It was another oddly unsettling affair in Pittsburgh on Monday night. The Steelers won but, as per usual this season, we were left with just as many questions, perhaps more, than answers following their victory.
There's plenty for the optimist and the pessimist to chew on when looking back at the Steelers' 30-23 win over the Texans, especially on offense.
By and large, this was a slightly below-average performance, sprinkled with little bits of excellence, from the Steelers' offense. This has become alarmingly close to par for the course in 2014. Before that magical second-quarter barrage, the offense could aptly be described as rudderless. A couple of passes here, a few runs there, but nothing ever really threatened the Texans' red zone. And of course, the one time that a Steelers' drive smelled of promise, Roethlisberger was promptly strip-sacked before anything could materialize. That would roughly fit into one of the situations Todd Haley discussed earlier in the week: leaving big opportunities on the field.
Following the second-quarter barrage, things were a little better. They marched up the field twice, had a touchdown wrongly overturned and got two field goals which, although not touchdowns, are still pretty valuable.
Big picture for the pessimist is that this offense still doesn't have an identity. Despite their best efforts, the Steelers are not an effective, possession offense because they fail to convert drives into points. The Steelers are more like a "livin’ on a prayer," big-play offense. The running game, for my money, has been quite a disappointment. It’s nothing like what we envisioned when Mike Munchak was hired. It’s doing enough to keep the defense honest, and Bell maybe be racking up rushing yards, but it’s not coming up big in vital situations. A lot of factors are involved I’m sure, but it is what it is. And I’ll go on record now to say enough with the endless running out of the shotgun. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Bell’s best runs have come when Ben lines up behind center, most of which have involved some combination DeCastro, Pouncey and a pulling lineman. All things better utilised running from under center. I think it’s time to see less shifting from shotgun back there and more north-to-south running.
Big Ben has left more than his fair share of throws on the field this year. He missed horribly on two throws to the sideline during the Texans game. A throw to Markus Wheaton during the first half wasn’t even close (may have been a product of miscommunication), and another one to Martavis Bryant in the end zone was simply horrible. He gave Bryant, who had one-on-one coverage and some separation, absolutely no chance to come down with that pass. It seems like Roethlisberger has missed a couple of big throws each game. It’s largely down to miscommunication with receivers and the fact they've just been some really low-percentage throws, but some of it is on Ben. He’s still elite, he's still top-tier and he still makes some incredible plays, but given the current state of the team, the Steelers need him to be bulletproof.
What’s up with Markus Wheaton? It could be confidence; it could be inexperience, probably both. Bottom line is that he needs to contribute more for this offense to grow.
For the optimists though, how about Martavis Bryant? It’s hard to oversell just how huge establishing a true deep threat (even just the threat, mind you) could be for this offense. And he’s so tall! Through the first six games, the Steelers have rarely looked deep but, if they can stretch opposing defenses vertically, imagine what the plethora of other pass catchers like Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Le’veon Bell could do in the intermediate and underneath areas of the field. That’s not even to mention Markus Wheaton. This could be frightening stuff for the Steelers' opposition.
With no hint of favoritism, Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell are two of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL. Both are among the top-2 at their respective positions and both are well on their way to first-team All-Pro berths. When you have these two on your offense with Ben Roethlisberger, you'll always have a fighting chance regardless of what’s happening around you.
Are the red-zone woes fixed? Definitely not. But the Steelers scored three times (one of which was disallowed). The Steelers never drove the entire way down the field and punched it in, but it’s not their fault the defense gave them the ball inside the Texans' 5-yard line twice. All you can do is take your opportunities and build from there. Now we've got some building blocks, even if one was a gadget-play full of craziness.
Finally, let’s discuss the play-calling. My feelings thus far in the season have been well documented. It hasn’t been great, but it also hasn't been terrible. I really liked the play-calling on Monday night. There was a nice balance between the pass and the run, even if it didn’t pay huge dividends. The Steelers correctly utilized a "trick play" in the red zone as well. The reason I say "correctly" is because it resulted in a touchdown, which is literally the only reason why any of the offensive players or coaches are there. It was a job well done.
The Steelers also successfully executed some play-action, which gave Ben Roethlisberger huge chunks of time to settle in the pocket and take a shot deep, and he did so early and often. We even witnessed a return of the flea-flicker! Not every deep ball was successful, though, and Roethlisberger didn’t decide to launch it deep on every possible play. But the point was he had the will and the opportunity. Players won’t always be covered deep like they were quite often against Houston. The deep ball and play-action have been conspicuously absent until now, and hopefully we’ll see a lot more of it as the offense continues to improve.