One odd fact that I’ve noticed while watching the Steelers over the last couple years is that I’m more comfortable when they are behind by a few points than when they are ahead with a small lead in the second half.
They seem to play with more intensity on both sides of the ball, which has led to repeated late game surges to secure wins.
On the other hand, when they get ahead, rarely does the team go for the kill.
If you asked me whether I’d like to see the Steelers ahead by three points in the fourth quarter or behind by three points, that would be a tough call. While it seems counterintuitive, I probably would opt for Option B.
The absolute ideal situation for these Steelers seems to be playing from behind by one or two points late in a game.
Common sense dictates that it is always better to have the lead—but that certainly is not supported by my experience as a Tums-popping Steelers fan.
This is a noticeable shift from the Bill Cowher years, when the Steelers rarely relinquished a second half lead, with a near perfect record of closing out games once they secured 10-point leads.
So, why are these Steelers playing better from behind while looking somewhat toothless when playing with a lead? I don’t think it is simply coincidence.
There are a few factors that I think are contributing to this phenomenon. The most obvious one is the lack of an even marginal running game. When you can’t run the ball effectively, you cannot run the clock when you have the lead.
I’m not talking about the total number of yards that a running back gets in a game. If a runner gets 100 yards by busting a couple big runs to offset a ton of negative or low-yardage runs, that is not an effective running game.
What I am talking about is having a running game that can consistently produce three- and four-yard gains on demand. That is the kind of running game that can keep the chains moving when you have the lead to set you up for the win.
That is what the Steelers are lacking.
The bigger part of the problem is an offensive line that isn’t getting enough of a surge in the running game to ensure the three- and four-yard pickups. The smaller part of the problem is that the running backs, perhaps because of the offensive line, are running tentatively and not hitting the holes hard.
In defense of the current crew of Steelers runners, I’m not sure that the perfect combination of Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, and Jerome Bettis could run effectively behind these blockers.
The second issue is that there is more parity in the league today than in years past. Just consider that the top three teams for 2008 (Pittsburgh, Tennessee, and Arizona) have combined for two wins and seven losses while plenty of perennial doormats are baring their fangs to some effect.
In this environment, you are sometimes better positioned to be playing from behind late in a game. When two closely matched teams are battling it out, whoever has the ball last in a close game has a great chance of winning it.
Considering the team that is ahead is usually calling low risk plays, this means that the team playing from behind will more often than not get the ball last with a chance to win the game.
Considering how many great quarterbacks and offenses there are in the league, playing conservatively while nursing a small lead is the perfect recipe for a frustrating loss. As much as I don’t particularly like Bill Belichick, there is something to be said about keeping your foot on the gas in today’s NFL and playing with a killer instinct.
What would be great is if the Steelers somehow instilled in their players the idea that they are always playing from behind in their play calling and intensity. Maybe their new motto should be, “Play like you are losing!”
The third issue aligns closely with the first one. The offensive identity of the Steelers has changed, but they are playing as if the old identity still exists.
They constantly run the ball on first downs, which leaves them in constant second- and third-and-long situations.
I know the old mantra about needing to run to keep a defense honest, but this running game isn’t keeping anybody honest. It is simply handing free downs to the defense in gift-wrapped packages, which they are only too happy to accept.
This is a team that excels when forcing the action with the passing game. But that is not how they play when they get ahead—only when they are behind.
Hence, almost every Steelers game see-saws back and forth.
What I don’t entirely understand is why they don’t rely more on Mewelde Moore and call frequent short passes, screens, and draws. His skill set seems to better support their current personnel than any of the other backs.
This may seem like odd advice given my first point on how a good running game helps you win when you are ahead. However, when you don't have a good running game, it is time to switch to Plan B.
For the Steelers, Plan B should include a much more pass-focused game that extends over all four quarters.
Plenty of teams have shown that not having a good running game does not mean abandoning high percentage plays that can ground out yards in small chunks. The Colts and Patriots have done it for years.
There is no real reason that third-and-short situations should be cause for nightmarish visions of a Steelers running back slamming into three defenders in the backfield. If you can’t run the ball, don’t pretend like you can. Nobody that matters is going to believe it anyway.
One final factor is that teams have learned to fear Ben Roethlisberger. They are playing to win the game on their final possession and not give him a chance to lead the Steelers back. Unfortunately, the Steelers defense has obliged in back-to-back games.
So, why does the defense seem to play better from behind? That is mostly explainable by most of the earlier observations, but in reverse.
When the Steelers are ahead, especially late, the other team’s offense is playing with desperation, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them while playing with an additional down. It is hard not to give up ground in that situation.
However, when the Steelers are behind, the other team’s play calling is more conservative, offering more chances to force a punt, especially considering the Steelers’ more than solid run defense.
If you keep handing the ball back to the offense because of the above mentioned problems, they will eventually score. It is a near certainty, even with the best defenses.
The season is still young, and the Steelers may have already learned a few valuable lessons along the way. They have certainly provided Mike Tomlin and his staff with plenty of teaching points.
Let’s hope we see a team playing with a new urgency when they meet up with San Diego in what is essentially a must-win game. Let’s hope they play like they are losing, even if they are up by 30.