Week Four Trends: Keeping Perspective Despite Stagnation

Even if no one is arguing with me yet, I'm going to make another stab at Steelers commentary. Here goes:

A Sunday afternoon loss is never an enjoyable thing to analyze. My buddy Mark made thew orld’s best barbecue pulled pork, I cooked up a batch of my favorite baked beans, and I had enough Dos Equis in the fridge to make The Most Interesting Man in the World throw up in his beard. So where were my Steelers?

The long perspective is this: a road loss to a team with a hungry,dangerous offense isn’t worth the anger and frustration that’s certain to drown out many a Steelers discussion board this week. Consider this game from a Texan fan’s perspective: they watched their team make costly mental errors time and time again, allowing the score to stay dangerously close. The Texans are more than capable of shooting their own season in the foot. As the playoffs approach, the Texans will remember this game uneasily.

In the short term, the Steelers need to keep developing and making adjustments. While they can look forward to a relatively easy stretch of games after their bye, they need to pick up some key wins in the next five weeks so that they can stay within striking distance of the Baltimore Ravens.

On to this week’s trends: what’s declining, what’s stagnating, and what’s improving.

Declining: The Passing Game.

Fast Money Mike Wallace pulled in 77yards in 4 receptions this week, a drastic decline from last week, and a disappointing end to his remarkable streak of 100+ yard regular-season games. Antonio Brown wasn’t sharp early on, but he offset this somewhat with 5 catches for 67 yards. The lack of protection around Big Ben had a lot to do with this; against the Colts and the Seahawks, the offensive line was able to protect Ben long enough for some big plays to develop, but that didn’t happen this week. The hits on Roethlisberger are stacking up. Steeler Nation has had to watch their franchise quarterback take a lot of nasty hits so far this season, and this week we’re chewing our fingernails, waiting to hear about his left foot. Either Arians needs to dial up plays that get the ball out of Ben’s hands more quickly, or we need the offensive line to shape up. Guess which solution would be easier to implement by Sunday’s game against the Titans?

Stagnating: Run Defense.

If you ignore the scoreboard, a lot happened against the Texans that the Steelers defense should be proud of. The Texan’s scary offense never quite got rolling this Sunday. The word for the Steelers was containment. They kept the game close enough that the offense always had a chance to turn the game around.

That being said, the defense hasn’t been able to assert its identity yet. They haven’t been able to scheme to the strength of their playmakers for one simple reason: they haven’t been stopping the run. While Arian Foster was certainly contained (one god-awful play in the 4th quarter aside), the Steelers gave up too many rushing yards on first and second down.

The most important result of this struggle with run defense is that the Steelers aren’t generating turnovers. Running backs do fumble sometimes, sure, but a defense can be a lot more disruptive against the passing game. In order to grab an interception or two, this defense has to convince quarterbacks to make questionable passes. A splash play could have bailed out the offense here; it’s hard not to look at the Raven’s performance against the Jets and be a little jealous of their disruptive defense.

Improving: Running the Ball.

Don’t get me wrong; Mendenhall once again turned in a mediocre performance, claiming 25 yards on nine attempts. His nine-yard TD run was a nice exception,but still an exception. It’s the performances by Mewelde Moore (34 yards on 4 carries) and Isaac Redman (40yards on 6 carries, plus a 12 yard reception) that make me hopeful about this aspect of the Steelers’ game. While Mendenhall’s struggles are at least partly due to the performance of the offensive line, Redman and Moore both showed that they could make something outof what they were given. These guys demonstrated in their performances Tomlin’s famous dictum that "The Standard is the Standard." The coaching staff doesn’t seem inclined to implement a "running-back by committee," but Sunday’s performance indicates that they should keep giving these two a chance to make plays.

Conclusion: Most of the Same Problems, but a Different Result.

The Steelers of this week looked much like the Steelers of last week, but with one important difference: they played a confident, hungry team instead of the Colts. The Steelers’ schedule gives them some time to work out their problems and still have a run at the playoffs, but only if this awkward period doesn’t come at the expense of their quarterback.

Next week, expect the Steelers to trot out the 5th offensive line combination of the season. Perhaps we’ll see Gilbert at left tackle, or maybe we’ll even see one of the depth guys given a chance to prove themselves. Trevis Turner? Hell, why not? Look for Moore to once again make an impact in our two-minute drills, and for Redman to get a series or two earlier in the game. Even if Ben is healthy enough to play – and that’s still an if – the Steelers’ success is going to rest largely on the efforts of their running backs.

On the defensive side of things, expect Polamalu to be a little more conservative about the angles he takes when making tackles. Expect our corners, especially Ike Taylor, to continue to prove their detractors wrong. Don’t expect big changes to the lineup of linebackers, despite the sub-par play of Woodley, Farrior, and Foote. It’s possible that Sylvester might see some snaps at the expense of Foote, but the coaches aren’t willing to give up on their veterans yet.
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