Our Pets Heads Are Falling Off

“I’ve had it with this dump.”

As you no doubt already know the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-3 and have lost what should have been very winnable road games against two of the worst teams in the NFL this season — a 34-31 loss to the Raiders in Week 2 and then Thursday’s 26-23 loss in Tennessee. They haven’t won a game away from Heinz Field since Week 17 of last season against the Cleveland Browns, a road losing streak that has now been extended to four games. All of them frustrating in their own way.

A lot of things went wrong on Thursday night. Injuries (a problem that started the week before against Philadelphia), a bad turnover near the end of the first half, dropped passes, a blocked punt, a defense that can’t get off the field on third down or keep a team from scoring more than 10 points in the fourth quarter, and some questionable decision making by the coaching staff on the final offensive drive of the game. 

So let’s begin with that last one.

With about five minutes left in the game, just as the Steelers were starting that final offensive drive of the night, I told everyone sitting in the room with me and texted my brother that if the Steelers defense has to step on the field again they will not win the game.

They needed another series like the end of the Eagles game four days earlier: a methodical, clock-eating drive that ate up the remainder of the game and concluded with a chip shot field goal attempt as time expired. This is where we are with the Steelers defense, especially when it’s as banged up (and ineffective) as it currently is. Even if you give whatever is left of Matt Hasselbeck’s career a minute of clock time you’re playing with fire and risking defeat.

Everything was going as planned until the Steelers made it down to the Tennessee 35 and were faced with a second-and-six.

To this point in the drive the Steelers put the game on the shoulders of their $100 million franchise quarterback with five of the first six plays being designed passes (on one of those plays Roethlisberger scrambled for 14 yards). Given that the Steelers were without running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman at that point this was a smart decision (hell, even if those guys were available it would have been a smart decision). For reasons that only coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley know the Steelers decided on second-and-seven from the 35 that they would hand the ball off to fifth-string running back Baron Batch to run between the tackles. Not allow Roethlisberger to throw and look for Mike Wallace, or Antonio Brown, or Emmanuel Sanders, or Heath Miller, their best and highest paid players. They were going to run it to their fifth-string back. He was stuffed in the backfield setting up a third-and-long.

UPDATE: Apparently that run call was a “check with me” by Ben Roethlisberger at the line, which might be the first time in recorded history Roethlisberger checked to a run. So I guess if I have a criticism there it’s more on Ben than Tomlin/Haley.

If the Steelers were already in comfortable field goal range this play call would have been easier for me to accept. But at this point you’re looking at a 50-plus yard field goal with a less-than-reliable kicker. Nothing was guaranteed at that point. On third-and-long Roethlisberger had to scramble around to avoid the rush and missed his mark setting up a fourth-and-long, which brings us to questionable decision No. 2 — the decision to run Shaun Suisham out there to kick a 54-yard field goal.

In Week 2 Tomlin made one of the most aggressive (and controversial) play calls of his career in Pittsburgh when he went for it on fourth-and-one inside his own 30 in a tie game late in the fourth quarter. It was also the right call. The Steelers didn’t score on the drive and ended up losing the game anyway, but the thought process was sound. It was aggressive and it was bold, and it was correct. Most coaches would have punted and said, “OK, we’ll stop them and get the ball back.”

On Thursday he did the exact opposite and went conservative. And conventional. Even though Suisham had already hit one 50-plus yard field goal earlier in the game (I wanted the Steelers to go for it on that drive as well, so I’m reacting to the decision itself, not the result) there isn’t a kicker in the NFL that should be trusted to consistently hit 50-plus yard field goals.

You got lucky once. Don’t press your luck in that situation. The Steelers did, and they got whammy’d.

Some facts to consider:

- Teams that go for it on fourth-and-seven from outside of the 20-yard line convert, on average, 43 percent of the attempts.
- Shaun Suisham entering Thursday night was 3-for-9 (33 percent) in his career on kicks of 50-yards or more, and only 66 percent on kicks of more than 40 yards.
- The simple percentages give a slight edge to going for it (though it is very close). Add in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is better than the average quarterback, the Titans defense is worse than the average defense, and Shaun Suisham is worse than the average kicker, and it’s even easier for me to scream “GO FOR IT.”

If the options right now are trust Ben Roethlisberger, Shaun Suisham, or the Steelers defense I’m going with the first one every single time.

