There are a number of things — very pronounced, blindingly-evident things — that have prevented the Steelers from coalescing into the veritable Super Bowl contender they ostensibly were in the preseason. The defense is trash, for one thing, and the particulars of its trashiness are manifold: the secondary couldn’t stop a high school team from racking up hundreds of yards, and the run-defense isn’t much better — allowing opposing rushers to gain a very meaty 4.2 yards per carry. They’re currently ranked fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks, but it’s important to note that more than half of those sacks came in a single game against Tyrod Taylor. If Taylor were standing on the surface of the moon while a malevolent spaceman looked on — withholding oxygen until Taylor completed a pass — Taylor would rather stand there and asphyxiate than force a throw into coverage. At Heinz Field, where they’re currently 0-2, the Steelers have amassed only three sacks.
Slows starts by the Steelers are not unprecedented. They lost four games in a row on the way to a 4-5 start in 2016, a season in which they advanced to the AFC Championship Game (where they were summarily demolished by the vile New England Patriots, but that’s neither here nor there). And last season — which saw them pace the AFC with 13 victories — it was a 30-9 home loss to Jacksonville in Week 5 that facilitated an overwhelming surfeit of pessimistic and defeatist takes. The general thinking is that this is all a natural part of the proceedings and they’ll figure it out eventually, probably when the weather starts to get cold.
But this year feels different, gloomier, more panicky, more wow they-might-not-really-have-the-capacity-to-turn-this-thing-around. Last year, for instance, it was Ben Roethlisberger, of all people, who contributed to the Steelers’ bad start. In the aforementioned home loss to the Jaguars, he famously threw five bad interceptions and subsequently claimed post-game that perhaps he didn’t have it anymore. The defense, meanwhile, particularly the secondary (of all units), enabled the Steelers to win some games they maybe shouldn’t have won. It was a strange reality. But generally speaking, the consensus pointed to the eventuality that hey, there’s no way in Hell the secondary is actually this good, and that Ben would eventually stop whining so much and return to at least a Wal-Mart brand version of what he’d been during the previous 12 seasons.
But there don’t seem to be any such assurances this season, which is why I’m gonna fire up the conjecture machine and craft an admittedly simplistic and very self-evident 4-point plan for returning this iteration of the Steelers to glory.
Step 1: Be prepared
In their past three games at Heinz Field dating back to last season, the Steelers have spotted the opposition 56 points in the first quarter. Whether this is the result of the coaching staff failing to get the team game-ready, or the result of personnel not holding themselves accountable for figuring out things out (probably it’s a mixture of both), the fact that the Steelers have developed a penchant for coming out of the locker room flat is putting them in positions to lose.
Step 2: Stick to the game-plan
Once the Steelers have demonstrated their ability to prevent opponents from nabbing multi-possession leads before the ushers are done scanning tickets, they can implement offensive schematics more multifaceted in nature, as it’s impossible to commit to running the ball when there’s four minutes left in the first quarter and you’re already staring down the barrel of a 21-0 deficit. A cogent, well-balanced offensive game plan that features an omnivorous buffet of play-action, West Coast, stretch/toss plays, between-the-tackles runs, and deep passes should not only increase Pittsburgh’s scoring output and general offensive vitality, but should also better enable them to control time-of-possession and give the defense some much-needed downtime.
Step 3: Experiment with the defense
There’s no point asking the Steelers to “fix” the defense, as doing so would have the same effect as callously telling someone living on the street to get a job — they simply don’t have the wherewithal to promote such a miraculous turnaround. Pittsburgh is home to perhaps the NFL’s worst stable of defensive backs — which is a shame, because there are some talented names among these ranks. Their linebackers are good at stopping the run and proficient at rushing the passer, but not much else. So why not get cute with it? Try Sean Davis out at cornerback. Move Terrell Edmunds to linebacker. Play with three safeties. Sign Markus Wheaton and let him play cornerback. Grab some random DB off the street. Tyvon Branch is apparently a person who used to play safety. Jeremy Lane once did a convincing impression of a starting cornerback in Seattle.
I don’t know — goof around with the schematics a bit or mix the personnel up a bit — but please don’t let Tyler Matakevich start in actual games of consequence. Do something, Keith Butler, please!
Step 4: Stay positive
Le’Veon Bell hopefully is set to report back in Week 7, which would make him eligible to play in the Steelers’ Week 8 home match against Cleveland. Losing to Atlanta or Cincinnati (the odds of them losing at least one of these games are very, very high) honestly isn’t gonna totally sink their postseason hopes (but losing both might, so yikes). So if the Steelers can simply tread water and enter the bye at like 2-3-1 (or 3-2-1), I think returning an All-Pro offensive dynamo to the fray will be an encouraging development.
But regardless of when or if Bell returns and what version of Bell the Steelers get, Pittsburgh will contend so long as Ben Roethlisberger is doing his thing, especially if JuJu Smith-Schuster, Antonio Brown, Vance McDonald, and the rest of the offense continue to assist Ben in doing his thing.
There’s also the issue of Mike Tomlin, who is seen below:
He’s still never had a losing season, guys. Have some faith in the man.