Anyone who’s watched the Steelers offense in the first three games of the 2021 season doesn’t need a slew of numbers to explain how bad they’ve been. The eye test spoke volumes. Yet the figures are instructive. Here are just a few:
- The Steelers have scored just 50 points this season for an average of 16.7 points per game, the third worst in the AFC.
- Given a stretch in the second half of the game against Buffalo where the offense heated up and scored on four straight possessions, the Steelers scored points on just 5 of 29 records (17%).
- The notorious slow starts that hit the Randy Fichtner era have continued. The Steelers didn’t score any points on 9 possessions in the first quarter. They have more penalties (6) than first downs (4), threw two interceptions and allowed two sacks.
- Ben Roethlisberger ranks 28th in the league in QBR, 25th in completion percentage and 25th in yards per attempt. He has been sacked 8 times, tied for 6th in the league.
- Finally, the rushed offense, which the Steelers have tried so hard to rebuild this offseason, has actually regressed. Rookie Najee Harris was a warrior but found little room to run. Harris has been contacted by opposing defenses at or behind the line of scrimmage on an incredible 70% of his runs and the Steelers are ranked dead last with just 53 rushing yards per game.
The numbers are what they are. We can complain about the coaching, the quarterback, kicking, screaming, blaming or crying in our Terrible Towels. Everything is futile. The only thing that matters now is what the Steelers are doing to resuscitate the situation. Teams get better or worse; they never stay the same. So it will be in Pittsburgh. The best we can do is hope that there is a plan for improvement.
What could this plan consist of? Since there are no new players coming in, the Steelers have to work with what they have. Here are three things the coaching staff should consider, then, that could make a difference when they step onto the field on Sunday in Green Bay.
RUN MORE NO-HUDDLE
There has been clamor for more no-huddle around BTSC, and for good reason. Two of Pittsburgh’s best possessions this season – the Game 15, 86-yarder that produced their only touchdown last week against Cincinnati and the Game-7, 75-yard drive the week before against Vegas – both incorporated a no-huddle tempo. Because defenses couldn’t substitute and had to receive their calls quickly, each of these workouts forced the opponent to adopt fairly straightforward looks that made things easier for Roethlisberger and the line. Roethlisberger had an incredible 13-13 for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns on those drives while Harris ran the ball 6 times for 40 yards.
Why haven’t the Steelers used more? The simple answer is that while no-huddle limits what a defense can do, it also restricts offense. Because NFL offenses tend to be multiple in their use of groups and rosters, coordinators prefer no-huddle. packages without caucus gaming notebooks. This means they have a set number of games they play each week, mostly from a single group of staff to minimize substitutions (thus allowing defense to substitute as well). Maybe it’s 8 pieces. Or 12. Or 20. The size of the package will vary depending on the practice and intention of using the no-huddle. Because Pittsburgh’s two no-caucus drives over the past two weeks have been long, it’s likely the Steelers performed most, if not all, of their forfeit on each drive. Chances are they won’t feel comfortable starting over later in the game, knowing that they would be running the same games (or similar games).
A counter-argument would be, “The normal offensive didn’t work, so why not extend the no-huddle, even if it’s limiting?” It’s a very good counter, actually. The Steelers could do it. Or they could run a higher tempo on the ball that’s not exactly in a hurry. We’ve seen this before, where Roethlisberger is just running things from the line of scrimmage. That was put to good use in the comeback victory over Indianapolis at the end of last season, when he appeared to requisition Fichtner’s play appeal.
The Steelers have four rookies and a free agent, Trai Turner, in the starting lineup, so they may be limited in their ability to perform anything from the line. Still, it’s hard to dispute the success they’ve had with no-huddle so far, just as it’s hard to ignore the futility of their basic attack. Matt Canada hinted ahead of the Cincinnati game that the Steelers could use more caucuses without caucuses as the season progresses. It’s time to put an end to this clue.
RUN MORE “MATT CANADA MATERIALS”
The two disks mentioned above had one more element in common. They were both “Matt Canada Drives”. I put that in quotes because when we think of Canada’s offensive, we think of moves, moves, jet sweeps, multiple tight groups, compulsion games, etc. There hasn’t been a lot of Canada in the Canadian offensive so far. Why not?
