The Pittsburgh Pirates are hosting a playoff game tomorrow night. That’s what I care about.
I’m a Yinzer – a born and raised Pittsburgher who sits and watches the Steelers each and every Sunday wearing one of sixteen Steeler jerseys. Obsessive? Probably. But that’s how you’re brought up in the Steel City. And it’s the best. It’s the very best.
Two Super Bowl victories since 2006, multiple AFC Championships and teams that have consistently competed for a playoff spot up until Week 16 or 17 have allowed for a very fortunate time as a fan. So fortunate that I – we, Steeler Nation – have probably taken some of the team’s success for granted.
Steeler fans don’t know what it’s like to rebuild, and we certainly can’t comprehend what a top-10 draft pick means. The last time we were unwatchable was 2003 when Tommy Maddox was our quarterback, and I’d argue that it was still entertaining to see the sideways helmet-wearing signal-caller toss the pigskin around at 32 years of age.
But now? Now the Steelers are about as watchable as a Scary Movie sequel. If not for the Pirates season and the Penguins upcoming campaign, Pittsburgh would be a pile of depression. It would be – dare I say – Cleveland in Pennsylvania. (That was mean. I actually think Cleveland is a fine city. I promise. And hey, the Browns are 2-2.)
The Steelers clearly have issues. Like, Miley Cyrus-type issues. It’s not as though you get to 0-4 by being unlucky. You get to 0-4 by not executing, turning the ball over and having Todd Haley as your offensive coordinator.
Let’s analyze the Steelers by looking at the good, the bad and the ugly.
Antonio Brown. He’s the one bright spot on this 0-4 Steelers team. So far, Brown ranks ninth in the NFL in targets, fourth in receptions and fourth in receiving yards. He’s got a nice 76.2 percent catch rate, which is fifth among 20-plus target pass catchers.
Though a lot of his numbers came from a ridiculous nine-reception, 196-yard and two-score day against the Bears, Brown followed up his monster game with a solid 12-reception, 88-yard performance against the Vikings in London. For those of you who hate math, that’s 21 receptions over the last two games. Add on his 11 from the first two weeks, and Downtown Antonio Brown (Dahntahn Antonio Brahn in Pittsburghese) is on pace for a ridiculous 128 receptions.
In Todd Haley’s “efficient” offense, Brown has been playing a Welker-like role, catching screens and running short middle-of-the-field routes. That’s why his reception total may not regress nearly as much as you may think.
Brown should continue to be a solid PPR WR2 with WR1 upside.
Ben Roethlisberger. We can blame the offensive line all we want, but Big Ben isn’t helping with his lack of pigskin protection. Entering Week 4 – a game where Ben turned the ball over two more times – Roethlisberger ranked in the bottom five in terms of passing efficiency. He’s only better than Brandon Weeden, Geno Smith, Josh Freeman and Blaine Gabbert under the passing net expected points microscope, a metric that looks at how many points a player added or lost for his team through the air.
Roethlisberger currently has five touchdowns to five picks, and the clunky quarterback has lost four fumbles. Again, blame the line and blame the receivers for not getting open if you’d like. I’ll blame the quarterback who is completely, 100 percent careless with the football.
Turnover Differential. There was a third-down play in yesterday’s game where Matt Cassel was sacked, losing the football around the line of scrimmage. The Steelers went to pick it up, but the ball was kicked forward past the first-down marker. Vikings got it, and they also got the first down (dahn).
That play is the Steelers 2013 season. No other play could describe it any better.
The Steelers have zero takeaways through four games this year. Zero. What happened to Dick LeBeau’s nasty 3-4 defense? I’ll tell you what happened: It’s gone. The Steelers personnel doesn’t look to fit the 3-4 defense nearly as well as it did under Bill Cowher and the early-Mike Tomlin, generating just as bad of a pass rush as it did towards the tail-end of the 2012 season. Sure, the defense is younger than most realize because of the matured secondary, but there’s really no excuse: You can’t win football games with zero takeaways in four games. You just can’t. That’s one of the biggest reasons this team hasn’t won yet.
The Offensive Line. Surprise, surprise: Ben Roethlisberger’s been sacked more than any other NFL quarterback this season. Though Ryan Tannehill will probably take the lead after tonight’s Monday Night Football game, Ben currently leads the league, being taken down 15 times.
