Last time, we discussed some of season’s most exciting plays in order to cut through the summertime ennui. Today, we’ll dissect Pittsburgh’s notorious peculiarities and assign blame to the appropriate parties whenever applicable. (As a bonus, I’ll debate why teams should always go for it on fourth down and provide a brief scouting report of Joshua Frazier, a late-round pick who I think could crack the final 53.)
The most conspicuous hallmark of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Mike Tomlin era is their innate and frustrating tendency to play poorly against—and often lose to—inferior teams, particularly on the road (for context, the Steelers are 7-13 in their past 20 road games against teams with sub-.500 records—NOT GREAT). This is not a talking point that is circumscribed to the Greater Pittsburgh region, Western Pennsylvania, or Steelers Nation at large, but disseminated nationally, from major news outlets to radio programs. The Tawmlin Sux community has its own subreddit!
Generally speaking, losing on the road isn’t an awful thing in and of itself—only four teams in NFL history (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New England, and Indianapolis) are over .500 on the road, whereas 29 teams are over .500 at home (not that you asked, but the Browns are FORTY-THREE GAMES UNDER .500 AT HOME). Home-field advantage not only exists, but is a distinctly quantifiable measure. But objectively good teams should beat objectively bad teams, platitudes be damned.
Let’s take a look at Pittsburgh’s 23-17 loss to the Chicago Bears during the 2017 season, a loss that was so archetypal of the Steelers that its many defining features—the blocked kick at the end of the first half; nearly every offensive drive sputtering and eventually stalling near midfield; Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen amassing 74 rushing yards on three overtime carries—should reverberate emphatically in the collective consciousness of Steelers fans for many years to come. What’s most troubling about this game is that Chicago—who finished 3-13 in 2016—looked every bit Pittsburgh’s equal, forcing a pair of turnovers and sacking Ben Roethlisberger three times while gashing the Steelers defense—a middling outfit in terms of defending the run in 2016—for 222 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry. Even a characteristically Mike Glennon-y performance by Mike Glennon (101 passing yards, 4.8 yards per attempt, one interception—the Bears paid Glennon nearly $19 million for one season of work, so never stop chasing your dreams) was not enough to empower the Steelers to victory.
That loss was an ugly blemish on an otherwise sterling record. Sure, the Jacksonville Jaguars did run a train on the Steelers at Heinz Field two weeks after the Bears loss, and New England did “beat” (still petty, sorry) the Steelers in Week 15, but those losses look better in retrospect since the Jaguars and Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship. The Bears weren’t much better in 2017 than they were the year prior, finishing with a 5-11 record and in the bottom half of the league in most meaningful statistical categories. Had the Steelers defeated Chicago, it’s possible that they’d have finished 14-2, which would’ve been good enough to secure the top seed in the AFC. I’ll say again: home-field advantage not only exists, but is a distinctly quantifiable measure.
The goal in 2018, same as it is every season, is to win every game on the schedule. Since 16-0 is a manifestly impractical end—only two teams have gone undefeated in what can be reasonably considered the “modern era,” and only the Patriots have done it in a 16-game season—I think a more achievable goal for the Steelers would be to, you know, not play down against “bad” teams, or whatever. Pittsburgh has a number of road games on the schedule in which they’ll presumably be favored (Week 1 against the Browns, Week 3 against the Bucs, Week 6 against the Bengals, Week 12 against the Broncos, maybe Week 14 against the Raiders), and in a top-heavy AFC in which they figure to again be neck-and-neck with the Patriots, the Steelers are gonna need every win they can get.
A thing I did not mention while castigating Tomlin is that Ben Roethlisberger deserves plenty of criticism for Pittsburgh’s road struggles over the past decade or so. I don’t wanna just projectile vomit a bunch of statistics in your face, but take a gander at Ben’s home/road splits. Kinda subpar by his lofty standards. His quarterback rating is about 10 points lower away from Heinz Field, and he’s thrown 50 fewer touchdowns despite playing a greater number of road games in his career than home games. His interception numbers are higher on the road, he throws for fewer yards per game on the road, and he gets sacked more often on the road—at home, he’s Tom Brady; on the road, he’s Joe Flacco.
None of this is exceptionally groundbreaking. (Home-field advantage not only exists, but is a distinctly quantifiable measure.) Road stadiums are louder and less familiar, which makes it more difficult to establish an effective offensive tempo or communicate with the offensive line than it would be in your home venue, and operating the no-huddle offense that Ben and the gang are so fond of relies more on hand signals and nonverbal cues than it does audible commands. Playing quarterback on the road is hard work.
A slight performance-dip away from Heinz Field can be expected, but Ben needs to be better than he’s been in order for the Steelers to shake their perceived unreliability against bad teams.
Here are the responsible parties for Pittsburgh’s early postseason exit last season, ranked:
1. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: Goodell was singlehandedly responsible for the Steelers Week 15 loss to New England. From his New York City office, he personally intervened to ensure that Jesse James’s almost-catch was ruled incomplete, thereby preventing the Steelers from securing the AFC’s top seed. (*This is obviously false. I make this distinction because I’m certain that Roger Goodell is the kind of dude who uses data-mining technology from his toilet to scour the darkest corners of the internet for potentially libelous material.)
2. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler: Here are some facts about Pittsburgh’s 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs: The Jaguars converted 22 first downs and eight of their 14 third-down attempts; the Jaguars rushed for 164 yards on 35 carries, equating to a very meaty 4.7 yards per carry; Jacksonville’s leading receiver—who is actually not a receiver at all, but a running back—had three catches for 57 yards (their second-leading receiver had one catch for 45 yards and their third-leading receiver had three catches for 28 yards); and most damningly, Blake Bortles won Jacksonville the doggone game. ESPN’s proprietary QBR metric is not a perfect tool, but it can be useful for putting a number on a quarterback’s non-evaluable contributions to a particular game. Therefore, while Bortles’s Alex Smith-like stat-line of 14 completions on 26 attempts for 214 yards and a touchdown does not convey any semblance of surface-level dominance, his 90.0 QBR underscores his exceptionality. IT UNDERSCORES BLAKE BORTLES’S EXCEPTIONALITY.
A relatively simplistic offensive game, one suffused with play-action and between-the-tackles running plays, was enough to systematically discombobulate Pittsburgh’s defense, and that falls on the coaches.
3. Former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley: Go watch this video, wherein a quintessential Todd Haley play is depicted. It is fourth down, and the Steelers are already facing a two-possession deficit in the first quarter of a playoff game. They are well within Chris Boswell’s field goal range, which makes chasing touchdowns this early in the game a questionable decision, but not a strictly controversial one—the Steelers are, after all, a preternaturally gifted offensive powerhouse, so converting on fourth-and-inches should be cake. Roethlisberger is lined up under center—he almost never is, which further accentuates the obviousness of an already-obvious running play—and Le’Veon Bell, a top-three (arguably top-one) running back who usually gains positive yardage, is standing in the backfield, maybe six yards behind Big Ben. There are three receivers on the field, but only Antonio Brown is split out wide; they’ve bunched everyone else near the line of scrimmage. Everyone thought the Steelers were going to jam this ball right up the middle of the formation, perhaps just to the right, using All-Pro guard Davis DeCastro as a lead blocker. Jacksonville, though, must’ve remembered that Todd Haley was calling the shots, because when the ball was snapped and Roethlisberger pitched the ball to Bell eight yards short of the first-down marker, a mountain of Jaguars had converged near the spot, and two or three of them waylaid Bell. Eleven plays later, Jacksonville took a 21-0 lead.
4. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier: I’ll preface this entry by clarifying that I’m not “faulting” Ryan Shazier for anything, and I certainly don’t mean to make light of his life-altering spine injury. I’m merely including him here because, had he not been injured against Cincinnati, there is a zero-percent change that the Steelers would’ve allowed 45 points to the Jaguars in the playoffs—he’s that much of a difference-maker, and he will be missed severely in 2018.
Please take your seats. I’d like to offer a piping-hot sports take: teams should never punt on fourth down, and field goals should only be worth two points in order to compel teams to stop kicking the ball, too. My rationale is as follows:
-There were 600 special teams penalties league-wide in 2017, a sizable majority of which occurred during punts. Because penalties reduce the pace of play, any measures to eliminate them should be eagerly embraced.
-As a position group, special teamers are more likely to be injured on a per-play basis than their offensive and defensive counterparts.
-Punting is often strategically irresponsible. In Week 15 of the 2017 season, the Steelers held a 24-19 lead against the Patriots with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but were facing a fourth-and-one from their own 28-yard line. Conventional wisdom will tell you that this is a no-brainer punting situation, but I will tell you that conventional wisdom is both unwise and antiquated, and that giving the ball back to Tom Brady should be avoided at all costs. The benefits conferred by 40 additional yards of field position are negligible if your opponent is going to score anyway, so just holding your nuts and going for it is a worth the risk.
-”Four-down football” is a non-existent concept in professional football. Failing to convert on third-down is essentially a turnover on downs. Oftentimes, in fact, calamities that occur on first- or second-down (fumbles, sacks, penalties, etc.) render third-down virtually meaningless. This is madness.
-Here is a comprehensive list of exciting special-teams plays: 1. Return touchdowns; 2. Last-second field goals; 3. Blocked kicks; 4. That’s literally it. And these kinds of plays are so alarmingly uncommon that replacing them with the prospect of additional sacks, interceptions, and touchdowns is infinitely more compelling.
In conclusion, punting sucks and should be banned immediately.
This is an admittedly baseless declaration, but I think Josh Frazier, the Steelers seventh-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, will crack the 53-man roster. He’s a former five-star recruit who starred as a sixth-man of sorts in Alabama’s eternally-loaded defensive line rotation (oddly enough, Frazier’s former defensive line coach with the Tide, Karl Dunbar, is now coaching the same position group for the Steelers), but could carve out a role in Pittsburgh as a run-stopper in the event that the Steelers need to go heavy (against Jacksonville, for instance). What’s more, the only thing standing between him and a roster spot is Big Dan McCullers, so it isn’t as if he faces insurmountable odds of making the team.