By Dan Durkin
(CBS) For decades, organizational stability has been the Steelers way. Each season’s success is seemingly preordained.
Over the past 21 seasons, the Steelers have earned 14 playoff appearances, 11 AFC North Championships, eight AFC Championship game appearances, four Super Bowl appearances, and two Super Bowl titles.
Player evaluation has been the key variable to their fortuitous football formula. Build your talent core via the draft, judiciously pluck a player via free agency, plug them into the system and watch the wins pile up. While the first-round of the draft has continued to be fruitful, the subsequent rounds haven’t been, which has thinned out roster depth, particularly on offense.
The 2013 Steelers certainly aren’t your dad’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Heck, they may not be your 2-year old nephew’s Steelers.
Complicating matters was unnecessarily ushering offensive coordinator Bruce Arians off of the coaching staff in January of 2012. Given Arians’ success, this move was met with raised eyebrows league-wide and protest from the Steelers franchise player, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who commented the Steelers offense lost their leader.
Arians’ replacement, Todd Haley, has become public enemy number one in Pittsburgh. Haley’s system favors shorter drops, quicker reads, and a strong running game to set up downfield throws via play-action. This philosophy is antithetical to what’s made Roethlisberger so effective.
Roethlisberger keeps plays alive with athleticism and ad-libbing skills. While physically stout, he deftly navigates the pocket and keeps his eyes down the field, forcing secondaries to try and cover receivers for 4/5 seconds, which is a daunting task. He thrives amidst chaos, not confined constructs.
During his time with Roethlisberger, Arians evolved the Steelers scheme into a motion-based, spread-passing attack. Deploying both quick throws from bunched sets, as well slower-developing deep routes to capitalize on Roethlisberger’s knack for keeping plays alive.
Through two weeks, the Steelers offense is out of sorts, scoring two touchdowns on 23 drives, and Roethlisberger is visibly frustrated.
To be fair to Haley, you can’t call what you can’t block.
The Steelers offensive line is a sieve in pass protection and lacks physicality to open holes in the run game. Losing their premier protector – center Maurkice Pouncey – for the year was a devastating blow to an already young and unproven group. This group is surrendering a sack every 10 dropbacks and they’re averaging an AFC-low 2.4 yards per rushing attempt.
The Steelers aren’t getting enough contributions from their running backs either. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in their past 10 games, going 3-7 during that stretch. Losing rookie Le’veon Bell (Lisfranc) forced them into a committee approach, but said committee is short on options. Recently acquired Felix Jones may be the best available, but he has pass protection deficiencies and is still learning the offense.
With wide receiver Mike Wallace now in Miami and tight end Heath Miller recovering from knee surgery, receiving options are limited.
Split end Antonio Brown is the Steelers best weapon. Brown is a quick-twitch athlete and skilled route runner who is dangerous in the open field. The issue with Brown is he struggles to work through press coverage and will now draw the opponent’s top cornerback. So, Haley must deploy Brown from bunch sets and the slot to get him free releases.
Outside of Brown, the Steelers lack proven options to stretch the field vertically. Flanker Emmanuel Sanders willingly works in between the numbers, but doesn’t offer much after the catch, nor does veteran slot receiver Jerricho Cotchery.
With Miller on the mend – reportedly a full participant in practice – the Steelers have turned to second-year tight end David Paulson. In two starts, Paulson hasn’t impressed, struggling with his run blocking and ball security.
Defensively, the Steelers aren’t generating sacks (1) and turnovers (0), but they still have plenty of talent to compete. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau perfected the zone blitz scheme as a countermeasure to the West Coast offense in the early 80’s and will have plenty of wrinkles to test the continuity of the Bears protection schemes.
Mainstays Casey Hampton and the mercurial James Harrison are gone, which has shaken up the front seven. Hampton’s replacement, 2009 undrafted free agent Steve McLendon, has been a pleasant surprise. McLendon’s nimble feet are attributed to the ballet classes he’s taken for the past few years. A 3-4 defense is only as good as its nose tackle and McLendon is a promising prospect.
Finding Harrison’s replacement has proven to be more difficult. The plan was for 2010 second-round draft pick Jason Worilds to fill that void, but that’s yet to happen. Worilds has had an injury-plagued run in Pittsburgh, but even when he’s been on the field, he plays stiff and is trending towards “bust” status.
The selection of Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in April boldfaced the writing on the wall for Worilds. Currently, Jones and Worilds are splitting snaps at right outside linebacker, but Jones is making the most of his opportunities. Jones was highly productive in college and is a perfect fit with the Steelers.
After a promising stretch early in his career, the pass rush torch appeared to have been passed along to Lamarr Woodley, but his productivity took a dip last season. Woodley was vocal about his desire to see a decrease in the number of times he’s asked to drop into coverage this season so he can rush the passer more, and early indications show the coaching staff has taken heed.
The Steelers secondary remains the strength of the team. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are elite-level performers, and cornerback Ike Taylor shadows the opponent’s top receiving option. With Taylor not requiring safety help, LeBeau can create safe pressure with his zone blitz packages and underneath coverages.
It’s only Week 3, yet the Steelers are in a “must-win” situation. For the first time since 2002, they’re 0-2, and they haven’t been 0-3 to start a season since 2000.
Bucking a trend is always a nice rallying cry within the locker room and provides fodder for the media to agitate players with during the week, but do the Steelers have enough talent to turn their season around? Offensively, I have doubts about that. Their offensive line is not controlling the line of scrimmage, which will make any offensive coordinator look bad, and they have limited weapons to work with.
The Steelers defense gives them a chance most weekends, but this team may be detouring from the Steelers way.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin