The Glass Eye: Breaking Down the Steelers, Part One – The Offense

After the Steelers’ record-setting beatdown by New England this past weekend, I was preparing to write a column analyzing what has gone wrong for Pittsburgh. By chance, I happened across a very insightful blog entry that, with few exceptions, mirrored what I was planning to write. It just so happens that the author was Rick Evans, my friend and neighbor. I extended an offer to Rick to do a ‘back and forth’ column on the State of the Steelers, and he graciously agreed. Rick did so well that we had to split it into two halves. I will print the defense’s entry next week.

A few notes on the Steelers: they are 2-6 this season (only the pitiful Jaguars are worse in the AFC thus far), their offense has scored the fourth-fewest points in the conference and is 28th (out of 32 teams) in the NFL in rushing yardage. The passing offense is slightly better, about average by most statistical measures, but Big Ben has been sacked 32 times already, second-most in the league.

Worse, going back to last season the Steelers are 4-12 in their last 16 games. As Bill Parcells was fond of saying, “you are what your record says you are”. Here’s the ‘back and forth’ –

Dave Glass  Rick, thanks for agreeing to do this column with me. I think it will be a fun format to try!

You wrote a great blog piece about what you think is wrong with the Steelers. I happen to agree with almost all of it. Let’s start with the unit that actually showed signs of life this week, the offense.

First off, the offensive line has been decimated by injury. Do you think we should chalk their issues up to that, or do you think it runs deeper?

Rick Evans I believe the injuries have played a part, but let’s keep in mind that this is a very young, inexperienced, patchwork line with no true leader at that position to guide them forward. They’ve brought in a few veterans (if you consider four years and more to be veteran material) to help, but that is futile this deep in the season. Bicknell, who I believe is a first year line coach for the Steelers, is doing the best with what he has with players he is unfamiliar with. Overall, he’s doing a decent job considering what the line has faced this season. 

Dave Glass I agree. I think losing Pouncey, the ‘veteran’ of the group, REALLY hurt their chances to become a cohesive unit. My opinion is that the jury is still out…health is a skill, and Pouncey has been hurt a lot, but I think the team has to give this group another chance in 2014. 

Rick Evans No doubt. Pouncey was the only starter from last year. The offensive line was in a rebuild mode. Without him at center, they have suffered greatly. He’s not only a physical force, but one of those rare intelligent and instinctual linemen that just understands the game. 

Dave Glass On to the wideouts – you were pretty hard on them in your analysis, you said they are not getting separation – do you think the team is missing Mike Wallace more than they thought? Would retaining him have made that big of a difference in your mind for this team (figure Sanders would have been let go in that case)? 

Rick Evans No. The one thing the Steelers organization has done successfully throughout the years has been to let players move on and fill their positions adequately. Brown has the ability to outrun coverages, but the defenses are double-teaming him with a safety over top knowing they have little to fear with the short passing game. Without Heath in the middle early in the season, and for the lack of a short passing game overall, there is no reason for a defense to commit the safeties underneath. 

 Also, the passing routes have been quite simple and bland with little variety. If you go back and review some of the games, most of the passes have been straight downfield, or simple post patterns. I feel this problem lies with Haley’s play design and calling. As far as some of the receivers, they need to create more separation instead of standing in one spot waving their arms in the air. I saw that three times in the red zone last Sunday. 

Dave Glass OK, so you feel the problem is one of design and not talent in the passing game then? 

Rick Evans Correct. There is plenty of talent for the Steelers to work with. Sanders is the wild card – he has tons of talent, but for whatever reason, his personal play has been a little off this season. I say move Derrick Moye up and let him have some more reps. I feel he is a talent that is not being properly utilized, and if Sanders discovers that his position is not secure, it may light a fire for him to give his all. A little fiery coaching could help too, Mesko comes to mind. 

Dave Glass Ah yes, Moye, the underutilized giant…perfect for end-zone jump balls and fade patterns. Maybe the Steelers will learn after what Gronkowski did to them this weekend. Moving on…at running back, there can be NO doubt that Tomlin’s guy is Le’Veon Bell. He anointed him as the starter even before he was healthy and has given him the lion’s share of the work since he returned. Erstwhile starter Ike Redman was cut, as was Jonathan Dwyer…but Dwyer has returned and made an impact in limited duty. I know you’re a fan of #27, do you think he should be the starter? 

