Are the 2011 Steelers Simply Great at Home and Bad on the Road?

The Steelers have been a true Jekyll and Hyde squad this fall. Pittsburgh (3-2) looked good in shutting out the abysmal Seahawks in week No. 2 and exhibited its best all-around performance of the season in a 38-17 win Sunday over a Tennessee squad that entered that game sporting a 3-1 record and the top-ranked defense in the NFL. Not so coincidentally, both of those games were at Heinz Field.

However, the Steelers have looked much worse on the road, getting blown out by archrival Baltimore, 35-7, in the season opener, squeaking by the still-winless Colts by a field goal in week 3, and then literally beaten up, battered and physically whipped by the Texans on both lines of scrimmage in week 4.

All offensive statistics back up the Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon. In home games, the Steelers are averaging 31 points, with offensive averages of 149 rushing yards, 277 passing yards, a 73 percent completion rate, and are yielding only 1.5 sacks per game. That is far better than the Pittsburgh offensive per-game road averages of 13.3 points, 84 rushing yards, 255 passing yards, a 58 percent completion rate, and 4 sacks per game.

Defensive differences are more pronounced, with the exception of Pittsburgh’s pass defense, which does not get tested as much on the road, because opponents are easily running on the Steelers. At Heinz Field opponents average 8.5 points, 49 rushing yards, 187 passing yards, a 63 percent completion rate, and are yielding 4 sacks per game to the Steelers’ stout defense. On the road, though, Pittsburgh’s opponents average 24 points, 149 rushing yards, 164 passing yards, a 54 percent completion rate, and are giving up just 0.5 sacks per game to a not-so vaunted Steel Curtain.

Finally, the Steelers have a combined turnover differential of negative-10 for their three road games, whereas their turnover differential is even (0) for home games.

How could the home-road performances be this different when the Steelers have long been regarded as the best or one of the best road teams in the NFL? The 2005 Super Bowl championship squad posted a better regular-season road record (6-2) than at home (5-3), and then became the first Super Bowl titleist to win four playoff games away from home, resulting in many fans purchasing “Pittsburgh’s Road Warriors” souvenir shirts.

The 2008 Super Bowl champs had the same 6-2 mark in home and road regular-season games; and the 2010 Super Bowl runner-ups went 7-1 during the regular season on the road, compared to just 5-3 at Heinz Field.

Generally, road games have not bothered the veteran-laden Steelers much, because their defense has consistently dominated over the years regardless of venue, and (I say this having been to Steelers’ road games in seven different cities) Pittsburgh easily has the largest and loudest road crowd in the NFL. The team almost never has a true road game like other franchises, because they regularly are supported by 10-25,000 Pittsburgh fans in opposing stadiums.

While Heinz Field is a lovely, scenic, venue that comes alive for playoff and key games, it fails to provide anywhere near the home-field advantage that Three Rivers Stadium did in the 1970s. Ticket prices have gone so high that many are now purchased by wine-and-cheese type transplants, many of whom came to the area for the white-collar medical or academic professions, and are rarely in their seats by the 10-minute mark of the first quarter for sunny and pleasant, 1:00 p.m. kickoffs.

In contrast, fans at Steelers’ road games, who generally live in or near the opposing team’s host city, are so excited to see their heroes in person that the majority arrive early enough to get drunk and loud during pre-game warmups, and then only intensify their spirits during the contest.

Now, I do not project such significant statistical differences to continue for home vs. road games all year. They are probably most attributable to the opposition, since the Steelers faced both the Ravens and Texans on the road and got Seattle at home. But that does not explain Pittsburgh’s struggles at winless Indy and brilliant play when hosting the Titans’ No. 1-ranked defense.

However, what can explain those successes and failures are matchups. The offensive line is obviously Pittsburgh’s weakest area; and that is one position group for any team that naturally encounters more problems in road games, particularly in pass protection due to crowd noise. But the Steelers faced three road opponents with outstanding edge rushers, something lacking on both the Tennessee and Seattle defenses. Moreover, they did so before the re-signing of Max Starks that seemingly helped shore up what had been their abysmal pass protection at left tackle.

Uncharacteristically, the Steelers’ main defensive problems this year have come in stopping the run, most visible by Houston (180 yards) and Baltimore (170) gashing them on the ground. But those teams also rank 5th and 9th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, whereas the two teams that traveled to Pittsburgh – Seattle and Tennessee – rank 29th and 32nd, respectively.

Now for some quick reflections on the Steelers’ 38-17 win over the Titans on Sunday:

-    That was clearly the most enjoyable Steelers’ game to watch this season. This looked like the Pittsburgh team we all expected to see throughout the year.

