The Pittsburgh Steelers won their Week 10 contest against the Buffalo Bills, but the victory won't suddenly send them on a course to the postseason. No, the Steelers are just 3-6 on the year, following a disappointing 8-8 finish in 2012 with something potentially even more unsettling—a losing record, a fate common in the NFL but an experience the Steelers organization hasn't faced since 2003.
This isn't an instance of the Steelers keeping games close and giving them away at the end. They have only scored 30 or more points once—in a 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots that was historically bad—and have struggled just as much at home as they have on the road. Despite Sunday's win, this is not a good football team.
How bad are the 2013 Steelers? Though numbers don't tell a complete picture, they certainly can help explain just how things got this way.
The Steelers rank 15th in the league in average yards per game at 337.1. They are 11th in passing yards per game at 256.6 and 27th in rushing yards at 80.6. That offensive imbalance is one reason why the Steelers have won only three games to this point in the season, but it's just the tip of the iceberg of their problems on that side of the ball.
They are 25th in points per game at 19.9, despite ranking 15th in red-zone scoring attempts per game at 3.2. For years now, the Steelers have had problems scoring touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals, and this has persisted with a vengeance into 2013. This year, they are scoring touchdowns on just 44.83 percent of their red-zone appearances compared to 55.10 percent last year.
The lack of a run game has meant the Steelers have often been forced into one-dimensionality. Unable to run in the middle of the field, they haven't tried very often to do so in potential scoring situations. Defenses know to expect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will throw the ball in the red zone and can easily react to those plays. The Steelers have only four rushing touchdowns this year, while their opponents have scored 12.
|Key Steelers Numbers, Offense, 2013|
|Yds/G||Rank||Pass Yds/G||Rank||Rush Yds/G||Rank||PPG||Rank||RZ TD%||Rank|
The combination of needing to pass to cover the most ground and playing from behind in the second half of most of their games has made Roethlisberger throw desperate, risky passes. As such, he's thrown just 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions this year.
The problem isn't with the Steelers' set of running backs, which include rookie Le'Veon Bell and veterans Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones. It's the offensive line that is to blame for Pittsburgh's inability to run.
It's a familiar story—Pittsburgh's offensive line has been beleaguered by injuries as well as by subpar play. It started with center Maurkice Pouncey's season-ending knee injury, which resulted in the Steelers picking up free agent Fernando Velasco. It continued with left tackle Mike Adams playing so poorly they had to put jack-of-all-trades lineman Kelvin Beachum to support him as an extra tight end and then eventually giving him Adams' job.
The musical chairs continued even against the Bills. Marcus Gilbert began the game as the starting right tackle, bolstered by Adams as an extra tight end. But Gilbert struggled, resulting in Guy Whimper replacing him. Whimper showed up at left guard in that game as well, thanks to Ramon Foster's high ankle sprain.
A rotational approach isn't a novel way to handle an offensive line—it's a sign of desperation, an attempt at a quick fix for a problem the Steelers cannot truly address until the offseason.
As a result, only two members of the Steelers offensive line have positive run-blocking grades from Pro Football Focus (subscription required): Adams at plus-1.4 and guard David DeCastro at plus-5.3. As a whole, Pittsburgh's offense has a minus-25.5 grade in run blocking. Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers offensive line 25th in run blocking.
Poor offensive line play has also affected Roethlisberger's ability to be an effective passer. Though he's played behind bad lines in the past and minimized their impact with his unique ability to extend plays, this season hasn't been kind to him.
So far, Roethlisberger has been sacked 35 times. That's an average of three sacks per game. If that continues through the remainder of the season, he'll have taken 56 sacks—the most ever for a Steelers quarterback, breaking Cliff Stoudt's record of 51 from 1983. Unsurprisingly, Roethlisberger is tied with Miami's Ryan Tannehill for most sacks on the year at present.
It's not as though Roethlisberger is seeing pressure on every dropback. In fact, he's pressured on just 36.7 percent of his passes—not the most in the league, though certainly not the least. However, he has been sacked on 25.2 percent of his dropbacks, the second-highest sack percentage in the league. His ability to improvise has been compromised by the poor offensive line, which ranks 28th in the NFL in pass protection.
And the offensive line is most certainly the problem here. Despite the pressure Roethlisberger has seen this year, he's still the sixth-most accurate quarterback in the league. It is taking him only 2.51 seconds to throw the football—an ideal amount of time for an NFL quarterback—and his completion percentage of 64.5 and his average yards per pass attempt of 7.5 are among the best of his career.
With a better offensive line, the Steelers could run the ball better and better to protect their quarterback. It doesn't help that coordinator Todd Haley wants to turn Roethlisberger into a pocket passer, demanding a naturally chaotic quarterback become a statue. That makes him a sitting duck behind a line that cannot keep him upright. And when the Steelers do put together a promising drive, more often than not they are getting three points instead of seven.
The Steelers defense isn't struggling as much as the offense, but it still isn't without its problems. As is typically expected from the Steelers, they aren't giving up many yards to their opponents—328.6 per game, ranking them 11th. However, this is up from their league-leading 275.8 yards allowed last year.
