It’s mid-term time for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense and coaching staff.
Time to send them home with their report cards for their performance through the first half of the season.
Considering the Steelers’ 2-6 record, don’t expect these report cards to hang on their refrigerators. There are some bright spots, however.
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 2,330 yards this season, which puts him on pace for a career high. Part of the reason for that is the Steelers have been behind so often. His nine interceptions put him on pace for 18, which would be the most he’s thrown in a season since he threw 23 in 2006. Roethlisberger is also well on his way to surpassing the career-high 50 sacks he absorbed in 2009. He’s been sacked 31 times through the halfway point. While he can’t be blamed for the offensive line’s performance, he still has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long, which causes a few of those sacks. Roethlisberger’s 64.9 completion percentage is eighth in the league.
After missing the first three games with a foot injury, rookie Le’Veon Bell has gained a team-high 282 yards at a rate of 3.5 yards per carry. His three touchdowns are more than any Steelers running back had last season, but he’s been inconsistent so far. His 93 rushing yards helped the Steelers defeat the Ravens, but he had just 24 yards on 13 carries in the loss at Oakland. Bell gained 74 yards on 16 carries at New England, but his performance was a mixed bag. He dropped a pass, committed a chop block penalty and missed an assignment on a handoff, which forced Roethlisberger to scramble for no gain on a play in the second half.
Jonathan Dwyer’s 30-yard run helped set up a touchdown to pull the Steelers to within 17-10 against the Patriots late in the first half. But that’s more than a quarter of his 101 yards this season. Isaac Redman didn’t play after Week 3 and was cut after Week 7. He had just 12 yards on 10 carries. His biggest mark on this season is his botched handoff from Roethlisberger at the Titans’ 6-yard line with the Steelers ready to go up 9-0 in the season opener. The ball rolled into the end zone for a touchback. That gaffe changed the course of the game, which the Steelers lost 16-9, and helped set off a domino effect in a miserable 2013 season.
Felix Jones hasn’t been an upgrade over Dwyer or Redman. Jones has run for 112 yards this season, 3.6 yards per carry. His biggest contribution has come as a kick returner. Even in that department he’s nothing special. His 25.5 yards per return is 11th among players with at least 10 returns.
Fullback Will Johnson hasn’t been used much. After catching 15 passes for 137 yards last season, Johnson has just three catches for seven yards so far this season.
As a unit, the Steelers are 28th in the NFL with 589 rushing yards. As anemic as their running game was last season, they gained 1,537 yards. They won’t come close to that this season at their current rate.
Antonio Brown has 61 receptions and 701 receiving yards at the halfway point. He’s tied with Pierre Garcon for the league lead in receptions and on pace to break the Steelers’ single-season records for receptions and yards.
However, when the Steelers were trying to rally in the second half at Oakland, Brown dropped a pass and was the intended receiver on an interception. He was benched late in the game at New England.
With 37 catches and 494 yards, Emmanuel Sanders is on his way to a career year. But that doesn’t say much. He’s never caught more than 44 passes in a season. He also dropped a pass in the second half at Oakland and doesn’t always seem to be on the same page with Roethlisberger.
Who would have thought Jerricho Cotchery would lead Steelers receivers in yards per reception? He’s averaged 14.6 yards per catch and has been a pleasant surprise with 29 receptions and five touchdowns.
Rookie Markus Wheaton saw his only significant action in Week 4 at London, then broke a finger and missed the last four games. The 6’5” Derek Moye is the tall receiver Roethlisberger has always wanted, but he’s caught just two passes this season, although one was a touchdown at Cincinnati and the other a key 19-yard reception in the win over Baltimore.
Heath Miller is rounding into form as he recovers from tearing multiple knee ligaments less than a year ago. He has 24 catches in six games. Six of those receptions, for a season-high 84 yards, came against the Jets in the Steelers’ first win of the season. The following week, he scored the Steelers’ only touchdown in the win over the Baltimore Ravens.
David Paulson didn’t make anyone forget about Miller. He’s caught five balls this season, including three in Miller’s absence. Paulson was one of the culprits in the Steelers’ 0-4 start. The Steelers were closing in on a 10-0 lead in the first quarter at Cincinnati when Paulson fumbled the ball away in the red zone. The Steelers lost the game 20-10 and fell to 0-2.
David Johnson had a newfound spring in his step, catching four passes for 70 yards in the first four games. But he suffered a season-ending injury for the second straight year.
The problems on the Steelers’ offensive line have mainly been at the bookends. They actually have something to work with on the interior.
Mike Adams flopped at left tackle worse than “The Hangover Part III” flopped in the theaters. He was responsible for four sacks and 13 quarterback hurries during the Steelers’ 0-4 start. At the other end, right tackle Marcus Gilbert has given up six sacks, the most on the team. Kelvin Beachum has allowed five sacks, four of them since taking over for Adams at left tackle in Week 6. He’s also been culpable for 13 quarterback hurries in the last four games.
Roethlisberger was sacked 15 times with Adams protecting his blind side in the first four games, and 16 times in the four games since. So the pass protection isn’t improving.
On the bright side, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks David DeCastro the No. 3 guard in the NFL and he’s been the Steelers’ best run blocker. Ramon Foster has started every game at left guard and has allowed five quarterback hurries, the fewest among the starters on the Steelers offensive line.
Fernando Velasco has been more than adequate filling in for Maurkice Pouncey at center after being signed off the street.
The Steelers don’t always seem ready to play. They’ve faced first-quarter deficits of 17-0 against the Bears, 10-0 against the Vikings and 14-0 against the Raiders. Preparation and coaching have a lot to do with that.
It’s nice that Mike Tomlin banned locker-room games for all players after the Steelers started 0-4. It would have been better if he had stepped in and overruled the veterans two weeks earlier. After two games, the “08ers” decided they could play pool and ping-pong but the younger players couldn’t.
Perhaps the Steelers wouldn’t have come out so flat in London and Oakland if Tomlin’s travel plans had given them more time to acclimate to the time change.
Even if the Steelers finish 2-14, Tomlin still will be the Steelers’ head coach next season. Todd Haley’s job security, meanwhile, is getting shakier by the week.
Redman’s momentum-killing fumble against Tennessee was partly due to a personnel mix-up on the play. Antonio Brown, who could turn out to be the team MVP, had to lobby the offensive coordinator to have more passes thrown his way at Cincinnati in Week 2.
The Steelers didn’t use their timeouts wisely in the second half when trying to come back at Oakland and New England, and they didn’t manage the clock well in Oakland.
At New England, any lift the Steelers had from their goal-line stand in the first quarter was quickly wiped out. Instead of burrowing forward from inside the 1-yard line to give the Steelers a few feet of breathing room, Roethlisberger dropped eight yards into the end zone and threw an interception. The Patriots had a 7-0 lead on the next play.
That’s just one example of Haley’s questionable play-calling throughout the season. Had the Steelers not given the ball right back to the Patriots after stopping them at the 1, maybe they wouldn’t have had to climb out of such a big hole yet again.