By Chris DiMarino
Well ladies and gentlemen, what a pinnacle game we have coming ahead. After another loss, spirits are down and the hope of a playoff berth is beginning to diminish. But there is still hope. Jeremy Hritz wrote an insightful article about the Pittsburgh Steelers downtrodden season that was brutal, but appropriate. The Steelers are not the club we have built up in our fantasies. The NFL’s changing landscape, the salary cap and a fleet of young stars have made this league very even. There is so little room for error that even one poor draft can change a powerhouse to an average team.
While the loss to the Dallas Cowboys might have answered if the Steelers are capable of competing with playoff caliber teams, I found it even more obscuring. While many will agree that the Steelers were outplayed, the bottom line was that the Steelers were a pair of mistakes away from a win. Being able to even compete with a strong team when being outplayed is impressive, but adding in major takeaways is nearly impossible to overcome. Yes, injuries are an issue. Every year it seems that the Steelers are struck with injury woes, but that is something they can’t control. The level of play has wavered heavily from week to week and that is a dire trait, but the Steelers still seem to show up against good teams.
Another key point that Hritz made in his article concerned the decadence of assuming old dogs have still mastered their tricks. Is it selfish of us to expect Troy Polamalu to re-enter the lineup a few months later, after a few injuries and play how he used to? Is LaMarr Woodley underachieving, or did he just overachieve in years past when the players around him were playing at a higher level. Has Ben Roethlisberger lost his magic touch late in the games and is he becoming a liability? Is it the coaches’ fault that there are so many fumbles because they aren’t training or preparing the players properly or does the fault lie on the players and their bad habits?
The fact of the matter is that there are no easy answers to these questions and football fans are never granted that image of clarity. All we have to rely on is what we see on the field and what we hope can happen. I hope the Steelers make the playoffs because I think it’s possible for them to do some damage. Is it likely? No, given how they’ve played as a whole this season and their lack of intensity lately I would argue the odds are against them. So I will review the current matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals but I will also comment on each unit’s overall competency to compete in a playoff environment.
The Steelers passing offense is special. I wouldn’t say its elite at this point, because I can think of several passing attacks that are more lethal. Can anyone do what Roethlisberger does? His touchdown pass to Heath Miller this past week is the best way to describe him in one clip. He has the ability to make things up as he goes, he has great downfield focus and he has the confidence to trust his arm and receivers. Roethlisberger has many unique abilities that most quarterbacks don’t possess, but he is not an elite passer. He’s a little too streaky and fails to put the right touch on the ball when he throws into traffic. He also makes bad mistakes much more than people notice because either his legs or his receivers bail him out. He doesn’t adjust to the rush as well as some great pocket quarterbacks do, and a few times against the Cowboys he tried to run out of a sure sack rather than throwing the ball away or to a check down. His internal clock has an ego and it tends to stick it out and hope for more open receivers rather than rely on his arm strength and vision to fit the ball in to tight spots and risk turnovers.
The receivers on this team were once considered among the strongest in the league. Yet more than ever this year, the smaller receivers on the Steelers showed their lack of size and strength by fumbling and getting shutdown by aggressive coverages. There is a lot of potential and Emmanuel Sanders has had a great season, one that he needed to have in order to prove he was the same guy we thought he was. Jerricho Cotchery might still be attainable for cheap, but Mike Wallace looks like he’s already signed his release papers. The Steelers could use a big bodied, possession receiver to complement Antonio Brown.
Miller is still a great tight end, and this offenses biggest failures have occurred when they have failed to utilize Miller to his full potential. While, he has not shown signs of aging, he is getting older and supplemental weapons will be necessary. This season, David Paulson and Will Johnson showed that they have some potential. Johnson has made some uncanny grabs and Paulson has looked like a Miller clone at times. The Steelers are only missing a type of weapon that is quickly becoming the point of success for the leagues’ best teams, a great pass receiving running back. These players really help their quarterback get out of sticky situations and can catch pass rushing defenses off guards by providing screen options. Having to only rely on receiver screens is a big miss for this offense and unfortunately, drafting Chris Rainey didn’t fill this void.
The Bengals have a good defense. While it’s not playing like it did last year, the talent level is starting to catch back up to it. This defense has been strong lately and has allowed on average, less than 14 points a game (over the past 6 games). The Steelers offensive line continues to be a pivotal concern for the success of this passing offense. If the Cincinnati pass rushers get pressure, Roethlisberger could continue to take more hits than his sore ribs need. Michael Johnson is a great edge rusher and is complimented so much by the dynamic inside play of defensive tackle Geno Atkins. You can’t say enough about these two as they play Steelers caliber, hardnosed football.
