Pittsburgh Steelers Rewind: Defense Never Rests, Offense Never Shows
Not many people would have predicted that any team without its starting quarterback, a sub-par offensive line, and shaky special teams would be 2-0 after meeting up with the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans, two teams believed to be playoff contenders.
But, regardless of whether or not the press has reported on the death of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are very much alive and are also very much 2-0.
We've learned a lot about this team in two weeks. We'll likely get a few more interesting lessons before quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns from his suspension during the bye week. Here's a look back at what we found out on Sunday as the Steelers manhandled the Titans 19-11.
1. The Charlie Batch Bandwagon
We've heard more about Charlie Batch since Byron Leftwich's injury than we've heard about Roethlisberger. Once Leftwich went down with an untimely knee injury, fans and analysts began calling loudly for Charlie Batch, the longest tenured Steelers quarterback, to step up and take the reigns of the offense.
How about now?
Not that Dennis Dixon was lighting up the scoreboard or anything before his own untimely knee injury, but he certainly had the Steelers on the move. Batch didn't or couldn't do that once his number was called.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Charlie Batch. No one is a better or more steady hand on a roster where the quarterbacks are a bit quixotic. But Batch's days as a starter have been over for the better part of the decade. You can't just be expected to step in again and be great.
To be fair, Batch was playing behind a patchwork offensive line, against a good defense, and also had two touchdown passes nullified (one dropped by Hines Ward and one by a penalty). But the rest of the time he wasn't very good either.
Who gets the start in Tampa this coming weekend is anyone's guess right now. It could be Batch. If it is, the Steelers and Bruce Arians need to do some scheming to get him some better opportunities to be successful.
2. The Offensive Playbook Mystery
Maybe you're playing with your third- and fourth-best quarterbacks in a road game versus a supposedly quality opponent, but if that was someone's idea of an effective offensive gameplan, I'd hate to see a poorly designed one.
Bruce Arians needs to open the playbook up. Period.
I thought he was starting to do that a little bit with Dennis Dixon. He even designed a run for Dixon that netted the Steelers a huge 21 yard gain and set them up deep in Tennessee territory. But, once Dixon got hurt, it was like the old Arians days.
Run, run, pass, punt.
Charlie Batch is your most experienced quarterback. He's been in the offense since 2002. He's like a coach on the field. He's accurate and has a reasonable arm. He's not mobile but he's not a statue either.
So, tell me why you locked him up and made him into a machine to hand the ball off.
What part of that seemed like a good idea?
It's almost a foregone conclusion that the Steelers will go in a different direction next year. Arians isn't the prototypical Steelers' offensive coordinator and was basically given a one year reprieve from the firing line. He hasn't acquitted himself well since.
Recommitting to the running game is one thing. Stubbornly sticking with it when it's not effective is an entirely different thing. You can't run well when a defense loads eight men in the box, let alone nine or ten. But that's exactly what Rashard Mendenhall was facing yesterday at LP Field.
Here's hoping we have something better planned for Tampa Bay.
3. The Unsung Hero Strikes Again
When you have to go through almost 18 pages of photographs before you find one of yesterday's heroes, you know how unsung he must be.
Everyone trumpets about how much better the Steelers' defense is with Troy Polamalu wreaking havoc. It's right and true to do so. Polamalu makes the Steelers a dangerously unpredictable team.
But everyone forgets who else got hurt last year.
Aaron Smith rarely gets credit outside of Pittsburgh's press for being a run-stuffing beast of a defensive end. He's been here for over a decade now, quietly stopping running backs in their tracks.
Yesterday, he was one of the biggest reasons why all-world runner Chris Johnson was stuffed and held to only 34 yards on the ground.
He's also one of the reasons Pittsburgh's devastating blitzes work so well. He can take up so much space and so many blockers that the remainder of team's offenses can't hold back the onslaught.
If you want to hear about Smith's game, I suggest asking a few right guards and right tackles about how fun it is to face this faceless wonder.
4. Special Once More
I like Emmanuel Sanders a lot. He's one of those young players that has special written all over him.
But I like Antonio Brown more on kickoffs after Sunday's game. Not just because he scored, but because he's exactly the kind of runner you want on your return team.
He made exactly one cut and then bolted.
He's fast enough to get past anyone and he's shifty in a different way from Antwaan Randle El. Randle El too often dances trying to find a hole only to see what room he had disappear. Brown doesn't seem to do that. He finds a crack, accelerates through it, and then runs to daylight.
Overall, save for one punt return where Daniel Sepulveda had to make a tackle, the special teams were once again special.
They've gotten better each week through preseason and regular season. Al Everest has them playing at a high level now.
Forget Sepulveda's net average. His leg is almost too strong for punting from midfield. When he's had to, he's kicked the Steelers out of trouble. He had a 50 yard boot yesterday of just that style.
Randle El could do better on punt returns but he doesn't lose the ball and he doesn't give up yards by running backwards. That alone is a victory.
