The Steelers have had some consistency issues with their offense that could impact their chances of beating Baltimore and taking over first place in the AFC North. Let’s take a look at these problems and break them down.
The most obvious problem that the Steelers have had across the entire season has been related to moving the ball on the ground. This issue was particularly problematic early in the year. It has eased some with the emergence of Jonathan Dwyer, but there are still plenty of imperfections.
The Steelers have a talented set of running backs and an offensive line that has steadily improved in run-blocking throughout the season. With Rashard Mendenhall working his way back from another injury, Isaac Redman and Dwyer have picked up the team’s attack with some limited appearances by Baron Batch and Chris Rainey.
The biggest problem appears to have been the blocking early on. The Steelers, particularly on the right, were getting collapsed and weren’t able to hold blocks or shift defenders. That has since been corrected somewhat, but is causing the team to keep extra blockers in at times. That prevents the runners from having a lot of blocking at the second level if they break through.
The secondary issue has been the style of running. Redman and Dwyer are straightahead guys. That has not always been a good thing behind a line that doesn’t open holes very wide. Mendenhall has great cutback ability when healthy, but he’s been hurt for awhile.
This issue is slowly fading, but could rear up at any time. The Steelers weren’t as good against Kansas City as they had been in the previous several weeks. That needs to change Sunday night with a backup quarterback taking over.
This is another area that has been a problem. This is a rather strange spot for an issue given the talent at the receiver position. Even with star receiver Antonio Brown shelved with his high ankle sprain, the Steelers are a very sure-handed team most of the time.
This issue became a major topic among fans when Mike Wallace couldn’t find the handle multiple times in a game. The receiver, caught in the spotlight after his protracted contract dispute, has since rebounded, but he’s still having momentary lapses at the worst times.
The rest of the receivers and tight ends haven’t been immune. Even the team’s most consistent passing threat, Heath Miller, has had a few slip away.
The concern here isn’t major. The Steelers aren’t dropping a ton of passes per game consistently, but it is a concern because they tend to drop them at the worst times and fail at some of the biggest plays. That puts additional pressure on the offense and defense.
Overall, I couldn’t be happier with the way Todd Haley has handled this unit. His game plans have been very effective and have kept the Steelers in every single game despite some terrible defensive performances.
Haley’s worst performance, however, came against his old team. The Kansas City Chiefs, even before Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, were giving Pittsburgh plenty of problems. Say what you will about the poor weather. It’s going to get a lot worse as Pittsburgh’s winter weather sets in during the coming weeks. That’s something that must be overcome.
The play selection overall has been good too, but I’m worried about how Haley will handle the switch under center. Byron Leftwich’s long delivery could rob this team of its quick-strike ability to some extent. Charlie Batch is probably better suited, but Haley and Mike Tomlin want to give Leftwich the opportunity.
Against the Chiefs in the second half, Haley continued to virtually all running plays to the point where the Chiefs began to ignore the pass. While that can be an interesting tactic when the rushing attack is working, the Steelers can’t rely solely on it. Even this week against the Baltimore Ravens pitiful run defense, the Steelers will have to be ready to throw the ball.
This is going to become a crucial part of the offensive success or failure in the coming weeks. Byron Leftwich throws more slowly than some pitchers out of a full windup. Ben Roethlisberger will likely force his way back into the lineup faster than anyone thinks is possible, but he will have to be protected from further hits that could re-injure that shoulder (not to mention any another body part).
The pass-blocking has been, for the most part, very tight. The Steelers have provided their quarterbacks with clean pockets in virtually every game. Roethlisberger’s sacks are way down. That’s partly because Todd Haley runs a system based on quick passes. It is also because the line has been giving Roethlisberger a ton of time.
That could change this week against Baltimore. The Ravens love to rush the passer, and despite the injuries there, they still have a good pass rush. With a slower, immobile quarterback, the blocking is essential to winning.
The biggest problem I see with the offensive line is that certain players have some consistency issues. Willie Colon has been great as a guard, but he gets caught holding far too often. Mike Adams is also very good for a rookie, but he’s had a lot of help from tight ends and running backs.
If the five linemen can continue to jell and become more consistent, the Steelers will be in fine shape. If they struggle against better pass rush teams, this could be a very long stretch run.
Overall, this has been a much better effort by the Steelers. 2012 has seen them scoring with much more consistency than in 2011, but there are still some shortfalls that I’d like to see the team correct.
The Steelers have an issue that is chronic among NFL teams today. They don’t take advantage of every opportunity. For the Steelers, the biggest area of opportunity is before the half or when given the chance to put a team away.
The brakes go on almost immediately. An offense that was moving at a perfect clip for an entire half or game suddenly goes into protect mode. Against the Chiefs, the Steelers had over 30 seconds and two timeouts before halftime but took a knee.
Even if the ball had been intercepted, it would have been deep in Chiefs territory and would have likely ended the half. That was an opportunity to engineer at least a field goal drive with one of the league’s best no-huddle quarterbacks.
With many opportunities to put teams away, the Steelers have gone into the tank. This strategic inconsistency bothers me because it has cost Pittsburgh two games (Oakland and Tennessee). Both times, the Steelers could have kept the pressure on and run up the score to an insurmountable level.
Instead, they played it close and allowed the teams to stay in the game and take over the momentum.
It almost happened against the Chiefs as well. Luckily for everyone hoping for a playoff campaign, the Steelers were able to snatch a victory from the Chiefs, who had all the momentum after halftime.