The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive woes did not end as hoped with the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger against the San Diego Chargers. In fact, the return to action of the team’s star passer may have actually highlighted the deficiencies rather than alleviate them.
Pittsburgh’s offense under first-year coordinator Todd Haley has been alternately praised and criticized by the press. Lately, the criticism has been heavy and completely justified. The Steelers simply have not been good at putting the ball across the goal line.
Here’s a look at the Pittsburgh's struggles and how these woes will impact their playoff hopes and viability.
The “dink and dunk” tag that was attached to this scheme early in the season has stuck. At first, it was the proud symbol of long drives that rested a beleaguered defense and kept opposing offenses powerless.
Now it has become the elephant in the room. This offense simply does not go down the field.
Todd Haley has attempted to restore balance to the offense by leaning on the rushing attack with regularity. Unfortunately, the running backs haven’t been consistent or productive by any measure.
The big problem in the backfield is that the Steelers don’t have a complete back.
They have several guys who are talented in certain aspects of the position but that struggle mightily in others. Even Jonathan Dwyer, the nominal starter at this point, hasn’t been effective for more than a handful of snaps at a time.
As for the passing attack, it’s been stuck in reverse since Ben Roethlisberger’s injury against the Kansas City Chiefs. First Byron Leftwich and then Charlie Batch failed to produce much through the air. Roethlisberger’s return helped, but his production came almost entirely during the second half when the team was far out of the game.
The major failure in the passing game is that it doesn’t utilize the team’s excellent speed at wide receiver well at all. The Steelers have the talent to go deep at any time. Bruce Arians, the team’s previous coordinator, built his system around that particular advantage.
The collective talent of Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress is completely lost on Haley, who favors screens to running back Chris Rainey or to wide receivers in the flat.
Until the play selection is cleaned up, the Steelers will not be able to put up points. Defenses are keying on the rushing attack and cutting it down. Ben Roethlisberger is executing on the short and medium passes, but there isn’t enough power in the offense to make them more effective than delaying an inevitable punt of field goal attempt.
Given that the play-calling has leaned heavily toward running the ball the last several weeks, a closer examination of how poor it has been is necessary.
Running the ball does a few things. It opens up the passing game, particularly the deep routes, by forcing a defense to commit more resources to the defensive front. It makes play action more effective as well.
It also eats up clock much more efficiently than short passes or any other method. This rests a defense and keeps an offense from the field. This is particular important against teams that figure to be in the AFC playoffs (New England, Houston and Denver specifically).
All three of those teams can put up points at will because they have the offensive firepower to score from anywhere at virtually any time.
All three of those teams have an effective rushing attack as well. This enhances the need to counter with the same caliber of running.
Pittsburgh’s attack has been stuck in reverse all season. The team took half of the year to decide on a starting running back. None of the players who’ve been on the field have contributed successfully to more than a couple of games in 2012.
After the season, Pittsburgh will need to overhaul the position by bidding farewell to Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. They’d be wise to look for a complete back that can be on the field two or three downs in a row.
The lack of running has removed play action, one of Ben Roethlisberger’s best weapons, from his arsenal. It has also meant that the Steelers, who do not average good starting field position anyway, are often punting from the shadow of the goal posts and giving teams excellent field position.
That formula is a failure against teams that have success in the playoffs. It isn’t even a good formula against struggling teams like Dallas and Cleveland that can turn a short field into cheap points.
Lack of Scoring
This issue seemed to be solving itself a season after the Steelers turned in a scoring performance ranked 21st in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the problem has returned and now the Steelers aren’t even reaching their opponent’s side of the field to give kicker Shaun Suisham a field goal attempt.
The play selection and lack of a rushing attack are contributing factors. Another problem is that Pittsburgh doesn’t utilize personnel in an effective manner.
The most glaring example recently has been Plaxico Burress. Brought back to Pittsburgh when Jerricho Cotchery went down injured, Burress was expected to be a tall presence in the red zone that could work short, middle and deep routes effectively against smaller corners.
When he’s been given a chance, he’s done just that. Unfortunately, he plays only a handful of snaps per game.
In the meantime, Mike Wallace, the disgruntled former starter who has had a severe case of the drops lately, has seen the field regularly at the outside and slot positions. The Steelers ostensibly demoted him to co-starter, but he still sees roughly the same number of snaps.
This is a ridiculous misuse of players. The team has two other speedy receivers with much better hands in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. They do not have a receivers besides Burress that can effectively go up and get a pass that’s over the head of a defender.
While the argument can be made that Burress isn’t familiar with the offensive system, he’s familiar with the position he plays and can surely be advised what route to run by his quarterback. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be on the field for at least 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
The lack of scoring has been a killer against poor teams. Mustering a couple of touchdowns offensively would have completely altered the games against Cleveland and Baltimore, which the Steelers lost, Kansas City, which they won in overtime, and San Diego, when they failed to show up for the game.
The Steelers face two very dangerous offenses and one that has already beaten them the remainder of the season. Losing two games is virtually out of the question. Losing one could be deadly as well.
Unfortunately, unless Todd Haley can create scoring opportunities for his offense, a winless three weeks is very much a possibility.
The biggest issue of the three facing Pittsburgh’s offense is the lack of scoring. Pittsburgh must improve their point totals in each game or they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.
The lack of points is caused by the other two major issues, however. Those issues fall squarely at the feet of coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin. They must realize that leaning on their rushing attack is a losing proposition.
They must also start using the talented players they do have to maximize their chances of victory. Unless and until they do that, this team will continue to frustrate fans and embarrass themselves on the field.
And if the Steelers cannot fix these issues, it is probably better that they don’t make the playoffs. A coherent team will crush them. There are no easy outs once the second season begins.
For Pittsburgh, there aren’t any easy outs during the regular season either.