Even if Suisham makes the kick (he had the accuracy but lacked the distance, having it fall about one yard short of the goal post) Tennessee still had a minute and all three timeouts to generate a scoring drive against the Steelers defense. Do you have faith they would have stopped them? If they would have it would have been the first time they stopped a team in that situation all season.

Punting shouldn’t have been an option in that situation either because you’re still asking the defense to make a stop it shouldn’t have been trusted to make given their performance to date. Hell, all Tennessee needed to do was take a couple of shots deep at Ike Taylor’s side of the field and wait for him to grab hold of Kenny Britt. That was Tennessee’s best offensive play of the night, really. Britt couldn’t catch anything that went his direction, and even when he did he still made it look difficult (like the game-tying touchdown catch he nearly dropped in the end zone). Despite this, the Titans STILL threw in his direction all night which seems to be a testament to how awful Taylor was on Thursday night. When the Titans weren’t catching it, they were still advancing the ball on penalties.

Taylor is simply playing like what he is: one of the oldest starting cornerbacks in the NFL. And it gets worse on Sunday night when he gets to try and cover A.J. Green.

Injuries no doubt played some role in Thursday’s loss as it’s almost impossible to replace LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu (though, as I’ve already argued on this site you shouldn’t be waiting for a healthy Polamalu to walk through that door at any point in the near future — or ever again). But that still doesn’t excuse guys like Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer having their way with the defense, and it’s hard to pinpoint any one problem.

Because it’s a lot of things.

The defensive line is clearly not what it used to be. Brett Keisel is at the end of his career and Casey Hampton is well past the end of his. Ziggy Hood hasn’t really turned into the player we expected and Steve McClendon and Cameron Heyward can’t seem to get on the field, which is either a bad sign in their development or the coaching staff not being willing to trust young unknowns over proven veterans. The pass rush isn’t there and they’re still not creating turnovers because the cornerbacks still aren’t great.

Do you know who the last Steelers cornerback was to record an interception?

It was William Gay in Week 13 of last season against the Browns when he picked off a concussed Colt McCoy in the end zone. That’s nine games (including playoffs).

There’s also that little third down problem that was an issue on Thursday as the Titans converted nine of their 16 attempts. After Thursday the Steelers are allowing opponents to convert nearly 50 percent of their third down attempts, 31st in the NFL.

The good news for the Steelers is that even though they’re 2-3 the AFC, as a group, is pretty mediocre and it’s possible that nine wins could earn a playoff spot.

They still have a franchise quarterback and playmakers all over their offense. And they’re going to have to lean on them if they have any hope of making the playoffs.

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  • Sarah

    Hmm – interesting Adam – so you felt more confident that Ben converts 4th and 7, than that the D could make a stop with hopefully at worst an 80-yard field (and maybe more) after a punt…?
    I guess I cannot argue – though at the time I was yelling for a punt and hopefully a D-stop and just play for OT…..
    But – I also cannot argue that the D and esp Taylor is so atrocious right now that Hasselback could’ve started at his own 2 yrd line and maybe gotten the winning FG anyway.

  • Sarah

    And I absolutely had ZERO confidence the D could make a stop on the very shortened field Tomlin’s decision gave them. Gave over when Suisham was short.

  • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

    From my feeble vantage point, whenever I see Ben check down, I usually yell to whomever is within earshot that he’s calling out a running play. My next guesses are either a quick slant or a quick toss toward the sideline. Of course, after my listener nods with sage approval, Ben does something else entirely.

    Also, as I noted in another post, I’m not pushing all my panic buttons yet, but I have begun to wonder if the 3-4 defense no longer works well against the modern NFL passing attack. The 3-4 seems more susceptible to being pecked to death than a 4-3 defense (or that 4-whatever they’re playing these days).

    You need ultra-athletes to make the 3-4 work well, and I just don’t see many of those guys on this team. I’m not saying the Steelers should switch to the 4-3, at least right away, but I no longer think it would be sacrilegious to consider it.

  • David

    On D, our problem is our D-line. They just aren’t getting any push. And it ain’t gettin’ no better now that Alameda is locked up or will be.
    So no push, no freeing up blockers for our LBs, and our CBs are getting torched.
    And if that last run was a check down by Ben, then he needs to be shot.

