Steelers vs. Bengals: 5 Strides Pittsburgh Must Make vs. Cincinnati
The Pittsburgh Steelers have no time to reflect on their loss to division rival Baltimore last Sunday night. They have to focus on how to turn the tables and defeat another tough division rival this weekend when they face the surprising Cincinnati Bengals.
There are some areas where the Steelers have played very well this season. Likewise, there are some areas where big strides must be made. That must start this weekend. Another loss, particularly in the AFC North, would be very, very bad for the team's hopes of finishing their season in Indianapolis this year and not Cleveland (the site of their Week 17 game).
Here are five areas where the Steelers must make strides.
Red Zone Offense
The Steelers offense, for all of its ability to score any which way, is terrible once they get inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
This has gotten old. It's as predictable as they plays that Bruce Arians will call in these situations. The Steelers drive like mad all the way down the field and then suddenly come to a complete stop.
It starts with the plays. Arians can't mix or be creative with less than 20 yards of field. That's where he needs to be at his best. The Steelers use a bland base set of plays in this area instead of their usual dynamic offense.
The best solution? Turn the play calling over to Ben Roethlisberger, who can then run no-huddle and use his deft ability to read defenses to keep them off balance.
If the Steelers can improve in the red zone, they can beat just about anyone. They have to stop kicking field goals.
Third Down Defense
The Steelers were very good on first and second downs against Baltimore, but gave up 14 third down conversions, an awful number considering the recent struggles of the Ravens offense.
Unfortunately, third down and any distance was where Flacco and company came to life. The Steelers couldn't cover the receivers or get pressure on Flacco.
There's an essential problem with their approach. They try to cover with nickel and still create and depend on pressure with an undermanned pass rush. It's trying to do too many things at once.
Instead, the Steelers should focus on their strength: pressure. They should get up in Andy Dalton's face and harass him mercilessly on third down. They don't cover great and they don't make a ton of turnovers or big plays in their secondary. They do, however, now how to get after a quarterback.
Let that shine through on third down. It seems to be working on the earlier downs. If you prevent a quarterback from having time to make reads, you prevent third down conversions regardless of coverage.
Usage of the No-Huddle Offense
The Steelers best offensive weapon is Ben Roethlisberger's ability to run the no-huddle system to perfection. Their biggest weakness, however, is their inability to utilize the weapon.
No-huddle used to be for the end of the half and the end of the game. No more, however.
Now, no-huddle is for offenses that like to absolutely psych out a defense. The Steelers, with mobile and strong quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as well as a full stable of talented wide receivers, are perfectly set up to run this scheme.
But Bruce Arians won't do it. It takes the plays out of his hands and puts the responsibility for calling them squarely on the quarterback. Surrendering authority is not in Arians' nature. He wants to be in charge of this offense.
The Steelers need to take the cuffs off. Let Roethlisberger call the plays. He knows how and he's at his best (as is the whole offense) when he's allowed to get creative with what the offense is doing. Arians is stale and way too old-school.
The more the no-huddle is run, the more it will take care of the team's tendency to slow down on some drives.
Growing Antonio Brown
Not really much of an issue to report here. Brown has completely invigorated the offense. He's become a big play receiver and a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger, particularly in clutch situations when the team needs a big play.
The only strides needed here are that the Steelers must keep Brown heading up and up. He should be getting the start opposite Mike Wallace for as long as Emmanuel Sanders is out. Brown is a better receiver at this point than Hines Ward and he's got more big-play potential than Jerricho Cotchery.
There aren't many holes. I guess I could nitpick if I want to, but that wouldn't do much good because Brown really just is that good right now.
I'd like to see him get more involved near the goal line. The team has done great at getting Heath Miller back into the mix and they should start going to Brown as well. He's a good receiver and he probably has the most upside on the team because we haven't seen them scratch his potential yet.
So, for Sunday I'd like to see Brown have another 100 yard game and catch a touchdown or two (provided Mike Wallace doesn't intercept one again, which might be the funniest play I've ever seen).
Put Away an Opponent
The Steelers main issue all year has been putting away opponents. The Steelers have had the most difficult time imaginable in this area, something where they used to be dominant.
This isn't about the running game at all, it's about the coaching.
The Steelers do not slam the door on people. They leave a lot of points on the field, allow teams who are on their backs to get back into games and just don't do any of the right things when it comes to silencing a team on Sunday.
Look at the New England game. The Steelers utterly dominated the Patriots, but it came down to the last drive and a freak play to beat the Patriots because the Steelers lacked the killer instinct to slam them to the turf.
This is something that Mike Tomlin must coach out of them. They must learn to play with urgency for all 60 minutes. They must learn to score until an opponent has no realistic chance to win. They must learn to stop protecting three or seven point leads and start carving out 14 and 20 point leads.
That's how championships are won. You don't see the Packers protecting slim leads. They are focused on really beating teams into the ground. The only close games with them are ones against equal opponents.