If the graphic is hideous, it genuinely reflects the bipolar-like Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2014 NFL regular season. The Steelers have been up and down, often resembling a monstrosity and then turning into contenders or vice versa. Christina Rivers and guest Sheldon Dean (formerly with ‘The Beam in Pittsburgh’) dissect the Pittsburgh Steelers – unit by unit – through week ten.
Since Ben Roethlisberger has been the only Steelers quarterback to suit up and play during the regular season in 2014, we’ll focus on his performances.
Christina Rivers: Roethlisberger has stepped up on several occasions this season to lead a Steelers team that has risen and fallen like a roller-coaster ride. Then there have been games where Roethlisberger couldn’t get things together, mainly due to an inability to communicate with offensive coordinator Todd Haley and his teammates. In a season where ‘Big Ben’ had back-to-back highlight-reel performances, it’s hard not to admit that despite the many bumps and bruises he’s had since 2004 that he still has the arm-strength, elusiveness and ability to extend plays. The biggest issues have come when Roethlisberger has either been constantly under pressure by a poor offensive line performance or games where he was forced to carry the offense. Last Sunday’s game against the New York Jets showed just how ugly it can get for even a smart quarterback in the NFL – a veteran – can make mental errors due mainly to frustration. His lame-duck pass over the middle of the field could only have been caught by a Jets defender, and it was, forcing a turnover.
Sheldon Dean: Roethlisberger has been the type of quarterback that has been loved and despised, depending on the situation. I love that he isn’t afraid to get hit or look for an opportunity to open up the offense. He typically runs a good hurry-up and no-huddle, but it doesn’t look like the Steelers have enough offensive plays to utilize Ben in the play-action too often. I blame that on offensive coaching. Not securing balls and getting stripped during sacks is something quarterbacks like Roethlisberger have to focus on, especially since he holds the ball longer and takes risks that a good percentage of NFL quarterbacks do not; instead, they throw the ball away. Roethlisberger is a tough guy who can take one on the chin (literally), but he can’t carry this offense and the Steelers can’t win games based on his arm.
Dean: I wanted to go first on this topic because there is some disagreement between Christina and I. I feel that the Steelers have failed for most of the season to be creative enough in the passing game. I also fault the many receivers the team has as options for basics they should all understand at this point in the season; coming back to the quarterback for a catch when he’s in trouble, running the correct routes, communicating on the sidelines and on the field. I don’t understand why the Steelers went out and got Darrius Heyward-Bey or Lance Moore because they have added little to the Steelers offense. In my opinion, they were a waste of money. I haven’t been impressed with much in the passing game because it has been completely inconsistent from week to week. It’s time to get on track.
Rivers: I agree that there have been several disappointments in who the Steelers have utilized in the passing game. The fact that running back Le’Veon Bell is outperforming guys like Moore who have played the receiver position for years tells me that the coaching staff don’t have a ton of confidence in this area of their offense. While I think it was wise to ease Martavis Bryant into the offense, I am impressed that he has taken on the role opposite Antonio Brown with a sence of urgency. Inconsistency is a problem with the receivers. Passes that should be easily caught have fallen through too many hands. I agree that the receivers need to be aware on the field where their quarterback is. I am disappointed in both Moore and Heyward-Bey. Two veterans who could contribute, but haven’t proven to be a good fit in the Steelers system. I thought Moore was a good match with Drew Brees in New Orleans and it is obvious that he isn’t Roethlisberger’s favorite target. One thing that has to change, in my opinion, is calling for three-receiver sets if you have no faith in your receivers. And the bubble screens as a receiving option are so stale that every defense in the NFL is able to sniff them out and stop them. Time to air out the ball, in my opinion. Hit receivers underneath until they get a mismatch in coverage personnel and go for the big play, but use common sense. I miss the receivers that used to stretch out to haul in a ball (Lynn Swann) instead of just allowing it to be within arm’s reach and showing no extra effort. Antonio Brown has played solid ball in 2014 until he fell apart against the Jets. Need to see more from Bryant and Wheaton, two young guys with a lot of potential.
