At 2-2, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not where they want to be—third place in the AFC North. Though there are many games remaining in the season, another loss or two in the coming weeks could seriously damage their chances to still be playing football in January.
However, there are many bright spots about the past five weeks for the Steelers, just as there are some darker ones. What is the state of the Steelers' union? Read on to find out.
Weeks 1 Through 5: A Look Back
The Pittsburgh Steelers opened their season on the road, heading to Denver to take on the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. They were immediately without safety Ryan Clark, who cannot play in the high altitude because he carries the sickle cell trait, which required Ryan Mundy to take the field in his stead.
Though the team was different, the Steelers and Manning are well-acquainted with one another. The Steelers would have to bring a complex defensive game plan into town to confuse the experienced signal-caller.
On offense, the Steelers had two dominant drives that ate up huge chunks of time on either side of halftime, and they held the lead until nearly the final five minutes of the third quarter.
On defense, the Steelers eventually fell under Manning's spell. Manning was able to change plays based on what he saw the Steelers do, and to great effect, pulling away with the lead in the fourth quarter.
Sealing the game for Denver was a Ben Roethlisberger interception, returned for a touchdown by Tracy Porter with just under two minutes remaining. The Broncos won, 31-19, and the Steelers dropped their opener on the road for the second straight season.
The Steelers rebounded in the second week, taking on and defeating the New York Jets. Playing in Pittsburgh helped matters, but it was the offense and Roethlisberger finally clicking in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's new system that brought the Jets to their knees.
Roethlisberger completed 24 of his 31 pass attempts for 275 yards and two second-half touchdowns. Isaac Redman also contributed a rushing touchdown of his own, while the Steelers defense all but shut down the Jets offense.
Pittsburgh's defense held quarterback Mark Sanchez to just 138 passing yards and the Jets run game to 90 despite being without safety Troy Polamalu, who injured his calf in Week 1. Roethlisberger threw to 10 different receivers in the 27-10 victory, and Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each had over 70 receiving yards.
A gut check followed for the Steelers in Week 3. The Steelers haven't been successful as of late facing the Oakland Raiders in their own Coliseum, and that streak continued into this season.
While the Steelers offense mostly handled its responsibilities well—Roethlisberger threw for 384 yards and had four passing touchdowns (two to tight end Heath Miller), and Mike Wallace pulled down eight passes for 123 yards and a score—but two fumbles (one by Antonio Brown and another by Jonathan Dwyer) as well as a struggling run game dampened the efforts.
Further, Pittsburgh's defense, especially the secondary, continually were burned by the Raiders passing game. Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, like Manning before him, used his knowledge of the Steelers' defensive schemes against them, only this time, he did so helped by the Steelers again not having Polamalu on the field.
Ryan Mundy took over for Polamalu in this game to disastrous effect. All four passes thrown to receivers he covered were caught for 30 yards and a score, giving Palmer a near-perfect 137.5 quarterback rating when testing him. He also knocked two Raiders receivers out of the game and had four missed tackles.
With the flat defensive effort and the two turnovers, the Steelers fell 34-31 after a Sebastian Janikowski field goal in the final seconds sealed the deal for Oakland.
Week 4 gave the Steelers a chance to heal and regroup—the bye week. A week without a game meant that Polamalu's calf could further heal and linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall could be as ready as possible to make their regular-season debuts.
All three took the field in Week 5 when Pittsburgh hosted the Philadelphia Eagles, but Polamalu wouldn't make it through all four quarters. He re-injured his calf early in the game and again was replaced by Mundy. Harrison played all 59 defensive snaps, and while he wasn't a game-changer, his two tackles and three quarterback hits were a good start for his season.
Mendenhall was highly impressive with 68 rushing yards on 13 carries (it was once 81 yards plus a touchdown, but the score has since been changed from a run to a pass), averaging 5.2 yards per carry when the previous starters, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, had averaged just 2.5 and 2.9 yards per carry.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who has had issues with ball security all season long, fumbled the ball away twice and the Steelers sacked him three times. A last-second Shaun Suisham field goal brought the Steelers to a 16-14 victory and back up to a .500 record.
