What in the world happened to the Steelers offense?
A unit that once was scoring points with ease is now struggling to move up and down the field. The Steelers offense has had its stagnant stretches before, but never two straight outings. Maybe it is the weird post-COVID-19-changes schedule that is messing with the Steelers. However, these issues have been there for most of the season and are only being exacerbated even more as time goes on. Monday against Washington was where it all culminated and caught up to the Steelers. Just what is wrong with this offense and what can they do to fix it?
Steelers Have A Lot of Work To Do
The Steelers offensive struggles can not be pinned down to one cause. There are multiple moving variables here. When Mike Tomlin talked about the “minutia” in regards to the run game in Tuesday press conference, that can be applied to entire offense as a whole. They were painfully average for the better part of the season, and now that defenses have adjusted, this is a below-average unit. The issue is that this is not just personnel or scheme related. There is no simple, easy fix. This is a multi-week project that the Steelers have put out for themselves. On another short week prior to their showdown with Buffalo, it is hard to see the Steelers fix every problem, but they can certainly fix some. Their games against the Ravens and Washington Football Team have put out a blueprint for other teams to copy.
Talking about the running game is a question that needs answered on a few levels. As Tomlin noted, there is not one problem with the running game. The Steelers running game has been bad for six weeks now. In a pinpoint sense, they have not been able to find a true running game since their win over the Titans. The answer to this question comes down to both schematics and personnel. Take this Benny Snell no gain for example.
The Steelers are in 12 personnel, which is a grouping from which they almost always run. Seriously, this year it is almost comical how sliced up this rushing attack is at this point. If the Steelers come out in a 2 TE set or have Jerald Hawkins on the field, the play is almost certainly a run. Defenses as such just load up the box and go. The Steelers have seven blockers, there are eight men in the box. It is predictable and heavy sets like this that bring that many guys into the box. Also, no one is biting on these jet motions anymore. The Steelers literally only run a jet motion on a running play and almost never run the sweep. Again, this is some of the most predictable stuff from a unit in football right now.
Then, there is the offensive line. I mean, there is no blocking here. The Steelers get mauled up front on this play. The push is simply not there. JC Hassenauer gets blown back, Vance McDonald gets thrown like a ragdoll into Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva, and overall, the offensive line’s pad level is putrid. That is why they are not getting any push. The offensive line plays with horrific pad level and it has to be fixed moving forward.
Here is a more successful run with Anthony McFarland. It is an inside zone run. This is the one glimmer of hope that the Steelers have shown in their rushing game recently. Inside zone is probably part of the solution to fixing this running game. The Steelers still condense the set rather than spreading it out to lighten the box for some reason. But Hassenauer and Feiler get a nice combo block here, David DeCastro makes a great climb, and they open a hole for McFarland. Best blocked run of the night. The Steelers need to run this and spread defenses out to lighten those boxes. They will find more success.
The red zone struggles have been something to look at and it is worrying. The lack of push up front is a huge detriment in this area and the short yardage game in general. Pittsburgh is struggling to even gain a yard. The real downfall of this play is having Eric Ebron against Chase Young. Ebron is a downright horrific blocker. He whiffs completely on Young, who proceeds to tackle Snell short of the goal line. If Ebron slows down Young, Snell probably gets in for the touchdown on this play right behind DeCastro’s solid block. Ebron has been hurting the Steelers as of late, and this is no exception.
Then, there are play calling issues. On a short week where the Steelers had no practice with their quarterback, they pull out a tackle eligible play. That is as curious of a decision if there ever was one. Hawkins gets stonewalled back by Montez Sweat and was not even open anyways. This is how desperate the Steelers are in short yardage situations. Anyways, it is a horrible play call and a bad option. At this point, get out of heavy and spread the defense out. There is a better chance of scoring from that than this heavy formation.
Going onto the passing game, teams having laid a blueprint out to slow down this offense. They can load the box to fight against the run and sell out for the underneath stuff by dropping an extra safety down into the box. There is nothing to threaten them over the middle of the field, so why not do it?
By doing that and playing tight man coverage, they force Ben Roethlisberger to make more tight window throws. He can do that, but his deep ball accuracy has been hit or miss this year. Washington even beats Ronald Darby and gets a step on him, but this is simply not a very good throw from Roethlisberger. He does not hold a ton of the blame for what this offense is going through right now, but Roethlisberger has to be more consistent here. The heave and pray outside the numbers is not working much any more, and the Steelers refuse to take deep shots down the middle of the field.
On top of the issues there, the Steelers have drop issues. Mostly, it is Ebron and Diontae Johnson now. This play is just one of the seven drops the Steelers registered on Monday. Those stagnate an offense and absolutely kill any momentum this offense has when they get into a rhythm. Without the drops, the Steelers very well could have won this game. At the baseline of getting this offense going again is simply catching the football. Johnson is thinking about his next move and fails to look the ball into his hands, resulting in a drop.
The Steelers did not give a lot of hope into what could fix their scheme, but this is a key play to highlight to fix that scheme. The Steelers offense consists of really four concepts in the passing game — screens, slants, deep bombs outside the numbers, and quick breaking in routes. They need to be attacking the intermediate middle of the field much more. The Steelers get their Cover 2 look and Johnson breaks wide open after finding the soft spot in the zone. This is how the Steelers can punish teams that are trying to cheat on the underneath stuff. Attacking them over the tip and over the middle. When they do it, defenses have no answer.
While this is an incomplete hospital ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, these are the type of plays that the Steelers need to be hitting and running more often. Against a Cover 2 look, the Steelers run a really smart concept. They filter Smith-Schuster up the seam while Washington runs a go route. Roethlisberger sees Smith-Schuster one-on-one with a linebacker and just rips it. He actually fits it in there somehow too, but Smith-Schuster simply can not hold on. Roethlisberger likely could have read that free safety and pivoted to Washington, who was breaking wide open. They put that safety in conflict, but failed to capitalize on it. It is a hasty pre-snap read that Roethlisberger is executing right away post-snap. He will see this in the film room, and he may just need to dial it back a notch.
There are a lot of problems with this offense, but the fact is that they have refused to make adjustments and were coasting on confirmation bias. It was also tough to make any adjustments from the Ravens game on a short week without Roethlisberger practicing. Moving forward, the Steelers have to change what they do. They need to spread defenses out to lighten the box and hope that helps the offensive line. It just might since it worked well in the early portion of the season. In addition, they need to start attacking the intermediate part of the field. That can open up the underneath stuff even more as it forces defenses to back off and respect it. It will make the offense more unpredictable and in general, dangerous. It is a multi-week project, but on Sunday against Buffalo, the Steelers should be looking to implement some of these schematic changes, and most importantly, clean up drops.