The Steelers were embarrassed by the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday, losing 41-10 in a game that wasn’t even that close. They are on a three-game winless streak at present, with a narrow decision over the lowly Bears their lone victory in November.
At 5-5-1 on the season, the math says they remain in playoff contention. Reality suggests otherwise. Counting the final six games of 2020, Pittsburgh is 6-10-1 over their last 17 games. With a brutal closing stretch to this year’s schedule, 6-10-1 seems a harbinger of things to come.
The culprits for their current state are many. Injuries have ravaged the team at several positions, and their lack of roster depth has thrust back-ups into roles for which they are not prepared. The quarterback is old and immobile. The receiving corps, once thought to be a strength, has not developed as anticipated. The tackling on defense has been, in a word, atrocious.
Nothing has hurt the Steelers more, however, than their inability to control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. Put simply, Pittsburgh is getting dominated in the trenches. This was true on Sunday, where they rushed for just 51 yards while yielding 198 to the Bengals. It was true the week before against the Chargers, when they ran for 55 yards while giving up 159. They’ve been outgained on the ground 724-356 the past four weeks, a ratio of more than 2:1.
It’s not just the run game. Their failure to protect Ben Roethlisberger is so pronounced the Steelers have resorted to a passing attack consisting almost exclusively of receiver screens, underneath routes and jump-balls. In other words, throws Roethlisberger can release quickly before getting hit.
I’m 51 years old and have been a Steelers’ fan since the mid-1970s. While my memory is far from infallible, I cannot remember a time when they were this bad at the line of scrimmage. Even in the dying days of the Chuck Noll era, when the team retreated to mediocrity, they were decent up front. They had solid linemen, like Craig Wolfley, Tunch Ilkin and Keith Willis. Their downfall was at the skill positions. Along the line, they held their own.
That’s not the case now. While they've been bad up front all season, what we saw in Cincinnati was a low-point. The Bengals thrashed the Steelers in the same fashion the Steelers have hammered Cincinnati so many times over the years. They simply out-muscled Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Pittsburgh fell behind so fast they didn’t have much of an opportunity to establish the run. When they did try, the young, inexperienced line was again overwhelmed by stacked boxes and a more aggressive foe.
Here’s a play that typified their run game. The Steelers aligned in a 21 personnel set with Anthony McFarland as a tight slot. Cincinnati played man coverage and put eight defenders in the box. The Steelers used jet motion to remove one of those defenders but still faced a 6-on-7 disadvantage. They ran Benny Snell on a mid-zone play to the right. Tackle Chuks Okorafor could not hold the edge, though. Rather than uncoil his hips and get chest-to-chest on the block, Okorafor resorted to pushing like a junior high player. The end disengaged. Meanwhile, there was no blocker to account for the rolled-up safety. Snell gained one yard:
The Steelers got better looks to run the ball when they went 12 personnel. Here, out of a tackles-over look that put Dan Moore and Okorafor on the right side of the formation and tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry on the left, they faced a seven-man box with two high safeties protecting against the four-verticals route. Pittsburgh ran the ball on a zone concept to Najee Harris. The jet motion from Chase Claypool coupled with Freiermuth coming across the formation to kick the back-side end created a split-flow that was meant to slow the linebackers. It worked, to a degree. Harris found a small hole created by a decent turn-out block from Gentry on the end. He squeezed through it for a modest three-yard gain. Astoundingly, it was his second-longest run of the afternoon:
That play, in a nutshell, summarizes the state of the run game. Even when the Steelers get a favorable box, they have to scheme creatively just to make three yards.
In the passing game, Cincinnati showed no fear of Pittsburgh’s receivers, practically daring them to win one-on-one. Rather than run crossing routes, which are tough on defenders in man-coverage, the Steelers relied almost exclusively on jump balls up the sideline, which are low percentage throws that require precise execution. Roethlisberger managed to hit one of these — a 41 yarder to Claypool — but he missed on several others, including an interception on Pittsburgh’s opening drive when he and Claypool miscommunicated. Most ended like the one below, with Claypool unable to gain separation and the throw falling incomplete. Claypool was targeted 8 times on the day, but managed just 3 receptions.
The reliance on these vertical fades, and the refusal to attack horizontally, is all about protection. Horizontal routes take time to develop. The Steelers’ line is incapable of providing that time. Even on the throw above, which Roethlisberger released as soon as he hit the back of his drop, there was pressure in his face. That pressure, which has been a constant for two seasons now, has begun to take a toll. Roethlisberger is now anticipating it, even when it’s not there, and his willingness to hang in the pocket has all but disappeared.
Watch him on the following drop-back. With six defenders crowding the ball in the pre-snap picture, Roethlisberger likely anticipated pressure. Cincinnati’s linebackers peeled off into coverage, though, and with Najee Harris staying in to help with protection, the Steelers had six blockers to handle just four pass-rushers. The pocket they created was secure, but Roethlisberger, rather than stand tall and work through his progression, immediately bailed and ran himself into a sack:
It’s hard to blame him, given how quickly he’s often under duress. Still, Roethlisberger’s unwillingness to hang in the pocket, coupled with his immobility, leaves the Steelers with few options in the passing game.
Defensively, the thrashing in Cincinnati was largely the product of a front that has been decimated by injury. Minus Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers have been handicapped along the line all season. While Chris Wormley has been an adequate replacement, the team has struggled to find a reliable third lineman for their base defense. Henry Mondeaux, Isaiahh Loudermilk and Daniel Archibong all took reps in that spot on Sunday, with none distinguishing themselves. Mondeaux and Archibong are undrafted free agents while Loudermilk is a rookie 5th Round draft pick. With those options, it’s not surprising the front has struggled.
An additional problem exists at linebacker where Devin Bush, a former 1st Round pick the Steelers traded up to acquire, has regressed significantly since suffering the ACL injury that derailed his 2020 season. Bush lacks explosiveness and quickness, both of which were evident on Cincinnati’s second play from scrimmage when Joe Mixon took a simple inside zone run for 25 yards.
The Steelers were relatively sound on the play. Cam Heyward and Mondeaux both gave some ground, but neither vacated their play-side gap. Alex Highsmith was up the field a bit on the edge, but Joe Schobert’s scrape provided compensation. The only open gap on the play was the one Bush should have filled. Aligned on the back side, he was too slow to beat the guard as he chipped off of his double-team on Heyward. Had Bush arrived a half-step sooner, he could have ripped through the block into the hole. Instead, he caught the block in the chest:
With the Steelers in a single-high look, there was no safety to lend immediate run support. So, once Mixon cleared the hole, he had plenty of space before Minkah Fitzpatrick was able to come from the deep middle to corral him. In this defense, with this coverage call, Bush had to make that play.
Bush played 57 snaps against the Bengals and registered just 4 tackles. That’s an incredibly low percentage for an off-ball backer in the Steelers’ scheme. Before the knee injury, it looked like he’d be a fixture at the position for the next decade. Now, it seems increasingly likely the Steelers will let him walk when his rookie contract expires after next season.
Bush wasn’t the only culprit for Pittsburgh’s run-woes on defense. Another factor was their inability to hold the line of scrimmage. On this play, Heyward and Archibong (61) both got driven into Bush’s lap by Cincinnati’s offensive line. This cluttered Bush’s ability to read the play and allowed Mixon to cut back into a gaping hole:
The surge on the next play was even worse, as the entire Steelers’ front was knocked off the ball both vertically and horizontally. Mixon wasn’t touched until he was six yards down the field. The contrast between this run and most of the runs by Najee Harris, who has routinely been contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage this season, is striking.
We can nit pick about the scheme if we want. The Steelers were in nickel against 11 personnel, with Minkah Fitzpatrick lined up over the tight end to the right of Cincinnati’s formation. While Fitzpatrick made the tackle, he did so after being driven five yards deep. Why ask Fitzpatrick to run-fit at the line, where he had to engage a tight end who outweighed him by 50 pounds?
The issue isn’t really about scheme, though. It’s about talent. The Steelers don’t have enough of it. Heyward has been a stalwart, but even he was not immune to being manhandled on Sunday. Wormley is ideally a rotational player or a back-up. Loudermilk needs time to develop. Isaiah Buggs was a healthy scratch for the Cincy game, which, given Pittsburgh’s lack of depth at the position, speaks volumes about his play these days. Archibong, meanwhile, is the latest piece of spaghetti the Steelers have flung against the wall in hopes of finding a defensive lineman who will stick. While it’s unfair to write the young man off after just two games in Pittsburgh, it’s also unfair to expect him to quickly become a difference-maker, something the team needs desperately right now.
At linebacker, Schobert is solid in pass coverage but struggles against the run. Bush has become a liability in both areas. Robert Spillane took just eight snaps against Cincinnati before exiting with a knee injury. Ulysses Gilbert III is yet to show he’s a viable option. Buddy Johnson is yet to play a snap. If Vince Williams could be coaxed out of retirement, he’d probably be Pittsburgh’s best option right now.
The injuries have hurt, no doubt about it. But injuries are a part of the game. The roster that remains just isn’t that talented.
So, the Steelers are struggling at the line of scrimmage, and it’s having a huge impact on their ability to win football games. With the trade deadline gone, and with no better options available, the unfortunate reality is that, for the rest of the season, things are likely to stay this way.