Steelers offense and defense failing to control the ball

Matt Sullivan

Mike Tomlin’s mantra of “The Standard is the Standard” is a crock. It is a crock because Tomlin and the Steelers cannot even perform the basic functions required in finding a solution for winning.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks often of the "standard" being the "standard."

What a crock.

The mantra requires that each and every player on the 53 man roster be held to a minimum baseline standard of performance, an absolute standard against which any negative deviation is not accepted. Yet, when you look back over the 11 games played this season, you will find that a core element, a minimum standard, has been missing.

When Tomlin speaks of his standard, he apparently means the Steelers have a level of quality or attainment against which each player is measured; those who meet the "standard" make the roster. Those who exceed the standard start; those who don’t meet the standard are cut, or benched.

The core issue hurting the Steelers is they are failing in one of the most basic fundamentals of the game, a standard axiom which is: control the ball.

This fundamental is not predicated on who is playing, nor is it a variable affected by who is injured. This is an absolute fundamental element in the equation for a successful season. If Tomlin’s mantra is to be found valid, then there is no exception to this absolute: control the ball.

In mathematics, an absolute value is always a positive value. If a variable in an equation is bracketed by a vertical bar on either side, this indicates that no matter what the result of the formula is, the value is always greater than, or equal to zero.

In football, either you control the ball, or you do not. If you control the ball, the immediate result is never negative. The summation of all the times each team attempts to control the ball will add up to either a positive number or at the least a zero, but there will be no negative values. In other words, control the ball and positive things happen (maybe fewer positives than the opponent, but still positive); fail to control the ball and the absolute value of the control variable is nullified, leading to negative results.

If you look especially at the last three games, beginning with the win against the Kansas City Chiefs, through the unacceptable loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and culminating in the most recent "travesty by the lake" against the Cleveland Browns, you will see a microcosm of what is nullifying the truth and effectiveness of Tomlin’s mantra. The variables Tomlin and his coaches have to solve for every week due to injury are not what is negating any of the possible solutions leading up to a playoff berth, but rather it is that the offense and the defense fail to control the ball.

This failure to control the ball is pervasive throughout the offensive and defensive roster of players playing each Steelers game. Both units that make up the Steelers have their own derivative of this axiom, this fundamental standard by which their performance is measured, and both of them are failing to measure up.

The defensive unit, despite its position as the league’s leading defense over all as based on yards allowed as well as ranking high in points allowed per game and other important metrics, fails to meet the "standard" as measured by takeaways. Much has been written about this lack, and should be since it is now going on two years that the Steelers’ defense have failed to do so. The Steelers’ defense rank 23rd in total takeaways with only 16 interceptions and nine forced fumbles, of which they only recovered 44 percent of them.

The injuries on the defensive side of the ball cannot be blamed for the lack of takeaways. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has made strategic changes in how he utilizes the players he has on the field; Polamalu’s continuing absence notwithstanding, injuries are not what are hindering the defense; they simply have lost sight of the core concept of taking the ball away from the opposing offenses. Not just by failing to intercept the ball, but simply by not having as a fundamental aspect of tackling an aggressive attack on the ball carrier’s grip on the ball.

The 2009 New Orleans Saints made headlines with their aggressive attack on the ball. The (then) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had his defense try to steal the ball from the Saints offensive players from day one of training camp, through each and every week of practice during that season. This translated to each game they played in the regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl.

When the Steelers played the Oakland Raiders this year, as inept a defense as the Raiders have subsequently proven to be, each and every Raider defenseman hit the Steelers ball carrier in such a way as to threaten to pop the ball loose.

The Chiefs and the Ravens did the same thing, play after play. So did the Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals. Some succeeded more than others, but what stands out is when you compare the style of attack of any of these teams to the Steelers defense, what is glaringly lacking for Pittsburgh is the effort by the Steelers towards regaining control of the ball.

What is equally lacking is any sense of importance placed on the axiom by the Steelers offense. This unit’s glaringly cavalier attitude towards the ball has been extremely evident, and not just in this latest game against the Browns. From Week 1 forward every time a Steeler ball handler was downed, there was an almost instantaneous release of the ball onto the ground. So much so that the Chiefs’, Ravens’ and Browns’ defensive unit would have the second man to the tackle reach in and attempt to strip the ball from the Steeler carrier while on the ground, in hopes of getting a favorable call by the referees.

It is obvious that Tomlin cannot dispense "dog house justice" to each of the four running backs who fumbled the ball; that would leave no one in the backfield to help protect the quarterback against the Ravens next week. It is also painfully obvious that such managerial methods aren’t working, given the recidivism of Dwyer, and the failure of the other backs to learn from his mistakes and punishment.

Given the repeated rash of injuries, it would be uncharitable to not acknowledge that Tomlin, Haley and LeBeau may be distracted by the ongoing task of finding healthy bodies to fill positions to see the fundamental flaw in their current formula. However, even with Ben Roethlisberger behind center, the offense wasn’t producing what it was capable of; and obviously LeBeau’s defense had to re-calculate the value of what each replacement player brought to the defensive equation in order for it to succeed.

What is more obvious however, is that Tomlin’s managerial rhetoric has reached a crisis point; will he launch the ultimate in rhetorical nonsense like his "unleash hell" comment during the 2009 collapse, or will he step back from his rhetoric and examine the fundamental values that have become lost amidst the multitude of injuries?

If Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wants to solve all the variables affecting his team, he might want to start at the absolute beginning. By doing so, he might discover that he should place more value on his coaches coaching a fundamental than merely assuming that repeating a standard will equate with success.

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