Ranking the Pittsburgh Steelers Biggest Disappointments Heading into Week 6
If it weren’t for the Pirates, there would be major cause for concern about Pittsburgh sports fans and their state of well being. But unfortunately the Pirates season is over, and people can see more clearly just how bad the Steelers have been.
Along with the New York Giants, the Steelers are undoubtedly the class of the league when it comes to disappointment. Sitting at 0-4—and thank goodness for bye weeks—there hasn’t been much to cheer for football-wise in the Steel City.
Stuff like this shouldn’t happen to the proud, Rooney-run franchise, but it has. And because of that, it is time to rank the Steelers’ biggest frustrations thus far this season.
There is no shortage of them, either. Whether it’s turnover margin, offensive line play or a certain player that has underperformed, they’ve got problems in Pittsburgh.
And we’re here to diagnose them.
These are Pittsburgh’s biggest disappointments heading into Week 6.
6. Markus Wheaton Has Been a Nonfactor
As a third-round pick out of Oregon State, Wheaton was the 10th receiver taken in the 2013 draft.
Steeler fans were excited about the pick because of Wheaton’s great hands, route-running ability and quickness. BehindtheSteelCurtain.com even predicted he would emerge as the No. 2 receiver on the Steelers roster by season’s end.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller reinforced those thoughts in his reaction video to the Steelers' pick in April, comparing Wheaton to Michael Crabtree.
Luckily Ryan Clark likes talking to the media, and he spoke extremely highly of Wheaton last month on the Bob Pompeani Show on 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh.
Markus Wheaton, and you take this how you want, is better than Michael Wallace at everything but one thing: speed. That’s it. He does everything else better. That’s not a knock on Mike. And it’s not saying Markus can be more productive than Mike, because the thing Mike did well, he did better than anyone else in the NFL. And that was run. But I think as far as route-running, (Wheaton's) more polished. I think he has better hands. They both are extremely tough guys to be slightly built.
And all of that could still happen. But my question is this—why hasn’t he seen the field more?
According to ESPN.com's statistics, Wheaton has been targeted a grand total of six times. He started to get things going last game against Minnesota, and Mike Tomlin has said to expect more from Wheaton in weeks to come.
Unfortunately, we won’t see him in the immediate future either. He is nursing a broken pinky and is out for the Week 6 matchup against the New York Jets and is questionable for Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Receiver play hasn’t been the Steelers biggest problem, but it would be nice to see Wheaton on the field with more regularity.
5. O-Line's Continued Struggles
As bad as the Steelers’ offensive line has been this year, its saving grace has been that it is young and probably just needs time to develop.
And it still might, but it looks like the unit is leaving Mike Adams behind.
Adams, Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2012 who was starting at tackle until the bye week, has been bumped all the way to third string, a move that for all intents and purposes coincided with this week's acquisition of Levi Brown from the Arizona Cardinals.
As painful as it was to watch Adams get beat week in and week out, the Steelers still held onto the hope that he would develop into the player they envisioned.
Now the Steelers have turned to a combination of Brown, a borderline draft bust himself, and 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum.
Things aren’t going well when when a second-rounder is benched for a seventh-rounder of the same draft class.
As for the rest of the line, the jury is still out. It is sometimes tough to determine which guys are improving and which guys are liabilities because one man’s mistake can make the whole line look bad.
But Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot notes that while last year’s first-round pick David DeCastro struggled in the first few games this season, he has looked more comfortable pulling and holding his blocks. As a result, the coaches are allowing him to pull more often, as shown above against the Vikings.
Without a doubt, the offensive line has improved this season, but it is still worlds away from being a force as a unit.
Had there been higher expectations for the group coming into the season, its struggles would have been ranked higher on the list of disappointments. But as it is, Steeler fans have other things to be more discouraged about right now.
4. The Lack of a Rushing Attack
The Steelers started moving away from the power running game just a couple of years ago, but I don’t think their production in the running game this year this is what they had in mind.
Through four games, the Steelers have racked up a total of 232 yards on the ground, dead last in the NFL. I suppose it’s only fair to say that they are not last in the NFL in yards per attempt, but it’s not much better in that department, either—3.2 yards per carry, or 28th in the league.
No one on the roster with more than two carries averages more than four yards per attempt.
Obviously, the struggles in the running game is closely correlated to the offensive line woes, but through four games the Steelers running backs haven’t exactly made the most of what has been given them.
While I will admit that in his first ever NFL game rookie Le’Veon Bell looked like a big improvement over what came before, his stats have still been pretty mediocre, save the two touchdowns he's scored. Against Minnesota, for example, he managed only 57 yards on 16 attempts.
I’m not ready to make any Adrian Peterson comparisons, but apparently Big Ben is. Roethlisberger, who had been skeptical of Bell, told 93.7 The Fan:
I hope he doesn't hear this, but I was really happy with the things he did and I'm not going to say that he was Adrian Peterson, but he showed some glimpses of some things I see Adrian Peterson do. The reason I say I don't want him to hear this, I don't want him to hear me giving him all of this praise, because I want him to keep his nose to the grindstone and keep going hard.
Bell's first professional touchdown, shown above, is an example of what Roethlisberger was talking about.
The rest of Pittsburgh’s running backs, Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer, didn’t get into any sort of rhythm when they got the ball the first three weeks. Redman has 12 yards on 10 carries—yes, you read that right—and both he and Jones have had some fumbling issues.
In my opinion, Dwyer is the best of those three backup options, but that truly isn’t saying much right now.
I really just don’t know whom to blame more, the offensive line or the running backs. So I’ll give it to the running backs, because Bell has shown that there is at least some room to run behind that line.
