The Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-4 for the first time since 1968. That’s 1 B.C. (One year Before Chuck). When you are matching a mark that was last reached in the year Mad Men was set last season, well, it says a couple of things. One, Pittsburgh has had an amazing run, and two, it is unprecedented times for virtually all current Pittsburgh Steelers fans. The last time the Steelers started 0-4, it was hardly a blip for a franchise that had only seven winning seasons in its 36 year history. In a mirror reversal, Pittsburgh has only seven losing seasons in the last 36 seasons, though that will change this year.
So, what has gone so wrong in Pittsburgh? The answers vary, when we take a shorter view, versus a longer view of the decline in Pittsburgh. In the short term, it is really hard to overcome a -11 turnover mark through four games. Pittsburgh has lost the four games through creativity and a variety of ways. In the opener, the offensive line was terrible and the defense could not get off the field in key situations, and the running backs didn’t help. Against Cincinnati, the offense again struggled. In the game against Chicago, it really was turnovers on offense (5 of them) as the offense otherwise began to move the ball. The Minnesota game? The offense actually played better, and the debut of Le’Veon Bell definitely had an impact (don’t get caught up in the YPC) as shown here.
Big plays surrendered on defense were too much to overcome, particularly when the defense has now gone four games without forcing a single one. Those big plays included a 70 yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on a short curl against soft coverage, and then Cortez Allen came up and missed a tackle, setting the big play in motion. It included a 51 yard completion to Jerome Simpson, and finally, the big 60 yard touchdown run by Adrian Peterson.
OLD GUARD ON DEFENSE MERGING WITH YOUNGSTERS, WITH A HOLE IN THE MIDDLE
Here’s a look at the breakdown on that play, and the issues for a defense with a figurative (and literal, on this play) hole in the defense like a donut. What I mean by that is, while we knew that Pittsburgh had an aging defense, and they were old two years ago, this team is getting nothing out of its drafts from 4-5 years ago. Rashard Mendenhall is in Arizona, Mike Wallace is in Miami, Kraig Urbik is in Buffalo, Keenan Lewis is in New Orleans. Evander Hood is the only starter from the 2008 and 2009 drafts for Pittsburgh. Those should be the key drafts for providing stars for a team now.
In the last few years, Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton have retired, James Harrison was allowed to leave, and Larry Foote is hurt and out for the rest of this season. The youngest generation is filling those roles. Jason Worilds and first round pick Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker, rookie Vince Williams pressed into action at inside linebacker for Foote.
On the big touchdown run, we see pre-snap that Williams is at inside linebacker, while Polamalu is also playing “in the box” as Minnesota gets ready to run a variation of the lead draw, dressed up a different way with FB Jerome Felton lined up in a H-Back position. The offensive line pass blocks, but Williams and Polamalu do read the run, and attack . . . a little too aggressively.
The arrows are pointing to Polamalu and Vince Williams, and you can see Evander Hood being allowed to rush inside, with Williams and Polamalu both filling behind. With Kyle Rudolph blocking Lamarr Woodley on the outside, the lane is already there. Yes, that is former QB Joe Webb taking on Polamalu, and neither he nor Felton has really had to do anything yet.
A picture to capture Pittsburgh struggle face in 2013. Hood on the ground with Phil Loadholt laying on top of him. The rookie Williams flailing at air, and not really needing to be blocked because Peterson blows past. The once amazing Polamalu being blocked by a former quarterback, with Felton not even needing to do much as they take Polamalu to the ground a split second later. After that, it was all Peterson, hurdling over a diving attempt by Ike Taylor and outracing everyone to the end zone.
Dick LeBeau did not suddenly become worse at defense. Those big plays on Sunday now have Pittsburgh 11th best in yards allowed. The bigger dropoff, though, is in the ability to make impact plays.
PLENTY OF TURNOVER, BUT A LACK OF TURNOVERS
The last two decades in Pittsburgh, during the Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin eras, have been defined by the 3-4 defense and the ability to pressure the passer. Here is a summary, for two year periods since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback, of the defensive ranks in turnovers, yards, and sacks.
They still have been pretty good at not giving up big plays, until last Sunday. The drop off, though, is noticeable over the last 20 games in sacks and turnovers forced. Football Outsiders has Pittsburgh at 31st in adjusted sack rate through four games, and have no turnovers forced. While turnovers do have a random element to them (Pittsburgh did force a fumble, but it was recovered by Minnesota for a first down), the Steelers are no longer creating the circumstances that make them more likely. The sacks are down, pressures are down, and the quarterbacks are too comfortable. That in turn reduces the strip fumbles, bad decisions, and forced throws that lead to tipped balls.
IF GREAT TEAMS BUILD ALONG THE LINES, PITTSBURGH SHOULD BE SET
The only pro bowler at a starting position, drafted since 2007, tore his knee up this year, when fellow offensive lineman David DeCastro rolled into his leg. (Antonio Brown also made a pro bowl as a special teams player). While Maurkice Pouncey was overrated as a pro bowler, his loss now means the offensive line is missing its best player. The one weakness of the Steelers throughout their run recently was that offensive line. They recognized, and devoted resources to addressing it. The bill on the defensive line was also coming due, as the team knew that Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Casey Hampton would not be around when the rookie contracts from those drafts expired.
How much did Pittsburgh devote to the lines? Using the draft surplus value chart from Football Perspective for the first five years of a career, here is how much of the value (where first round picks are worth more than seventh rounders) was devoted to various areas for the 2010 to 2012 drafts, the players that would now be in years 2 to 4.
- Offensive Linemen – 44.6% of draft pick value
- Defensive Linemen – 28.8% of draft pick value
- Defensive Backs – 9.9% of draft pick value
- Linebackers – 7.1% of draft pick value
- Wide Receivers/Tight Ends – 6.5% of draft pick value
- Running Backs – 3.1% of draft pick value
When I looked at draft class peaks and value, it was years 3 and 4 that have the most average value for a team. Thus, based on the amount of investment in both lines, this should be the strength of the team if the picks panned out.
The problem is that the offensive line is still not good, and the Steelers robbed from other positions to try to improve. Those other positions do not have enough second, third, and fourth players moving into the roles now being abandoned by the aging, free agency losses, injuries and attrition that has taken its toll at running back, linebacker, and defensive back. Pittsburgh did invest their this year, going with Jarvis Jones and Le’Veon Bell with the first two picks.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
The one thing that is not a problem, yet, is Roethlisberger. I have expressed concerns over how long Big Ben can continue to perform at a peak level with the pounding he has taken over the years, but he still looks like an above average quarterback to me. He has played better in recent games, and even his early struggles were as much a function of pass protection issues and receivers not getting open.
Will the offensive line and defensive line picks emerge? If they don’t, this is a multi-year rebuild project, because the team has already devoted significant resources there, and the bill will become soon at positions like safety (Polamalu and Clark), linebacker (Woodley, and Timmons at a position where plenty of good players are done before 30), cornerback (Ike Taylor) and tight end (Heath Miller).
We have seen teams like the Washington Redskins after 1991, the Buffalo Bills after 1996, or the Dallas Cowboys after 1998, have difficulty replacing an iconic but aging core, and plunge into long periods of mediocrity. Other franchises, such as New England and Green Bay, have transitioned with far less pain. Pittsburgh will need the classes playing under rookie deals to step up, because the revival will no longer be lead by the fixtures of the last decade.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]