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.