Back To The Drawing Board For The Steelers

Some more thoughts from me in the wake of the Pittsburgh Steelers 18-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. The loss snaps Pittsburgh's five game winning streak and drops their record to 6-3 with seven games remaining, three of which are divisional contests. With the win, the Bengals moved to 5-0 in the AFC North. They've swept Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and will likely complete the trifecta when they play Cleveland for the second time later this month. Pittsburgh is now two full games back of Cincinnati for the divisional lead by virtue of the Bengals owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. With 7 games still to play, that's hardly an insurmountable deficit to overcome. Heck, the San Diego Chargers have stormed back from three down in the AFC West in three short weeks. All is not lost. But let's be real - the Steelers are now huge underdogs to win the division for the third year in a row. 

Here are the Bengals remaining games:

@ Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit, @ Minnesota, @ San Diego, Kansas City, @ New York Jets 

There will be some turbulence for the Bengals, but not any time soon most likely. Cincinnati will be heavily favored in their next three games and absolutely should win them all. Then it gets a bit more tricky for Cincinnati. Minnesota won't be putting it in cruise control just yet when the two teams meet in Week 14. San Diego will also still be dealing with a thin margin of error. Both will be tough outs for Cincy. 

Here's Pittsburgh's remaining schedule in case you were curious.

@ Kansas City, @ Baltimore, Oakland, @ Cleveland, Green Bay, Baltimore, @ Miami

Anyway, enough perusing the schedule. Bottom line is the race for the AFC North ain't over yet, by any stretch of the imagination. That said, a Wild Card berth is also not a certainty. I'll get in to that more in my usual league-wide 'musings' post soon enough. 

A few more quick-hitting thoughts from Sunday's loss, as well as some stream of consciousness thoughts from me that I'd love to hear your take on. Not to let myself off the hook, but rather than spending several days mulling over how best to organize and present some of my thoughts, I've instead just gone with the 'verbal vomit' route instead and just thrown some things to consider out there. I wish I had more time (if you want to get involved, holler!) to do some of the data mining to confirm or refute some of my thoughts, but anyway, enough of that. We all have a voice and seat at the table and I'll take a turn speaking up with my observations about some of the more pressing and vexing aspects of the 2009 NFL season for the Steelers.

Grab a coffee or soda and have that Excel worksheet or something else handy to switch back to if need be. Plenty more after the jump...

* Hard to get too upset with Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, but his unnecessary roughness penalty late in the 4th quarter was a killer. Denver had just run a 1st down play for a mere 2 yards. The Bengals were at their own 32 yard line and with 4:32 seconds left when the ball was snapped. Translation - plenty of time left, but the Bengals were approaching the area of the field where the Steelers were going to be pinned back deep in their own territory if they were to in fact get the stop. Deebo's 15 yard penalty put Cincinnati out near midfield and gave them a fresh set of downs. At that point, I looked at my girlfriend and said, ball game. I had been holding out hope and was even confident earlier in the 4th quarter that the Steelers would be able to at least tie the game and force overtime. Not after that penalty. Anyway, what's even more frustrating is that Harrison was probably just reacting to some small cheap shot or trash talking by the Bengals. You know what they say though - it's never the first guy who gets caught. It's the follow-up reaction that always gets noticed and policed. Not smart James! I bet you that won't happen again moving forward.

* Where have you gone Heath Miller? Not complaining about Miller or his effort by any stretch of the imagination. He's doing his job. He's just getting open less frequently the past two weeks than he did the first 7 games of the season. When he is open, it's been in areas of the field where very little damage can be done to a defense. That's got to be the product of defensive coordinators understanding the importance of Miller to this passing game. Frankly, this offense isn't actually all that formidable compared to some of the other units in the league when Miller is not being used effectively. Let me qualify that statement - this passing attack isn't terribly dangerous when Miller's not a factor. When the running game is clicking - like it was last Monday night - we're as dangerous as anybody. But if this offense continues to throw the ball substantially more than it runs it, we'll need to get more 4 receptions for 26 yards from our beastly TE. 

* Also, I don't like seeing Heath Miller in the backfield so often for pass protection purposes. He's a B+ blocker in my opinion which is plenty good, but I hate taking him out of the equation so often by putting him back there where he can at best just slip out for a dump off pass. 

* Random thought here but Ben Roethlisberger is far too tall to have so many passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. He's one of the tallest QBs in the league; a good 6 inches taller than Drew Brees. He had three passes batted down on Sunday though. That means just one thing and it's not that Cincinnati's defensive linemen are amazingly athletic - he was telegraphing where he was going with the ball. I noticed Ben staring down his receivers on multiple occasions. All that pump-faking sometimes leads to great things when the pass protection holds up, but other times it makes it difficult for Ben to re-shift where he's looking with his eyes. That allowed Bengals linemen to more easily time their jumps.

* I neither like nor disdain Bruce Arians and his abilities as an offensive coordinator. First and foremost, I give him credit for developing Ben Roethlisberger. That's huge and my opinion is that it's worth dealing with some of his faults in order to ensure that Ben didn't need to learn yet another new offensive system. Think about a quarterback like Jason Campbell - he's had to learn I believe 4 offensive schemes in his short NFL career. Then think about Peyton Manning. He's had the same offensive coordinator his entire NFL career. Anyway, my qualms with Arians are usually that he manages to have several plays or series a game that doesn't at all mesh with the rest of the game plan. They've at times cost the Steelers ball games; other times they've kept the score closer than it probably should have been. I don't think he's a total hack though.