A Closer Look: Offense
With a new offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, the Steelers were expected to be a slightly different-seeming team when it came to moving the ball. So far, the Steelers do look changed on that side of the ball, specifically when it comes to big plays.
Ben Roethlisberger's longest pass this year has gone for 37 yards. Last season, it was 95 yards, and he had 10 games with passes that went further than this season's longest completion. Part of this can be attributed to Haley's more conservative overall approach to the offense, but it can also be traced back to the struggles the Steelers have had in running the ball.
Deep passing benefits greatly from play-action, but play-action cannot work without an effective running game. In the three games without Mendenhall, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 of last season, Pittsburgh's ground attack was meager.
As mentioned above, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer—the two backs who primarily took over for Mendenhall—were averaging under three yards per carry and had only one touchdown between them. Things are looking better now that Mendenhall is back and healthy (and appearing faster and more decisive than he did in 2011).
Still, the Steelers rank just 26th in average rushing yards per game, at 79.5, all while running the ball an average of 26 times per game, the 16th-most attempts in the league. They also rank 27th in rushing touchdowns per game (.2) and 23rd in rushing first downs per game (4.8)
Overall, Pittsburgh's passing game has been better so far this year than in 2011. Though it ranks 10th in passing yards per game, just as it did last season, it's putting up more yards on average—268.2 as compared to 252.8.
A more conservative approach is thus producing greater results, if not more flashy plays. Roethlisberger's completion percentage currently stands at 65.8 (last year, it was 63.3), all while passing the ball 39.5 times per game on average, the 10th-most pass attempts per game in the league.
Pittsburgh's passing touchdowns per game are up as well, from 1.3 last season to 2.2 this season, ranking it fourth overall. Many who saw Haley's name connected with this offense believed it would mean more running for the Steelers, but again, Haley calls plays and designs his offense based upon the strengths of the players he's coaching. The Steelers have a glut of talent in their passing game; their run game less so, especially when they were without Mendenhall.
Haley has designed a passing game that can move the ball effectively with more intermediate passes and a heavy reliance on tight end Heath Miller, and the result has been one of the better Steeler aerial offenses in the Roethlisberger era.
Pittsburgh's offensive line has helped out with this effort as well. Through four games, Roethlisberger has been sacked nine times—an average of 2.2 times per game as compared to 2.8 last season—but he's also been able to stand in the pocket longer and make plays. Considering opposing defenses are expecting the Steelers to pass more than run, if this was the offensive line of last year, Roethlisberger would have found himself on the turf far more often.
The line, however, isn't doing so well in run blocking. In taking a closer look at Redman's and Dwyer's contributions to the run game earlier this season, I found an interesting key as to why the two haven't produced a lot of yards out of their carries—the offensive line.
The combination of Redman and Dwyer, who aren't shifty, speedy type running backs like Mendenhall is, and an offensive line that cannot create and maintain holes led to the Steelers struggling to get their run game going. Mendenhall is running behind the very same line, but (at least through his one game thus far) is gaining twice as many yards as Dwyer and Redman did, and that's almost entirely attributable to his style of running the ball and not a change in the line's skill level.
Another major concern heading into this season was how wide receiver Mike Wallace's extended holdout—which stretched through the end of the preseason—would affect both his production and the overall ability of Roethlisberger to execute plays.
Though Wallace trails fellow receiver Antonio Brown in yards, targets and receptions (Wallace has 251 yards, 30 targets and 19 receptions; Brown has 326, 39 and 25), they're nearly identical in their yards per reception (13.2 for Wallace, 13 for Brown), and Wallace has three touchdowns to Brown's one.
Wallace is again the big scoring target—and again, drawing the coverage of opponents' best cornerbacks—which has allowed Brown more opportunities to make plays. The holdout seems to have had no effect on Wallace's performance.
Pittsburgh's offense has never been about having the most yards; it's been about efficiently moving the ball down the field and controlling the clock. At 35:21 of average time of possession, the Steelers offense has held the ball longer than 30 other teams in the league. They're averaging 3.8 red-zone scoring attempts per game this year and have scored a touchdown 53.37 percent of the time. That's up from their 50.91 percent touchdown percentage last year—a huge improvement in an area they needed it the most.
