Shawn Suisham celebrates his game-winning overtime field goal
Despite notching a much-needed win and keeping pace with the AFC-North-leading Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers underwhelmed in this week's Monday Night Football tilt with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Every team has an off night, but the Steelers' subpar performance at home reflected deeper issues that have plagued the team throughout the season.
Here's what we learned from the game and what it means for the Black and Gold going forward.
Lawrence Timmons saves the game with an overtime interception
Pittsburgh has played well against quality opponents, but on Monday, the Steelers struggled to put away a bad team for the third time this year. Two of the team’s three losses in 2012 have come against teams with losing records, as both the 0-2 Oakland Raiders and the 1-4 Tennessee Titans mounted fourth-quarter comebacks to nip the Steelers.
Riding high after knocking off the defending champion New York Giants a week earlier, Pittsburgh nearly allowed the 1-7 Chiefs to steal the game. Nursing a slim lead in the fourth quarter, the Steelers stalled on offense and were unable to press the advantage. The defense also did its part, letting Kansas City march down the field to send the game to overtime, highlighting the Steelers' worrisome habit of not finishing off the worst teams in the league.
Jamaal Charles rips through the Steelers' defense
The Chiefs' running backs breezed through Pittsburgh's defense on Monday, racking up 142 yards, seven first downs and a touchdown. Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis repeatedly gashed the Steelers’ defense on first and second downs, setting up manageable third down conversions for Kansas City. Why the Chiefs repeatedly turned to their shaky passing attack in those situations is anybody's guess, but Romeo Crennel and company probably kept the Steelers in the game by doing so.
The problem on Monday started up front. Kansas City consistently pushed Pittsburgh’s defensive line off the ball, allowing Charles and Hillis to get to the second level throughout the game. The Chiefs running game is not terrible, but the Steelers made them look great.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Steelers’ weakness against the run is a consistent problem that crops up at the worst times. Overall, the defense is among the best in the league. When opponents throw the ball, Pittsburgh is as tough as they get, ranking in the top three in nearly all statistical categories. However, the Steelers are much weaker against the run, ranking sixth in yards allowed, ninth in yards allowed per carry and 13th in first downs conceded on the ground.
This is a worrying issue with Baltimore coming to town. With the exception of last year's opening day blowout by the Ravens, these rivalry games are usually nip and tuck. Sunday's game will be close, and the the team that converts the most red zone opportunities into touchdowns is likely to come out the winner.
Though their running game is average in most respects, the Ravens are great at punching the ball in on the ground, having scored the fifth most rushing touchdowns in the league.
Kansas City stuffed Jonathan Dwyer and the Steelers' ground game
The Steelers also struggled to get their running game going against the Chiefs. With an ailing offensive line getting little push and opening few holes, Pittsburgh averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per rush on Monday night. More critically, the team failed to rush for two yards that would have iced the game with 2:25 left in the fourth quarter. That left the door open for Kansas City's late comeback and nearly lost the game for Pittsburgh.
Poor offensive production has been a chronic problem for a team that was supposed to be a powerhouse with the ball. The Steelers’ stable of young receivers was supposed to have a breakout year, score points by the bucket and relieve pressure on Pittsburgh’s aging defense. That hasn’t been the case this year, partly because of horrendous luck with injuries to the offensive line. The Steelers are league-average or worse in most offensive categories and are particularly bad at running the ball.
Though this probably matters less than it would have 15 years ago, before the NFL became a passing league, good teams do need to run to keep defenses honest. If Monday was any indication, the Steelers' line can't be counted on to open holes. With no credible running game, opposing defenses can and will look to attack Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers' offense struggled without the mobile Roethlisberger
Speaking of the Steelers' offensive talisman, losing Roethlisberger killed Pittsburgh's offense on Monday and is likely to cause serious problems down the line. After backup Byron Leftwich came in, the Steelers' offense went from struggling to stagnant, managing only six points in about two quarters of play. Three came on a drive aided by 36 penalty yards, and three came on the Steelers' one offensive play in overtime.
Big Ben’s mobility and ability to extend plays cover up a lot of the line’s weaknesses and give Pittsburgh’s talented receivers more time to get open. With Leftwich in the game, the Steelers had to turn more to their anemic rushing attack and failed to generate much offense as a result.
If, as appears likely, Roethlisberger is out against Baltimore, the Steelers could be in big trouble. The Ravens defense is very weak, particularly against the pass. To win the game, Pittsburgh needs to generate offense, move the ball down the field, and most importantly, score touchdowns instead of field goals. Without Roethlisberger making plays and taking pressure off the rest of the offense, this will be a tall order.