Today though he performed poorly. It's not clear to us fans how much control Ben has over the play-calling or the changing of plays at the line of scrimmage. But we didn't see the no-huddle today so I suppose it's fair to assume that the play-calling duties were largely the responsibility of Arians.

62 total plays. Only 18 rushes. I am the first to try to get Arians dissenters to realize that running the ball doesn't always make sense when the passing game's clicking. The passing game was most certainly not in rhythm today though. That leaves me baffled as to why we were so insistent on trying to get things going through the air when the running game - what little of it that we saw - was sufficiently productive. The Steelers averaged 4.4 yards per rush on those 18 attempts for 80 total yards on the ground. Rashard Mendenhall had 13 carries for 36 yards, Mewelde Moore carried it twice for 21 yards, and Willie Parker got back in the action with a single carry that he took for a hard fought 7 yards. Nobody ripped off a long run either to skew the average yards per carry higher than it was for the bulk of the carries.

I guess it was just painfully obvious that the Steelers were having their absolute worst game of the year passing the football. Give a lot of credit to Cincinnati for their outstanding work against the Steelers wide receivers.  Give a lot of credit as well to the Bengals defensive linemen for collapsing the pocket all afternoon. But you have to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, so to speak. Last week, Arians got it right by pounding the football when things were working. I thought he also got it right against Cleveland when Roethlisberger threw it 35 times despite the fact that the Steelers were leading the entire game. On Sunday, Arians didn't know when to 'fold 'em' and continue to try to force things in the passing game despite the fact that not much at all was working in that department. 

* That leads me to my next point. This loss isn't such a bad thing if it forces the offense to adjust its strategy moving forward. Here's my analysis of the trajectory of our offense the past two seasons. Last year following the debacle at Philadelphia, Bruce Arians made a strategic decision to implement a more effective quick-hitting passing attack. Why? It was clear the offensive line wasn't good enough to allow Arians' play calls to materialize down the field. What we saw moving forward was many more 3 step drops and quick screens out to the flank that decreased the burden on the line. It wasn't always pretty but it was largely effective - Ben threw fewer turnovers, was sacked less often in the second half of the season than he was to start the year, and we survived not having much of a running game because many of the short passes were very much like running plays - at least in terms of them being low risk, making the defense make a tackle and keeping the clock running. 

This year though, the offensive line has been much, much better. Many of Arians' medium and long routes were now more feasible to call. The result has been ample big plays in the passing game - the Steelers have the 9th most passing plays of 20+ yards, and the 6th most passing plays of 40+ yards. My belief is that all this success has led to a false sense of security and belief in the ability of the line to consistently win the battle of the trenches. They've won their fair share this year and held their own in just about every game except prior to this week. There will always be bad days though. The question then becomes do we have a backup plan on those days when the offensive line seems to be a bit confused and overwhelmed? 

My hunch is that this loss will force Arians and the offense to reconsider just how dominant the offensive line will continue to be in the passing game moving forward and will consequently implement more plays that slow down the pass rush. This type of attack, though not ideal all the time, doesn't require as much precise execution as do plays that take longer to develop down the field. We'll see.

* Some may call me crazy, but I think this team is going to need Limas Sweed to be a viable option moving forward. One game doesn't make me a non-believer in this offense. On the contrary, I very much believe in this offense and our quarterback. But I think we need one more option to compliment the trio we have in Ward, Holmes and Wallace. It pains me to say it but it's obvious that Hines Ward is having more trouble creating separation - not sure if he's dinged up a bit. Before I go on, let me just say that he's still savvy and sure-handed enough to play at a very high level. But he doesn't require double teams. Mike Wallace meanwhile could be better utilized over the middle of the field and in the medium passing game rather than having him run go routes down the field -something we saw multiple times on Sunday (all unsuccessful). Perhaps Limas Sweed should be that deep decoy. We've seen him get open. Now he just needs to catch it. But even if he doesn't catch it or get many looks, he can at least take defenders out of the play so that our more reliable play makers can do work in front of the safetys. That might make sense if our pass protection continues to be a bit shaky like it was today. 

* In my preliminary post-game post, I mentioned (again) that I think it's time to bring the Stefan Logan experiment to a close. Homer J. made an interesting point that Logan often times gets just totally taken out of the equation on kick return coverage. To his immense credit, Logan has made anumber of nice plays as a gunner covering punts. And to be fair, he's also had a few nice plays on kick return coverage. In my opinion, those tackles (particularly on punt coverage) have led fans to think he has value beyond what he's offering in the return game. I really, really like Logan and his story. And I used to really enjoy watching him churn those short legs and get in to high gear amazingly quickly. But I've just not been that impressed with his abilities the past month or so. He's returned kicks deep from the endzone, he's misjudged when to fair catch the ball, and he's proven incapable of really staying on his feet after contact. I'd like to see Mike Wallace get some looks to see what he can do returning kicks; same with Santonio Holmes on punt returns. Don't forget how important his contributions as a punt returner were last year. He helped win two games with his returns against Dallas and San Diego in the playoffs.

Thoughts? 

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