The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense receives a majority of the abuse meted out by fans these days, and deservedly so. But offense might actually be the decisive issue in the team's current stretch run. Because defense is the devil everyone knows, nobody harbors any illusions about its capabilities. But too many fans ignore the fact that Pittsburgh still isn’t showing the offensive consistency necessary to compete against the NFL’s top contenders.
While there definitely were some positives in the Steelers' Thanksgiving Day win at Indianapolis, we also witnessed some troublesome backsliding, with the offense stalling at key points during a game that might otherwise have been comfortably salted away. The final 28-7 score was misleading because it didn’t truly characterize the Colts’ ample opportunities to make this game a real cardiac affair.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the offensive stumbles we’ve seen by the Steelers this season is that they’ve had nothing to do with the talent on the field. Typically moving the ball in fits and starts, the Steelers’ offense frequently stops itself via an incoherent offensive scheme, questionable play selection at crucial junctures, or both. From all appearances, these gaffes can be equally attributed to both the Steelers’ coaching staff and Ben Roethlisberger. Particularly evident in first- and third-down situations, the Steelers periodically hit these weird patches when they simply fail to run the types of plays necessary to sustain scoring drives. In Indianapolis, for example, they resumed their well-known tendency to call deep passes on 1st downs, as well as in 3rd-and-short situations.
Far too often, it appears that the Steelers view 1st-and-10 as a throwaway down or perhaps as an occasion to “go sandlot” and draw up their plays in the dirt. The fact that they occasionally convert big plays in such situations only tends to mask the unpleasant reality that, far more frequently, this strategy fails and produces 3rd-and-long situations, ultimately forcing punts.
It’s absolutely maddening how often this offense stalls just outside of field goal range, thereby missing opportunities to add points to the scoreboard. It’s also strange that, for some time now, the Steelers have continued to ignore the crucial importance of first and third downs in terms of moving the sticks and sustaining scoring drives. Simply because they’ve got Big Ben at QB, they seem to believe that down-and-distance considerations somehow are irrelevant.
Too often this season, we’ve seen how opposing teams are quite well schooled in the Steelers’ offensive tendencies. Defensively, the entire NFL knows that, if they can just limit the production of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ offense will revert to a fairly toothless unit. In general, over-reliance on big plays and a lack of offensive diversity continue to represent serious flaws which have hurt this team in the past and eventually could derail their chances for a playoff run.
In the wake of two consecutive wins against less-than-stellar competition, it’s difficult to get any true sense of where this team stands heading into next Sunday’s showdown against the Giants. But the matchup at Heinz Field is likely to give Steelers Nation a much better fix on whether the Black and Gold has what it takes to advance in the postseason. While we’ve seen evidence of scattered improvements on defense, few fans doubt that the Big Ben offense will be the determining factor of the 2016 season.
But to make their late-season run a success, the Steelers probably need to reexamine and refine their overall offensive strategy. Thus far in 2016, the Steelers’ offense has failed to deliver the goods almost as frequently as it has succeeded. If we continue to see this offense dialing up plays poorly suited to its down-and-distance situations, and given the known liabilities of the Pittsburgh defense, it’s going to be quite difficult for the Steelers to keep pace with opponents that have stout defenses in addition to more consistent offenses.
Most importantly, the Steelers’ offense needs to build some momentum during the remaining regular-season games, as the team drives to stay ahead of the Ravens for a playoff berth. This is not a season when Pittsburgh can afford to back into the playoffs chiefly because the team happens to belong to the mediocre, AFC North. Having witnessed the mutual ineptitude of the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in their ugly matchup this weekend, it seems naive to expect a team winning this division, possibly with a record no better than 9-7, to advance very far in the postseason. The upcoming matchup with the 8-3 Giants—a team clearly a cut above Cleveland or Indy—thus promises to give a far better indication of the Steelers’ prospects for the remainder of the 2016 season.
At some point during the month of December, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to demonstrate that they’re something better than a team satisfied to languish in the neighborhood of .500 football. They need to finally show they’ve gotten a real handle on the issues which have dogged them since opening day. This would require the Steelers soon to reach a level where they’re proficient not only in dispatching teams like the Browns and Colts, but also capable of turning the corner against teams such as New England, Oakland, Dallas and Seattle. Based on what we’ve seen so far in 2016, and despite their current, two-game winning streak, the Steelers’ offense still has plenty of work to do before reaching a level of play consistent with the profile of a legitimate Super Bowl contender.