Playing from behind is no way to win

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.

Tie Game

Total plays: 9
Total yards gained: 2
Yards per play:
Touchdowns: 0
Turnovers: 0

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
Touchdowns: 1
Turnovers: 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
Touchdowns: 7
Turnovers: 6

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.

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  • bengt

    Anybody interested in a ‘view from 122′, or would the pain be too big?

    • Steve

      Hard to see how things could be much more painful right now. Unless one is a Giants fan.
      Bring on the view from 122.

    • ryan

      Agreed. Bring it on. Misery loves company.

    • bengt

      So, this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to get closer to a Steelers game than 3000 miles. I therefore decided to treat the money aspect as an afterthought (our next car won’t have aluminum rims) and bought a ticket on StubHub for block 122, row 11. The first 10 rows were covered (probably for security reasons) so it turned out that I sat front row. On my left, two male Steelers fans, to my right, a Vikings dad and teenage daughter, behind me, a mixed couple. And in front of me Brett Keisel. I was 50 feet behind the Steelers D line bench.

      It clearly was the main event of 2013 for european Football fans. I can actively remember jerseys of 31 different teams, and there must have been a Cam Newton somewhere for sure. I did not see a Darmstadt Diamonds jersey (the team I usually watch), but a young guy with DE body type wearing Aschaffenburg Stallions.
      The actual view from 122 was almost horizontal, and from time to time I had to duck to watch below the main camera platform. But it was perfect to study players and coaches, their behaviour and routines. And from time to time a big play happened right in front of me. Unfortunately it was stuff like Ben’s interception (I could relate to Sanders going apeshit while the play was going on) and the Woodley late hit penalty. The worst play, however, was the first Jared Allen sack. I had a good angle and decided to specifically watch Michael Adams on that play. Bad decision. He did something similar to a boxer trying to dodge a hit, or a torero getting out of a bull’s way. It looked really fluid. Allen has to be commended not to have just stopped in astonishment. It made me question Adam’s general ability to play O line in the NFL.
      One could think that the game was a major disappointment because the Steelers lost and how they lost. Not at all, of course. There was no reason whatsoever to question their effort and their motivation. They had a great chance to tie the game. Their last drive was compensation for the grief of the previous 58 minutes, because they showed that they were not the worse team. After watching this, I have no idea how people that have been to a stadium can rant about ‘finding a way to win’. You have to find a way to have a chance to win, and that is exactly what the Steelers did, and I was happy to have participated so closely.
      Off to work now, I’ll post some specific notes later today. Thanks for your attention.

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        Good stuff. If be interested in more of your perspective on individual players (and coaches), on the field and on the sideline.

        • bengt

          As promised:
          - To this layman’s eye, Troy was playing LB.
          - The most active and visible coach is Danny Smith. I recognized LeBeau twice, Haley and Mitchell only once each. They are very subdued.
          - I never thought the Vikings were especially threatening, except for Cordarelle Patterson returns. His high-draft-pick playmaker abilities are one thing that the Steelers are certainly missing. Of course, their special teams are still shaky.
          - I cannot question the demeanor, motivation, body language of the team. Forget about all that ‘coming out flat’ crap. Those guys are all eager to get on the field and kick some a$$. Some show signs of nervousness, for instance Golden and DCS.
          - Only exception I would have made was Curtis Brown, who looked quite emo on the sideline. OTOH so did the inactive guys. Then I learned that he had an illness. Nevertheless one starts to wonder if there is a Limas Sweed situation coming up.
          - When all players threw some balls during warmups, I thought I noticed that Heath Miller has a more refined throwing motion than every other non-QB. Of course I knew what his highschool position was, so I might have imagined it.
          - Ike Taylor is sooo good. He ran step by step with Patterson on a go route early in the game, and that was it with the deep passing for the Vikes as far as I remember it. Also, he looks bald, despite the haircut.
          - Ike also gave the first ‘Let’s get it done’ speech to the D. He waved, everybody else came and listened.Then came the late hit penalty and the last Vikings TD, and LeBeau gave the next speech.
          - Lamarr Woodley has upper arms like other people have legs, and Jason Worilds has upper legs like a rhinoceros has arms. I don’t want to bad-mouth anybody, but HGH testing in the NFL needs to happen yesterday.
          - Vikings are a poor team with a superstar who played close to their best, Steelers are an OK team that made mistakes at critical points.
          - If Woodley said ’12-4 is the aim’ today, I would not object.

