As the Pittsburgh Steelers march toward the playoffs, whether it be as a division winner or as a wild card, there are some adjustments that Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff must implement for the team to make an effective run at Super Bowl XLVI.
The Steelers seem to be one of the few teams that, depending on the week and the viewpoint, could end up anywhere between a first-round exit and a Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s a look at what adjustments need to happen so that the Steelers can make sure it is the latter.
Last week, against the St. Louis Rams, the Steelers defense had some issues stopping the run, but they had no problem running the ball themselves. That’s something that we haven’t seen out of the Steelers very often this season, and it seems to be something that might be needed down the stretch.
Running the ball will be important against the teams Pittsburgh is likely to face in the playoffs. The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens are two likely opponents if the team reaches the later stages. In a Super Bowl scenario, the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers also come to mind.
All of these teams have dangerous offenses. The key to beating them is simply to keep them on the bench. The more the Steelers can extend drives with successful run plays, the more it neutralizes the threats posed by players like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
I expect running to become more prevalent as well simply to protect the Steelers injured quarterback from further damage. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t likely to recover his usual mobility very quickly, so the team must find a way to work around that.
Defensively, the Steelers have been very good this season in a statistical sense. In a situational sense, however, there’s still some work to be done.
Third downs are a problem against effective teams. You can’t take the performances of teams like St. Louis (which has one of the worst offenses in the league) and San Francisco (which hasn’t been able to solve anyone on third down) as indicative.
Go back to the most recent Baltimore game. The Steelers were awful on third down.
The Steelers play a different defense on third down than they do on first and second. They bring some of the bigger bodies (Casey Hampton) off the field and drop more players into coverage, particularly if the distance to the lead stick is far.
It doesn’t work very well. Quarterbacks get time to throw and the corners lose containment or are playing too far off in their zones to impact the play.
Before the playoffs, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau need to dial things up. Leave the pass rushers on the field, send six or seven rushers. The Steelers have a fast corps of linebackers. If one or two can get lose, the quarterback will either be sacked or hurried into a bad throw.
I think this lack of pressure has contributed to the team’s awful performance in the turnover department this year. When they bring it, other teams make mistakes. They just don’t bring the house often enough.
One of the major bright spots this season has been the improvements made by the Pittsburgh secondary. Last season, an particularly in the Super Bowl, this unit was considered the team’s biggest weakness. Now it’s a strength.
Because Dick LeBeau’s defensive system is predicated on a lot of zone coverage, the Steelers don’t play a lot of man or press coverage. Their corners are actually pretty good up close. They don’t cover so well in soft zones, however.
It’s time to make some minor modifications here. Take advantage of the speed William Gay has and use him to cover fast receivers in tight coverage. Have the corners and safeties, great at being physical, jam opposing pass catchers at the line of scrimmage so they don’t get free release.
Looking down the AFC playoffs list, there aren’t a lot of big-name receivers coming to the party. Anquan Boldin and Wes Welker are just about the only ones that scare me (Andre Johnson is banged up still and he doesn’t have a top-notch quarterback accompanying him to the dance). The Steelers should be able to handle these guys. The key will be how often they come up and play in the face of the receivers instead of giving them space to catch short passes.
It might be beating a dead horse, but I’ll bring it up again. The Steelers need to run the no huddle as part of their full offensive philosophy and not just as a fallback option when momentum and rhythm are missing from the equation.
I’m not able to find statistics on it, but if you’ve watched every game the way I have, you’ll notice one thing. The Steelers no-huddle offense is nearly impossible to stop. The team’s speed at receiver and diversity and depth of weaponry turns a drive into a track meet. Most teams cannot keep up with that.
Ben Roethlisberger is more effective in a quick strike system too. He can call his own plays, go with the feel of the game and mix up defenses with runs, play action passes and a few deep balls.
Especially with his injury, keeping teams off balance with that no huddle will be important. It will tire the opposing pass rush and coverage people and will force them to respect both run and pass without the ability to substitute the correct personnel packages every time.
It’s time to turn the no huddle loose randomly throughout the game. It shouldn’t be confined to the two-minute drill any longer.
This area, especially now that the Steelers have such speedy receivers, has become kind of the forgotten zone of the field.
But one thing is for certain. All of the Steelers running backs can catch the football and run downhill afterward. Rashard Mendenhall almost has this as a hidden talent because it is so under-utilized by the team.
The Steelers need to work on getting Ben Roethlisberger to get rid of the ball more quickly. Having him do some work in the flats is a good way to manage that while also keeping a running element to the offense. Those short, almost lateral passes unfold similar to a running play.
The Steelers have to get creative with keeping things moving and keeping Ben Roethlisberger upright. Utilizing the running backs as receivers will only serve to do that and also to diversify the offense.
In the playoffs, you can have a lead one minute and be behind in the next. Victories turn into losses before you realize that the ground is slipping away. The Steelers play a lot of close games. It’s part of their mentality that they can protect small leads with their defense and running game.
The problem is that the Steelers offense isn’t built that way anymore and the defense hasn’t always been perfectly reliable against more prolific offenses (read: not St. Louis or Seattle, their two shutouts this year).
The Steelers can’t get caught in that lead-protecting mode. The best formula for beating another playoff team is to put them away for good and to keep them pinned down until the clock runs out. The Steelers have the potent offence to put up a ton of points. They just have to unleash it.
It’s time to forget about protecting leads of seven or 10 points and start thinking about winning by as high a margin of victory as possible. It’s still reasonable to expect that to grind out long drives with short passes and some other modifications we’ve talked about, so I don’t think the mentality of scoring touchdowns at the end of each drive is that big of a reach.
I’m all for creativity and diversity on both sides of the ball. Trick plays work wonders in the playoffs for teams like the Steelers because they don’t run many of them. Things like the wildcat and other “gimmick” type offenses fail because they become too easy to predict.
Still, the one thing Pittsburgh can’t do is get too cute with their schemes. There’s a difference.
Teams can shoot themselves in the foot with an overuse of things that work. One thing I’ve seen a couple times is that end around run by either Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown. It works maybe once every couple of weeks. It’s not something you can run over and over.
Another is the usage of Troy Polamalu. Teams are starting to realize, especially on pass plays, that if he’s up at the line, he’s going to come over top of it or at least attempt to do so. The quarterbacks are setting up so that their hot read on the play gets the ball. The trick is that now they are trying to make sure that hot read is in the vicinity of the coverage area Polamalu is vacating for his blitz.
That has to be fixed.
There’s a vast difference between too cute and very creative. The Steelers need more creativity, but they have to make sure they don’t start doing things in a predictable way.