5 Changes Pittsburgh Steelers Must Make Before the Playoffs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2020

5 Changes Pittsburgh Steelers Must Make Before the Playoffs

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers clinched a playoff berth over the weekend. However, following an 11-0 start, they cannot be happy with two consecutive losses.

    The Week 13 loss to the Washington Football Team? That one is easy to write off as a fluke. Sunday's lopsided loss to the Buffalo Bills, though, is a more worrisome sign of what could come against quality postseason opponents.

    The good news is Pittsburgh still has a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed and three games to get it right before the playoffs begin. The Steelers should use those three weeks to make a few tweaks to their game plan—and hopefully pick up three more victories.

    Here, we'll examine the most notable changes they need to implement before the playoffs.

Find Receivers Who Can Catch

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    Diontae Johnson
    Diontae JohnsonMatt Durisko/Associated Press

    Dropped passes have hurt the Steelers offense in recent weeks. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Pittsburgh had at least five drops in both Weeks 12 and 13. In Sunday's loss to Buffalo, wide receiver Diontae Johnson was shown the bench after a pair of early drops.

    That was a case of head coach Mike Tomlin's making good on an earlier threat.

    "They can catch the ball or they can get replaced by those that will catch it," he told reporters after the Washington loss. "I expect guys to make routine plays routinely."

    It may be time for Tomlin to start replacing players—or at least giving other guys more opportunities. Whether that means looking to a receiver like James Washington (three drops on the season) or leaning on tight end Vance McDonald (zero drops), the Steelers have to find more reliability in the passing game.

    As the coach essentially stated, if the receivers on the field can't catch, they shouldn't be on the field.

Look at External Running Backs

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    James Conner
    James ConnerAdrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh ranks 31st in both rushing yards and yards per carry. The Steelers have only produced 100 yards on the ground once in their last eight games.

    A lack of offensive balance can be an issue for any team in the postseason. However, it's a bigger one for a unit forced to augment the run with short passes only to repeatedly see those attempts dropped. As such, Pittsburgh should take a long look at external rushing options.

    Starter James Conner has been serviceable, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Backup Benny Snell Jr. has had bright moments, but both he and Anthony McFarland Jr. are averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry.

    Finding a quality back on the open market is easier in theory than in practice, of course. However, there's one prolific runner out there who may be interested if he views the Steelers as a Super Bowl team.

    "I've been asked questions by a couple teams here recently. Like, 'Are you ready?' I'm ready if y'all Super Bowl-ready," five-time Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch told Conan O'Brien last week. "That's what it'll take me to come out, to come and play again. It'll have to be a guaranteed Super Bowl game for me."

    Lynch came out of retirement to join the Seattle Seahawks for last year's playoff run, so while a return with Pittsburgh may feel unlikely, don't write it off.

Utilize Derek Watt in the Running Game

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    Derek Watt
    Derek WattGary McCullough/Associated Press

    The Steelers used to be known as a physical, old-school football team. With their ground game struggling, perhaps they should try more of a traditional approach to running the football by using fullback Derek Watt.

    While fullbacks aren't heavily utilized in today's wide-open NFL, some squads rely on them as lead blockers. Minnesota Vikings fullback C.J. Ham, for example, has played 41 percent of his team's offensive snaps this season. Cleveland Browns fullback Andy Janovich has played 17 percent of the offensive snaps, though he's also missed two games. The Browns and Vikings rank fifth and sixth in yards per rush, respectively.

    Watt has played just 49 offensive snaps in nine games and hasn't played more than 11 snaps in a contest.

    Having an extra blocker at the point of attack could add some juice to the Steelers run game. It would likely require having one fewer wide receiver on the field when Watt is in the game. However, considering that some of the wideouts have struggled to catch the ball, that's not necessarily a negative.

Let Roethlisberger Rip It More Often

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    Ben Roethlisberger
    Ben RoethlisbergerAssociated Press

    The Steelers running game has struggled, and drops have hampered their dink-and-dunk passing attack. Both have been easier to defend, as opponents are no longer terrified of Ben Roethlisberger's ability to hit the deep shot.

    With speedy wideouts like Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the roster, the threat is still there, but Big Ben hasn't been slinging it as he had in years past.

    "Pittsburgh has tended to go up-tempo with a spread formation for long stretches at a time—often an empty set—with Roethlisberger getting rid of the ball quickly in a short-and-intermediate pass offense," CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora wrote Sunday. "It has become somewhat predictable according to some teams who have faced them recently."

    Roethlisberger's 6.4 yards per attempt is a career low if we're not counting his two-game run in 2019. It's more than a half-yard lower than his previous low of 7.0 in 2008. His air-yards per attempt is down over a full yard from the 2018 season—in which Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards.

    If the Steelers want to stop defenses from clamping down on the running game and the short-to-intermediate passing attack, they should take more frequent deep shots. Obviously, drops could be an issue there too, but by putting the threat on film more frequently, the Steelers may be able to back off opposing defenses.

    Pittsburgh should have a prime opportunity to do just that against the struggling Bengals in Week 15.

Get Chase Claypool More Involved in the Ground Game

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    Chase Claypool
    Chase ClaypoolAdrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool has proved to be a big-play threat and a top-tier red-zone weapon—he had 10 touchdowns in his first 10 games. He has also been an effective gadget player who can bolster the ground game.

    Claypool has averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, but he has also logged two touchdowns and four first downs on nine carries. Yet, the Notre Dame product hasn't seen a carry since Week 10.

    Pittsburgh should try utilizing Claypool as a runner two or three times per game, both to get the ball into his hands and to change up what has been a predictable, ineffective rushing attack. The Chicago Bears have taken a similar approach with receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson, who has 59 carries this season for 12 first downs and a score.

    While the Steelers may not need to run Claypool four to five times per game as Chicago has with Patterson, added opportunities could provide a much-needed wrinkle to coordinator Randy Fichtner's offense.

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