The four B’s. The most potent and explosive in the league. Scary. Dominant.
All offseason long, it was impossible to miss article after article, clip after clip, describing just how exciting the Pittsburgh Steelers offense was going to be. Record-setting was a term that was thrown around when discussing this team. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing to Antonio Brown was going to be the foundation, with pieces like Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant contributing in big ways. The Steelers, for all intents and purposes, were the offense that every team in the league was trying to emulate. A Hall of Fame quarterback, one of the top offensive lines with perhaps the best supporting cast in the league. Heck, the Steelers even added wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to an already stacked deck, ensuring that the arms race with the New England Patriots would be won with sheer brute force. After other top contending teams in the AFC suffered significant injuries, the Steelers became the team to beat in the conference. Unfortunately, these people forgot the fifth B that has more accurately summed up this team to this point: Bogus.
The Steelers boast one of the best, if not the best, offenses in the league on paper. A top-5 quarterback surrounded by a top offensive line, complemented by the league’s best wide receiver and running back. Fortunately for the Steelers opponents thus far, games aren’t played on paper.
Through the first three games of the season, the Steelers have averaged 21.3 points per game, good enough for 16th in the NFL. Smack dab in the middle of the league, or completely and utterly average. To this point, the Steelers offense could only aspire to “average” offensively. The Steelers are averaging 302.3 yards per game which ranks 22nd in the NFL, behind offensive powerhouses like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns. The three quarterbacks leading those dynamic, explosive offenses are Blake Bortles, Mike Glennon and rookie DeShone Kizer, respectfully.
Yeah. Houston, we have a problem. (Houston actually does have a problem — they’re 24th in the league with 295.3 yards per game.)
OH BEN, WHERE ART THOU?
Ben Roethlisberger has been bad through three games. I’m not talking about bad for a Hall of Fame quarterback’s lofty standards here, either. Roethlisberger has just been flat out bad. Ben’s 62.7% completion percentage, coupled with his 741 passing yards and 5 touchdowns may not lead you to believe he has been mediocre, but make no mistake about it — the engine behind why this offense has been ineffective and downright abhorrent can be placed at the feet of the quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s road struggles are nothing new to this team. The story seems as old as time itself — the Steelers play down to their opponent on the road early in the season. Week 3 against the Chicago Bears was no different. His 56% completion percentage is indicative of more issues than just his own poor play, but it was a factor in losing to the Glennon-led Bears squad. Time after time, play after play, Ben Roethlisberger missed open reads down the field and was continually ineffective. There was a notion for a long time that Antonio Brown was a product of his quarterback and would not have the same kind of success with an average passer behind center. This may have been true once, but through three weeks of the season, Brown has been the only reason this team isn’t 0-3. The offense has strictly run through the receiver with his quarterback simply throwing it in the direction of his receiver, hoping for a miracle catch and spectacular play made.
Steelers fans have been spoiled with quarterback play since 2005. When Ben Roethlisberger took the reigns, it was a breath of fresh air. Throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons, that air has become stale and hard to breathe in. Roethlisberger’s issues are first and foremost the reason this offense has, and will continue to, struggled.
For this offense to aspire to be anything more than average, Roethlisberger has to play himself out of the depths of mediocrity.
RING THE BELL. SOUND THE ALARM. DO SOMETHING.
There was chatter in the offseason about just how much Bell was worth annually. Was he going to reset the running back market? Was he going to become the highest paid running back of all time?
Thus far this season, the Steelers running back has averaged 3.5 yards per carry, and has amassed 180 rushing yards and 1 touchdown. Bell has no runs over 20 yards. Bell has, for lack of a better term, been completely ineffective and inefficient when in the game. Known for his patient running style and explosive cutting ability, Bell has showcased exactly none of these attributes thus far and his lack of production can be attributed to many things, all of which seem irrelevant now. Bell’s woes stem from far more than his own poor play, but the fact that the offense has been incredibly sluggish to start the season at the same time that Bell simply can’t get going isn’t a coincidence.
The last time Bell averaged under 4.0 yards per carry was in 2013 which was also his rookie season. That year, the Steelers finished 20th in yards per game at 337.5 and 16th in points per game at 23.7. The Steelers currently rank 22nd and 16th in those categories, respectfully.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
THE LINE IN THE SAND
Steady and often-stellar offensive line play has become the norm in Pittsburgh since offensive line coach Mike Munchak was brought aboard. Through the 2017 season so far, the play of the line has been porous. Entrenched starters Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro have been middling starters, with injuries at right tackle and left guard further hindering matters. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has been decent, but has had his moments of poor play. In pass protection, the unit has been simply fine. There has been pressure on Roethlisberger, particularly interior pressure, more than Steelers fans have been accustomed to seeing in recent years. This can be fixed with proper schematic adjustments to slow opposing pass rushes down, but the pass protection isn’t where the concern currently lies.
The unit’s run blocking has been abysmal. Bell simply has not had any proper lanes to run into or adequate blocking to run behind. DeCastro and Pouncey are getting blown off the ball early and often, allowing blockers to meet Bell either behind or at the line of scrimmage consistently. Bell shoulders some of this blame, but the line’s inability to move defenders to create running lanes has been the much bigger problem. Left guard Ramon Foster has not returned to his dominant 2016 form and left the game against the Bears with an injury.
The line has been a massive problem. There isn’t a way around it. Roethlisberger’s inconsistent and ineffective play remains an issue, but the weapons on the boundary and down the seam can not be effective if a proper ground game can’t be established. Simply put, there is no excuse for a team like the Steelers, with the talent they possess upfront, to be having this many issues.
Comets start off hot, but end up burning out and turning into nothing but forgotten dust when entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
There is cause for concern whether or not this is happening to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Haley started off his tenure in Pittsburgh quite well. The offense was rejuvenated under a new coordinator. One that wasn’t going to simply allow Roethlisberger to take the shots he wanted to take, and reigned him in to play a style of offense that best suited the talent around him at the time. After an initial rocky start, Ben Roethlisberger eventually saw career years under Haley. The two seemed to have mended whatever fences necessary to make the offense efficient and effective.
This year is a different story.
Haley’s play calling has been…inconsistent. There have been times where it has worked wonders, allowing Ben Roethlisberger to carve up opposing secondaries with ease. There have also been times where Haley has chosen to use an empty-set inside the one-yard line on third-and-goal. This inconsistency was on full display against the Bears. Haley initially wanted to impose a strong ground game early on, but this was ultimately ineffective as the offensive line continued its struggles in the ground game. Haley then tried to go to the other extreme in trying to force-feed receivers the ball with his quarterback struggling against a weak secondary.
This teams offensive issues aren’t overly complicated, nor are they beyond repair. These issues aren’t necessarily uncommon for teams in September, just infuriating for an offense that boasts the kind of talent the Steelers have. One has to think these issues will eventually be sorted out; it’s just a matter of time.
For this offense to return to form, Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger need to get back on the same page. The line needs to re-establish itself as one of the top units in the NFL and allow the league’s best ‘back to return to form. If not, the loaded and talent-rich Steelers offense will be truly embarrassing indeed.