3. What Happened to the Takeaways?
Still haven't forced a single turnover
One small victory the Steelers can hang their hat on is they own one of the most intriguing stats in the NFL.
And that stat? According to ESPN Stats & Info, Pittsburgh is the only team this season to go through its first four games without forcing a turnover and the first in the league to do so since the 2005 Houston Texans.
Not exactly a stat to be proud of.
For a defense that is run by one of the greatest coordinators of all time, Dick Lebeau, it is astounding that the Steelers haven’t had a takeaway this year. Pittsburgh struggled in that department in 2012, but it still managed to accumulate 20 turnovers.
Lebeau is renowned for the complex schemes he throws at opposing offenses, but you would think the confusion it creates would result in some takeaways.
There aren't any recent videos of a Pittsburgh takeaway, but this strip sack by Troy Polamalu on the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco in 2010 is a perfect example of how the defensive chaos designed by Lebeau turned into something good for the Steelers.
The zone blitz has worked in the past for some great Steeler defenses, but has it become too complicated to execute properly?
Whether it's issues due to personnel or scheme, Pittsburgh will have to be more opportunistic on defense in order to right the ship sometime soon.
For some perspective, the New England Patriots have recorded at least one takeaway in 32 straight games. For the Steelers defense to have none through four games is amazing.
Zero takeaways is an embarrassing stat, but it comes in at No. 3 on this list because it's unlikely that it will stay that way for long.
2. Big Ben's Turnovers
Coming into the season, predictions for the way Pittsburgh’s year would go were all over the chart. Some had the Steelers struggling to crack .500, some had the Steelers as a solid playoff team and others had them as Super Bowl contenders.
One thing all the predictions had in common was that QB Ben Roethlisberger would have to have a good, if not great, season.
Some of Big Ben’s numbers are actually quite good—307.8 passing yards per game and 63.6 completion percentage are a few of those.
But what has killed Roethlisberger and the Steelers season is the turnovers. Pittsburgh has given the ball away 11 times through four games, and nine of those are in Roethlisberger’s name. Five interceptions is not all that bad, but it is when matched by five fumbles, four of which were recovered by the other team.
Roethlisberger’s nine turnovers alone would be tied for 19th in the league for team turnovers.
Because of the way he holds onto the ball for so long and extends plays, Roethlisberger has always been vulnerable to a few extra turnovers a year. And Steeler fans have accepted it because of all the good that has come of that style.
The video above is from Week 2's showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals. You can see how Roethlisberger is under pressure throughout the game and eventually throws a back-breaking interception.
Although we are only a quarter through the season, Big Ben’s numbers show that the turnover bug has hit him harder this year than in years past.
His five interceptions have him on pace for 20 this season, which would be the second most of his career. His 3.1 interception percentage would be his worst since 2008, and his current 84.2 passer rating is the third worst of his career.
Fumbles are a little different to project, but he had only six all last season. It’s a pretty safe bet he’ll get to double digits in 2013 for only the second time in his career.
Veteran safety Ryan Clark spoke up about Ben’s turnovers during an appearance on ESPN:
You have to protect Ben against Ben. Right now, we have to tone Ben down in a sense and say, ‘Hey, right now, we're not a good enough football team for you to try to extend plays, for us to take sacks, for us to have turnovers.'
Clark has since toned down his comments a bit, but he made his point pretty clear.
For the Steelers to win, Roethlisberger is going to have to take better care of the ball.
Decline of the Defense
For all the grief the offensive line, run game and turnover margin get, the biggest and most concerning culprit of Pittsburgh’s 0-4 start is the defense.
It still sits at No. 10 in the league in overall defense, allowing 321.8 yards per game, but that is a big step backwards for a defense that led the league in that category each of the last two years.
To be clear, this is still an above-average defense. But coming into the season, Mike Tomlin surely expected the defense to be strong enough to carry the Steelers at times. And that is cause for major concern.
The Steelers have heard about its aging defense for several years now, but is it finally catching up to them? The front office has tried to reload in recent years, but defensive draft picks haven’t panned out the way it had hoped.
2012’s top defensive picks were a complete swing-and-a-miss. Sean Spence hasn’t played a professional down because of injuries, while Alameda Ta’amu ran into trouble with the law and is now on the Arizona Cardinals.
Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds and Cameron Heyward should have bigger roles on the defense by now, but they haven’t developed quickly enough in Lebeau’s system.
These draft struggles have set the defense back a few years. The Steelers were the oldest defense in the league to start the year, but that wasn’t supposed to be an issue.
True, it is Adrian Peterson, but running backs didn't use to run right through the heart of the Steelers defense like he does in the video above.
Whether it’s age or not, Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t the same dominant unit as before. It’s main trouble has been getting to the quarterback.
A grand total of four sacks through four games goes along with the previously mentioned zero takeaways. At the current pace, the Steelers will break franchise records for fewest sacks in a season (current pace is 16) and most points allowed per game (27.5).
The other concern on the defense is its inability to stop the run. According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
The Steelers ranked No. 1 (in rushing yards allowed) four times this century. They were No. 2 twice, including last season, and No. 3 four other times since 2001. Today, they stand 25th against the run. The only time they finished a season lower than that since the 1970 merger came was in 1988 when they ranked 28th.
That 1988 team, which finished 5-11, owns the franchise's worst record since 1970. Right now, the Steelers don’t look like they will get to five wins.
The defense's performance so far this season has been the most disappointing because that's the thing the Pittsburgh Steelers were counting on most to carry them to the postseason.