We’re already a quarter of the way through the 2013 NFL season (where the hell did that go?) and the Pittsburgh Steelers are still searching for their first win.
When your team is 0-4 it probably should not be much of a surprise that it has spent most of the season playing from behind. The only leads the Steelers have had this season have been their early 2-0 lead against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1 when Darius Reynaud fudged up the opening kickoff, and their 3-0 lead against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2.
Both leads were short lived. When the Steelers had opportunities to build on them, and perhaps even change the course of each game, the Steelers instead turned the football over each time and never saw the lead again. Isaac Redman fumbled inside the 10 on the ensuing drive after the Reynaud safety against the Titans, while David Paulson failed to protect the ball on a big gain as the Steelers attempted to build on their early lead in Cincinnati.
In total, the Steelers offense has been on the field for just 33 snaps with the lead. Two of them resulted in turnovers.
Over the past two weeks the offense has started to show signs of life and has not only put up some impressive yardage totals, but also managed to score 50 points. That has (and rightfully so I might add) started to put some of the blame on the defense, especially when it comes to the Week 4 loss to the Minnesota Vikings which featured one of the worst tackling displays we’ve ever seen from the Steelers.
Here’s my problem with the offense in all of this, even with the recent improvements: Almost all of those yards and points have come well after the Steelers have already fallen into two and three score deficits. Some of that is result of poor defense, and some of it is the result of the offenses inability to protect the football.
Against Chicago, the Steelers didn’t start to move the ball and score until they were already down 24-3. A lot of the damage against Minnesota came in the second half when the Vikings had built a 17-point lead.
Why is this a concern? Because when the game is that lopsided, especially as it gets later in the game, teams tend to change the way they play. Teams that are trailing ramp it up and become more aggressive while teams that are ahead tend to play a little softer. (In hockey we refer to this as “score effects,” and there are several metrics that take them into account and try to adjust for the change in playing style as teams try to protect a lead or furiously try to rally — the true talent isn’t always on display and teams aren’t necessarily playing within their “system.”)
For many years the Steelers were on the opposite side of this as they would build up big leads and allow other teams to throw for a lot of garbage time yards in between the 20s and then tighten things back up when they reached the red zone, making the pass defense look a little worse than it actually was.
I went through the first four games and looked at the play-by-play sheets to see how the Steelers offense has performed based on the game situation. The numbers are interesting.
Total plays: 9
Total yards gained: 2
Yards per play:
With the score tied the Steelers have dialed up four passing plays and lost a total of 18 yards on said plays. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked on two of the plays (a total of 17 yards), completed one pass for minus-1 yard, and thrown one incomplete pass. I’ll repeat that: The Steelers do not have a positive passing play in a game this season with the score tied.
The Steelers have gained 20 yards on five rushing plays, with 14 of them coming on a third-and-17 run by Felix Jones. That play at least helped set up a Shaun Suisham field goal to give the Steelers a 3-0 lead early in the game against Cincinnati.
Score within 7 points (winning by 7 or less or losing by 7 or less)
Total plays: 104
Total yards gained: 476
Yards per play: 4.5
A little better in terms of yards gained, but still bad. And everything else is still ugly. No touchdowns, a lot of turnovers, and Roethlisberger has been sacked four times on 71 drop backs. He’s completed 38 of 67 passes and averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt.
The Running backs are averaging 2.2 yards per carry on 33 carries and fumbled three times.
In short, when the Steelers offense has been on the field with a lead, a chance to take the lead, in a tie, or a chance to tie the game they have been completely incompetent. The offensive line can’t pass block, they can’t run block, the skill position players can’t protect the football, they can’t move the ball, and they can’t score.
Losing by 10 or more points
Total plays: 136
Total yards gained: 945
Yards per play: 6.9
And this is where the Steelers offensive comes alive. Is it the result of the offense having to open things up and turn the game over to Roethlisberger? Opposing defenses adjusting their style of play and not being as aggressive in an effort to prevent the big play? Perhaps a combination of both? This is where the Steelers have done most of their damage offensively, scoring seven of their eight touchdowns on the season and averaging nearly seven yards per play. Roethlisberger has averaged more than eight yards per pass in these situations while the running backs see their yards per carry go up to 3.8 (still not good, but better than when the score is close).
The Steelers have 23 passing plays this season of 20 yards or more. Sixteen of them have come in situations where they’ve been trailing by more than 10 points.
The offense didn’t start moving the ball and putting up points in Week 3 until they were already down by 21 points. At that point in the second quarter their win probability (according to Pro-Football-Reference) was 2 percent. It was a similar story in Week 4 against the Vikings in the second half when they faced deficits of 20-10, 27-17 and 34-17. Their only touchdown in Week 1 was the very definition of a “garbage time touchdown.”
There are a lot of problems with this team right and no quick fixes on the horizon for 2013. The defense is a shell of its former self and deserving of plenty of blame while the offense gives the football away like nobody else in the league. It takes a total team effort to lose the first four games of the season (and none of your past 11 going back to last season).
But until the offense starts doing something when the game is still within reach I’m having a hard time finding any optimism about the direction of that unit.