-    However, a pessimist could justifiably point out that the Steelers took advantage of favorable matchups and that Tennessee was not as good as its record indicated. Moreover, the Titans are a far less formidable offense without Kenny Britt, and thus had no one to challenge the Pittsburgh secondary. Finally, the Titans rank last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and while they have a solid defense, they lack an effective pass rusher.

-    In contrast, an optimist would point out (1) the Steelers were without six injured players, including four starters; (2) Starks was forced to play almost the entire game at left tackle after having just one week of practice following his first return to football in nearly a year; and (3) that the Steelers completely shut down the elusive and speedy Chris Johnson (30 rushing yards on his last 13 carries after an opening 21-yard run) with a makeshift defense that started Chris Hoke, James Farrior and Larry Foote on the interior due to injuries to stalwarts Casey Hampton and James Harrison, the latter of which coupled with the injury of Jason Worilds, forced Lawrence Timmons to play outside linebacker, where he generates no pass rush.

-    As I said before the game when many Steeler fans had given up on this year, the truth probably lies somewhere between good and bad when evaluating this Pittsburgh squad. The Steelers were not as bad as they looked entering this game and are not as good as they played on Sunday. They are an inconsistent team with flaws. But with Starks back in the lineup at the ultra-important left tackle spot and strong performances from several youngsters who needed to step up, the real Steelers are probably much closer to very good than below average, although they still do not look like a Super Bowl-caliber squad.

-    Individually, I was most impressed with the play of Starks and Doug Legursky in pass protection, as Ben Roethlisberger was never hit from his blindside. While he still is best as a top backup at guard and center, Legursky is a much better fit for left guard than right guard due to his mobility, and skills at pass blocking. Plus, left guards generally face smaller, quicker defensive linemen as opposed to playing against the strongside. And why is it that every time Chris Kemoeatu is out with an injury, the offensive line seems to play better? Expect the Steelers’ front office to finally notice this on June 1, 2012 during the second round of purging they must do to navigate through the salary-cap hell they have placed themselves in for 2012. Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey also fared well in run-blocking on the interior, and Jonathan Scott did a commendable job at right tackle after Marcus Gilbert re-injured his shoulder, which looks like an injury that will linger for much of the year. Overall, the entire offensive line played well, something no one could say any of the previous four games.

-    Roethlisberger was as deserving of a game ball as Starks after he tied a career high with 5 TD passes despite having his mobility limited by a serious foot sprain that would sideline many players for several weeks.

-    Isaac Redman ran violent and about as hard as any Pittsburgh running back since Jerome Bettis. Moreover, he showed that backs probably need to go North-South quickly and more often behind this offensive line. As I said before the season, Redman deserves more playing time and should be a legitimate No. 2 back. But Pittsburgh fans now calling for him to start over a healthy Reshard Mendenhall are forgetting that Mendenhall is a complete, above-average back in all facets of the game who rushed for 2,381 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry behind a subpar offensive line the last two seasons. Despite his great efforts on Sunday, Redman averaged 3.3 yards per carry, so please do not get carried away. Jonathan Dwyer also had an impressive 76-yard run and made a special-teams tackle, but he does not offer the versatility of skills as the Steelers’ other three backs, which is why he will like be de-activated again after Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore return from injury.

-    Mike Wallace is not only now a legit No. 1 receiver (adding receptions to his already impressive annual totals in yards and TDs), but has evolved into one of the top five receivers in the game, along with Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Roddy White and Larry Fitzgerald. Why any opponent would ever leave one of its cornerbacks in single coverage without safety help against Wallace is beyond comprehension, but hopefully they each keep making this mistake at least once per game.

-    It was nice that LaMarr Woodley finally decided to play like he is capable and PAID $61 million to do, recording 1.5 sacks and an important interception. But I was most impressed by the play of an embattled and injured defensive line that is simply better when Aaron Smith is out. The starting ends should be Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel, and everyone probably agrees outside of the Steelers’ coaching staff, front office, and a local Pittsburgh press that seemigly refuses to ever criticize Smith. After under-achieving through the first four games, Hood had the outstanding all-around performance that the Steelers used to get weekly from Smith in his prime, but that the 35-year-old, often-injured Smith now seems physically incapable of doing against any opponent.

There is no doubt this squad missed Keisel over the two previous games and rookie first-round pick Cameron Heyward provided the type of pass rush the Steelers have long been missing from their 3-4 defensive ends even with they had dominant defenses. Heyward should remain the No. 3 defensive end even after Smith returns.

