Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rebuilding Mode: What Seven Factors Can Fix The Steelers? (None are "Fire Haley")


Usually, when Steeler Nation makes a 'stairway to seven' reference, it is for another desired Super Bowl win. Unfortunately, though, with the season starting the way it has, it now more accurately applies to the things needed to get out of the rut they're in currently. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in a real quandary. It's obvious that this team has many issues and that they are in a rebuilding transition. Basically, they're in a fix.

The problems that plagued the second half of the 2012 season have crept into the 2013 season as well. Injuries, miscues, turnovers and lack of turnovers on defense are ubiquitous. Players simply aren't making plays when they absolutely need to make them, and, worse yet, they're pressing to try to make them.

"I think you heard that a lot on the sidelines, 'Let's go make a play'" said safety Ryan Clark. "When it used to be, 'Let's just go play. We can't start pressing to do things because of what's on the scoreboard." 

Such "pressing" has been seen on both sides of the ball. Maybe most evident being the interception thrown by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. When trying to make a play downfield, his pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery was high and behind him. It was essentially what iced the game for the Bengals.

What the Steelers wanted to do on offense was seemingly at odds with the play-calling, personnel and/or formations, also, though. To say they were out of sync offensively is blatantly stating the obvious. But something else stands out.

Over the course of his career, Big Ben has proven to be very good on third down, but not so far this season. Especially when facing third downs of over nine yards (9.08 to be exact) on average needed amongst the 12 third downs Monday night. Could that be related to sub-par play on first and second downs?

"Easily. Easily that’s scenario," said head coach Mike Tomlin "If you just took a snap shot of the third down opportunities in the game, third-and-eight, third-and-nine, third-and-10, globally speaking, you’re not going to convert a lot of those or not going to convert those at the type of rate that’s going to allow you to be successful." 

With all of this said, we have touched on most all of the seven things necessary to turn the team around enough to salvage the season. Let's begin with...

A LESS OFFENSIVE LINE -

The big uglies (which is a much nicer epithet than the "boobs" as Jayden calls them) actually played better Monday night. 

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert allowed an early sack, then allowed only one more quarterback pressure the entire game. Left tackle Mike Adams, though he allowed five QB pressures, didn't give up a sack. 

Fernando Velasco played at high level despite having one week of practice to get to know the terminology. Continue on this continuity curve and they could just be a formidable unit in weeks to come. 

DEFENSE NEEDS TO MAKE PLAYS -

This is basically self explanatory. The defense played well Monday, but not well enough. Sacks and turnovers continue to elude this team. 

LaMarr Woodley was fairly disruptive, Lawrence Timmons was Lawrence Timmons, Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward played strongly and Jarvis Jones had double the snaps of Jason Worilds. Jones is proving, via defense as well as special teams, that he should be on the field most of the time.

Despite this, more is needed. The defensive line had the majority of the QB pressures for the second time. There was pressure, but none turned into sacks. There was a strip-sack/forced fumble that was called an incomplete pass (another call the referees missed), but it wasn't challenged by the coaching staff. 

These need to be turned around in order to get off the field more often and into the hands of Big Ben so that he can run...

THE NO-HUDDLE OFFENSE -

Now, I realize that you can't run it all the time because the no-huddle playbook is limited right now. But, once more of their key personnel are available they'll be able to open things up more. This is where Big Ben can be...well, Big Ben.

Big Ben loves the no-huddle and the offense has looked better this season when running it. While it was supposed to be highly utilized last season and wasn't, this year the Steelers actually look like an NFL team when running it.

Against the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers scored their only touchdown from the no-huddle, and sustained three drives Monday night when in fastbreak mode. Since Big Ben is the best player on the Steelers offense, the ball should be in his hands as much as possible. i.e. the no-huddle offense. Employing it should be coupled with...

A QUICK-STRIKE PASSING GAME -

Having wide receivers like Antonio "The Energizer Bunny" Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, dictates that you mix up the patterns to match their skill sets. Either can play outside or in the slot. Both are fast - 4.5/40 and 4.4/40 respectively - and both are small-ish at around only six feet tall. 

A short, quick passing game within the no-huddle simply works to their advantage. They have shown that they can make plays underneath and in crossing patterns, and are at their best after the catch. Once they do that, they should then...

PLAY MARKUS WHEATON -

Markus Wheaton is fast. He can also play outside or in the slot, and his quickness is sudden and blatant. We saw flashes of it in the preseason and that skill set, that approach to danger, is one of the things missing from the offense right now. 

His speed (officially 4.45/40, but also ran an unofficial 4.34/40) isn't quite that of another MW of note, but he still has speed to burn. A track star in high school, he won 400- and 800-meter races at junior national track meets before also performing well in state high school meets.

Wheaton may not duplicate 39 passes for 756 yards and six touchdowns, but his ability to stretch the field has already been seen and Big Ben (and Tomlin) has said that we'll "start to see him getting in more this week." That element would then allow them to...

LET THE PASS SET UP THE RUN -

There's an old NFL saying, "the run sets up the pass." But, I'll never forget an NFL Films program where an NFL old-timer who was being interviewed about the early days of 'the forward pass' quipped with a smile, "the run sets up the pass? Bull(BLEEP)! The pass sets up the run!"

He was essentially correct, and it's a notion the Steelers should employ. As they use the no-huddle and a short, quick passing game, it would open up running lanes because of defenders being spread out more. 

Add to that the fact that Felix Jones is more of a cutback, in space runner, and you have a fairly good formula. Plus, Le'Veon Bell, whence he returns, was used to running behind bad offensive lines at Michigan State.

None of this means anything, though, without...

THE RETURN OF HEATH MILLER - 

The latest version of the unsung hero is desperately needed. Heath Miller led the Steelers last season with 71 receptions (in 15 games) for 816 yards. David Paulson and David Johnson have four catches for 50 yards between them. 

However, what is more important is his blocking ability. He is one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL and remains very underrated. Tomlin said in his weekly press conference that they aren't "expecting Heath to step out of a phone booth with a cape on", but he would heal a lot of ills. Big Ben has already said that Heath "should run for president", so why shouldn't he put on a cape too? 

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TIDBITS: Much ado about nothing - Antonio Brown got into a "heated" discussion with offensive coordinator Todd Haley over his lack of touches. As Tomlin pointed out, the limited touches could be mostly attributed to the Steelers running only 55 plays compared to 79 for the Bengals. 

“We’re just not getting enough snaps,” Tomlin said. 

It didn't stop Brown from voicing his dislike. Water under the bridge, though, as Brown has come out and said that he and Haley are "good." - http://espn.go.com/blog/afcnorth/post/_/id/74835/antonio-brown-says-he-and-haley-are-good

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Cortez Allen and Brett Keisel (calf) missed practice Wednesday. Le'Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones (heel) were limited.



Heath Miller was a full participant in practice Wednesday and it is a possibility he starts Sunday barring any setbacks.