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The Steelers will not survive in January without a viable rushing attack

Everyone knows what needs to happen, but can it actually come to fruition?

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Let’s cut to the chase: the Steelers offense is broken. A unit that averaged 30.5 points per game over the first six contests of the season has averaged 22.7 points in the seven games since. Even worse, they’ve averaged just 14.6 points in their last three games, which include a narrow win over a Covid-ravaged Baltimore squad and disheartening losses to Washington and Buffalo.

Why has the offense regressed so spectacularly? The trigger point was the week seven game in Baltimore, when the Steelers, trailing 17-7 at halftime, pulled the plug on their game-plan and went to a no-huddle attack that largely consisted of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger orchestrating from the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh threw the ball on 36 of 37 plays at one point, with Big Ben leading the team to a thrilling 28-24 comeback victory.

The Steelers proceeded in this fashion in subsequent weeks. They threw the ball 137 times against just 65 runs in wins over Dallas, Cincinnati and Jacksonville. The passing attack was overwhelmingly based on short and intermediate throws designed to get the ball out of Roethisberger’s hand quickly. This accomplished three things: it kept Roethlisberger from getting hit, which, given his age and the Steelers’ shaky backup quarterback situation, seemed essential; it served as a de facto rushing attack so that, although the Steelers were not running the ball in traditional fashion, they were replicating a run game on the perimeter with their receivers; and it masked the fact that Roethlisberger could not throw the deep ball with much effectiveness anymore.

The 68/32 pass/run split in those three contests following the Baltimore game was a significant departure from the balanced attack the Steelers had featured early on, when their pass/run split was 55/45 and they had run the ball fairly well (129.4 yards per game, 4.3 yards per carry). They continued to win, however, which made it difficult to question the change in strategy.

Then came the rematch with Baltimore in week eleven. The Ravens laid forth a game-plan that interrupted the quick passing attack by having defenders squat at or just beyond the line of scrimmage and jam the release of the Steelers’ receivers, disrupting the timing of these routes and forcing Roethlisberger to either make contested short throws or throw the ball deeper down the field. Roethlisberger attempted 51 passes but produced just 266 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per pass. His receivers were credited with a number of drops, which contributed to the struggles. The offense scored just one touchdown.

Their production was not much better against Washington, with 53 passes garnering 305 yards (5.8 ypp). The drops continued, either ending drives or putting the Steelers behind the chains. Sunday night against Buffalo, the strategy failed miserably: 38 pass attempts, 177 yards, 4.6 ypp, several more drops and two interceptions. The interceptions, in particular, underscored the limitations of their dependence on the passing game.

On the first one, with the Steelers looking to build on a 7-3 lead just before halftime, Roethlisberger missed inside on a quick out to Juju Smith-Schuster that was picked by Buffalo’s Taron Johnson and returned 51 yards for a momentum-changing score:

It wasn’t the fact that Roethlisberger missed on the throw that defined the problem. It was the fact that Johnson dared him to make the throw in the first place. Buffalo blanketed the underneath routes with a corner, slot corner and linebacker while a single safety was left to defend anything vertical. The Bills bet heavily on the short throw because that has been Pittsburgh’s offense for half-a-season now. When they got it, they made Roethlisberger pay for his mistake.

On the second interception, which came midway through the fourth quarter with the Steelers down 26-15 and badly needing points, Roethlisberger underthrew a vertical to James Washington on which Washington had his defender beat but had to come to a virtual stop to work back to the ball. Roethlisberger initially looked to his left on the play, where the Steelers were (again) running a quick combo. With both routes covered, he came back to Washington. He was late in his progression, however, and Washington was far enough down the field where Roethlisberger needed to step into the throw and drive it. He didn’t, instead launching a throw that was predominantly propelled by his upper body. The pass was picked off, ending any realistic hope for a comeback:

I don’t point these things out to bury Roethlisberger. He is 38, returning from injury and has, for most of the season, played at a much higher level than many thought capable. But his short-comings must be noted. He can no longer consistently throw an accurate deep ball. He is not mobile enough to escape the pocket and extend plays. He does not like to throw off of play-action, which takes a potentially valuable strategy off the table. What he still does well, very well at times, is diagnose coverages and throw the quick and intermediate passing tree. Unfortunately, defenses have gotten far too comfortable against this attack and have figured out how to contain it. The offense must adjust in order to be successful.

What adjustments can be made? Given Roethlisberger’s limitations, the logical (and perhaps only) choice is to re-commit to running the football. By “re-commit” I’m not suggesting the Steelers put tight ends and fullbacks on the field and try to slam the ball down people’s throats. They are not going to morph into a dominant run team at this point in the season. But, by shifting their focus, they may be able to re-gain their early season form.

Here’s another look at their rushing numbers:

First six games: 776 yards on 184 carries, 4.3 yards per carry, 30.6 attempts per game, 129.4 yards per game, 55/45 pass-run ratio, 30.5 points per game.

Last seven games: 382 yards on 132 carries, 2.9 yards per carry, 18.8 attempts per game, 54.2 yards per game, 68/32 pass-run ratio, 22.7 points per game.

It’s easy to look at those numbers and say, “Why would the Steelers run the ball more when they’re averaging three yards a carry the last seven games?” Because look at all of the other numbers. They were averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry earlier in the season when they were attempting to run it. When they stopped trying, they stopped running it well.

Much of the Steelers’ rushing success came when they threw the ball early in games to build leads and then ran it late to protect them. It is unlikely they can gain early leads on teams simply by running the football. The last few weeks have proven they can’t be successful with a constant dink-and-dunk passing attack, either. They must have the ability to do both.

Of course, no team can just say “We need to run the ball better” and expect it to happen. A team that throws nearly 70% of the time spends most of its time in practice throwing. To run the ball well, the Steelers have to prepare for it. Listen to what Jerome Bettis had to say recently on this very topic:

“The running game is a mentality,” Bettis told Ed Bouchette of The Athletic, “so if you’re going to be a physical running team, you have to commit to it... Once the offensive line knows there’s a commitment, then they approach it much differently.”

When you watch the Steelers’ offensive linemen in their stances, so often you see them with their weight on their heels. That’s because they are constantly pass-setting. Even when they run, they rarely have their weight forward. It’s near-impossible to get a push in the run game when you are conditioned to pass-set. Offensive linemen want to be hammers, not nails, and though this particular line is not replete with guys like Willie Colon or Marvel Smith, they were proficient enough as a unit to deliver a serviceable rushing attack the first six games of the season.

A re-boot of the run game cannot happen next Monday night when the Steelers take the field in Cincinnati. It has to start immediately. It has to be emphasized in practice so the linemen know it will be an integral part of the game-plan. There are injuries along the offensive line, so whomever fills out the starting unit has to know physical play will be expected. For the mindset to change, running the ball cannot be a suggestion. It must be a demand.

Would Ben Roethlisberger sign off on such a demand? That remains to be seen. Roethlisberger is thought to have significant influence over play-caller Randy Fichtner. If Roethlisberger doesn’t want to run the ball, there may not be a run game. He did tell the media after the game on Sunday, “We need to do better at being a more balanced offense.” That’s encouraging. The Steelers will have to work at it if they wish it to be so.

This is not a power offense, nor should it attempt to be. But it cannot be completely reliant on Roethlisberger and his receivers, either. If the Steelers want to make any noise this post-season, a more equitable pass-run distribution is needed. It would take some of the pressure off of Roethlisberger and it would get the offensive line thinking aggressively again. Both will be necessary for the Steelers to have any hope of succeeding come January.