Game 1 Preview: Pittsburgh

The opening game features a match between two teams hoping to improve by adopting the same blueprint: The Pittsburgh Steelers of the early 21st century.

The Steelers have gone 8-8 for the past two years– and they’ve done it on merit. Last season, they went 8-8 because they scored 379 points and allowed 370. That’s what .500 teams do– score as many points as they allow..

2013 wasn’t a fluke. In 2012, they went 8-8, scoring 336 points and allowing 314. I’d have expected 9-7 with those result (you should get an extra win for every 20-25 points of margin), but they certainly weren’t a playoff team.

The decay has been ongoing for years, and the problem has been defense.

Year Record Playoff Result Scored Rank Allowed Rank
2010 12-4 Lost Super Bowl 375 12 232 1
2011 12-4 Lost Wild Card 325 21 227 1
2012 8-8 336 22 314 6
2013 8-8 379 16 370 14

The Steelers reacted by saying “We need to get better offensively”, which would be a solution (it hasn’t been great), but gets away from what has made the team successful… and also makes the Steelers terribly vulnerable.

The nice thing about the Steelers’ patented formula:

  • Run the ball
  • Stop the run
  • Avoid mistakes (sacks, penalties and turnovers)
  • Force the opponent into mistakes (penalties and turnovers)

Is that it’s not dependent on any single player, but on the team.

Run the ball: If the #1 running back goes down, the running game doesn’t fall completely apart as long as you have decent depth. You still have the nine other guys who can block, and the quarterback.

Avoid mistakes: If you don’t throw that much, you won’t (as long as you have competent players) have interceptions or sacks– and since nearly half the fumbles are made by quarterbacks or receivers, your fumbles will be low. You won’t commit as many holding penalties, because you’re moving forward on runs, not trying to keep defenders from advancing. None of that will change if you lose one player.

Stop the run: it isn’t possible for any single defender to “stop the run”; it takes 11 guys working in unison.

Force mistakes: A great defensive player can make plays, but the team that gets the most sacks will have 60– the record for an individual is 22. The leader in interceptions won’t have half the team total. If the other 10 players don’t commit penalties, losing one guy will not (unless you replace Rod Woodson with Leon McFadden) change that.

I don’t know it is an accident or not, but the defense the Steelers use lets almost anyone rush the passer and almost anyone go into coverage. And, of course, a running play is built upon teamwork. It’s a tremendously egalitarian system on both sides of the ball.

The problem, for the past four years, is that the Steelers have been more and more reliant on QB Ben Roethlisberger:

  1. Injuries and bad drafting have turned the offensive line into one of the NFL’s worst units. They don’t open holes on the run, and they force Ben Roethlisberger to scramble too much and take too many hits.
  2. The running backs haven’t gained yardage, so the Steelers have lost the element of deception. Also, they’ve fumbled often.
  3. The defense, by getting older and less effective, has put more of the load on the offense’s back.

You can see that show up in the team’s record without Ben Roethlisberger. In 2010, he missed four games– but they still had a 1,000-yard back and a great defense, so they went 1-1 with Charlie Batch (losing 17-14 to the Ravens) and 2-0 with Dennis Dixon.

In 2011, he missed one game. But they still had a #1 defense and Rashard Mendenhall gained 923 yards, so they won the game.

In 2012, Rothlisberger missed three games– and the defense was slipping and the running game was in shambles. They went 1-2 (the win was by 3 points) and lost to Cleveland without him. Pittsburgh also lost three others when he could barely walk.

After 2012, the Steelers realized they had gotten away from what made them great and decided to go back to their roots. But fate intervened. While Roethlisberger didn’t miss any games, four of the five offensive linemen missed at least one game– Pro Bowl Center Maurkice Pouncey missed 15.

The Steelers tried to run with their #2 pick (RB LeVeon Bell). The good news is that he gained 860 yards; and scored 8 TDs. The bad news is that he gained only 3.5 yards a carry. The guess is that he’d have done better behind a stronger line… but we can’t be sure of that.

The pass offense lost WR Emanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery– 113 catches, 1,300 yards and 16 TD passes. They still have WR Antonio Brown (110, 1.499-8) and TE Heath Miller, but they’re really hoping Markus Wheaton (the #3 pick in 2013) is ready.

In theory, the line ought to be a lot better and Bell, and free agent LeGarrette Blount ought to have more room to run. The question is whether Roethlisberger can adapt to the new guys.. and that did not go well in pre-season. The Steelers went 1-3, scoring 16, 19, 21 and 0 points.

Last year’s defense wasn’t bad. But despite a purge, it still had 5 players over 30 (lineman, linebacker, corner and both safeties) and the kids had trouble learning the Zone Blitz.

Three of the old guys are out of the lineup (CB Ike Taylor and SS Troy Polamalu are the only ones left). The replacements are their #1 pick (LB Ryan Shazier for Larry Foote), the #2 choice (DE Stephon Tutt, over Brett Keisel) and a free agent pickup (FS Mike Mitchell, over Ryan Clark).

If those guys are ready– and the guys who went into the lineup last year are integrated– it’s gonna be a tougher defense than it was. And it wasn’t bad last year– just not as good as it used to be.

The team facing them? God only knows.

it’s difficult to see the Browns scoring more points against the Steelers than they did in their 27-11 loss last November or the 20-7 loss in December. Last season they sent out Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeded; Brian Hoyer isn’t materially better than Campbell.

Hoyer has looked terrible, and the hope is that it was just jitters about the competition. He did OK against the Bengals in 2013– and they run the same scheme as the Steelers. TE Jordan Cameron was his favorite receiver– he’s still back. They’ll miss Puff, but most of his throws against the Bengals were to Chris Ogbonnaya, et al.

The offensive line, while it didn’t look great in pre-season, had two Pro Bowl players going at half-speed. Presumably, they’ll kick things up. RB Ben Tate has played only one game against the Steelers. He had 2 carries to 20 yards. At least he didn’t get his behind kicked.

I still don’t see the Browns scoring many points against the Steelers.

On defense, it’s the same team that went out there a year ago, except for the upgrades at inside linebacker (Karlos Dansby) and strong safety (Donte Whitner).That will help… but the Steelers will have a healthy line this time;  something they didn’t have in either game in 2013.

The good news is that the departure of Sanders and Cotchery means that Buster Skrine and the nickel guys will have an easier time of things on pass defense. The hope is that Joe Haden was just goofing around in pre-season and that he will be able to handle Brown.

The Steelers are physical receivers, and it’ll be interesting to see how Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir play against them. They had better play well.

Outlook: I can see them holding Pittsburgh to less than 3 TDs…. but I can’t see them scoring that many.The Steelers would have to make mistakes to lose this game.

Pittsburgh certainly could do that– the kicking teams could help Cleveland win as well. But until I see Hoyer play well, I’ll bet the mistakes in this game are mostly made by the Browns: 24-13 Steelers

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