The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to 0-3 on Sunday night with a 40-23 loss to the Chicago Bears, the worst start to a season in Mike Tomlin's tenure as head coach and the first time they've dropped their first three games since 2000.
As in the previous two losses, the offense was to blame—however, this time, it was for different reasons. Five turnovers resulted in 23 of Chicago's points, including a Ben Roethlisberger second-quarter pick-six and a fumble returned for a touchdown by Bears defensive end Julius Peppers that sealed their victory.
Not helping matters was another week with a poor run game. Felix Jones was the Steelers' starting running back, but after a fumble on his first carry of the second half he was benched. Jonathan Dwyer got the rest of the carries. Pittsburgh, to its credit, didn't give up on the run. But 28 total rushes netted only 80 overall yards. Once again, the Steelers had fewer than 100 yards rushing.
There are clearly numerous problems in Pittsburgh, too many to solve them all. So what can the Steelers fix and what can they not after these three straight losses?
The Offensive Line
In Sunday night's loss, the Steelers did something only a desperate team would do—rotate the offensive tackles. Both left tackle Mike Adams and right tackle Marcus Gilbert were pulled at times for Kelvin Beachum—who has played guard, filled in at center after Maurkice Pouncey's injury and even taken snaps at tight end.
There's clearly a problem here.
Whether it's the switch to an outside-zone blocking scheme, the basic talent limitations of their present starters, the ripple effect of Pouncey's season-ending knee ligament tear or a combination of the three, this may be the worst situation the Steelers offensive line has experienced—and they know about bad situations.
Beachum could be an improvement, but he's also a stop-gap, and if another injury befalls the line—for example, to a guard—he would be needed elsewhere. The Steelers need to find out if tackle Guy Whimper could be a viable option or if there's something they can do to help out Gilbert and Adams. The return of tight end Heath Miller, who played against Chicago on a snap count, helps this effort. But there has to be something else the Steelers can do.
Or maybe there isn't. Starter-quality offensive tackles simply aren't free agents at this point in the year. The Steelers may just have to make do with in-house personnel and hope that small adjustments to the scheme or more time working together can result in improvement.
The line can be fixed, but only to a point. Whatever serious, long-term problems they have here cannot be addressed until the offseason. There just aren't guys out there, unless the Steelers conduct a trade, and even that possibility is limited, with the team having just $1.9 million left in salary cap space.
The Steelers have turned the ball over nine times through three games, including five times in their loss to the Bears. Turnovers are killers—the Steelers otherwise outgained the Bears on offense on Sunday and likely would have notched their first win without the two interceptions and three lost fumbles. They must take better care of the football.
Why do turnovers occur? They happen when a quarterback makes a bad throw, either forcing a pass inadvisably into tight coverage or hurrying a throw when under pressure. They happen when a quarterback is sacked, his awareness of the football becoming secondary to protecting his own safety.
They happen when a running back or receiver doesn't hold the ball tight to his body while trying to gain more yards. And they also happen because a good defender knows just the right way to punch a football out of a player's hands or successfully jumps a route, reading the quarterback's eyes. There are many causes for lost fumbles and interceptions.
This is a problem the Steelers can fix. It's about a renewed focus on discipline, of getting the little things right. The Steelers are an offense backed up against a wall and in desperation, they've lost touch with the fundamentals. This desperation has made them take more risks with the football in the name of more yards. And it's cost them.
These are mental errors that can be corrected. Whether it's the old-school method of forcing those with fumbles to carry a football wherever they go, their teammates trying to knock it out of their hands or benching players with constant turnover issues, there are methods that the Steelers can employ to fix this problem.
For Roethlisberger, it will be about focusing on making the right throws and the right decisions. He's had a number of seasons with single-digit interception totals, so it's not a chronic problem. The fact that his receiving corps is so different than what he's been used to, presently, may have him off his game, but it's not impossible for this to turn around. He can play smarter—we've seen it.
Roethlisberger's struggles with turning the ball over could be a direct cause of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's play-calling. Since joining the Steelers' staff in 2012, one of his biggest priorities has been to get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands faster. The result may be the many poor passing decisions made by the quarterback.
Roethlisberger's strength lies in his ability to improvise, which often means he holds onto the ball too long. The result has been an epic amount of punishment—354 sacks since his 2004 debut—and repeated injuries. However, forcing him to read defenses and his progressions much more quickly than he is used to hasn't paid off, either.
Haley might be trying to rein in a quarterback who cannot be tamed. Roethlisberger has been playing the position the same way his entire career, and for Haley to think he can change him and make him into a better player is shortsighted. It may actually be better for the Steelers to let Roethlisberger make more judgement calls on the field and execute plays the way he sees fit rather than try to mold himself into Haley's system.
Further, the run game has declined rapidly under Haley. Though the offensive line issues and the team's present inability to field a true starting running back has harmed these efforts, Haley still has his hands in every decision about when to run the ball and how to run it. Nothing on offense is working and it's hard to put the blame on any one person other than Haley.
The options here are to allow Roethlisberger more freedom, to keep going the same course or to fire Haley. If these performances continue, Haley is almost guaranteed to be gone at the end of the season, but the Steelers don't have many options to replace him in-season. He'll need to adapt to save his job for the long-term and to improve the offense right now.
Running the Ball
The Steelers are averaging just 51.7 rushing yards per game and the run game has yet to produce a touchdown. Though their rushing yardage has increased each week, from 31 in their Week 1 loss to the Tennessee Titans, to 44 in their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals to 80 in their loss to the Bears on Sunday night, their streak of sub-100-yard rushing performances continues.
Part of this is personnel. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell is still working back from his preseason Lisfranc foot injury, which has forced Felix Jones, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman (who was on the field against the Bears but tellingly had no carries) to share starting rushing duties until he returns.
None of these three backs are the answers to the Steelers' run-game problems, but it's what they have to work with for now. Jones seems to be the most promising of the three, possessing speed that neither Dwyer nor Redman can boast, but his fumble in the start of the third quarter of the Bears game led to his benching. Reliability is necessary for a run game that otherwise struggles to get yards from its touches.
The offensive line has also done the run game no favors. The problems in pass protection have carried over to the run game. It hasn't helped that the team chose to switch to an outside-zone run blocking scheme this summer. Backs still can't bounce to the outside because the tackles, Adams and Gilbert, aren't suited to this more athletic scheme.
Maybe this will improve once Bell can take the field, but Lisfranc injuries can be nagging and he may never be 100 percent healthy this season. If he is, however, that alone should provide a boost to the Steelers' run production. If he's not, the run game might have to wait until 2014 to turn around.