Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Focus Areas During the Bye Week
In the final minutes of Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers fans watched on as their beloved Black and Gold blew a 31-21 lead. As Carson Palmer and crew rallied, an ominous feeling swept across the Steel City, creating an overwhelming feeling of the inevitable. With defeat appearing imminent, I wonder how many fans chimed in with me:
"Here we go again."
It was another afternoon with All-Pro players on the sidelines, an encore of the team's struggles on the road, a repeat of Palmer's penchant for fourth-quarter heroics against the 'Burgh and another fourth-quarter collapse.
In fact, it was Pittsburgh's second blown lead in the fourth quarter through three weeks of 2012.
While this may not be a full-blown pattern yet, the Men of Steel will need to improve to buck the early trend.
Most teams dread an early bye week, but the Steelers should embrace it. The timing is perfect. The additional downtime will help facilitate healing for a roster that is without some of its premiere talent.
Likewise, a mostly frustrating beginning to the campaign begs for some soul-searching, and both coaches and players should embrace the opportunity to fine-tune.
Yet, above and beyond those factors, the biggest benefit of the bye week is identifying the reasons for two losses and rectifying them.
Let's face it—of things that inspire a team to improve, I can't think of many better tonics than the bitter pill of defeat. The Steelers get to hear two weeks worth of negative feedback, 14 days of scathing headlines that should inspire a better result!
Does any team play better with its back against the wall? Or, when they're overlooked?
Here are five focus areas for the Steelers as they get through the bye and look ahead to Week 5...and beyond!
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Though injuries are a factor in the fledgling performances of the Steelers defense, there are other factors contributing to the unit looking more like the "Still Trapped" than a "Steel Trap."
A few adjustments need to be made, including the implementation of the above-referenced All-Pros. A few others include:
IMPROVED PLAY ON THE FRONT LINE
The down linemen—"Ziggy" Hood, Brett "Deisel" Keisel and Casey Hampton—have played well in spots, but they're not showcasing the type of consistent physicality and leverage at the line of scrimmage in which fans have become accustomed.
While Hood and Keisel mostly have held their won, most fans should be dissatisfied with the play of Hampton.
Hampton has never been as great in the pass-rush as he is stuffing the run, but even in the latter specialty, it's an unsettling sight to see the beefy tackle tossed completely out of a play.
Though Darren McFadden was the first back to truly torch the defense—his game-breaking touchdown run opened the Raiders' scoring—gap control hasn't been consistent.
Tackling at all levels has arguably been worse.
GETTING PRESSURE AND FORCING TURNOVERS
These two go hand-in-hand, and a lack of pressure has allowed both Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning to pick apart the secondary. Able NFL passers with time to throw and the luxury to follow through on their mechanics are pinpoint throwers, and the team's defensive backfield has been victimized by quarterbacks with clean jerseys.
It's not all about the play upfront—safety communication should improve with the return of the Troy-Clark combo, while the corners are leaving too much cushion on zones and not wrapping up on tackles.
Still, with additional pressure on the passer will come improved secondary play and more turnovers. Havoc in the backfield creates fumbles and promotes haphazard passes—and bad throws get picked.
So, how will the team get that pressure?
Certainly, Harrison's return will aid the effort. The Harrison-Woodley duo put a great strain on both edges of the defense, as they're two stud linebackers who have great synergy as a pair.
Yet, more can be done. The free blitzers are becoming exposed too often on pre-snap hard counts, meaning that microseconds off the snap may not mean as much to the defense as a good poker face, patience and deceptiveness.
The team also can do a better job of mixing up its blitzes, both from the inside (where there has been more success) and the outside.
GETTING PRESSURE WITH STEVE MCLENDON
As a last point regarding the pass-rush, the defense should be starting Steve McLendon and/or giving him the vast bulk of snaps at nose tackle.
Not only did he campaign thoroughly for the starting position with his outstanding preseason but McLendon also acts as a greater force in the pass-rush—a young buck who's ready to lower his horns and meet the quarterback.
In the preseason, teammate Maurkice Pouncey paid homage to the up-and-comer:
He can generate a pass rush at nose guard, that’s hard for nose guards. He's got speed. And for him to be that size and not fat like all the other ones, he can move in there and still have the same kind of strength they do.
Many are the fans who are currently questioning the current coaching prowess of Dick LeBeau, including Bleacher Report's own Nick Dewitt.
Personally, I'm not ready to "nudge" the father of his own defensive system into retirement just yet, but...
If there is not dramatic improvement after the bye week, particularly if the team gets to full health, one has to wonder how much of it relates back to coaching scheme and adjustments opposed to players' age and skill.