Rivers: I really haven’t been disappointed in the rushing schemes that the Steelers have put together. Bell has stepped up his game in 2014 and gained Roethlisberger’s trust. The kid isn’t afraid to block, either. Always a plus in a running back. I think Will Johnson is under-utilized and could be brought in a lot more in short-yardage situations and even in the red zone (lined up as a fullback or the push necessary to get the halfback through the line). LeGarrette Blount has had ups and downs, but I have been frustrated that the Steelers haven’t used his brute force more often, especially in games where they could have chosen his bruising style. Dri Archer has dropped off my radar. I love his speed, but if he can’t get into the game and show he’s more than a one-trick pony, the team isn’t going to want to take a chance on him. Bell and Blount could easily be one of the best one-two punches (RBs) in the league this year if the Steelers hadn’t lost to teams they should have beaten. Blount is the bully and Bell is finesse. Pittsburgh needs to figure out the right situations for them to show their skills.
Dean: Blount isn’t Jerome Bettis, but he is powerful. Putting him in to be a special teams receiver is ridiculous. Get him out of there and back on the field to run out of the offensive backfield. I am impressed with Bell’s ability to catch the ball and am not disappointed that he’s patient in the run. I remember Rashard Mendenhall trying to escape a broken play too many times to count only to get negative yardage because his hole wasn’t there. I think Bell has great awareness and he definitely has speed. But, the Steelers can’t rush if they don’t have confidence that their offensive line is going to maintain their blocking assignments.
Dean: The offensive line has had some really solid moments in 2014. I love seeing David DeCastro get down and dirty. I don’t even mind that Maurkice Pouncey has a few mouthy moments as long as he isn’t drawing penalty flags. Cody Wallace’s charge into the pile against the Ravens may have been silly, but he showed heart. I want heart every game. Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert – they can play as a unit. They’ve had some spectacular games. And then…they have been like cheesecloth. I don’t blame them for every time Roethlisberger gets sacked because a lot of times, it’s Ben’s fault. How do you maintain an effective block for six seconds play after play? You don’t. I do get frustrated when opponents rush three players and the offensive line gives up a sack. That is just lazy play. This unit has the potential to be really great. They have to buy into that idea.
Rivers: I really don’t have much to add. You covered a lot of what I have been thinking. One thing that has bothered me the most is plays that don’t call for the athleticism DeCastro, for instance, has in pulling. DeCastro has the ability to move to the opposite side of Pouncey and open holes with solid blocks. Why the Steelers don’t use more of this is beyond me. I think both Bell and Blount would benefit and it is curious that offensive line coach Mike Munchak hasn’t adjusted in response. But then, if the tackles are needing extra blocking help by tight ends – perhaps he simply wants protection. That seems reactive to me instead of pro-active.
Rivers: One thing the graphic above illustrates is that the Steelers’ defensive front was not as strong as they believed it would be early in the season. I think they put too much faith in free agent Cam Thomas and not enough in Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon. I would rather see rookie Daniel McCullers in that Thomas. McCullers is solid in the center of that line. He can take on two opposing offensive linemen at once. He has forced opponents to abandon rushing plays up the center. As for linebackers, I understand that there have been injuries and have been disappointed that Stephon Tuitt, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier haven’t yet made a bigger impact. Lawrence Timmons continues to be the most dominant linebacker. Something that has proven surprising is that it took bring in the “old guard” in Brett Keisel and James Harrison (who retired officially and came back within a two-week span) to get the defensive front to look hungry. The line and linebackers need more consistency in pass-rushing. Every game that they have applied heavy pressure has been destructive to their opponents. Still think Jason Worilds is underrated on the outside.
