Monday, December 20, 2010

NO TROY, NO PUNCH

Followers alike bless the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.  It's a defense which has kept the Steelers alive and well despite their continued deficiencies on the offense.  This Steelers team reminds me of the first few Steelers teams Ben Roethlisberger quarterbacked; a lot has to go their way to win a football game.  Remember, that the Steelers team that won the Super Bowl showed the ability to come back, while previous teams did not.  This one is much like that one. 

You say how is that so?  They're 10-4.  They're a first place team already locked for the playoffs.

Sure, the Steelers have amassed a 10-4 record bashing down the likes of Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Oakland, Miami, Tennessee and Cleveland.  They barely beat Atlanta in Week One, pulled a fast one in Baltimore a few weeks ago, and squeaked by a Buffalo team that dropped the winning touchdown.  Every other big game: New Orleans, Baltimore, New England and now the Jets, has seen this team fail to win on days where everything doesn't go their way.  And the times things don't go their way equals a defensive lapse or bad special teams play.  See the New England game.  See the Jets opening kickoff return (the difference maker in their 22-17 loss Sunday).  The Steelers have beaten teams with a combined winning percentage of .46 (64-75) and they've lost their four games to teams with a winning percentage of .745 (41-14). This team was 3-1 with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch behind Center. They're 7-3 with Big Ben behind center.



The Steelers offense, inept and predictable in almost every way, was finally called out on ESPN by analyst Jon Ritchie, after months of getting in their own way.  Ritchie questioned the play-calling against the Jets, saying that Mendenhall was running all over the New York defense.  How did he only get 17 carries?  I think Jon let offensive coordinator Bruce Arians off lightly for not taking control of his offense based on what it was achieving.  The Steelers red zone offense was ranked 28th going into the contest and only sunk lower after.

Let's go back to the Buffalo game four weeks ago, a game the Steelers deserved to lose.  With 2:51 left to go, the Steelers got the ball back on their own six yard line, the gift of one Troy Polamalu.  Buffalo has three timeouts left.  So the Steelers get a couple of first downs, and the game is over. 

They're backed up against they're own goal line, so conservatism is a much-supported theory on how to operate from here.  However, it isn't like they have a quarterback the organization is nervous about.  Ben Roethlisberger is now an elite quarterback in the NFL.  He has two Super Bowl rings, one of which came at his own hand, guiding the Steelers from their own 12 yard line after a holding call 88 yards for the victory in the waning minutes of Super Bowl XLIII.  He's 60-26 all time as an NFL quarterback in the regular season. 
So what does the Steeler offense do?

Let's just say I sat on my stool at a bar and called the first three plays before they happened to the person next to me.  Mendenhall to the right, 3 yards.  Mendenhall to the left, 5 yards.  Now third down, and what do you think Pittsburgh will do now?  That's right, pass.  They get a first down on this play barely.  Then run the same two running plays to Mendenhall and Redman, forcing a third down and long.  Naturally, Buffalo dials up the blitz, and Chris Kemoeatu gets called for holding, forcing the Steelers back to their 10 yard line.  Screen to Mewelde Moore on third and 22 for 11 yards.  And voila, the Bills have the ball back and tie the game to force overtime.

This cross-section of Steelers offensive ineptitude is microcosm of their season to date.  I've watched the New England Patriots, a team whose winning percentages the last few years make them a franchise worth emulating, and even without a running game to rely on to eat up clock, they simply continue to attack you.  They don't sit back and hand their destiny to someone else.  They take it upon themselves to keep the defense off the field.

What does this all add up to?  It's not about the QB under center at all.  It's about Arians and the play-calling.  The offensive scheme of the Steelers is so utterly predictable and limited that it forces the team into untenable situations.  With an offensive line already limited in depth that's been beaten down by injury, as well as a QB that's now playing injured, Arians and (Big Ben's) desire to throw downfield seems counter-intuitive, and has often been counter-productive.  When you consider the personnel the Steelers have, a passing offense designed to stretch the field is baseless.  Besides Mike Wallace, who has blazing speed, this team has few receivers to fit that bill.  Hines Ward is a playmaker, but only of short and intermediate value.  Emmanuel Sanders is still learning, and is as undersized as Randle El is.  In fact, the only Steelers receiver over six feet tall is Arnaz Battle, who doesn't have a single catch this season.  Limas Sweed was the only other guy with size at six-foot-four, but he has no hands or discipline.  Bruce Arians has lost the art of the screen, the one play he should have dialed up countless times for Willie Parker, a guy who was designed to run in space, not between the tackles.  Instead, Parker was used as if he was Jerome Bettis, and the results were not surprising.  It was only after Baltimore had stopped every other play in his book that on a third and goal, Arians gave Ben a slant pass option to Isaac Redman (a play that should have been considered on first down) that resulted in Redman's tour-de-force into the endzone to hand the Steelers a much-needed victory.

Between penalties and the inept design of the offense, should the Steeler defense go south at any moment during a game, the team will go with it.  And until Arians can get his head wrapped around his personnel and design an offense that uses them to the best of their abilities, the Steelers will continue to struggle to score, no matter who is under center.
Meanwhile, the Steelers defense is tied for third with 40 sacks and is second in the AFC with a +14 Give/Take ratio.  Sadly, with no Troy Sunday, the Steelers record just one sack and zero turnovers.  Need more be said.

No Troy, no defensive punch.  No punch on defense, no victory.

I hate to disappoint all those Steelers fans out there.  As much as I will root for them, this team is not a Super Bowl caliber team.