Granted, the players have performed poorly. Particularly against the Broncos and Raiders, they tackled poorly, left gaping cushions in the secondary and couldn't win a man-battle in the trenches in the second half to save their lives.
Yet, at the start of each of those games, the defense played decently, if not well. Then, as the offenses adjusted, the defense seemed unable to come up with an answer.
Adjustments work both ways, and twice this season, Steelers fans have been left to wonder, "Where were ours?"
The Running Game (Offensive Identity Crisis)
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In the offseason, I gave an overview of the Steelers running game, noting the changes in the role of a ground attack in the modern NFL.
While 100-yard rushing games are not quite as important as converting third downs, keeping a defense honest and managing the clock late, the ability of an offense to gain consistent yardage still has an important role.
Newsflash: Four negative runs in six attempts, even with a passing offense that disguises such pathetic production, is unacceptable.
And it can (and has) come back to bite the Steelers.
The team isn't close to averaging the semi-respectable but still paltry three yards per carry, and the offense immediately stalls (sans one drive against the Jets) when the role of the running game increases beyond a happenstance change of pace.
Isaac Redman has been hesitant in the backfield, Jonathan Dwyer (despite consistent forward gains) has not produced as well as his fine exhibition season seemed to project and Rashard Mendenhall suddenly is being welcomed back by Steelers Country with open arms.
Words such as "the earlier the better" weren't being thrown around so much regarding Mendenhall in April. After an offseason of vows to improve on the ground, the team hasn't made any real "ground." Suddenly, some fans see him as a potential savior.
Certainly, it will be a welcome sight if he can return and produce at a semblance of his former rate, but his return will not be a cure-all. Everyone on offense, from the offensive line to the backs to the skill players to the coaches, much focus their attention to improve the run game.
Why is this so important on a passing offense? Two reasons:
1. Play-action passing
2. First downs (AKA clock control), particularly in the fourth quarter
In a Steelers offense (an emphatically quarterback-centric unit), believe it or not, the running game is still important. While tradition isn't the reason for establishing the run (see link above), it would be naive to think that the team isn't in an identity crisis with its inability to run.
After all, despite controlling the clock by nontraditional methods, the team showed its desire to run out that clock in Oakland. It was a matter of pride, increasing the focus on running the ball despite the prowess of the passing game and a lackluster Raiders secondary.
Honestly, it may not have been the week to do it, but try they did. And they failed.
With the lead, the Steelers were once nearly invincible. Now, they're just another team in the aerial NFL circus blowing leads and making rallies, unable to secure a win in the clutch. Incomplete passes stop the clock, while first downs on the ground keep it moving.
Until Pittsburgh can find a decent running game to complement the passing attack at the right times, late leads will continue to be susceptible.
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While many would label the "injury excuse" as a cop-out, let's face it: Haphazard health has harassed the Steel City for a number of consecutive seasons, and its impact is very real.
With a championship mettle, the Men of Steel have overcome their bumps and bruises, at least more often than not. Yet, that does not erase the hindrance of a lengthy injury report.
In 2012, they still have that opportunity. In fact, for all of the overreaction (and, until we see the team's post-bye adjustments, they're just that), it's easy to forget that the team is one win off of matching last year's four-game record of 2-2.
James Harrison is a man-beast. He easily could wear Greg Lloyd's "They Don't Pay Me for My Disposition" t-shirt without garnering a single smirk or snicker from onlookers.
Rashard Mendenhall was a fine balance of deceptive power, agility and speed before his injury, and fans hope he can reinvigorate a long-struggling ground attack upon his return.
And let's not forget the offensive linemen, prizes of the draft who were supposed to be using this time to develop on the field toward their full potential.
David DeCastro has been called the next Faneca at guard. Every minute of experience lost is one not gained down the road. Here's hoping he comes back with a ferocity and zeal to develop. A gifted blocking guard could improve the O-line by leaps and bounds.
Speaking of "leaps," it's no leap of faith to assume that the return of the Steelers' great hybrid defenders will have the most impact. The defensive backfield has yet to benefit from the great mutual play of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu in the backfield.
Polamalu's return will have an immediate impact. One can simply view the team's record with and without the "Flyin' Hawaiian" to know his direct impact.
Hell, the man leaps over offensive lines like Superman to stuff ball-carriers almost annually. No. 43, hair whipping behind him at a velocity that renders it almost parallel to the ground, frequently torpedoes from long distances to cut down great athletes in open space.
Who else is doing that?
The "Head & Shoulders Honcho" is head and shoulders above the vast majority of his peers, and he is one of the biggest reasons for the recent championship success of an illustrious franchise.
