Pittsburgh Steelers: 5 Burning Questions Team Must Answer in Week 3
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-2, and it's been a long time since anyone can bust out that fun fact.
In fact, it's been 11 years since the 2002 Steelers started their campaign winless in the first two weeks, only to finish the season 10-5-1 and make the playoffs. But the biggest problem for this 2013 Pittsburgh team may not be their 0-2 start.
These Steelers have come out and, frankly, looked pretty awful to start the 2013 NFL season. In two weeks, Pittsburgh has scored only 19 points and two touchdowns. Thirty-four running backs have rushed for more yards than the entire Steelers team, which ranks second-last in the league.
All is not lost, however, for Pittsburgh. There's still 14 games to play this season, and it's certainly not out of the question that a team that hosts a two-time Super Bowl winning QB and a coach who has been to the big game twice could make the playoffs.
But that run has to start in Week 3.
Question 1: Can This Offensive Line Come Together?
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Probably the biggest issue the Steelers have faced early in the 2013 season has been the play of their offensive line. To sum up, it's not very good.
Over 70 attempts this season, Roethlisberger has been sacked seven times and hit on nearly every drop back. The line has been even worse in the rushing department, averaging 2.4 yards per carry on 31 attempts. Those numbers are good for 31st in the league.
Things were bad to start the year, but they got even worse when the team lost three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season. He was replaced by Fernando Velasco who did an admirable job, but is still a downgrade.
The Steelers are certainly young up front, but the "inexperienced" excuse is wearing out its welcome.
Across the front, Ramon Foster leads all Steelers with 44 career starts. Marcus Gilbert is next with 20, Mike Adams has eight and David DeCastro started his fifth on Monday night. That doesn't account for Velasco, who started all 16 games for the Titans last season.
Adams and DeCastro are still certainly very raw, but Gilbert and Foster are running out of excuses. If the Steelers want to have any shot at turning their season around, it has to start up front.
At some point, if one of these starters can't get the job done, it may be time to move on to another option.
Question 2: Can the Team Replace Larry Foote?
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Lost in the commotion of the Pouncey and LaRod Stephens-Howling injury was the Week 1 season-ending loss of inside linebacker Larry Foote. Foote was the Steelers' leading tackler in 2012.
In Week 1, Tennessee may have rushed for 112 yards, but it took them over 40 carries to get there. A lot of that had to do with Foote. And in Week 2 as the Steelers tried to replace him with youngsters Vince Williams and Kion Wilson, Cincinnati found some running room.
The Bengals ran for over 100 yards on 30 carries and scored once on the ground. But the biggest issue was how well they ran on third downs, converting multiple in the fourth quarter and effectively ending the game.
It's a lot to ask for Williams and Wilson to fill the big shoes of Foote (no pun intended), but the Steelers have to do something in his absence. They don't have a lot of options right now, but if they can't replace him, Pittsburgh could struggle against the run this season.
Question 3: Can This Defense Create the Big Play?
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During the Steelers 2010 Super Bowl run, the defense was at the top of their game. In the regular season, Pittsburgh’s D forced 35 turnovers en route to, again, being one of the league’s top defenses.
Since that time, however, the Steelers have forced the same amount of turnovers in 34 games, including the zero from Monday night’s lost in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh has clearly lost the ability to make the “big play” that once made them famous.
Defensively, the Steelers actually haven’t played that bad in 2013. And with Troy Polamalu healthy and LaMarr Woodley in shape for the start of the year, this is Pittsburgh’s best opportunity to return to turnover glory. But that hasn’t shown up on the field yet, as the Steelers have just one sack and zero takeaways this year.
With the offense off to a sluggish start, Pittsburgh needs the defense now more than ever. And with a turnover-prone QB in Jay Cutler coming to town, this week is a good place to start.
Question 4: Will Todd Haley's Play-Calling Improve?
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To say offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s play-calling in the second half of Monday’s game vs. Cincinnati was bad would be an understatement. The Steelers were in the red offensively in the third quarter and Haley called just two hand-offs in the second half, totaling two yards.
In the first half, Haley’s offense was equally perplexing. He was bent on establishing the run and working the deep pass, two things that don’t bode well for a team with a struggling offensive line.
The Steelers offense has been at their best when the ball is in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands. They’ve found their rhythm best when they’re in a hurry-up style offense and they connect on short, crossing routes.
Solution: let Ben run the no-huddle offense and use the passing game to set up your zone runs.
Haley certainly doesn’t have to take my suggestions. There’s a reason I’m not an NFL offensive coordinator. But the Steelers need to do something offensively, because two touchdowns in two games isn’t going to cut it.
Question 5: Will the Offense Utilize the Speed of Markus Wheaton?
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It’s been painfully obvious that the Steelers have been looking for a way to incorporate the deep-passing game into their offense. It’s even more painfully obvious that none of the Steelers’ receivers who see regular time can make that happen.
Enter Markus Wheaton.
The 2013 third-round pick was brought into Pittsburgh to be a speedster and replace what was lost when Mike Wallace left the team. But he’s seen the field very sparingly so far this season, even on obvious passing downs.
Wheaton may still be trying to adapt to the Steelers offense, and that could be what’s keeping him off the field. But he’s the best, and really only, option the team has for a deep passing attack. Even if the team brings him in solely for deep routes, they should have better success with the deep ball.
It’ll be interesting to see going forward how the Steelers integrate Wheaton into the offense, especially after the brutal night Jerricho Cotchery had on Monday.
If Pittsburgh wants to get the ball deep, Wheaton is their best threat.
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Will the Steelers Wise Up on Jason Worilds?
It’s pretty obvious two games into the season that Jarvis Jones should be the starting outside linebacker opposite Woodley. Yet Worilds continues to see significant time. He will still have to be part of the rotation, but it’s time to see a major drop in his snap count.
Could Heath Miller Return This Week?
In short, probably no. But he will start taking on a bigger role in practice. His target date to return to the field should be Week 4 against Minnesota and then return to a full workload in Week 6 following the team’s bye.
Will One Back Separate Himself as the Go-To?
This question is pretty much null for two reasons. One, nobody the Steelers have on their roster is going to be very successful behind this line. Two, it’s still Le’Veon Bell’s job to lose. But for the time being, I like what I saw from Felix Jones against the Bengals. He did a nice job of finding small lanes and making the best out of them.