But the man who really played phenomenal was fireplug Chris Hoke. The Steelers are now 16-1 when this 35-year-old journeyman starts for an injured Hampton. Pittsburgh’s front office will no doubt be begging Hoke to return for another season in 2012 at the veteran’s minimum salary and fans should get used to a nose tackle duo of Hoke and Steve McLendon, because unfortunately Hampton will likely be the best of several solid Pittsburgh veterans not returning in 2012 since the Steelers will probably need to free $30-35 million in cap space from their current 2012 payroll before training camp.

-    Finally, Keenan Lewis should not have been playing press-coverage late with his team holding a big lead. Who does he think he is, Ike Taylor? Moreover, he bit on a slight fake (although he expected more safety help from Ryan Mundy) that resulted in Damian Williams’ 19-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter.

Excluding that one play, Lewis played an all-around excellent game at outside cornerback. Now, the Titans’ receivers are not very good, so fans should take a cautious approach before anointing Lewis the answer to the Steelers’ long-standing problems at No. 2 corner. But there is no doubt he is a better option right now than Bryant McFadden even when McFadden is fully healthy, assuming that will happen at some point. Lewis has far more speed and the confidence lacking in McFadden, who often plays off receivers like he is guarding Mark Eaton standing beyond the 3-point line.

The question now is should Lewis be the No. 2 corner, with William Gay (who has also been playing well to his credit) only inserted as a nickleback? Regardless, who would have thought the Steelers would be a flawed 3-2 team at this point that had received mostly outstanding play from its top three cornerbacks but had trouble stopping the run. No one would have projected that scenario, but that is why you play games and the Steelers’ run defense will only improve as the season progresses. Let us hope for the same from the offensive line, which will largely decide the team’s fate. Unfortunately, Starks only plays one spot and Pittsburgh still does not have a dominant road-grader to run behind like it did in Flozell Adams and Willie Colon at right tackle over the last two years.

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  • Hiddenaway

    Good article Ted.  I might’ve pointed to the change in scheme (Arians calling 3-step drops, quick passes, power running plays and Lebeau switching to a 3-safety dime) as more of a reason for the success against the Titans more than the participants.  You missed a great performance by both Pit coordinators.  I know no one loves Arians, but have to give credit where credit is due. 

    • ted

      No doubt Arians called a great game, and I have never been one to call for his firing even after the 09 debacle when everyone (for some odd reason) wanted to fire Arians after we had our best and most balanced offense in years. Still, he is a frustrating OC. As good as he was against Tn, he was equally as bad at Indy when he would often leave some kind of tackle combo from Scott, Essex and Gilbert alone on the edges against Freeney and Mathis in an empty-back set. That nearly cost the Steelers a win against an inept offense and awful team. He keeps talking aobut advantages with matchups when you spread the field, but those were far worse matchups and he is lucky the Steelers’ $100 million QB was not lost for the year that night, or Arians would be looking for another job in Jan.

      Nevertheless, I loved the reliance on 3-step drops on Sunday and getting Starks back surely helped him out a great deal.

      • DJAnyReason

        As president of the Fire Bruce Arians Fan Club, HSS Chapter, from 2008-2009, I’ll explain:

        My general critique of BA had always been that he’s a good planner but a terrible adapter.  Throughout 2007 and 2008, the Steelers had a pretty consistent pattern of moving at will during the first drive-and-a-half, then stalling completely unless they went no huddle (with Ben calling plays) or the play broke down and Ben made some magic happen.  I also thought BA was a tad egotistic and touchy about things, which was evidenced when he reigned in the use of no huddle (I think this was in late ’09, though I could be wrong on the year) after the media started noting how well the offense did in no huddle as compared to when BA called in plays from the sidelines.
        In 2009, I also complained loudly that the Steelers lost a lot of their games in the early part of the season due to over-conservative and uninspired play calling, and a similar thing in the stretch-run of losses as well.  Basically, the game plan seemed to be to rely on eeking out close wins, instead of trying to put the other team away.  Compare offensive playcalling philosophy by game-score situation in the 2005 playoff run and 2009 regular season – in 2009 the Steelers seemed to want to sit on narrow leads and grind the clock, no matter how poorly that was working (see planning/adapting above), while I strongly felt the right thing to do, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor, was to not take your foot off the gas when you have them on the ropes.
        The other factor in the 2009 Fire BA sweepstakes had to do with the plethora of high-quality OC talent available in the 2009 offseason.  Unlike in 2008, when after the Super Bowl the options were between unproven and Mike Martz, there was a lot of inspiring potential OCs looking for work.  Given the replacements, it was easy to discount the late-season improvements BA seemed to be showing.

