During the first half of the 2017 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers leaned on the running game. Le’Veon Bell has more carries than any other running back in the NFL and, while some are asking if the team will run the wheels off of Bell, maybe it won’t matter.
Maybe the Steelers will be more of a passing team in the back half of the season. If the Week-11 game against the Tennessee Titans is any indication, the Steelers proved one thing—they’re capable of winning this way.
Realizing one game is a tiny sample size, there’s not enough evidence to prove the team could be leaning this way in the foreseeable future, but it certainly makes you think this might be the true key to keep the offense from falling back into the same funk they were in prior to the second half of the Titans game.
Time to check on the news outside the walls of BTSC:
The Steelers turned their season around last year at about this time when they shifted their offense from a pass-heavy attack to one that leaned heavily on running back Le'Veon Bell.
This season, the raw numbers suggest a turn in the other direction might be prudent.
The Steelers rank 27th in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (3.6), but they rank sixth in yards per passing attempt (7.0).
Over the course of the current 5-game winning streak, the disparity is even starker. The Steelers are averaging 8.2 yards per passing attempt — a figure that would, by far, lead the league if maintained over the course of the full season.
Over the past four games, however, the Steelers are averaging 3.1 yards per rush. Maintaining that pace would rank them 31st out of 32 teams in that category for the full season.
The Steelers have 26 rushes of 10 yards or more this season, but they have 27 carries that went for negative yardage. Only three teams have fewer carries of at least 20 yards (the Steelers have three).
Injuries that sidelined two starting defensive backs for a game against a division leader might have crippled many NFL teams. That's especially true for one that has spent much of its financial resources on offense.
The Steelers, though, overcame some hiccups by their substitutes in the secondary to limit the Tennessee Titans to only two touchdowns in a 40-17 victory Thursday night that kept them atop the AFC playoff race.
With Joe Haden out with a fractured fibula and Mike Mitchell missing with an ankle injury, the Steelers weren't forced to plug in rookies or untested backups against the first-place Titans. Instead, they turned to two former NFL starters, a sign of the depth in their secondary that’s uncommon in the salary-cap era.
And the backups made significant contributions in the Steelers' fifth consecutive win, which came as no surprise to linebacker Ryan Shazier, the defensive play-caller.
“When they come in,” he said, “we expect them to make plays.”
Coty Sensabaugh, who started for three teams before joining the Steelers in March, replaced Haden and had an interception that led to a first-half field goal and a 13-7 lead. Robert Golden, who lost his starting job to strong safety Sean Davis last season, replaced Mitchell at free safety, finishing the game with five tackles plus an interception that led to the final field goal in the 23-point margin of victory.
“We know who is coming in and what they can do,” Shazier said. “We just played our defense. It doesn't matter if starters are in or the last man on the depth chart. We have everybody ready for the game. They are in the same meetings everyone is in, so it's not like they are getting shorter knowledge.”
Some day, the Steelers could talk about playing the Tennessee Titans on a Thursday night as the breakthrough game of a Super season.
That storyline inevitably will turn toward Ben Roethlisberger's halftime challenge of an underachieving offense that had struggled to convert on third downs, in the red zone or put 30 points on the scoreboard.
To take nothing away from the narrative of Big Ben's outspoken show of leadership in the locker room, it wasn't so much about what he said as what followed.
The Steelers flipped that script, turning their failures into fortune in a runaway 40-17 victory over the Titans at Heinz Field.
It was all so sudden and unexpected, especially against a Titans defense led by legendary zone-blitz guru Dick LeBeau.
“I think you can call this a breakout game in terms of points, but I still think that we're going to look at this and say, ‘Man, we left a lot out there,' ” said Roethlisberger, who completed 20 of 23 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
“I'm going to give them credit. That's a Coach LeBeau defense. They stopped us a lot on third downs and stopped us in the red zone. Was it our best game? No. Was it better? Yeah.”