With 11 interceptions in the secondary, this unit is right around average. 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick has been struggling to get on the field, but starters Terrence Newman and Leon Hall have played very well and having a veteran like Nate Clements 3rd has also helped. The Bengals have a strong secondary to accompany its good defensive line. While Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson aren’t ideal in coverage, undrafted free agent Vontaze Burfict has added that dimension to this group.
The Steelers are a good offense, and the Bengals are on the threshold of good and elite defensively. This will be a solid competition and the Steelers should have no problem gaining yards. The perpetual worry seems to be the drive ending turnovers. While Roethlisberger hasn’t thrown many this year, they seem to come at the most inopportune times. That is what will hurt this offense if it plays some of the poorer pass defenses like Green Bay or New England that can still generate those turnovers. This offense needs to be one that is feared. Opposing defenses should go out on the field with the mentality that they hope they can get a turnover, not that they expect one. The pieces are there, the Steelers just need to put it together. But the lull the Steelers are in and the genuine adolescence of this new offense Todd Haley has installed might too much to overcome against the NFL’s elite.
The Steelers rushing offense has been bad this season. Is it really as bad as it seems, or have we over exaggerated the poor play of the running game in a few bad games? Well, based on the table below that compares the projected rushing total to that of the previous 3 years, you can see that the 2012 Steelers area averaging over 20 rushing yards less a game.
I think that the variability of the backs has been one of the biggest struggles. It went from Isaac Redman’s show with a possibility that Rashard Mendenhall will return from injury and steal the limelight back to the Jonathan Dwyer show while Redman makes mistakes and Mendenhall doesn’t even dress. Going forward the emphasis will continue to be salvaging a back for next year out of this bunch. Dwyer’s age and potential are alluring, but Redman has shown more explosiveness and has a much more rounded skill set. Either way it is clear that early round help will be required from the next draft.
The offensive line can’t be left out of this conversation. The injuries hurt, but more than the absences, I feel that the new combinations of lines hurt more. I think the play out of rookies Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum have been significantly above expectations. But the variability of who’s playing where has caused a vast amount of missed assignments. With Willie Colon on the IR, the line looks to be set with Starks and Adams at tackle, Ramon Foster, David DeCastro at guard and Maurkice Pouncey at center. I honestly think that this line combination can run into the playoffs IF it stays together. They need to start meshing quickly and carry on by improving each week.
The Bengals are a top 10 run stopping team. Maualuga has continued his strong play by producing 107 tackles already this season. His sidekick Burfict has also crossed the 100 tackle plateau and this secondary is great at tackling. On the defensive line, Carlos Dunlap and Atkins have 6 tackles for a loss each. While Burfict also has 6 tackles for a loss, the starting secondary has added 10 of its own. Atkins and Dunlap are leading in another important category as well, forced fumbles. Dunlap’s 4 and Atkins’ 3 are the only multi fumble totals on the team.
The chances are slim that the Steelers will experience success running on the Bengals. However, in the last meeting, Dwyer ran wild and accrued 122 yards on only 17 carries. His monstrous 7.2 average is a far cry from his season average of 4.1. He will need to attack the Bengals again and close this game like he did back in October. Look for the Bengals to test the guards and we will see if Atkins will have his way. The Steelers need to try harder to keep a body on Burfict who had 13 solo tackles in the last outing. The Bengals 3 sacks and lone interception were average and I would expect around the same defensive production from this game.
The Steelers passing defense has missed Ike Taylor. In the two games since he’s been gone, Philip Rivers has thrown for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns and Tony Romo threw for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns. While those statistics still aren’t ghastly, it isn’t what this top defense is capable of. Injuries to Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen have further muddled this secondary and the safeties have seemed nonexistent in pass coverage. While pushing thru the injuries is the MO, even the defensive play calls have seemed off. Where offenses normally were attacked by the Dick LeBeau blitzing, it seems more than ever that offenses are calling circles around the tame and predictable defense.
If the Steelers make the playoffs, Taylor might be back and this secondary might get dominant again. To be truthful, I can’t imagine the Steelers winning in the playoffs without the dominant pass defense we’ve seen at times this year. Even without pressure, the coverage has been excellent. This defensive line has the tendency to get manhandled by better offensive lines, but they can still hold up at the point of attack. Against the pass, the defensive line is able to get the linebackers 1 on 1 matchups and it has been the linebackers who have made the plays. Woodley has struggled with injuries, James Harrison has made a great comeback but is no longer a huge threat and Jason Worilds hasn’t had a consistent motor.
The Bengals have not had a great sophomore passing season. The Bengals rank right around average in most passing categories, but this unit looked like it was on the cusp of excellence after last season. Inconsistent play from Andy Dalton and a lack of secondary weapons are the factors that most believe limit the Bengals. A.J. Green is an elite pass catcher, but there is no wide receiver depth behind him. Rookie Mohammed Sanu began to show some flashes but is now on the IR. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has had a quietly solid season, but he still doesn’t demand the attention of the elite tight ends.
In their first meeting this season, Dalton had a completion percentage of 50% and threw for just over 100 yards. Taylor did a great job of shutting down Green with a little help from the safeties as Green was held to his one 8 yard TD catch on the night. Gresham was only able to gain 19 yards on 3 catches of his own. While that sounds great, the reality is that the Steelers will be without Taylor to cover the Bengals biggest threat. Also, the Steelers didn’t manage to get a single sack on Dalton. These two stats could be foreboding for what’s to come this weekend.
All of that being said, I don’t think the Steelers pass defense is the weakness of this team, rather I think it the best strength. I think the offense can feed off the drives that sputter thanks to tight coverage and proficiency on 3rd downs. Even against the elite offenses in the NFL, the Steelers pass defense has shined. They will be one of the reasons that the Steelers can compete against the New England\'s or Giants of the league. But the important next step is to defeat the Bengals without Taylor. While he will be missed dearly, I think it is possible that a strong double coverage can limit Green.
The rush defense has successfully climbed out of a hole and has been great. While it hasn’t had the flair of the San Francisco\'s or the Houston Texans, it has been efficient and gotten the job done. Lawrence Timmons has stepped up in a big way. Early on in the season the story was Larry Foote and how he was able to take James Farrior’s place so well. Since then, Timmons has stepped up and has been more than just a complimentary backer; he has been the star of this defense for the past few weeks. He makes the big plays, covers the star tight ends and can stop the run when it matters.
Aside from Timmons, the edge support has been acceptable, but sketchy at times. Woodley has been fooled a couple of times this season on screens or edge runs and Worilds has shown some aggressiveness in this area as well but needs to be careful not to over pursue. Harrison has continued his strong run stopping play and is particularly good at collapsing the backside on runs away from him to prevent cut backs.
Another player who has made a big leap this year is Ziggy Hood. While he was at the point of being considered a bust and had a slow start to the season, he has been great lately. He has hunted down screens, backed his man down on pass rushes and showed open field athleticism. If Cameron Heyward can step up the same way as Brett Keisel regresses, these defensive ends could be the face of this defense for years to come. In the middle, Casey Hampton defied the odds and has had a good season following his injury. While Steve McClendon was all the rage this off-season and Alameda Ta’amu was targeted in the 4th round, Hampton has retained his role as the nose tackle.
The Bengals have always had bigger, less exciting backs. While many felt that BenJarvus Green-Ellis was an improvement to Cedric Benson, many still felt that he lacked the big play threat of a starting running back. BGE has been exciting and solid this season on his way to exceeding 1000 yards. He had a great season and has the youth to grow with this young offense. The Bengals as a unit rank 11th rushing the ball. They favor the power runs between the tackles and use strong offensive line play and aggressive running to gain yards a few at a time. This plan has worked so well that it has lead to some big plays in the running game. So while his speed isn’t enough to catch defenses with long runs, he can take most runs that will go for no gain and still grab a few.
That type of mentality is what has been missing from the Steelers. While both Redman and Dwyer are power backs, they lose their power when they slow their foot speed if they can’t find a hole. Offensive line play aside, the vision that BGE has is the true advantage as he is able to hit the creases that are available with some semblance of momentum. The Steelers defensive line needs to show up in a big way. If they get pushed back, then each run will be for 3 or more. The wild card for the Steelers is the return of Polamalu. He might not be able to cover like he used to, but his splash plays against the run are still there. If he can trap some plays for a loss, it will force this offense into difficult longer yardage situations which give the advantage to the defense.
Well, without boring everyone to death that is my analysis of this team now and moving forward. I hope the Steelers can win out and enter the playoffs but the truth is that it’s up in the air because the Bengals are playing good football right now. The strength has returned to their defense and that is how they will try to win this game. The Steelers defense should be able to keep the Bengals offense in check, but stopping Green will take a lot of attention. The Steelers have to be careful not to turn the ball over because it has been what’s sunk them this year. Untimely fumbles and interceptions are exactly how the Bengals dominated the Eagles last Thursday.
I think the Steelers have had their share of dark days this season and they need some work to regain their elite status. That being said, they are still able to compete with the great teams in the NFL. They have the defense to keep games close and the big play threats to score on any down. The problem has been turnovers and executing in the clutch. Ambition is a tricky thing to gauge when you’re a team with such a successful short term history like the Steelers. So many teams that haven’t been used to success lately seem hungry. The Steelers need to ask themselves right now if they are hungry enough to win, because without that drive, there is no chance for the Steelers this season.