        2010 largely softened my feelings on BA.  I don’t think he’s a top-flight OC by any means, but I no longer fear his failings will single-handedly sink the Steelers’ chances like I once did.

        • Matt

          I still say fire BA.  He can’t train them to run a good screen (unless it’s a bubble screen).  He still calls screens to the TE, and when was the last time that worked?  Teams are selling out to blitz this year because they know BA likes to call longer routes despite the line suckage.  Don’t say Ben holds the ball too long, because while that’s a common theme, statistics on Football outsiders (i think) show that Ben has higher payoffs when he releases the ball within 3 seconds, and that he tends to do it in that time frame.  (League average is 2.8 seconds).  

          When Ben was a rookie, it was noted that he was one of the best QB’s to throw the slant route.  They showed how most of his TD’s were on slants to the slot.  We seemed to get away from doing as many as we did.  Although it does look like we’re increasing it now due to the line play.  

          I vote we call Redman Mini-Bus!  he really makes me think of Jerome Bettis.  Keeps his feet churning, likes contact, does not go down easy.  I agree Mendenhall is a good back, but he has been tap dancing this year, and I still don’t trust him to protect the ball.  He still looks like he carries it too high.  

          Jerome never was a burner either, and was bad at catching and blitz pickup.  Redman does those last 2 well, and he just makes plays.  We need both styles to be effective, but I’d rather see Mendenhall spell him for now, until he gets his head straight and hits the holes harder.

          • GlennW

            > Don’t say Ben holds the ball too long, because while that’s a common theme, statistics on Football outsiders (i think) show that Ben has higher payoffs when he releases the ball within 3 seconds, and that he tends to do it in that time frame.

            “Tends to”?  What does that amount to in terms of an actual percentage?  Because by my observation, Ben holds onto the ball more than 3 seconds plenty of the time whether by design or of his own decision, and that’s where both big plays and fumbles result (I can live with the sacks in that tradeoff, but not the fumbles, or at least the fumbles where Ben is continuing to try and make a play when he’s already wrapped up, as happened once each in the Ravens and Colts games).

            As for firing Arians, be careful what you wish for.  Now is not the time, certainly.

      • Hiddenaway

        The Indy game was weird.  Could it have had somethign to do with playing away and needing a silent snap count b/c of the noise?  Who knows.   I certainly miss the no huddle.  The Steelers have to be able to run the ball and work play action, that is the only way they will have success as an offense this year. 

  • Craigomcl

    Man, Wes Welker is smashing receiving records and still isn’t a top 5 wideout?

    • Matt

      Meh.  I’ve always felt Wes Welker was a product of a system.  See Julian Edelman when he got hurt.

      N.E. System:  Spread em out, let the speedy outside guys take coverage, and hit Welker against a number 3 CB or Linebacker for easy yards.  Easy to do when Brady has all day to wait.

      • Craigomcl

         Easy to average 150 yards a game? (That’s on pace, at five games into the season, for over 2400 yards. He’s going to have to get injured to fall short of 1500 yards.) While leading all receivers in yards after catch by a huge margin, and leading the entire NFL in big plays?
         
        When Randy Moss was there in 2007, people said that he was drawing coverage deep and allowing Welker easy underneath coverage. Now that he’s gone, the Pats’ fastest receiver is either Chad Ochocinco or Deion Branch, and Welker is playing better than ever - people still say he’s just a system player.
         
        I hate the Pats as much as anybody and more than most, but Welker’s having the sort of season Mike Wallace dreamed about a couple months ago.

  • Tee Lewis

    Come on dude, give credit where its due. For the past 4 weeks people have been saying that the corners haven’t been tested or they haven’t faced an elite quarterback. While that may be true, there are only 5 QB’s that I would consider elite and its no need to say who they are. Some are elite, some are good, some are average and some suck, and its the same with any position on the field. These guys worked their butts off and became not only the strongest group on the defense, but also the league leaders in pass defense. 

    Also do you really think that the corners determine whether he plays off the ball or press coverage? Really? There are only a few players on the team that have the luxury of playing where they wish, a la Troy. there are only a few players on a few teams that have that liberty. So understand that these guys are doing what they are told and are playing in what’s called a defensive scheme that dictates how and where they play. 

    I know people have their opinions, but to nitpick after a win is petty. If you think you can do better, get an agent and try out.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sure there is some latitude about how close a CB plays. Probably something like “play off unless X or Y, but if Z then play off even if X or Y” but the CB has to judge whether X, Y, and Z based on what he reads pre-snap.

