(CBS Pittsburgh) — Analysis of the Pittsburgh Steelers has changed quite a lot in just a three week span. The team has gone from 11-0 and considered a potential threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC to, three straight losses later, wondering if the team will even hold on to win their division.
The reasons for the struggles are numerous but the biggest is a surprising one for anybody fond of remembering the days of Jerome Bettis, Le’Veon Bell and a dominant Steelers running game.
“They can’t run the football. They just can’t,” said NFL on CBS analyst Charles Davis in an interview with CBS Local’s Ryan Mayer.
While the team started out with five straight games over 100 yards rushing, cracks began to show in Week 5 when the yards per carry number dipped below four. It hasn’t gotten above that mark since and the Steelers have had just one game since in which they went over 100 yards on the ground (Week 11 vs. Jacksonville).
If it was just the run game struggling, that would be one thing. But the struggles on the ground combined with a lack of deep passing has caused a chain reaction.
“They were always talking about, don’t forget in our running game, Ben’s quick passes, the jet sweeps, those kind of count as runs for us. But, earlier in the year when they were doing some of those things they were still able to hit a few more deep balls. And we haven’t seen much of that recently,” said Davis. “If you can’t run it, you’re running quick passing games and people aren’t quite as afraid of you downfield, it makes it harder to do things. As Mike Tomlin likes to say a lot, it makes for tough sledding out there.”
Where the blame lies in the deep passing game is a matter of who you ask. Many have pointed to Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles deep as a sign that his arm just isn’t the same after last year’s injury.
Ben Roethlisberger on throws 10+ yards vs. Bengals:
▪️ 1 TD
▪️ 1 INT pic.twitter.com/vcFZswvrX8
— PFF (@PFF) December 22, 2020
Davis doesn’t necessarily see it that way, pointing to games earlier in the season in which they were able to hit some deep shots. As with any struggling aspect of a football team, the struggles have many causes.
“Everybody is going to look at Ben, it’s not all Ben. Diontae Johnson has been dynamic at times and then the ball’s dropped….They just can’t consistently run the ball the way that they did earlier this year. And, I think they’re at the stage where all is well, stay calm. You’re still going to try to stay calm because you don’t get anything done out of panic but it’s a much more serious situation than maybe it felt like earlier this year,” said Davis.
The offense doesn’t exactly have a get right matchup this week either with the Indianapolis Colts coming to town. The Colts rank 6th in Football Outsiders defensive efficiency metric DVOA and they have allowed the fifth fewest rushing yards in the league. Getting the running game going against Indy requires moving DeForest Buckner, a player Davis says is an All Pro.
“Inside, Maurkice Pouncey….Dave DeCastro at right guard dealing with DeForest Buckner one of the best three techniques in the game. If they struggle with him, you’re not going to run the ball,” said Davis. “Those guys up front, they have to deal with him in order to have some success running it.”
If they are able to deal with Buckner and get some running room, the opportunity to take deep shots will be there. Indy is tied for having given up the 6th-most passing plays of 20 yards or more (47) and are 24th in the league in yards per attempt allowed at 7.5.
“They have to take some of those shots. They don’t have to be bombs all the time but some of those intermediate throws, anything to get them to back off a little bit and hopefully find some space and some room to run it,” said Davis.
The Colts offense, while ranking eighth in the league in points per game (28.5), has struggled against some of the better defenses it has faced. Against the Ravens and Bears, each of whom rank in the Top 10 in DVOA, Indy put up 10 and 19 points respectively. But, with veteran quarterback Philip Rivers and a running game that has seemingly gotten on track in the last three weeks (109, 212, 127) they present a test for a Steelers defense that has been among the league’s best this season.
The game has plenty of playoff implications riding on it as well. The Steelers can clinch the AFC North with a win while the Colts need a win and some losses from fellow Wild Card hopefuls to lock up a spot. Another loss for Pittsburgh would set up a winner-take-all matchup against the Cleveland Browns in Week 17 assuming the Browns beat the Jets on Sunday.