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Road life in the AFC West has been rough for the 2012 Steelers.
Sadly, struggles on the road are no longer novel for this team.
The Steelers are 13-2 in their last 15 games at Heinz Field. Clearly bolstered by their home-field advantage, the Black and Gold have honored their Terrible Towel-toting fans with an AFC championship victory and many complete games in that span of time.
Away from the friendly Steel City confines, something sinister permeates their roster, and the team struggles for it.
Untimely mental errors. Turnovers. Penalties. Lack of killer instinct.
An inability to finish.
The Steelers showcased their hometown swagger already in 2012, thoroughly dumping the Jets on their heads and rendering their gang "green with envy."
When the team plays on the road, fans tend to get "red with anger." Frustration certainly boils over. Consider the following:
- Most recently, the team blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and failed to earn a defensive stop on third down in the second half, losing 34-31 in Oakland.
- In Denver, the Steelers had no answer for the no-huddle, and Peyton Manning's lone win to date in 2012 came courtesy of another fourth-quarter rally. Down 19-14, the Broncos scored the final 17 points, the last on a surprisingly un-clutch interception (and poor decision) by Ben Roethlisberger.
- Last year, the Steelers struggled in two 13-9 road wins over inferior opponents Cleveland and Kansas City. Red-zone woes, inefficient offense and odd game plans prevented the team from putting away the Chiefs and Browns, and both foes had the ball with a chance to win late in each game.
- Between the lackluster four-point wins, Pittsburgh lost 20-3 to the 49ers, suffering through an emphatic statement by the 49ers defense against a hobbled Big Ben. Many questioned if No. 7 should have started.
- Though they won, the Black and Gold nearly surrendered a 14-point lead at Cincinnati. In the fourth quarter, William Gay's interception of Andy Dalton helped seal a contest that was much closer than initial indication. Though they finished, it was not a complete effort; the defense struggled mightily in the second half, particularly against the run. Once again, the team put victory in jeopardy by lacking its early killer instinct.
- Arian Foster ran roughshod in a Texans win. Houston beat the 'Burgh by seven points, a result not as lopsided as the play on the field.
- Against the nearly winless 2011 Colts, the team blew a 10-point lead, allowed the "clutch" Curtis Painter to engineer a tying drive in the fourth quarter (following a gift defensive touchdown) and narrowly won.
- On opening day in 2011, a cornucopia of turnovers against a great Baltimore team spelled Pittsburgh's doom, and the Steelers lost emphatically, 35-7.
Aside from their 32-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the middle of the season, the Steelers have been a very susceptible road team since last season. A squad that was once prided for its uncanny ability to win away from home has become a risky bet, at best, as nomads.
Already 0-2 as the away team, the Steelers need to improve that record to .500 to have a real shot at the AFC North championship, if not a playoff spot altogether.
Not Forgetting the Positives
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For all of the negativity elicited from a 1-2 record, loyal fans cannot forget to enjoy the positive signs shown by the Steelers through three weeks.
The new offense, which entered the season as a major X-factor, hasn't been incredibly balanced. Yet, the passing game features a phenomenal receiving corps, all of whom are contributing.
Delivering the ball is Ben Roethlisberger, whose solid play has him unsurprisingly on pace for a career season. He has eight touchdowns, a lone pick and a quarterback rating in triple digits.
In other words, the early season has been "No. 7 Heaven" in the 'Burgh. Fans hope the ending provides a different type of "Seven Heaven."
Likewise, a number of players have either flashed brilliance or played with amazing consistency, including Ryan Clark and Heath Miller.
Of particular note, Miller has four touchdowns, and that total could have been five if Big Ben hadn't miscalculated the necessary trajectory of a would-be score in Denver.
Though the special teams was lackluster (at best) in the Black Hole, there were positives. Antonio Brown is returning kicks, and he is showing the same burst and ability that had him in the elite ranking of return men last season.
Likewise, Shaun Suisham has yet to miss a field goal, even at Heinz Field. He went 2-for-2 on attempts in the team's first home game, both from 40-plus yards.
Who doubts that he will be called upon to come through in the clutch before the season is over? These early conversions will only breed confidence.
Lastly, the Steelers are a team that responds well to adversity. In two of their last three championship seasons, they've faced major adversity. In 1995, they started 3-4. In 2005, they lost three straight games to fall to 7-5, apparently outside of the playoff picture looking in.
It's too early to make broad judgments, though nobody can help but to evaluate what they have seen to date. Here's hoping the team makes the necessary adjustments to complement their strengths with equal capability.