  • djanyreason

    While I think there’s several quibbleable whinges here, I’d like to focus on just the “CB intcerceptions” canard:

    Who cares whether its a cornerback, safety, linebacker, or whoever making an interception? Does it not count unless a CB makes the pick? Do we get extra yards or points if a CB makes the pick?

    In the 8 complete seasons in the Polamalu era (i.e., since 2004), Steelers CB’s have intercepted between 5 and 7 passes every year but two (2 in 2009, 4 in 2010), and both 7′s came when Cowher was still HC. Steelers CBs have only accounted for more than 36.8% of team INTs twice (54.5% in 2007, 45.5% in 2011). It seems entirely plausible that the Steelers defensive scheme isn’t predicated on setting up CBs to make picks.

  • Cols714

    I guess it’s going to goodbye to our NT of the future. Oh well 4th round pick.

    • Rob D

      Yep. If he gets a felony conviction (as he should) , he’s toast. Glad he didn’t kill anyone on his booze fueled rampage. He seemed like a real steal in the 4th too..Shame on him.

  • Rob D

    Baltimore fans are having the same crisis of confidence with regard to THEIR D. And now they have even more injuries to deal with with the loss of Ray Ray (I’m sick of him too..he’s not really a big factor in most games but I get the whole emotional leader thing) and more importantly Lardarius Webb who is rapidly becoming one of the best CB’s in football. They are getting run on like never before. I think with a little more production from Ben and Co., we can be in a position to win the division this year. Not that we are a great team or anythhing,,it’s just that the division is filled with mediocre teams with major weaknesses in different areas. I’m starting to come around to the oft stated meme that the AFC is in serious decline and that most of the truly “very good to elite teams” reside in the NFC. Giants, 49ers, Seahawks, Falcons, Bears (!!), Packers..

    We COULD win the division, but we’d have to get healthier (a fool’s hope the last 3 seasons), get a better ST’s contribution, our coaching staff would have to get smarter and more savvy..(Possible, I guess), and many of the promising guys we’ve drafted would have to take a full step forward. I can’t decide if they will slide to under .500 this year or not. But I can’t figure out the Patriots or the Green Bay Packers either…lol

  • Cols714

    Do you know what I miss more than great defense? I miss unstoppable Ben. Right now we have really good Ben, but he misses some throws that I don’t remember him missing before.

    I would like to see unstoppable Ben next game.

    • http://www.facebook.com/randy.steele.583 Randy Steele

      I agree, Cols. All the noise and drama about the defense in general and the offensive line in particular has turned our attention away from the fact that Ben’s passes have not always been especially sharp this year. Not that we have the right to expect him to be perfect, but we’ve seen him make several questionable throws.

      And Dale Lolley (among others) makes a good point about not giving up on the Steelers’ chances this year. He notes:

      “Look at it this way, if the Steelers score one more touchdown per game, rather than kick a field goal, they are 4-1 right now rather than 2-3.
      “That’s a play here or there. It’s that close.”

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    There was a This American Life about a guy who won over $100k by figuring out that the pattern on Press Your Luck wasn’t random. Coincidentally, it was episode 412: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/412/transcript

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I’d like to see the split of Ben’s stats on third down vs. the other downs. Given how good he’s been on third, I suspect his numbers aren’t great on the other downs.

    I’m probably more pessimistic this early in the season than I have been since the Kent Graham days, mainly due to injuries. Looking at the glass as a quarter full, though, this seems to be the best season in a long time to get off to a slow start. The AFC is pretty mediocre: every team in the East is 3-3, and only 3 teams in the conference have a better record (assuming the Chargers hold on tonight).

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      Make that two teams in the AFC above .500, as the Chargers blew a 24-0 lead.

      • Sarah

        Good Lord – I went to bed at halftime, it was 24-0. WTH??
        Apparently SD has been outscored 45-0 the last 2 second halves.
        PErhaps we should take a certain sort of comfort from that.
        Sort of. Oy.

        • Rob D

          There’s a lot of bad football being played and a lot of inconsistencies in the games from both players and coaches. If the STeelers can turn their game around and up the intensity a notch or 2 they have a shot to win the division. I really think the Ravens are going to swoon …they’ve gotten every break possible in their wins and its time for payback. We can start by beating the Bengals.