A Closer Look: Defense
A lot changed for the Steelers on defense this offseason. Gone are linebacker James Farrior and cornerback William Gay, with the former swapped out for Larry Foote as a full-time starter and Keenan Lewis given the latter's job alongside Ike Taylor.
The knee problems of linebacker James Harrison, which forced him to get surgery over the summer and miss the first three games, threw a wrench into the Steelers' pass rush, as has the calf injury of strong safety Troy Polamalu.
In 2011, the Steelers defense allowed the fewest yards per game in the league; this year, they've dipped somewhat, but not precipitously—they currently rank fifth in overall defense, giving up just 280 yards per game.
The Steelers are allowing 5.1 yards per play—a drop from their 2011 average of 4.7. They are giving up just 19 first downs and a less-impressive (but still not anywhere near league-worst) five third-down conversions per game this season.
Points per game allowed isn't as good as it was last season, when they ranked first with 15.1; now it's up to 22.2, but the offense is scoring significantly more points per game than they did last season, so their points allowed is less disconcerting than it would be otherwise.
Against the run, the Steelers are allowing just 95.2 rushing yards per game, the 11th-best number in the league, but opposing offenses are not running against them all that often, just 23.2 times per game on average.
Passing is coming easier to teams facing Pittsburgh's defense: Though it's the third-best passing defense when it comes to yards, at 184.8 (it was first overall last season), it ranks just 25th in passing touchdowns allowed per game (two) despite ranking fifth in passing first downs allowed.
This dip in pass coverage has much to do with Polamalu's absence and Lewis taking over for Gay. Interestingly enough, when it comes to the corners, it's not Lewis who has had the worst performance so far this season—it's Ike Taylor, who has given up three touchdowns and 247 yards. Nickel corner Cortez Allen isn't faring particularly well either, allowing completions on 71.4 percent of the passes thrown his way.
At safety, the biggest liability in pass coverage has been Ryan Mundy, who also has allowed three touchdowns, 56 yards and nine receptions on 12 passes thrown to his assigned receivers.
Pass rush has been a problem as well, with Harrison and Polamalu both missing time. The responsibility to bring pressure has fallen primarily to linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has two of the team's eight total sacks. Woodley is presently dealing with a hamstring injury which has him shelved for the Week 6 contest against the Tennessee Titans, with Jason Worilds and/or Chris Carter taking his snaps.
Of all these injuries, Polamalu's hinders the Steelers' overall defensive efforts the most. When he's on the field, Pittsburgh has won 72 percent of its games; without him, just over 50 percent. The Steelers must find a way to make up for what he provides the team—unpredictability, versatility, speed—or else they're a far less dangerous unit and more prone to giving up big plays to their opponents.
A Closer Look: Special Teams
Prior to the start of the regular season, the Steelers fired special teams coach Al Everest, replacing him with assistant Amos Jones. It hasn't produced much in the way of improvement, however.
At first glance, the kickoff yards the Steelers are allowing are pretty solid, at 264; however, they've only kicked to opponents nine times.
They're still giving up 29.3 yards per kick return, the sixth-worst figure in the league. Punt coverage is quite good, however—the Steelers have given up just 46 return yards on seven punts so far this season.
Kicker Shaun Suisham has had a perfect season thus far, going 8-of-8 in his field-goal attempts, with a long of 45 yards. He's also a flawless 9-of-9 in extra points.
Quick Preview: Week 6
The Steelers have a short week between the Eagles game in Week 5 and their Week 6 contest against the Tennessee Titans, which comes on Thursday night. The injuries to Woodley and Polamalu should factor in heavily in how successful the Titans offense is—particularly running back Chris Johnson, who, despite having quite the down year thus far, is still a dangerous weapon.
However, the Titans defense has been quite terrible this season, giving up 423.8 total yards per game on average, 279.6 to the pass and 144.2 to the run.
As such, as long as it's not a full-scale defensive collapse on the part of the Steelers, they should be able to put up more than enough points to win this contest. This presents a good opportunity for Roethlisberger to air the ball out more than he has in weeks past, and Mendenhall should continue to make Pittsburgh's run game look markedly improved.
As long as the Steelers don't underestimate the one-win Titans, they should easily coast to a victory. An extended recovery time will be welcome after this game, considering their early bye week.
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