Much has been made of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive struggles during the past few seasons, but if the team is going to make another playoff run in 2015, the offense will need to be more efficient than it was against the New England Patriots on Thursday night.
The Steelers were able to run the ball at will against a stout Patriots’ front seven, and had little trouble picking apart its young and inexperienced secondary. Newly acquired free-agent running back DeAngelo Williams finished with 127 yards on 21 carries (6.0 YPC). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 351 yards and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown continued his dominance, catching nine balls for 133 yards.
The Steelers outgained the Patriots 464 to 361 in total yardage, ran eight more plays and held a 32:05 to 27:55 edge in time of possession. But all of that production equated to a meager 21 points and only two offensive touchdowns; one of which came with two seconds remaining in the game. The Patriots, meanwhile, turned four red zone trips into four touchdowns, helping them secure a 28-21 victory.
In 2014, the Steelers' offense finished second in the NFL in yards per game (411.1) but just seventh in points per game (27.3). Compare that to a Patriots' offense that finished eleventh in yards per game (365.5) and fourth in points per game (29.3), and the issue becomes painfully clear. According to TeamRankings.com, the Steelers' offense scored touchdowns on 51.72% of its red zone trips in 2014 (19th in the NFL), and just 40.74% when playing away from Heinz Field.
We saw more of the same from offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s group in the 2015 opener. Two first-half drives that penetrated the New England 30-yard line resulted in two missed field goal attempts by newly-acquired veteran kicker Josh Scobee. Then, just before the end of the first half, Roethlisberger hit Darrius Heyward-Bey in the corner of the end zone for what would have been a touchdown had not the receiver’s toes been out of bounds when he caught the ball. The Steelers were forced to settle for a field goal.
Two missed field goals and a mental error resulted in a 14-3 halftime deficit, but a chance for redemption came at the start of the fourth quarter. Trailing 21-11, the Steelers were presented with a first-and-goal opportunity from the one-yard line and the following sequence occurred:
1st and Goal at NE 1: (13:30) A.Villanueva reported in as eligible. B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short middle to H. Miller.
2nd and Goal at NE 1: (13:25) W.Johnson up the middle to NE 1 for no gain (S.Siliga; J.Mayo).
3rd and Goal at NE 1: (12:49) PENALTY on PIT-K.Beachum, False Start, 4 yards, enforced at NE 1 - No Play.
3rd and Goal at NE 5: (12:22) (Shotgun) De. Williams up the middle to NE 6 for -1 yards (C.Jones; J.Sheard).
4th and Goal at NE 6: (11:42) J.Scobee 24 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-G.Warren, Holder-J.Berry.
A Steelers touchdown would have cut the Patriots’ lead to 21-18 with 11:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. But the offense settled for yet another field goal and the Pats marched down the field for a game-clinching touchdown on their ensuing possession.
"It’s obviously tough when you don’t get the points, whether it be field goals or missed opportunities in the red zone,’’ Williams told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Or not finishing in the red zone, it obviously hurt our team, especially [against a team] like the New England Patriots that try to score at will."
A combination of unforced mental errors, a lack of execution and a few questionable play calls doomed the Steelers’ offense against the Patriots. Only the San Diego Chargers, who produced 483 yards against the Detroit Lions, outgained the Steelers in Week 1.
With a struggling defense, Pittsburgh will need its offense to convert yardage into points in the coming weeks. Ten days of rest and a chance to play at home should help remedy some of these issues and help the unit overcome the continued absence of playmakers Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell.