Texans 17, Steelers 10: Pass Blocking Is Not Optional, and Some Concerning Numbers

I’m not at all surprised the Steelers are 2-2 at the one quarter mark of the season, so I don’t find the actual record to be that big of a deal. In fact, when the schedule came out I had the Week 1 game in Baltimore, as well as Sunday’s game in Houston, as games that could be penciled in as losses. After a potential 2-2 start I figured the Steelers would close out the season on a 9-3 or 10-2 run to win the division.

And that’s still possible. But they’re going to have to play a lot better than this.

What I didn’t expect at this point is for the Steelers to look completely awful in three of the first four games, with the only impressive showing coming against a team that is playing for the right to pick Andrew Luck next April. And don’t let today’s reasonable seven-point margin take away from how awful the Steelers played. This was a team that was given way more opportunities than it deserved. Every time they screwed up, and every time Houston made a play (like blocking a field goal at the end of the half and running it back for a touchdown, only to have some block Shuan Suisham in the back… or turning a pick-six into a roughing passer penalty… or any of the other 46 penalties Houston had on its 19-play opening drive of the game) there was a flag or something crazy to make it go away and give them mulligan after mulligan.

The record doesn’t really concern me, but the way they’ve reached it does.

1) When it comes to offensive line play the past two games have looked like that 2008 Week 3 game in Philadelphia. Jail. Break. I’m not sure you should expect anything different with an offensive line that includes Trai Essex starting at left tackle (or Jonathan Scott a week ago) and a rookie second-round pick starting at right tackle, not to mention the revolving door of interchangeable parts at the two guard spots.

Not even center Maurkice Pouncey is immune from criticism in this game, as he was guilty of a personal foul penalty late in the first half, negating a 14-yard run by Mewelde Moore that would have set the Steelers up first-and-goal at the four. Instead, they were pushed back to the 20, failed to move the ball, and had to settle for a field goal attempt that was blocked. Underrated play in this game that was a potential game-changer.

Ben Roethlisberger took a beating — again — and left the stadium on crutches and his foot in a protective boot.

Charlie Batch might refuse to go on the field next week if he has to start. And I wouldn’t blame him.

2) JJ mentioned it last week, but if the defense doesn’t stop the run, then the whole thing just doesn’t work. In years past it never mattered who the running back was, nobody ran on the Steelers. This year, it still doesn’t matter who the running back is, because everybody is running all over them.

Consider this comparison:

– 2011 through four games: opponents rushed 100 times for 478 yards (4.7 yards per carry).
– 2010 through four games: opponents rushed 95 times for 249 yards (2.6 yards per carry).

Nobody saw that coming. And that pretty much tells the story.

In 2011 the primary backs against them were Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, Joseph Addai and Arian Foster.
In 2010 the primary backs against them were Michael Turner, Chris Johnson, Legarrette Blount and Ray Rice.

If the Steelers aren’t stopping the run, they’re not forcing teams into second-and-long and third-and-long situations, or obvious passing situations, and even when they are, the pass rush has been invisible and they’ve forced just one turnover.

Again, through four games:

– In 2011 the Steelers have forced one turnover through four games and have seven sacks in 126 opposing drop backs (one sack every 18 drop backs).
– In 2010 the Steelers forced 12 turnovers through four games and had 11 sacks in 164 opposing drop backs (one sack every 14 drop backs).

Five of those sacks this year were against Seattle, while the turnover came against Curtis Painter.

One more:

– Vince Wilfork, a 370-something defensive tackle for the Patriots: two interceptions this year.
– The Pittsburgh Steelers entire defense: zero interceptions this year.

Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Farrior have been great Steelers for a long time, but so far they have looked like everything Warren Sapp accused the Steelers defense of being. And as a fan you hate to see that. And it’s also hurting the team. It’s time for more Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Steve McClendon up front, and, well, I’m not sure what you do with Farrior, because Larry Foote isn’t a much better option at this point.

It’s also time for LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons to start picking it up.

3) If you suggest the Steelers struggles, particularly those of Roethlisberger, are because he got married this summer (and believe me, people are saying this) I don’t have anything to say to you.

4) All of that said, the Steelers still play in the AFC North, and the AFC North still has Cleveland and Cincinnati, and a Baltimore team that had its quarterback go two complete quarters without completing a pass on Sunday night (allow me to say this: that Jets-Ravens game was the worst quarterback play I have ever seen in the NFL between two starting quarterbacks).

I’m not saying the Steelers can’t — or won’t — turn this thing around and run off nine or 10 wins the rest of the way, but there’s been some pretty concerning things through the first four games. Some of them (the offensive line) we expected. Others (the run defense) we did not. As Van Hagar would say, it’s time to turn this thing around. Right now.