  • Intropy

    One of the worst things about watching them play, and I don’t recall how far back this goes, is that every time things appear to be going well I know a big play the other way is just around the corner. The opponent will rip off a 60 yard run, strip sack Ben, or block a kick. Even when they’re in the game it always feels like they’re hanging on for dear life with the bottom just about to fall out.

    The other side of this grim coin is that when something goes bad I see players losing their heads and that leading to another bad play. Turnover followed by big play (or dumb foul) for example.

    • EasyLikeSundayMorning

      Intropy, I was nodding along with your first paragraph, but I don’t have the feeling that this team is losing its composure. They’ve had a low number of penalties any few “that guy just lost his shit” infractions. In fact, Ben even begged the OL to act more rabid even if it meant more penalties.

      Some argue that it would be good if they showed more crazy, more fight, more heart. Personally, I don’t really buy that too much, as I think good execution (including minimizing mistakes) would help more. But I can see why some make that case.

  • Eric

    So you’re saying the offense should…

  • countertorque

    I’m not contesting your stats. However, Football Outsiders has repeatedly held that there is no such thing as score effects in football. They claim that teams play about as well in garbage time as they do the rest of the year. Commenters often challenge this and they have held firm over the years. Intuitively, I have always believed that there must be an effect. Maybe it’s just too subtle to measure.

  • Cols714

    A post idea for Ted; A draft redo from 2009-2013 of what he would’ve done (with a minimal amount of hindsight, sort of like what he wanted the Steelers to do at the time).

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I have no idea if Max can still play, but I’d feel a lot better if he were on the team….

    • Cols714

      Nah. Pass. I think since the season is probably screwed we die or live with Gilbert and Adams. That way we can decide after the season whether or not to draft a top LT next year.

      • EasyLikeSundayMorning

        Max would replace Whimper, not Adams or Gilbert.

      • Eric

        Well the coaching staff has stated they are going to rotate Beachum with Gilbert/Adams to increase competition. If that is going to be the plan, I’d rather they do it with Starks. It would then free up Beachum to do other things.

        • Eric


          Ravens aren't the only team in AFC North moving for tackle help – Steelers and Cards are hammering out a trade sending Levi Brown to PITT— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) October 2, 2013

          • Cols714

            Oh god. Why? He’s terrible.

          • Eric

            Yeah, PFF ranks him 60th. Mike Adams is 68th.

            If they want to add a (marginal) tackle, why not Starks? He’s cheaper and more familiar with the Steelers. Strange…

          • Cols714

            Apparently it’s a done deal. This move is just baffling. Why oh why? Maybe Colbert has lost his touch.

  • Cols714

    I just want to say that I think trading for Levi Brown is really really really dumb. No matter what they gave up for him it’s too much and, more importantly, he’s awful. Better to go with Adams who is young enough to improve than Brown who is proven to just suck.

    I’ve been sort of against preaching that Colbert should go, but I think that he’s lost it. This is a terrible move to make.

    • Eric

      Questions of ability and sanity aside, how can they afford him with his cap hit and their salary cap situation?

      • Cols714

        Who knows. I find this move absolutely a fireable offence. There is no situation where Levi Brown is the solution to anything. So giving up a draft pick or player to get him is dumb. Especially when you are 0-4 and have almost no shot at the playoffs. Especially when you need young talent and draft picks, not veterans who suck.

        I really can’t say enough what dumb dumb trade this is.

        This is horrible awful move. I don’t see how Colbert should be allowed to keep his job after this.

        • Eric

          It’s certainly the first move that really makes me question the front office. In past seasons I could understand the rationale of mortgaging the future to keep a superbowl window open. Their recent drafts were reasonable picks even if the players didn’t pan out. But this?

          • Cols714

            Exactly. This is a Raiders or Browns move. Or the Bengals of old. This is not a Steelers move.

            I don’t know what is worse. That Colbert made this move on his own or if the Rooneys pressured him into making a move.

            They are both bad things to see happening.

  • ryan

    Put up a new post. Feel free to rant on Levi Brown trade here: