In Week 6, the Steelers pulled off an improbable victory against the Arizona Cardinals. This week, they were unable to beat the Kansas City Chiefs who, prior to beating the Steelers, only had one victory. Some of the problems were understandable. The Steelers were starting their third-string quarterback, had a key member of the offensive line fall to a season-ending injury last week, and were playing on the road against a team with a deceptively strong defense.
Now that the dust has settled, what problems could plague the Steelers in future weeks, and which problems aren't worth the anxiety?
Consistency of the Run Defense: Freak Out
Consistency of the run defense was a Freak Out last week, and it remains a Freak Out this week. Last week was a Freak Out even though the Steelers were able to make important adjustments in the second half of the game against the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers have a good run-defense deep down inside, but sometimes they keep it hidden.
That was the case today as the Steelers gave up 138 yards against the Chiefs on 29 rushing plays. That's an average of 4.8 yards per play. Keep in mind that Chiefs stellar running back Jamaal Charles is out with a season-ending injury. Second-year running back Charcandrick West was responsible for 110 yards of that total.
When the Steelers can stop the run, they generally win, with two exceptions. They did a decent job against the run in Week 1 against the Patriots, but the Patriots aren't known for their running game. This was also the week the Steelers defense the left Rob Gronkowski completely undefended on several plays.
Second exception: The 49ers had 111 yards, but most of those were from scramble-at-the-last-minute-because-he-has-trouble-throwing-the-ball quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Consistency against the run is critical to the Steelers' success, and it will be hard for the Steelers to be serious contenders in the AFC if they cannot stop the run more reliably.
The Inconsistent Steelers Run Defense: Yards Allowed & Avg Yards per Carry
Kansas City: 138; 4.8 (L)
Cardinals: 55; 2.8 (W)
Baltimore: 191; 4.9 (L)
Rams: 71; 3.9 (W)
49ers: 111; 3.6 (W)
Patriots: 80; 3.3 (L)
Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley: Chill Out
Seriously, if you're freaking out about Todd Haley, stop it! Last weak, he faced off against his predecessor, former Steelers Offensive Coordinator and current Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. The result? The Steelers won even without Ben Roethlisberger.
Why didn't they play Bell more? Why was DeAngelo Williams in? How come they didn't target Health Miller?? WHY?? WHY??? WHY????
Take a few deep breaths and chill out. Haley has had to adjust his strategy to the likes of second-string quarterback Michael Vick and third-stringer Landry Jones. Neither can measure up to Big Ben, which means that Haley's options are limited. Moreover, the offensive line is down two critical players (center Maurkice Pouncey and tackle Kelvin Beachum).
Defending Tight Ends: Red Alert Extreme Freak Out
In the Chargers vs. Steelers edition of Chill Out or Freak Out, defending tight ends received an unprecedented freak out rating of Red Alert Freak Out (RAFO). The situation is even more dire than I realized (hence the RAEFO rating).
Why is the situation so freak-out-able? Let's take a look at tight end productivity against the Steelers' defense:
Rob Gronkowski (Patriots): Five completions, 94 yards, 3 TDs.
Gronkowski averaged 18.8 yards per play against the Steelers. Only against the Jacksonville Jaguars did he have a better average. Meanwhile, Dallas held him to 67 yards, Indianapolis held him to 50 yards, and the New York Jets held him to 108 yards on 11 targets (only 9.8 yards per play. The Gronk's worst average all year).
Vernon Davis (49ers): Five completions, 62 yards (including a 43-yarder)
Jared Cook (Rams): One completion for seven yards.
Maxx Williams (Ravens): Two completions for 17 yards.
Antonio Gates (Chargers): Nine completions for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Jermaine Gresham (Cardinals): Gresham did not have any completions against the Steelers.
Travis Kelce (Chiefs): Five completions for 73 yards. 14.6 yards per play.
What's most worrisome about the Steelers performance against tight ends isn't evident in the stats. A lot of teams give up yards to tight ends. The problem is the way the Steelers' defense manages to leave opposing tight ends wide open. While this problem has improved somewhat since Week 1 against Gronkowski and the Patriots, the Steelers sometimes play as if they weren't aware that tight ends are eligible receivers. As long as that continues, offenses with tight ends who can catch will exploit that weakness.
Honorable Mention: Tackling
There's nothing honorable about this mention. Tackling is a disaster.