So this is what it’s come to.
Two games into the 2013 season and the Pittsburgh Steelers have already put forth two unspeakably bad performances.
The good news: 14 games remain on the schedule and the AFC North, as well as the AFC in general, looks like a pile of failure. Everybody stinks (except Denver. Denver looks pretty good).
The bad news: The Steelers are not only a part of that pile of failure, they are actually somewhere near the bottom. I don’t know if this statement will prove to be true by the end of the season, but this Steelers team through two weeks looks like it might have top-five pick in the draft potential.
It just might be that bad. Given all of their success over the past two decades Steelers fans are conditioned to think that 8-8 is a bad season. This might be a bad season.
The Steelers have problems, and they are many.
1) Todd Haley stinks. I don’t mean to turn this into another Bruce Arians vs. Todd Haley tickle fight, but Bruce Arians on his worst day was never as bad as what I’ve seen from Todd Haley over his first 18 games in Pittsburgh. Maybe Bruce Arians wasn’t right for the Steelers, and maybe it was time for a change, but Todd Haley was not the change this team needed. In hindsight, we probably should have given up on this one when the Steelers opened the game by running behind a newly signed free agent center on three straight plays. That sequence was almost as maddening as the Week 1 sequence to open the second half when five of the first six plays involved Lerod Stephens-Howling touching the football (the other play involved him missing a block for a sack).
Amazingly, neither of those sequences were the dumbest thing to come out of Haley’s play sheet over the first two games. That distinction has to go to calling an end around to Jerricho Cotchery in the second quarter. That play actually happened. Try and let that sink in if you can. The Steelers ran an end around to JERRICHO COTCHERY. Why that play is in the playbook, I have no idea. Why it is called in a real, meanginful game is an even better question. The only logical explanation for calling it is the assumption that Cincinnati would never in a million years think a team is dumb enough to run an end around to Jerricho Cotchery and that it might catch them off guard. Other than that, I have nothing.
There is not a skill position player on the roster that should get the ball on such a play less than Jerricho Cotchery. I’m not kidding, it would have made more sense to hand the ball off to David Paulson on that play.
Hell, as long as you’re giving it to Cotchery, why not run an end around (or perhaps even a bubble screen) to all-everything lineman Kelvin Beachum? Seems just as logical.
The Week 2 game plan seemed to be more of the same from what we saw in Week 1: Bubble screens, a lot of passes to Cotchery (he was targeted on nine passes, including five in the first half … none of which were caught) and no real sense of an actual game plan. A monkey sitting at a random play generating machine might have pieced together a more sensible game plan.
But for as bad as Todd Haley is, he is not the only problem facing the Steelers. Sadly, he may not even be the biggest problem.
2) The Steelers lack playmakers and depth: And for this, Kevin Colbert and the Steelers front office needs to face some blame. The Steelers have whiffed on way too many high draft picks over the past three years where they’ve either picked players that are just OK, or players that are simply not very good.
The Steelers opened Monday’s game with a starting center they just signed off the street less than a week ago. A middle linebacker that was an insurance adjustor last season. A starting running back they traded for at the end of training camp. David Paulson starting at tight end. I understand injuries happen, and there’s even been some bad luck in there with the drafting due to the injuries to Le’Veon Bell and Sean Spence. But how does a team go into the regular season and have Kion Wilson as its top backup at inside linebacker? And only one offensive lineman that they trust to back anybody up?
Even worse than the depth is growing concern that maybe the starters aren’t that good, and that again goes back to the draft and several personnel decisions. Who is going to make the big play on offense? Or even defense, for that matter?
3) Ben Roethlisberger has to be perfect: And so far, he has not been perfect. Far from it, actually. Roethlisberger has always been the driving force behind everything the Steelers do, but the offense has now reached the point where it is almost all entirely on his shoulders as the Steelers have not only given him a terrible offensive game plan to work with, but have also surrounded him with a lackluster group of players.
I’ve thought recent years the Steelers offensive line has been better than it’s been given credit for being. This year’s group, even before Maurkice Pouncey went down, might be every bit as bad as it’s talked about being. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams have provided little on the outside (second round draft picks), while David DeCastro hasn’t yet settled in as a dominant guard.
The skill positions players have taken a significant drop in quality and quantity. Antonio Brown has the big money, but he’s yet to consistently prove that he is a big-play receiver. He has talent, but the splash plays are never there. He doesn’t score touchdowns, he never seems to be open down field, and ever since his breakout year in 2011 (really, his only big year to date in the NFL) he has been rather pedestrian in every way.
Is that a result of the offense that seems content to throw bubble screen after bubble screen with the occasional Isaac Redman dive into the line thrown in? Or is Brown just not as good as the Steelers thought?
Emmanuel Sanders is frustrating because he’s so hit-and-miss. He’ll have games like Week 1 where he can’t catch anything, and then he makes a play like he did late in the second quarter on Monday to set up the Steelers’ only touchdown.
Through two games the Steelers have already targeted Cotchery on 16 passes (and one ill-fated end around) which is probably about 12 or 13 too many given given Cotchery’s current ability. Whether this is due to a flawed game plan that desires to get him the ball or the inability of the other receivers to consistently get open is up for debate, but it’s still a problem.
Markus Wheaton seems to have the type of speed and ability to stretch the field the Steelers are missing due to the loss of Mike Wallace (and holy shit is that a big loss) but he has hardly touched the field through two games. He was on the field for seven offensive snaps in Week 1 but was never targeted on a pass. He played even less on Monday. The only time his name was called was when the Steelers asked him to rush a punt with two minutes to play in the fourth quarter. He can’t possibly be worse than Cotchery at the point. And even if you don’t trust him to run all of the routes, can’t you at least give HIM the ball on the end arounds you’re running to your slowest wide receiver?
4) No turnovers from the defense. Again: And this time, no sacks either. I wrote about the Steelers defense and its lack of turnovers earlier this week, and while I agree that some of that comes down to luck, when a team goes 34 games with the same problem it starts to become more about talent and skill than just simply writing it off as bad luck. The Steelers defense does enough at this point to keep them in the game and not allow things to get out of hand, but sooner or later they have to start contributing some splash plays of their own. Force a fumble. Intercept a pass. String a couple of sacks together. Something. Anything.
This is probably a lot of doom-and-gloom for Week 2 of the NFL season, but is it really unwarranted? The Steelers have looked about as bad as a team can look, and it’s hard to imagine where the improvement is going to come from.
Heath Miller is great, but he’s not THAT great that his return to the lineup is going to turn this ship around.