The Steelers’ 36-10 loss to Kansas City on Boxing Day was one of the most frustrating games of a frustrating season. Perhaps the worst part of it (like so many of the Steelers’ no-show performances) is that so much of the trash was seemingly self-inflicted. There were missed tackles, strange offensive calls, god-awful blocks, and on and on.
My impulse, in moments like this, is to try to figure out what happened – why it went wrong and what could fix it. So I’ve been doing that a little this week.
Now, there are some things I’m not inclined to question. I don’t wonder, for example, why they let Adrien Klemm walk with a few weeks to go (I thought Mike Tomlin’s answer made sense, and I don’t know what Klemm was bringing anyway). I don’t question the decision to give Mason Rudolph a full complement of plays down the line in the fourth quarter (which was one of the only chances the front office will get to see Rudolph perform this year, and which showed that this team doesn’t just give up even when victory is out of reach). And I’m not looking for reasons why Diontae Johnson fumbled all by himself in the third quarter, immediately killing any chance of mounting a comeback (sometimes a guy simply screws up). I don’t even really question the Steelers losing to Kansas City. That’s a good team on a roll.
But I do have some other questions. And here they are:
For the OFFENSE
1 - Why is RayRay McCloud such a big part of the offensive game-plan?
I know Ben tried to answer this the other day, but “RayRay gets open” simply doesn’t match what I’m seeing. McCloud had eight targets against K.C. The only player with more targets was Diontae Johnson. And yet, the kick return specialist only managed four catches for 25 yards (a measly 6.25 yards per reception). And worse, his long was a nice 17 yard grab that he followed up with a 15 yard taunting penalty. So he netted 10 yards on four catches (2.5 yards per catch). He also missed several blocks, and was the target on Ben’s interception.
As far as I remember, all these targets were from the first 40 minutes of the game, which is when the Steelers were being manhandled by the Chiefs defense. With as much talent as this team has at skill positions, how does anyone justify running the bulk of the offense through RayRay McCloud when the game is at its most competitive?
2 - What did James Washington do in the last 36 months?
Washington was once a rising star in the Steelers WR room. He led the team in receiving yards in 2019, when catching passes from Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph. And he was an exciting big-play threat more than once, sparking a comeback against Cincinnati in week 11, and notching a 100 yard day the next week in a grudge match against Cleveland. In fact, from weeks 8 to 14 of that year, James averaged 4.1 catches for over 76 yards (a whopping 18.3 yards per catch). Stretched out over a full season, that’s around 70 catches for nearly 1300 yards. And that’s from the Duck-&-Mason Show. In the two-plus seasons since, he’s only topped 45 yards receiving in a game four times. What happened?
3 - Why were the Steelers running gadget plays down by 30? And why were they running flea-flickers into the wind on a gusty day in the first quarter?
I don’t want to explain this because it seems pretty self-explanatory. The flea-flicker became an interception that looked like a terrible pass from Ben, but should probably never have been called. Flea-flickers are meant to free up a deep pass, but that wind was strong; why not take that into account when you’re calling plays? And the fake-reverse (or whatever it was) that ended up as a fumble? That was just a bad call.
Gadget plays complement a standard offense; they don’t replace it.
4 - Is Pat Freiermuth the only TE who can catch?
Against the Titans, as soon as Freiermuth went down, the team ran a screen pass to Zack Gentry. It went for 17 yards, and Gentry mauled three Tennessee defenders. I took that as a pretty good sign going forward.
Against the Chiefs, tight ends saw six targets. But four of them were on Mason Rudolph’s final drive, and a fifth came on Big Ben’s final couple of snaps. That is, Gentry caught one pass five seconds before halftime, then a tight end wasn’t targeted again until there was less than four minutes to go and the Steelers were out of the game.
My question above is facetious. The Steelers tight ends aren’t bad. Maybe throw them the ball?
5 - Doesn’t a FB create more opportunities (blocking, running)?
I know some people have been beating the drum for more fullback usage to block in the running game. But I actually think a fullback would be helpful in all sorts of ways – pass-blocking, providing an outlet pass, blocking for Najee Harris, and even occasionally carrying the ball. With the wretched offensive line play, you’d think an extra blocker (who could be utilized as a ball-carrier too) would be useful. A creative offensive coordinator might see that potential, you’d think.
6 - Is this the best blocking scheme for this personnel?
I don’t know much about blocking schemes, but I know that whatever the Steelers are using isn’t working. I hear people talk about zone blocking, or outside trap blocking schemes, etc. There must be something that’s more suited to these guys.
For the DEFENSE
7 - Why aren’t you wrapping up?
Last year, the biggest problem this team had was missing tackles. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest problem this year too. In fact, I counted THREE Chiefs touchdowns that could have been stopped simply by better tackling. (As a side note, if you tackle the ball and turn those into field goals, you’ve taken 12 points off the board. 24-10 isn’t game-changing, but it kinda is.)
8 - What’s wrong with Alex Highsmith?
Highsmith looked like a killer in the preseason, and actually ranks quite well in the league in tackles for loss. But he’s got four sacks on the year. That’s abysmal for a starting OLB in an edge-rushing team like Pittsburgh. What’s happening with him?
9 – What happened to Stephon Tuitt, and if he comes back next year, what will that mean?
Tuitt has been a monster his whole career, but he’s also been profoundly injury-prone. And there’s no such thing as an injury that costs you a whole season (in your prime) that’s easy to come back from. What was his injury? And how likely is it that he can actually come back from it and play with any kind of aggression or dominance.
(As a side note, I believe Tuitt’s absence has been the single biggest factor this season in the Steelers’ failing rush defense. You can add Tyson Alualu’s absence too – he’s an underrated anchor – but given the choice between the two of them, I’d take Tuitt back in a blink. It’s possible that one reason Devin Bush and Joe Schobert have looked overmatched this year is that the line in front of them has been so threadbare. After all, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons got to play behind Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. Bush and Schobert play behind Cam Heyward and a rotation of young guys and castoffs…)
10 - What did you do with Akello Witherspoon, & can you do it with more guys?
Witherspoon was burned badly early in his Steelers tenure. In fact, I was genuinely shocked when I saw him starting later in the year, after James Pierre got benched. Then he went out and made a number of highlights against Baltimore and the Chargers. What changed with him? And can you do that with any of the other guys? Joe Haden may not be back next year. That’s going to be important.
11 - What is Pressley Harvin doing wrong so often?
Harvin is clearly a very talented punter. But he shanks way too often. After watching Corliss Waitman bomb two punts over 60 yards against K.C., I find myself wondering why Harvin is so prone to 30 yard dinks. I suspect his talent for situational punting is good – coffin corner kicks, high hang-time, etc. And I understand that an attempted coffin-corner can sometimes go awry, leading to a short duck. But I don’t understand why Harvin has so many pooch-punts when the team is backed up and needs to flip the field. It didn’t look that hard with Waitman.
So those are my questions. Since I’m sure Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Ben Roethlisberger, Keith Butler, and Art Rooney read this stuff religiously, I look forward to their answers. Go Steelers.