The young Steelers offensive line has been the target of a lot of hate mail, I’m sure. Mike Adams has probably been the worst offensive lineman in football through four games, allowing almost a full four sacks and 12 quarterback hurries through four games. And from a rush blocking perspective, the Steelers rank only behind the Giants in adjusted rushing net expected points per play. You know, the Giants – that team with Brandon Jacobs.
While there’s some hope for the Steelers youthful O-line, that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful to watch them in the early 2013 season. I’d expect them only to get better, aside from Mike Adams – Mike Adams isn’t very good at football.
Todd Haley. Chiefs fans know what I’m talking about when I scream the words, “Fire Todd Haley!” The play calling in Pittsburgh has been brutal, and even the players hate it. Antonio Brown called Haley out on the sidelines against the Bengals, and Todd and Big Ben have reportedly never had a good relationship.
I defended Todd Haley this offseason because of what he did for Roethlisberger before Ben nearly destroyed his aorta against the Chiefs last year. I defended him! And now, just months later, Pittsburgh is home to one of the most giveaway-friendly, pathetic offenses in the league.
Defensive Cohesiveness. I’m the first to say to a group of Steeler bashers that one of the biggest losses the Steelers endured this season was with Larry Foote. The inside linebacker was the defenses' play caller, and was a plug to a giant hole the Steelers have at the position. His absence has been huge.
Cortez Allen’s injury didn’t help, either. The second corner spot was given to William Gay over the first three games of the season, and you can see the impact. Mohammed Sanu had a season-high of five receptions against the Steelers in Week 2, and Alshon Jeffery had his best reception game against Pittsburgh in Week 3. Defenses target Gay when he’s in there, and there’s no denying that fact.
These aren’t excuses from a Steeler fan, but reasons for poor play. Regardless, it shows that the Steelers depth is lacking tremendously, even though the team has selected defensive talent (Cam Heyward, Sean Spence, Alameda Ta’amu, Curtis Brown, Chris Carter) in 2011 and 2012.
Mike Tomlin. I’m not here to talk about the “Tomlin has only won with Cowher’s guys!” argument. That’s a dumb one, especially considering “Cowher’s guys” went 8-8 in his final year.
But I am here to critique Tomlin’s decision-making and, at times, his stubbornness. Example, and one that occurs often with Tomlin: At the tail-end of the first half against the Vikings, the Steelers had the opportunity to call a timeout before the Vikings kicked a field goal. Rather than getting the timeout in right away, Tomlin allowed 11 seconds to tick off the clock before the whistle blew. While the announcers said that Tomlin was trying to get to a referee and couldn’t, my response is, “Be near a referee in that situation.” The Steelers ended up getting the ball and running down the clock rather than attempting a one-minute drill with a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.
How about the personnel decision-making? Go ahead and look at the Steelers drafts over the last couple of seasons and tell me who’s worked out. I’m waiting. And do you think the Jonathan Dwyer cut is looking favorable for Tomlin now? Dwyer’s easily outperformed all non-Le’Veon Bell Steeler running backs so far this season, yet he was released by the team after the preseason due to character issues.
If this kind of sloppy football playing and team management happened to almost any other NFL team, Tomlin’s name would be thrown out as one being fired at the end of the season. That’s not happening in Pittsburgh, but at the very least, Tomlin needs to turn things around now.
Can They Turn Things Around?
The Steelers picked a good time to be 0-4 for the first time since 1968. Outside of them, the entire AFC North is 2-2, leaving the Black and Gold just two games out of first.
But those teams have things going for them. The Browns have been rejuvenated since trading away Trent Richardson and starting Brian Hoyer at quarterback, and the Bengals and Ravens have the 9th- and 10th-best defense according to our metrics. The Steelers – before Week 4 – ranked 14th in defense effectiveness (which is bound to go down after falling miserably to the Vikings), and ranked only better than Jacksonville on offense.
For this team to turn things around, Bill Cowher would have to come out of retirement, Dermontti Dawson would have to come back and play center and Larry Foote would have to de-age by five years and instantly repair his ruptured biceps.
It’s a good thing the Pirates made the playoffs this year, because it couldn’t have been more timely.