(Yes, I’m aware of how awful that last line was, but I love that video and was looking for an excuse to play it. So there.)

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  • Mike L

    I would like to see a breakdown of how teams are running on the Steelers.  Is it out of their base offense, 3 wide , 4 wide , etc.  It is interesting the run defense is the hot topic going into the Titans game because last year it seemed Chris Johnson wanted to be anywhere but on the field against the Steelers D and now he might be licking his chops.  A JJ like (o-line) breakdown of the run D would be high on every fans list.

    • Joel Miller

      I was considering rewatching some of the game to see a few things like that.  I have a few guesses:  Aaron Smith not commanding a double team, Casey Hampton not dealing with “legal” chop blocks well(and calling attention to it…stupid thing to do IMO), and a rarity for the Steelers…some people out of position.  To my eye, Farrior has not been good particularly in the run game, but it might just be him having to deal with a blocker that would get chewed up in seasons past.  Woodley also was the primary culprit in that 42yd TD.  He wasn’t patrolling the line and ended up too far up field and then took Polamalu out of the tackle when he entered the play late.

    • David

      Mike L,

      What I’ve seen is a bunch of yds on sweeps and counters. Those seem to work the best when they chop block Casey.

  • DJAnyReason

    The Steelers D played well today – not 2008 or even 2010 well, but still well.  We allowed 17 points and 318 yards – both season lows for the Texans.

    The problem was, obviously, the O-Line.  But what team is going to have a good O-Line when three of its starting five are injured? Especially when one of the two left is the clear weak link on the line?

    None of this is any sort of solution, but things aren’t as bad as they seem.  Our pash rush isn’t getting home, and Aaron Smith looks done, but we still have a good defense.  The problem is we’re running Maurkice and the 2nd-stringers on our o-line right now, but that’s just bad luck with where the injuries landed.

    • Hiddenaway

      I think Adam’s point is that hte problem is not just the Oline, it’s a defense that can’t stop the run, get a pass rush, or create any turnovers.  Yes, the Texans only scored 17, but the score should have been much more lopsided than it was.  As James Harrison said, “Right now, we suck”

      • DJAnyReason

        Should it have been more? The Texans moved on their scoring drives, but that’s about it.  We forced 3-and-outs three or four times.  All the Texans stupid penalties came when on defense.  We allowed the fewest points and yards of any Texans opponent all season.

        Our defense has only really had one bad performance (week 1).  They’re not playing as well as they did last year, but they were the best defense in the league last year.  This year, we’re merely a good-to-very-good defense, instead of a great defense.

        Any time you lose 17-10, especially against a high-powered offense like the Texans, the defense is not your concern.

        • GlennW

          The scoring and yardage are deceiving.  When 180 yards come on the ground at over 5 yards a pop, the game is “shortened”, the number of possessions is lessened and the scoring and yardage statistics are more modest.  And the pass defense wasn’t anything to write home about either.  I guarantee you that this defensive effort rates as “lousy” by DVOA or the like.  Still, I agree that the defense is not a primary concern, and I’m not yet ready to panic over that situation.

          As for the offense, yeah, I’m panicking.  Is anybody still in denial about this “mediocre O-line is a feature not a bug” stuff (yes, I know that was mostly a joke)?  I think most of us have felt that there is an expiration date on the days that Ben’s physicality could just cover for all ills, and that date appears to be upon us.

  • Cols714

    The thing about the OL is that I think the Steelers had a plan to start Scott who would eventually give way to Gilbert. Then Colon got injured and that plan went to crap.

    I think that they should just put Gilbert out at LT. If he’s the future, start him now, he can’t be any worse than what we’ve got playing there.

    Pouncey has looked pretty average this year.

  • https://plus.google.com/100857546184516732260/posts Dr Obvious

    What happened to Sylvester?  He looked like a stud in the making last year, and I don’t think I’ve heard his name much this year.

    • Alleghenys

      I agree, at the risk of being the fan who always clamors for the third-string QB. Sylvester has looked very good on special teams and on the preseason defense, and I was surprised to see Foote get PT ahead of him. If the overall defense doesn’t improve, LeBeau will have to consider some changes, and I would hope Sylvester would be part of that conversation.