Dean: I am not sold on McCullers as a constant in the defensive tackle position. I prefer McLendon, but agree about Cam Thomas. I am not disappointed in Ryan Shazier’s performance while he’s been healthy. He shows heart and skill at getting down the line to stop plays. Jones has been a disappointment to me. I really wanted to see a big second year from him. You’re right, injuries hurt the team overall, but there seems to be a lack of urgency too often from the defensive front. If they’d applied the same amount of pressure on Mike Vick that they had on Andrew Luck, wow could the result have been different. They need to force more three-and-outs, period. Where is the red zone defense hiding? Come on Kevin Butler and Joey Porter.
Dean: The fact that Cortez Allen got a lot of money to play ball and is basically riding pine is (expletive) frustrating. William Gay has me confused. At one point, I couldn’t stand to see Gay out on the field. This season he’s made some phenomenal plays. Troy Polamalu, bless his soul, has moments where he resembles his old self and then others where he lags. The guy can vertically leap the defensive and offensive lines but has been hitting opponents instead of wrapping up and looked slow several games. I can’t wait until he heals up because the defensive backfield needs his leadership. I don’t think Ike Taylor was playing well enough this season to truly be missed. Love the intensity by Brice McCain, but he could use some practice turning his head and looking for the ball in this new NFL where just brushing the air near a receiver’s jersey has drawn flags.
Rivers: I had high hopes that this would be the year that Robert Golden was able to shine someplace other than special teams, but he hasn’t really done anything spectacular. Ross Ventrone has been my sleeper for 2014 prior to his hamstring injury. I couldn’t have been more disappointed in the fact that Shamarko Thomas hasn’t been healthy. I think Ventrone and Thomas could make a powerful duo down the road. I have to agree that I am not sure what Cortez Allen is doing in practice to earn respect and the money he received from the franchise, but it hasn’t translated on the field. Another example of a player that has the ability to be good and is wasting his talent? Maybe. I see Mike Mitchell having some really good moments and others that make me wonder if he understood his assignment. The defensive backfield has surprised me in a lot of ways over the season thus far in being successful in limiting several receivers that have completely burned other teams. Every time one of our guys gets burned is frustrating, but I think they get into those positions mainly when they play soft coverage or the defensive line and linebackers aren’t pressuring up front.
Rivers: I know we both agree that the special teams unit, as a whole, is a monster of its own. The Steelers really have no answer as to who should return kickoffs or punts. No one has stepped up in that area to prove themselves to be a true threat. This is where Dri Archer could shine if he’d only do so. We both have been shocked with Shaun Suisham has uncharacteristically shanked a field goal (like he did against the Jets). He is easily the MVP of special teams for Pittsburgh. Brad Wing got put into the punting situation because Podlesh opted out of football. We agree that he struggles at times to get enough leg under his punts, but has improved as the season has progressed. We’re seeing better distance and hang-time. Seeing a left-legged punter is a little weird, but he’s Australian (everything is backward ‘down under’) yet have the ability to toss a right-handed touchdown pass. Too strange.
The Monster That Is vs The Monster That Should Be
Dean: I appreciate having the last word (laughing). Pittsburgh should be a true contender in the NFL in 2014. Unfortunately, they’ve hurt themselves too many times to be taken as seriously as they have been in past seasons. They are doing better than the past two 8-8 seasons, but by losing to Jacksonville and Carolina and then the New York Jets, I am not sure even the Steelers are confident about who they are anymore.
I don’t like hearing Mike Tomlin say “obviously” any more that anyone else. Why? Because even the obvious isn’t being corrected. Stop using the phrase if you can’t get the players and the coaching staff to fix the glaring problem. Even other coaches (Ken Whisenhunt after Tennessee’s loss to Baltimore) used the word to my disgust.
Pittsburgh has to dump the Frankenstein moments and bring out the Beast that hammered Baltimore (on the night Joe Greene watched his jersey retired) and dominated Andrew Luck. It’s time for Pittsburgh to take their medicine and get better, not get out the chemistry set and make a magic potion. Change the motto from ‘The Standard is the Standard’ to ‘Be More Than The Standard’.
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