Like last year, the Steelers have been sharpest when defending the pass, allowing just 201.3 passing yards per game. However, it should be noted that opposing offenses aren't really throwing against the Steelers, with an average of 31 pass attempts per game. That's because the Steelers have a glaring weakness—defending the run.
As poorly as the Steelers have managed to run the ball this year, they've struggled just as much stopping their opponents from doing so. The Steelers are giving up an average of 127.2 rushing yards per game, ranking them 29th in run-stopping. Unsurprisingly, teams like to run on the Steelers—30 times per game on average.
This happens for two reasons—one, the aforementioned weakness against the run, and two, teams want to protect their leads and eat time off the clock, and running the ball is the best way to do it. And though the Steelers have been stingy with overall yards compared to most other defenses in the NFL, they haven't been stingy with points.
|Key Steelers Numbers, Defense, 2013|
|Yds/G||Rank||Pass Yds/G||Rank||Rush Yds/G||Rank||PPG||Rank||RZ TD%||Rank|
The Steelers rank 19th in points per game allowed at 24.2. On opponents' 3.2 scoring attempts per game, they are giving up 1.8 touchdowns. That is seven points on 55.17 percent of opponents' red-zone appearances. That would be less of a problem if Pittsburgh's offense could manage more touchdowns of its own, but as it presently stands, the defense hasn't been picking up enough slack.
This all came to a head in the Week 9 loss to New England. Never before had the Steelers defense given up 55 points or 610 yards. It was a low point in a low season. Though the fingers were pointed at coordinator Dick LeBeau, the real problem lies with the players tasked with executing his scheme and not the scheme itself.
The front seven is the most to blame for the run-game troubles. Only nose tackle Steve McLendon has a positive grade from Pro Football Focus in run-stopping. Though the defensive backs have been better in the run game, only safety Troy Polamalu has a positive grade in coverage. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has been a standout as a pass-rusher with five sacks, but the defense as a whole has just 16 sacks on the season.
The defense has been wildly inconsistent—it ranks 30th in week-to-week variance according to Football Outsiders, who don't take into account simply yards allowed and thus have Pittsburgh's defense ranked 28th overall. Mainly, this is a defense that at one time could make up for the offense's mistakes with brilliant play every week but now just isn't. Age is taking its toll, and the Steelers' recent missteps in the draft are also contributing to their problems.
The Steelers defense is also not generating turnovers, a problem that it had last year. So far, it has forced seven fumbles, but only recovered two and has just five interceptions. These game-changing plays can cover a lot of flaws, but the Steelers aren't managing to make them.
Since 2011, the Steelers offense has ranked in the 20s in points scored. It's never ranked better than 12th since 2008. The defense has carried the team, giving up the fewest points in the league in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and the sixth-fewest in 2012. This year, the Steelers are giving up far more points than they have since 1991. For the first time in a long time, the Steelers are below average on both offense and defense; no wonder they have only three wins.
Football is a game of inches and field position. It's important to have a good punter to set opponents up for long drives, an accurate field-goal kicker (especially for a touchdown-challenged offense like Pittsburgh's) and a good stable of kick and punt returners.
As far as kickers go, Shaun Suisham has been mainly solid, making 19 of his 21 attempts this season. He's the team's leading scorer, with 73 points, which is both a good and bad thing. The return game has been good—no Steelers punt or kick returner has taken one for a touchdown, but the Steelers haven't allowed a return touchdown either. The punting, however, has been dreadful.
The Steelers started the year with Zoltan Mesko as their punter, but his poor average—42.5 gross yards per punt—forced them to cut him and to sign Mat McBriar. Though McBriar has played just two games, he's so far punting worse than Mesko, averaging 41.9 yards per punt. The result is that the Steelers have fielded the 32nd- and 34th-ranked punters this year.
Ultimately, the Steelers are averaging 42.2 gross yards per punt and 37.3 net yards, with only four punts landing inside the 20-yard line. That ranks them 31st in punting. With Pittsburgh's defense giving up more yards and points than it has in over a decade, handing opposing offenses such an advantage in field position only makes the Steelers' situation worse.
It's quite simple to see why the Steelers sit at 3-6 through 10 weeks of the season. They aren't scoring touchdowns from their red-zone appearances; however, they are giving up touchdowns to their opponents over 50 percent of the time. They cannot run the ball effectively, forcing them into one-dimensionality while at the same time setting Roethlisberger up for more punishment than he's faced in his career.
The offensive line is a mess, both because of a general lack of talent and because of injuries, while the aging defense isn't stopping the run well nor generating turnovers. The punting is among the worst in the NFL, giving opposing offenses a field-position advantage.
With tough contests ahead, including the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the two weeks after that and the Cincinnati Bengals and then Green Bay Packers in Weeks 15 and 16, the Steelers may not improve that record much before the season wraps. The only hope is that should the Steelers have high draft picks come May, they use it to begin to plug their many holes before the ship sinks entirely.