Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley can't win for losing.
He shouldn't lose for winning, either.
There's a hint of frustration in the tone of Post-Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo's recent column on the lack of big plays being produced by the Steelers' offense through its first three games (1-2).
In it, Fittipaldo points out the Steelers' longest play from scrimmage is 37 yards - a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace made off-schedule and under duress.
It's their only play longer than 30 yards from scrimmage.
What's more important in Haley's offense is another mark that's above 30; the Steelers have a time of possession average of 35:58. They're averaging 25.6 points a game, and have increased their points total in each game (19 to 27 to 31).
We've come to the defense of the defense recently, pointing out the exceptional passing of Denver's Peyton Manning and Oakland's Carson Palmer in the two Steelers' losses. But we aren't getting carried away. Top defenses don't let quarterbacks have excellent performances, and in no way are we suggesting this defense performed in their two losses as well as they should have.
That's why we aren't going to ignore what the offense has had to do to even be competitive in those two losses.
While it's difficult to draw qualitative reasoning to this, it appears by watching Roethlisberger's 37-yard heave to Wallace the reason big plays aren't being made is because...they aren't trying to make them based on yards in the air.
Logically, throwing a 40 yard pass takes longer than throwing a seven-yard pass. The difference is Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball much sooner than he used to. Wallace's touchdown was not a designed play, in the sense Roethlisberger didn't call a Black 18 Scramble Right Evade X 4 moves Heave To The Corner. The play broke down and Roethlisberger went off schedule to make something happen.
He still goes off schedule, just not as often, and when he does, he's not looking at deep receivers as often as he did previously.
Besides, with as porous as the Steelers' defense has been in the second half, owning the ball seems as productive as scoring points, as weird as that sounds.
The argument can be made Antonio Brown's fumble was just as much a reason the Steelers lost in Week 3 as the defense allowing five consecutive scoring drives. That's why Steelers coach Mike Tomlin went for it on 4th-and-1 in their own territory. They needed to hold onto the ball.
His decision was justified after gaining that first down, but punted three plays later. Had they picked up another first down, and kept Oakland off the field, the game could have gone into overtime, or they could have set up their own game-winning field goal.
Obviously a big play is never going to hurt, but if your quarterback is completing over 70 percent of his passes, and he's averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt, it seems like the lack of big plays is arbitrary.
Fittipaldo quotes Haley as saying, "I know we'll make (big plays). We have the people to do it. We have the quarterback to do it. Those tend to come in bunches. I'm happy with the way we're moving the football. We're moving the chains. The big plays will come. We're not forcing the issue."
Why force it, anyway? Roethlisberger's decisions to not force passes is a huge reason why he's one of the highest rated passers in the game, and is leading an offense that's been better through three games than it has the last three years.
Eventually, Brown will shake off the tackle instead of fumbling the ball, and break a long run-after-catch. Eventually, the Steelers will catch their opponents' defense in the wrong coverage on Wallace, and they'll connect on a big gain. As Haley says, these things will come in bunches. As soon as the lack of big plays reduces their points per game and undermines their time of possession, it will be a problem. Until then, short and sweet seems to be the way to go.