    • ted

      I am assuming that every team’s CBs are told when to play press or soft most the time. However, I have read that Tomlin and Horton (former Steelers’ DBs coach) told Ike that he could play press coverage whenever he desired to help build back his confidence following his 06 debacle, which ended with Cowher benching his best CB. This has mostly worked out for the Steelers as Ike – in my opinion – has played at a Pro-Bowl level most of the time since 07. However, I remember being at SB 43 when he lined up in man, press-coverage with no safety help late in the fourth quarter on Fitzgerald and I said “What the hell is he doing? That’s too risky at this point!” Unfortunately, I was right. Fortunately, though, Ben and Santonio saved the game on the ensuing drive.

      I cannot imagine, though, that the coaches would give Lewis the same latitude, and it made no sense to do so when he did it in the game with the Steelers holding a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter. The kid played great, though, and it looked like he thought he had safety help coming, so it may have not been his fault; but it also looked like he bit on a head fake and expected Williams to turn for an out-route.

      In contrast, I am sure they hae told McFadden to play soft, well, because he can get beaten deep by just about any NFL WR. That said, I remember after one game when Tomlin responded to a question by basically saying McFadden was not coached to  give up an 6-yard cushion and then retreat 5 more yards after the snap on a third-and-3.

  • Mike L

    Few teams have been outstanding on the road thru the first 3 weeks of the season. 17 games were won by the visiting team only 4 have been won by a team within 2 games won-loss differential.  So a 5-0 team defeating a 2-3 or even a 3-2 team should be expected.  If a 3-2 team defeats a 1-4 or 0-5 team it should be expected.  The 4 exceptions were wk 1 Bengals over Browns 27-17.  Bengals are 3-2 and the Browns are 2-2.  The Eagles defeated the Rams 31-13.  The Eagles are 1-4 and the Rams 0-4.  The Eagles should be better than 1-4 but they are not.  Wk 2 Dallas defeated SF 27-24 Dallas is 2-2 and SF is 4-1.  Wk 3 SF defeated Cinn 13-8.  SF is 4-1 and Cinn is 3-2.  So it would seem few teams are winning on the road (at least through 3 games) unless they are superior, with only rare exceptions. 

    Last year of the Steelers 7 road wins, 4 games were decided by 6 or less points.  mia 23-22 cinn 27-21 Buf 19-16 Balt 13-10.  I think everyone can remember Stevie Johnson dropping a wide open pass to help Pittsburgh win or Troy coming off the edge to swing the game in Balt. neither game had good play from the O-line.  Six games the Steelers dominated (winning by 14+ points)  4 were at home, two were on the road.  The Steelers defeated TB 38-13 and Clev 41-9 on the road.  The young TB team looked unprepared for the strong full strength Pittsburgh D.  Clev’s loss helped them get a high draft pick, not uncommon for teams with nothing to gain to phone in the last game.

    The shortened off-season has impacted all teams mostly on the road.  The Baltimore game showed the Steelers not ready to start the season.  The Seahawk game was a dominating home win.  Indianapolis was a close road win like Mia or Buf last year.  Houston reminded me of the loss in NO last year, the Steelers were dominated but kept the score close.  The win against Tenn reminded me of the win against Oakland (35-3) who finished 8-8 last year.  Should we expect a strong performance against Jacksonville, if anything young QBs struggle at Heinz Field against the Steel Curtain. 

    • ted

       Great stats. But that shortened off-season just cannot explain how bad the Steelers looked in all road games this year.  The final score of the Texans game was not the problem, but playing so poorly and being dominated in both trenches was concerning. However, if the shortened off-season really made that much of an impact, then we should not have such abysmal road performances as the season progresses, although we obviously will continue to be better at home than the road. Let’s hope your theory holds up, and it might.

      • Mike L

        Looking back at last season, the Steelers were terrible against the Saints on the road, much like the Texans game.  The o-line was dominated by the Bills and Kyle Williams.  Winning on the road requires a good matchup such as GB defeating Atlanta twice in less than a year or a strong running game.  The Steelers going on the road in 2005 had the strong running game.  Remember GB would not have been in the playoffs if the Giants punter would have kicked out of bounds against the Eagles.  They also were very fortunate to have good weather against the Bears.  I don’t expect the Steelers to dominate any road games except maybe Cinn (rookie QBs don’t fair well against Lebeau’s D), I hope they can do enough to win, like last season.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Eddie B’s column today discusses the OL having problems with crowd noise on the road so far this season.