Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Already Playing for 2014?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Pittsburgh Steelers had 434 yards of total offense against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. They controlled the time of possession, 36:27 to Minnesota's 23:33. Though the Steelers didn't make it to 100 rushing yards, their 77 yards on the ground fell just three yards short of their highest output of the season.
But none of that matters. Because of this:
First 0-4 start for the Steelers since 1968— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 29, 2013
The Steelers haven't started this poorly since before Chuck Noll was their head coach and before the NFL-AFL merger. To say this is a historically bad start would not be hyperbole, especially for a team that has had so much historical and recent success.
Is it time for the Steelers to throw in the (terrible) towel, cut their losses and focus on 2014 and the improvements they can make via the NFL draft?
Not so fast.
While it's true that 0-4 teams aren't generally playoff-bound—only one team has accomplished the feat since the merger, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who flipped their bad start into an 11-5 finish and an AFC West crown—the Steelers do still have something to play for.
The AFC North is very much up for grabs. The division is a combined 6-10, with both the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals losing on Sunday. The Ravens, Bengals and Cleveland Browns are all tied for the division's top spot with two wins and two losses apiece, giving the Steelers an opening if they can just break into the win column.
Unfortunately, that seems far easier said than done for Pittsburgh this year. If it's not one problem—no run game, for example—then it's another—turnovers, missed tackles and dropped passes among them. Nothing is presently going the Steelers' way. Their defense hasn't notched a takeaway, while their offense has managed to turn the ball over 11 times.
The hope was the return of running back Le'Veon Bell would make life easier for the Steelers offense. In one sense, it was—he had two rushing touchdowns against the Vikings and 57 yards on 16 carries—but it wasn't enough to give the Steelers the win they sorely needed.
All of their major gains in the passing game, such as Antonio Brown catching 12 of his 13 targets and Jerricho Cotchery leading the team in receiving yards, with 103 and a touchdown, didn't matter. Pittsburgh's defense couldn't contain the Vikings, especially running back Adrian Peterson.
Peterson, like Bell, had two touchdowns. However, unlike Bell and unlike the Steelers dating back to last year, he had 140 rushing yards. Only two Vikings receivers had a good day, with seven of quarterback Matt Cassel's nine targets unable to exceed single-digit yardage.
However, the two who did, Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson, had 92 and 124 receiving yards, respectively, with Jennings tacking on two touchdowns. Preventable touchdowns, at that, with the Steelers' old foe, missed tackles, at fault.
The problems we've seen the Steelers have this season are many, and the work to fix even half of them will be hard. Thankfully, they have a bye week ahead that will help them immensely. They will need to look at almost every starter and evaluate all possible options, including shaking up the depth chart.
The offensive line—which took a hit with left guard Ramon Foster leaving with a chest injury—needs the most help. Kelvin Beachum has been rotating throughout the line, taking on duties at center (immediately following Maurkice Pouncey's Week 1 season-ending knee injury), tight end and jumping back and forth between left and right tackle. But if Foster's injury lingers, he'll have to stay at guard.
And regardless of Foster's status, the very fact Pittsburgh has chosen to rotate its offensive tackles shows just how bad the situation is. Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert have been outmatched on a weekly basis, and even pairing up tight ends David Johnson and Heath Miller to help them hasn't done much to improve either their pass protection or run-blocking.
From the line flows the entire offense, and when it's struggling, it comes as no surprise that Ben Roethlisberger has been pressured, fumbled the ball, thrown too quickly and off-target, and that the running backs are topping out at three yards per carry.
The problem is that the Steelers aren't going to find starter-quality offensive linemen on the waiver wire, and their salary-cap issues also prevent them from trading for a talented, higher-priced veteran. The fixes will have to come in-house, somehow.
The Steelers' 2013 season isn't lost yet, though they certainly have a huge hole to climb out of as they try to turn things around. No team in the AFC North has started to run away with the division, giving the Steelers something to fight for, and the bye week affords them the opportunity to rework the roster.
If they can defeat the New York Jets in Week 6, and the division continues to be in a state of flux, the Steelers could in fact escape the season with a winning record and a bit of redemption.
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