For the second consecutive week the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost a game they should have won. After falling to the Chicago Bears in Week 2, the Steelers blew an early 13-0 lead to the Cincinnati Bengals, ultimately losing 23-20 in the last minute.
Both losses came in games where the Steelers should have been in control after strong starts, in games against supposedly lesser opponents.
A common factor in both losses seems to be questionable coaching philosophies.
In the fourth quarter of both losses the Steelers' play calling became remarkably conservative and predictable.
The loss of Troy Polamalu has clearly been a blow for the Steelers. However in the latter stages of both games the Steelers' defense seemed to play it safe. The result was little or no pressure on Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer. Both quarterbacks marched their teams down the field with apparent ease as they led their teams to victory.
Pittsburgh's defensive prowess since Dick LeBeau took over the defense has been relentless pressure on the quarterback, earning the team the nickname Blitzburgh. However in the key fourth quarters of both losses LeBeau and Tomlin elected to rush only four players and drop seven into coverage.
That decision seemed to suck confidence out of the defense as opposing receivers found open areas in the zone coverages and easy first downs.
If Polamalu is so important to the defense that they cannot use they blitz packages in his absence, then Polamalu rather than Harrison should have been the league's defensive MVP last season!
Bruce Arians' conservative and predictable fourth quarter play calling on the offensive side of the ball has been even more atrocious. In both losses Arians seemed not to recognize that any success on offense was a result of putting the ball in Ben Roethlisberger's hands. Had it not been for Roethlisberger's fourth quarter and overtime heroics in Week 1 the team would be looking at an 0-3 record to start the season.
The most talented players on the offensive side of the ball are Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes (although he was horrible against the Bengals). Every week Mike Wallace provides evidence of his abilities as well. Conversely, the running game pales in comparison. Willie Parker seems to have lost his amazing acceleration, while Mewelde Moore is a serviceable backup and Rashard Mendenhall an unproven commodity who rarely if ever saw the field in Week 3.
Whatever success Parker has experienced this year has been at times when the offense looks to the pass before the run. In those situations the running plays catch the defenses by surprise and Parker makes some decent yardage.
As soon as teams recognize that Roethlisberger has been reigned in by Arians they crowd the line of scrimmage and stuff the run. In those circumstances Parker has looked slow and tentative.
Arians play calling has rarely been more predictable than the second half of the recent lost to Cincinnati. The Bengals scored an early touchdown on an interception return when it appeared that Santonio Holmes failed to make the correct read on a Cincinnati blitz. That closed the score to 13-10 and appears to have caused Arians to panic and go into a conservative shell.
Not counting the game's final Hail Mary attempt, the Steelers had eight first down plays following that interception return for a touchdown. Here is what Arians came up with on those plays.
13:26 Parker off right tackle for 0 yards
9:43 Parker off right tackle for 1 yard
7:19 Parker off right tackle for 2 yards
4:46 Roethlisberger passed to Parker for 9 yards
3:30 Parker off right guard for 1 yard
14:51 Parker off left guard for 3 yards
9:08 Parker off left guard for 0 yards
7:17 Parker off right guard for 3 yards
In eight first down plays the Steelers ran Willie Parker seven times for a total of 10 yards! Following the seven Parker hand-offs the Steelers averaged 2nd and 9. The only time that Roethlisberger was allowed to pass the ball netted a very makable 2nd and one.
This kind of failed play-calling handed all the game's momentum over to the Cincinnati Bengals. Not a team to look a gift horse in the mouth, the Bengals were happy to be handed a victory in a game that should have been a Steeler blowout. If they want to send a thank you card the Bengals should address it to Bruce Arians.
The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers have lost their swagger and their aggressive attitude on both sides of the ball. If they don't play a full sixty minutes of aggressive, risk-taking offensive and defensive football against San Diego next week they will be trying to crawl out of a 1-3 hole in their quest for another playoff appearance.
By the time Troy Polamalu returns to the Steelers their playoff chances may have evaporated. The current season has all the makings of the flat effort that characterized Bill Cowher's team's swan song following Super Bowl XL. The coaches should shoulder the blame.