game. Other than that, they've been almost entirely docile.
The problem is that they don't make a lot of attempts to bring pressure up the middle. Lawrence Timmons almost never makes the rush. It's always an outside linebacker. That is ridiculous. Mixing the pressures up would be a great way to keep teams off balance.
Until the Steelers relearn how to pressure the quarterback, their secondary is going to continue to get throttled.
Strength: Todd Haley
We've trended offense with our strengths, and that's pretty much because they've been the only successful aspect of the team, so far, this season.
That starts with an offensive scheme that's innovative, effective and built around what this team does well.
Ben Roethlisberger seems extremely comfortable. That was a big reason that people were worried with Haley. He's confrontational. The Steelers don't seem to have a problem now. They're clicking unlike many teams in the NFL and unlike any other unit in their own locker room.
The receivers are set up for a big season. Heath Miller has a huge role finally. The running backs are being used on screen passes. Play-action and the no-huddle are being mixed in effectively and regularly.
Haley is the best hire of the Tomlin era. He has completely revitalized a unit that was starting to really stink last season. Now, his task is to complete the effort by fixing up the team's rushing attack and helping it be more effective.
I'm going to bet that, by the end of the season, this offense is one of the league's top-ranked units.
Weakness: Dick LeBeau
On the flip side, there is the 75-year old defensive maven with the Hall of Fame bust and the resume that is about a foot thick with glowing recommendations and stories.
Right now, it's worth nothing because the unit Dick LeBeau is in charge of is about as effective as Swiss cheese at stopping an opposing offense. LeBeau's defense looks old, slow and stuck in the mud. While they have older players and slower ones, the Steelers aren't old or slow.
They are stuck in the mud. The mud is composed of the fact that LeBeau hasn't innovated in nearly two decades. He's been complacent. He's used his great ideas for as long as they've been able to hold out.
But now, with players who aren't up to par in the secondary trying to play zone defense in a league with receivers on every roster who set speed records, a system devoted almost entirely to two outside linebackers and a strong safety and a nearly criminal lack of understanding of modern offense, the Steelers are in big trouble with LeBeau at the helm.
It wouldn't do to fire LeBeau. He's earned the right to walk away. But, he may need a nudge. A very private, very friendly nudge from Dan Rooney would help out a lot. It seems like it might be time for the genius to give way to the new order.
Consider that Ray Horton was allowed to walk and that he had taken heat for a bad secondary. Now, the Arizona Cardinals have a shutdown defense that he created. That has to hurt. It also has to point to the current guy in charge as the reason that secondary failed and is still failing today.
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