      • https://plus.google.com/100857546184516732260/posts Dr Obvious

        I think there’s a lot of reason to be ‘high’ on Sylvester, based on last year.  There’s a blueprint for $GOOD_STEELERS_LB, and he was following it last year.  I don’t generally second guess the coaching, just curious.  (I find second guessing useless unless it can be measured, and player evaluation rarely can be)

  • https://plus.google.com/100857546184516732260/posts Dr Obvious

    I thought that, for a rookie, Gilbert didn’t look nearly as bad as the rest of the line.  Which isn’t to say good, but he got picked on my Mario for a lot of the game and didn’t completely soil his pants. Looking forward to JJ’s oline recap

  • DJAnyReason

    Here’s a thing that’s been bugging me around draft time the last few years:

    There were 7 Colbert-Cowher drafts, and there have been 5 Colbert-Tomlin drafts so far.  In the C-C drafts, the Steelers seemed to be much more aggressive in terms of making trades to get the guys they want:

    C-C
    2001: Trade down 1st round (Snack), Trade up 2nd round (Kendrell Bell)
    2003: Trade up 1st round (Troy)
    2004: Trade down 2nd round (Colclough)
    2006: Trade up 1st round (Santonio), trade down 2nd round (Tony Smith, Willie Reed)

    C-T
    2007: Trade up 4th round (Sepulveda)
    2008: Trade down 4th round (Hills, Mundy)
    2009: Trade down 2nd round (Urbik, Wallace)

    So, in 7 C-C drafts, we have trading up in the 1st 2 rounds four times, and one small 1st round trade down to acquire picks and still get the guy we want – we also have one 2nd round trade-down, either to acquire picks lost in the Santonio trade, or because we didn’t like the board at that position.

    In 5 C-T drafts, we have never traded up in the first 2 rounds.  We’ve traded down from the 2nd once, after not liking the board where we were (I vividly remember losing out on both Mack and Wood in the 1st round and ending up with Ziggy, then watching Unger go ahead of us in the 2nd – all three were drafted by teams trading up for the player), and trading up once in the 4th for Robo and trading down once in the 4th.

    In the 5-CT drafts, we’ve selected in the first three rounds:
    2 DE
    3 OLB
    1 ILB
    2 CB
    1 C
    1 G
    1 T
    1 RB
    3 WR
    1 TE

    3 Wideouts. 3 OLB (4 if you consider that when they drafted Juan they intended him to be an OLB, then changed course when they picked Woodley). A running back.  2 DEs but no NT.

    Every year people talk about how we should take BPA.  Well, this current team is what happens when you blindly go BPA.  We’re 4 deep at WR, but have a patchwork OL even when healthy.  We have a replacement for both Aaron Smith and Brett Kiesel already, but no NT in the wings for Snack.

    The C-C would move around to address need at positions of value.  I don’t know why the shift to Tomlin has stopped that from happening, but its not been a good thing for the franchise.

    • GlennW

      I suspect that the difference between Colbert’s draft-trade decisions with Cowher versus Tomlin is just coincidence (we’re talking small samples here), but nonetheless you raise a good point about not being more flexible in recent drafts, for whatever reason.  Also, I think by this point Cowher may have been kicking and screaming about the condition of the O-line specifically (independent of trading up or down, or trading period), while Tomlin may have been more laissez-faire about that situation– we’ll get by as we always have, etc.

      • Cols714

        This sounds about right.

        In Tomlin and Colbert’s defense, it seems like the plan at the beginning of the season was to have Colon man RT (he looked good over there) and Gilbert eventually take the LT position sometime either this year or next. That was torpedoed by the Colon and Scott injuries.

        I think biggest mistake wasn’t in the draft, but in cutting Max Starks and assuming that the new and improved Jon Scott we saw at the end of last year could maintain his play this year and maybe not be as good as Starks but at least be OK and for much less money.

        This seems like a tremendous blunder.

        Also, I know we focus on the tackles, but the interior OL, including Pouncey, was atrocious yesterday.

  • http://ThePublicProfessor.com The Public Professor

    It’s time to stop pretending this is a playoff team.  This is an 8-8 team.  They have one of, if not THE worst O Line in the league, and a very good D that’s no longer great.  If everything goes their way, maybe they get a wild card and then bounced in the first round.

    That’s where we’re at in2011

    • Cols714

      Whatever.
      They were a playoff team last year with an awful OL. They can still be a playoff team this year and not get “bounced” in the first round.

      Right now they don’t look good. However, it’s only been 4 games so far and they can improve. Why does every loss bring out the woe is our team Steelers fans?

      They’ve looked pretty awful. It does not mean that the season is over and they won’t be able to make the playoffs. Have some faith.

    • David

      I will disagree to a point. The AFCN is the Raisin’s to take, and we can very conceivably be a WC. Something like 10-6 is not out of the question.

      But what scares me is that stretch in 2009 where we lost to very bad teams (KC, OAK, etc.).

      But I agree whole-heartedly that our O-line is worse than any I can remember in the 2000′s and our D is underachieving, especially Woodley, Smith, and Potsie.

  • David