Jeff Reed found his leg on kickoffs sometime before the season and after the Steelers threatened to let Sepulveda replace him. He also found his field goal accuracy again this week, booting four scores through the uprights.
If the Steelers can keep this up, they are going to be even more dangerous because they can now dictate field position again. Last year, that was not an option.
5. The Turnover Factor
Usually, Butterfingers are candy bars. Yesterday, it was almost a style of offense for the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans fumbled seven times, losing four. They committed seven turnovers overall to the Steelers' one. No further evidence is needed about how important creating turnovers are to winning football games.
Offense was at a premium yesterday. Neither team moved to ball effectively outside of the Titan's late scoring drive and a couple of Steelers drives with Dennis Dixon under center. On a day like that, the team that simply managed to hold onto the ball one the game.
The Steelers netted only 127 yards yesterday to the Titans' 238, yet beat them in time of possession by over seven minutes. So, while gaining less yards, the Steelers still were on offense longer than Tennessee simply because their drives ended in punts and field goals instead of interceptions and fumbles.
Defenses win championships. Turnovers are what makes defenses tick.
6. Winners and Losers
Here are some winners and losers from the Steelers for Week Two:
Maurkice Pouncey: The rookie lineman is, by far, the team's best offensive lineman and has the look of someone who can follow the long tradition of stalwart centers in black and gold. He makes all the line calls, blocks well in both phases, and is a steady, durable hand in the middle of a line that is flirting with disaster thanks to injuries.
Lawrence Timmons: Challenged to step up and play like the first round pick he was, Timmons has not just played better. He's played out of this world. He's having a Pro Bowl season in the middle of a tough linebacking corps and he is carving out a reputation as a run stopper and devastating blitzing linebacker.
Jeff Reed: Four field goals in four attempts means that people will start to forget that dud in the opener. His improvement on kickoffs also makes him worth more money, which is the name of the game in a contract year.
Byron Leftwich: After an injury to Dennis Dixon and a less than stellar performance by Charlie Batch, Leftwich is looking a lot more attractive for that start in Tampa on Sunday. He is rumored to be ready to go, although his original prognosis was three to four weeks. If he is, he's the odds on favorite to be under center.
Fantasy Owners: Anyone who had the Steelers' defense hit the jackpot on Sunday. In most leagues that I checked, the Steelers' defense netted their owners somewhere around 28 points. To give you an idea of how high that is, the Packers' defense garnered around 12 points in a blowout 34-7 win over Buffalo.
Dennis Dixon: Obviously it's got to hurt knowing that your biggest asset might have turned out to have been your undoing. Dixon will likely never be a premier passer. He is, however, a dangerous runner. Now, he's likely on the shelf with Leftwich returning to health and his own knee now acting up.
Bruce Arians: I don't care who is playing quarterback, you have to put them in a position to score points and win games. Being somewhere between predictable and obvious is not how you do that. Arians was on thin ice before. He's doing nothing to endear himself to the team or its fans now.
Mike Tomlin: His post game comments have incited a minor riot among the press. Right or wrong (and I happen to agree with him that a lot of people, although not everyone, have given the team no chance to compete in the first four weeks), he's going to pay for it for awhile. If the press doesn't like his style, I'd hate to see them against Bill Belichick or Bill Parcells.
Rashard Mendenhall: He did all he could do, but running into nine and ten man fronts is not a recipe for success. Tennessee loaded up so much against the run that it made it nearly impossible to find running room. Hopefully the tape bears that out and a better run/pass mix emerges in Tampa.
The Rest of the Offensive Line: Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills were poor replacements at left tackle. Flozell Adams struggled with the heat. Trai Essex got banged up. Chris Kemoeatu played a mostly nondescript game. This unit needs to get healthy in a hurry or it won't matter who is under center behind them. You can't blame Sean Kugler much. He just doesn't have a lot to work with.
A Look Ahead
Next week, the 2-0 Steelers take on the 2-0 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that the Steelers are projected to win.
This was, before the season started, expected to be the easy game out of the first four.
Now it doesn't look so easy. Sure, it's still certainly the softest opponent.
But now it's more of a trap game for a team that's riding higher after two unexpected victories.
Josh Freeman will likely be similar to Vince Young. They have the same rough style of play, although Freeman is a better pure passer than Young.
The defenses will once again be key, with Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh both demonstrating some stifling tendencies in the first two weeks.
Keys to Victory
The key for the Steelers will be to keep the Buccaneers off-balance by mixing in a good short to intermediate passing game on first and second down with effective runs and play action. If the Steelers can get their play action passing game going, it will loosen up the box for Rashard Mendenhall to find running room.
On defense, the Steelers need to play a high pressure game as they did against Tennesee. Sending blitzes after a young quarterback like Freeman will force him into making mistakes. If the Steelers can generate turnovers on defense, they will have an easier time of putting points on the board with an abbreviated offense.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth segment on keys to victory later this week!
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