In the first half, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed only eight of his 17 pass attempts, for 60 yards and an interception. Though he looked better in the second half, throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller with four minutes left in the third quarter, those were the first points the Steelers put on the board, and they came against the Eagles second-team defense.
For the Steelers to get out of the 8-8 rut they have been in over the past two seasons, their offense cannot resemble the one on display last Thursday night. Here are ways the Steelers can fix their problems, hopefully in time for the season to begin in two weeks.
Much has been made of the Steelers running the no-huddle this year, and for good reason: When they did it last year, it worked.
According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers ran 239 no-huddle plays in the 2013 season, or about 23 percent of their total offensive plays. In the no-huddle, Roethlisberger completed 102 of his 163 pass attempts, for 1,221 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The no-huddle became a bigger feature of the offense as the season wore on, with the Steelers running at least 15 no-huddle plays in the final nine games of the year. The Steelers went 6-3 in that span.
|Roethlisberger vs. Bills, vs. Eagles 1st Half & Total|
|@ PHI 1st Half||17||8||47.1%||60||0||1||1|
|@ PHI Total||24||15||62.5%||157||1||1||2|
As such, the Steelers spent a large part of training camp installing and working out of the no-huddle, even doing so in the first week. It was also on display during the team's second preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
In Roethlisberger's three series, he worked out of the no-huddle exclusively, and the results were impressive: eight completions on 11 attempts for 128 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions and no sacks.
He connected twice with receiver Antonio Brown for 93 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown. He also was two-for-two on passes to rookie Dri Archer for 44 yards, with a long of 40 yards. He also threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to receiver Markus Wheaton.
However, against the Eagles, Roethlisberger put the no-huddle on the shelf after the first series, according to Dejan Kovacevic of DK on Pittsburgh Sports:
He opted to do so despite how successful the team had been using it last year and earlier in the summer, and despite the first-team offense playing well into the second half against the Eagles.
Clearly, if the Steelers want to turn their offense around, it begins with a heavy dose of the no-huddle. It's not a coincidence that Roethlisberger and his offense have had success when running it. It's clearly something he, his line and his receivers are not just comfortable running, but skilled at as well.
Turning away from the no-huddle, preferring, as Roethlisberger said, "to save it for Cleveland" in Week 1 was one reason why the offense struggled in Philadelphia.
The Markus Wheaton Project
Second-year receiver Markus Wheaton has been thrust into the starting lineup, thanks to Emmanuel Sanders' departure in free agency. The third-round 2013 draft pick will see his playing time increase significantly this year, but questions remain about his ability to handle the workload.
Wheaton played only 161 snaps last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), or 20.3 percent of all offensive snaps. He missed a large chunk of the season with a nagging finger injury, which impacted his ability to gain valuable on-field experience.
In total, Wheaton was targeted 13 times last season, with six receptions totaling 64 yards and no touchdowns. His longest reception was for 21 yards. Through three preseason games, Wheaton has nearly matched that production. He's been thrown to eight times, with five passes caught for 67 yards and one score.
|Markus Wheaton, 2014 Preseason vs. 2013 Regular Season|
In the Eagles game in particular, Roethlisberger appeared to be heavily targeting Wheaton. He was thrown to four times, with two catches for 24 yards. While it's important to get the newly minted starter integrated with the offense, perhaps an ease-in approach might be better.
Because of the injury last season, Wheaton is barely beyond rookie status. He's certainly the best option the Steelers have at wideout next to Antonio Brown, but that doesn't mean that Roethlisberger needs to constantly feed him the football.
Once the season begins, Wheaton should be a complementary piece of the offense. As he gains confidence, then his involvement can increase. Roethlisberger isn't lacking for targets, with Brown, Heath Miller, Archer, Lance Moore and Le'Veon Bell among those he can rely upon.
That's not to say that Wheaton isn't a good receiver—he is, and he's put in a lot of work this summer to earn the starting job.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has taken note of this, saying to ESPN's Scott Brown, "[Wheaton's] a detailed guy. I see him not only working out [on the field] before and after but into the evening. He's just taking a really professional approach. I think he understands what we expect and what we need from him."
Wheaton needs to bridge the gulf from "starter" to "reliable starter." Roethlisberger was trying to speed that process along by targeting him so much against the Eagles. But perhaps a less-pushy approach to getting Wheaton to develop as a player would do him and the Steelers offense a greater favor.
The Steelers were far more pass-happy against the Eagles than they were against Buffalo. On the one hand, it makes sense—by the end of the second quarter, they trailed Philadelphia 17-0. However, with nothing truly on the line, the preseason is also an opportunity to play situational football and to test out different offensive strategies.
The Steelers were balanced between the run and the pass when it came to their starters in Week 2. Roethlisberger attempted eight passes, while Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount combined for seven rushing attempts.
|Bell & Blount vs. Eagles, 1st Half & Total|
|Bell, 1st Half||5||21||4.2||0|
|Blount, 1st Half||5||22||4.2||0|
Against the Eagles, however, Roethlisberger attempted 17 first-half passes, compared to 10 combined runs—five apiece—for Bell and Blount. The run game was sharp, as well, with Bell netting 21 yards on his five carries and Blount 22 yards on his.
Though playing from behind does often result in more passing, an effective run game should not be sacrificed completely for the sake of hoping to move the chains through the air. This matters even more in an offense like Pittsburgh's, which is about short-yardage passing and ball control. That strategy requires a run game, or else defensive coverage becomes predictable.
The Steelers need to temper the need to dig out of a hole via the pass game. There is a time and place for running the ball when playing from behind, especially when the run game is proving productive.
The best thing about the Steelers' first-team offense performance against the Eagles is that, ultimately, it didn't count. It was but a preseason game, albeit the most "important" one of the summer.
There are clear lessons to be learned from it—particularly that the no-huddle might be the Steelers' best bet when it comes to advancing the ball—but learning those lessons, applying their solutions and moving on is one way to put the performance behind them.
The Steelers need to learn what lessons they can rather than dwell. Further, based on the lack of the no-huddle used on Thursday, the offense we saw in that game isn't the one the team plans on showcasing in the regular season.
A strong summer of training-camp practices and a mostly good preseason showing on offense prior to Week 3 should not be derailed by this one poor outing. The Steelers need to file away this loss as a learning experience and move on.