Rick Evans Clearly, the Steelers see Bell as their future. I think starting him this season, especially after the injury he sustained was wrong. I think that they should have started Dwyer, considering he was the best back they’ve had the last two years, and I don’t believe he lost the position based upon lack of productivity. I know fumbles are a big no-no as far as Tomlin’s concerned, and even though Dwyer had that issue, they could’ve helped him like they did Mendenhall when he had the same issue. Kicking him to the curb and initially keeping an underproductive back such as Redmond was a mistake. Should Dwyer start now? I’d have to say no even though I’d like to see him in there. The Steelers have committed to Bell and in the last two games, he has shown more and more ability and done well with the patchwork line. Stay the course and work Dwyer in for more reps when possible, especially if a defense is getting tired. There’s nothing like a big fresh back full of energy coming at you late in the game. 

Dave Glass I agree totally – for the reasons you stated, plus the fact that this season is LOST. Dwyer is a known commodity; they have to find out what the ‘new kids’ are capable of. 

This is a bit of an aside, but the way coaches treat fumbles really bothers me. QBs can take sacks, throw interceptions, and have HORRIBLE games – and be allowed to work out of their ‘slumps’. However, a running back puts the ball on the ground one time, and he’s liable to get benched for awhile…twice, in a short amount of time, and he may lose his job. I get it, turnovers lose games, but I think coaches take this a little too far with RBs. 

We finish at QB…the Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Dejan Kovacevic wrote today that trying to grade Ben this year is almost impossible because of all the issues surrounding him – poor line play, rotating running backs, questionable play calling, and playing from behind constantly. Having said that, I still think Ben is partly to blame for this mess. He has looked great at times, but there have been too many ill-advised interceptions and the usual allotment of ‘Ben being Ben’ sacks due to him holding the ball way too long. I still think #7 is a high-quality NFL QB, but at his age I believe his best is clearly behind him. How do you rate his performance, and do you think they need to think about drafting the ‘heir apparent’ soon? 

Rick Evans No QB is ever going to escape the blame game!! Seriously, Ben has made more inadvisable throws this season than I can remember. Also, he is holding onto the ball longer than ever trying to make something out of nothing. Last game, he has an easy third and two pick up if he would’ve just ran for it, but he was looking for more downfield and got plated for it. With the aforementioned problems at line and receiver, I think he’s gun shy and lost confidence in the receivers’ abilities. Too many dropped balls this year. I see him shaking his head a good deal and just have this sense of him thinking why try; the season’s lost. No fire in his belly. He seemed healthy early on, but right now, I think it’s a mind game for him and I don’t see it getting better. Even after last year, I remember a conversation with my step-dad where we spoke about Ben’s age. He’s been in the NFL ten years and has sustained more injuries than Brady, Peyton, Eli and Brees combined. At this point, the only thing that will save Ben’s playing health are Borg implants.

 Whether his fans want to admit to it, his days are numbered and the Steelers do need to take a hard look at the QB position. They have a relatively good rookie who is big and has ability like Ben. The question remains, will he be able to make the transformation from college QB to pro, provided he has the support of the organization? OR, will he become another promising third-string Steeler QB victim. Past Steeler third-string QB’s never seem to make it any farther than the bench for whatever reason. I say, sit Ben down during the off season, and explain the situation that he will be fighting for his job in the summer and truly give Landry Jones a chance to show what he can do next season. Heck, if things don’t improve, give him a chance in the last four games of this season. Of course, with the punishment Ben’s taking, that might not be too far-fetched. 

Dave Glass That’s true, he definitely has taken a beating. The most amazing thing is that he has played all eight games! I don’t agree with going to Jones, Ben is still a good player in this league and the reports I’ve read say that Jones looks like a bust. BUT, there’s a highly-touted crop of QBs arriving in the 2014 draft, and Ben has only two seasons left on his contract…I would take a look there. 

What’s interesting is that with the Steelers’ terrible salary-cap situation, they will need to make a decision on Ben sooner rather than later, even though he still has two years left on his contract. If they plan to keep him, they will probably try to spread out the dollar value of his remaining deal to buy themselves some cap relief. They also may decide to wait until after 2014 and re-evaluate. In any case, it’s pretty clear that a lot of once-safe jobs on offense are not nearly as safe now. 

Rick Evans When a team does this bad, everyone should be held accountable and the team should realize that no position is sewn up. 

Dave Glass Agreed. 

Rick Evans Indeed!! 

My thanks again to Rick. Check out the Eye next week for our take on the defense and some predictions about who goes and who stays in 2014. 

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

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