The main reason is probably Roethlisberger. All of the pre-snap movement and handling of the ball in Canada’s preferred pattern requires Roethlisberger to adjust his style of play. One of the main reasons I advocated leaving him when it was announced that Canada had been promoted to the rank of OC was that I didn’t believe the two styles fit together. The quarters that Canada had at its various collegiate stops had a few things in common. While they weren’t exactly “racing quarters” in the Lamar Jackson / Kyler Murray mold, they were all mobile. They were also familiar with the play option patterns and handled the ball well in the action of play. Simply put, they had learned the stance differently from Roethlisberger.
Young Roethlisberger could scramble and prolong games, but he had received classical training. He had to learn pocket play, read the blankets, and use his one-armed howitzer to beat them. The new generation worked faster and out of the pocket. They ran the ball over. They were more comfortable with the spread patterns and movement before the hookup. I just didn’t think Roethlisberger, at 39, would agree to retrain so that Canada could deliver the agenda it wanted.
Fast forward to the present. While there doesn’t appear to be a power struggle between Canada and Roethlisberger, it is clear that Canada has structured the offensive around things Roethlisberger is comfortable with. However, when Canada taps into its favorite repertoire, the results are promising. Roethlisberger isn’t a great quarterback, but when the Steelers have used him they’ve been effective. The RPOs they incorporated into Buffalo’s game plan worked wonderfully. Those have largely disappeared over the past two weeks as the Steelers saw more zonal defense, but the Bills game demonstrated Roethlisberger can lead them. There wasn’t a lot of reaction sweep, and when the Steelers used their receivers’ long strokes, they were exclusively in charge of football. It is a trend that Canada must break to prevent the defenses from rushing into the race every time they see it. But if he recognizes his own trend and plans to break it, great games await him.
Given how bad the Steelers have been when they used their traditional approach, Canada should push the boundaries and incorporate more of their favorites. If Roethlisberger resists, shame on him. He’s not playing well enough to protest. Past performances won’t help the Steelers now. They have to be more creative to be successful. Creativity is the reason Canada was hired in the first place. It’s time to get started.
REIMAGINE THE OPENING DRIVE
Finally, the need for a new approach to opening discs is paramount. The Steelers haven’t scored a single point in their last 11 opening games. Seeing them move football early on would be refreshing and would likely boost team morale (you can’t tell me that a ‘we’re going again’ feeling doesn’t creep in when they start every game with a quick kick. on violation).
In three first downs this season, they ran 14 plays for 40 yards and got 2 first downs. Najee Harris carried 6 times for 13 yards, with runs of 4, 2, -1, 2, 4 and 2 yards. Roethlisberger logged in on 5-8 passes for 32 yards with passes of 5, 6, 5, 14 and 2 yards. They threw a pass more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Obviously, the opening plan is to execute the football, make short passes, and set up manageable runs and distances. The Steelers are very concerned about their ability to protect Roethlisberger, so the short passes. However, with defenses prepared to stop the race on first practice and with safeties slipping into the box, there is little room near the line of scrimmage to operate. For this reason, some early game actions might be effective. An example would be a 21-person roster with full-back Derek Watt on the pitch, which would strongly allude to a racing game. This could create an opportunity to get a receiver on top of the playing action while providing additional blockers (Watt and Harris) in pass protection.
Another idea would be to go no-huddle immediately. Why not, if they find themselves in 2nd and in short or middle, get straight to the ball and let’s go? It would force the defense to play on its heels, and because this is opening practice, the Steelers could prepare for it so they know what to expect. A few quick first downs could build some confidence while forcing the defense to make an early adjustment.
Ultimately, for the offense to improve against Green Bay, they will need to rethink their approach. They can keep doing what they have been doing and wait for the young line to improve. In the process, they are likely to accumulate losses. The Steelers brought Roethlisberger back for another season to make a Super Bowl run, not so he could oversee a development project. For the offense to improve now, they must be prepared to get creative.