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Slow starts and the league’s worst run game doomed a once-promising Steelers season

There were a lot of reasons for the Steelers’ demise, and it is time to boil down just what went wrong.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The dust has barely settled on Pittsburgh’s embarrassing 48-37 home playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday night. The Steelers have a host of big decisions to make in the coming months involving their slew of free agents and, likely, some members of their coaching staff. There is time to deliberate those on the pages of BTSC, in our podcasts and elsewhere. For now, though, we should take a minute to mourn the passing of a once-promising season that began with an historic 11-0 start only to see it wiped out like a sand castle in a tsunami.

How did it deteriorate like this?

The season-ending injuries on defense to Devin Bush and Bud Dupree certainly factored in. So too did the disruption of Pittsburgh’s schedule by the Covid issues in Tennessee and Baltimore. The real culprits, however, existed on offense, where a slew of glaring deficiencies caught up with the Steelers and were exposed, sensationally, for the world to see on Sunday night. Here are the most impactful ones, with some thoughts on how they may be remedied moving forward.

Slow starts on offense

The Steelers averaged just 3.6 points per first quarter this season, which ranked 28th in the NFL. That figure was buoyed a bit by the fact they scored two first-quarter defensive touchdowns. If you take those away, they ranked 31st. Beginning with game seven at Baltimore through Sunday’s playoff loss, they were outscored 58-18 in first quarters. Their opening drives over the final eleven games went like this: fumble, punt, punt, missed FG, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble. They turned the ball over or went three-and-out on eight of those eleven opening possessions. They scored no points.

Their inability to start games quickly didn’t always doom them — they came back from big early deficits against Dallas, Baltimore and Indianapolis to win — but it certainly made things a lot harder. Sunday night’s game against Cleveland exposed their tight-wire act for what it was. When you fail to play a full sixty minutes of football against good opponents when the stakes are high, you leave yourself no margin for error. The Steelers dug themselves an unfathomable 28-0 hole by the end of the first quarter by playing about as poorly as could be imagined and committing the cardinal sins of playoff football: turning the ball over, being less physical than the opposition and failing to execute properly. They could not recover.

Unfortunately, this is not new for them in recent playoff games. In 2017, their last appearance, they fell behind 21-0 in the first twenty minutes to Jacksonville before losing 45-42. In 2016, they were down 10-0 after one quarter to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. They lost that game 36-17. With the debacle against Cleveland, the Steelers have been outscored 52-0 in the first quarter of their last three playoff games.

While the defense shares some of the blame for that abysmal statistic, especially the 2016-2017 units, the offense has been worse. They have turned the ball over four times in those three quarters, leading to 28 points by the opposition, while managing no points of their own. You can’t concede a quarter to your opponent in the playoffs and expect to win.

A big reason the Steelers have been unproductive on offense early in games is the fact they are so pass-heavy and so reliant on Ben Roethlisberger to carry them. If Roethlisberger falters, so does the offense.

Roethlisberger had one impressive first quarter this season, going 12-14 for 110 yards and a touchdown against Tennessee. The rest of the way, he was a cumulative 64-117 (54.7%) for 544 yards with two touchdowns, three interceptions and two fumbles. That includes going 3-6 for 20 yards and two interceptions on the Steelers first four possessions Sunday night.

Often, the Steelers opened games this season with a predictable menu of short, quick passes mixed with the occasional inside zone run. Defenses adjusted by crowding the box, pressing their receivers and daring them to throw deep. When they could not, the offense often flailed around ineffectively, wasting valuable possessions, before discovering an alternative.

Roethlisberger has demonstrated time and again that he improves as a game progresses. The more he sees from a defense, the better he gets. He’s old for a pro quarterback, too, and seems to take a while to get loosened up. Knowing this, it would make sense for the Steelers to try to run the ball better early in games to let Roethlisberger get acclimated and to open up passing lanes down the field. Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done.

You Can’t Win in January With the League’s Worst Rushing Attack

The run game, as the heading indicates, was awful. The Steelers averaged just 84.4 yards per game for the season, which was last in the league and the lowest in team history. It was effective early on, as the Steelers averaged a respectable 130 yards per game in their first six contests. It fell off a cliff thereafter. Pittsburgh closed the season averaging just over 50 rushing yards in their final eleven games.

The culprits for its demise are many. The inability to push the football down the field in the passing game, as mentioned above, was a huge factor. Pittsburgh finished 25th in the league at 6.1 yards per pass attempt, which meant they saw a lot of “quarters” and man-coverage with safeties cheating down into the box.

Also, between injuries and Covid issues, the line got banged up. The Steelers had to shuffle pieces, moving tackle Matt Feiler to guard, shuttling rookie Kevin Dotson in and out of the lineup and playing reserves J.C. Hassenhauer, Derwin Gray and Jerald Hawkins. The play of veterans David DeCastro, Alejandro Villanueva and Maurkice Pouncey fell off, too. While all three remained solid pass protectors and could still move in space, none could get a push at the line of scrimmage, virtually nullifying the interior run game. The Steelers’ lacked a true speed back to turn the corner on sweep and outside zone plays as well. So, without the power to run inside or the speed to capture the edge, their options were slim.

This play from the first quarter Sunday night typified their struggles. On a 3rd and 1 from their own 35 yard line trailing 14-0, they ran fullback Derek Watt on a dive play straight up the gut. Pouncey, who has been so good for so long but now, ten years into his career, with a playing weight probably closer to 280 pounds than the 305 at which the Steelers list him, got blown up by defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi. Ogunjobi won vertical leverage, got his hands inside on Pouncey and drove him back into Watt. It certainly did not help that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called this exact same play, out of the exact same formation, on a 3rd and 1 on Pittsburgh’s previous drive. Cleveland was not surprised at all to see Watt get the ball again. Still, had Pouncey not been manhandled, the play had a chance to succeed.

There is no question the Steelers need to address the offensive line in this year’s draft. They have drafted just one lineman, Chuks Okorafor, in the first three rounds since 2012. They have been relying on undrafted free agents (Villanueva, Feiler) and mid-to-late round picks (Dotson, Gray, Hawkins, Wesley Johnson) ever since. Some of those they’ve hit on, some they’ve missed. But to truly upgrade the line, they will have to spend a high draft pick there like they did when they took Pouncey (2010) and DeCastro (2012) in the first round.

As for the backfield, James Conner is a free agent and may not be re-signed. While Conner is an effective receiver, he has not shown he can stay healthy or carry the load in a way the Steelers prefer at the running back position. They may let him walk, elevate Benny Snell Jr. in the running back rotation and look to fill Conner’s role with another high draft pick.

Then there’s the play-calling to consider. It seems unlikely Randy Fichtner will survive the meltdown of the past two months. As much as the Steelers stress stability in their organization, a league-worst run game and an offense that regressed terribly throughout the season seems damning to Fichtner’s case.

Heading into the season, it seemed the best recipe for success for the offense was to surround the aging Roethlisberger with a great defense and an effective run game, ala Peyton Manning in his Denver days. The Steelers did attempt to introduce a few wrinkles early on by implementing some of the motions and formations quarterbacks coach Matt Canada brought with him from the college ranks. Roethlisberger did not seem particularly fond of them, however, and by mid-season the Steelers were back to lining up in static 11 personnel sets and having him sling the rock forty-some times a game. Fichtner did not seem capable of devising an alternative.

There is no guarantee Roethlisberger will be back in 2021. If he is, he will be 39 years old. Pouncey and DeCastro will be a year older, too. Juju Smith-Schuster, Conner and Villanueva are all likely to be gone in free agency and the Steelers will be so capped-out they will be hard-pressed to replace them with quality players. Running the same offense next season, with the same coordinator, seems untenable. The Steelers must make changes to their personnel, philosophy and scheme in order to be successful.

What will those changes look like? It’s too early to say. Whatever they do, the Steelers must invest in their run game and must find a way to play sixty minutes of football consistently rather than falling behind early and scrambling to catch up. That’s a difficult recipe for success, especially come playoff time. The Steelers learned that the hard way, again, on Sunday night.