Last week the premise of my article was how much of the inconsistency on offense was due to overuse of the shotgun, which is primarily the formation in which most sacks and turnovers occur against the Steelers. Five plays into the opening drive, I thought perhaps Todd Haley had seen the light. However, a false start on a first down shotgun play on the opening possession, a near pick-six on first down out of the shotgun on the first play of the third possession, a near second-down interception on a shotgun back-shoulder fade pass on the third possession, and two interceptions out of the shotgun suggests that the coaching staff still has no grasp on how to maximize a Ben Roethlisberger-led offense.
The first possession began ideally with all first and second-down plays coming from under center. The drive began with a couple of play-action calls, including a completion to Martavis Bryant on a skinny post. There was a great rhythm to the series. The sixth play of the drive had me mentally begging for a run. The rhythm of the drive had me feeling it would set up no worse then 3rd and 2. Instead, Haley called a flea flicker against the Saints' sorry defense. Why he felt he needed to get cute against that defense I cannot explain. But it was the first of three consecutive drives in which an unconscionable playcall killed the drive.
During the second possession, Le'Veon Bell ran the ball at will as the majority of the plays called were from under center. Haley had the play-action set up about as well as anyone could want. Heck, I'd take a drop back pass from under center when the threat of a run better still exists. Instead, all the success with the run game went to waste as Haley utilized it in no way, shape, or form. A shotgun pass after running the ball successfully made no sense whatsoever. A false start occurred, and the Steelers settled for a 49-yard field goal.
The third possession started with what should have been a pick six with one of those horizontal line of scrimmage passes opponents sit seem to sit on and expect. Had the play been a pump fake and pass to Bryant running the post, it's an easy score from 80 yards out. Within the drive, the Steelers turned back to the run after Roethlisberger banged his wrist on a throw. Just as in the previous drive, Haley didn't utilize the opportunity to pass off the run success. Instead, he called two low percentage back-shoulder fade passes and the Steelers again settled for a field goal. Had Haley run the ball on second down or called a play-action pass, the Steelers likely score 7. With the way they were running the ball on that possession, I have a hard time believing someone wasn't going to be substantially open on a play-action pass.
It hasn't been the first time I've seen this happen. I can't explain how frustrating it is to watch the Steelers run the ball with extreme success, have the play-action or under-center pass set up on a silver platter, only to take their foot off the opponent's throat and back out into the shotgun without even attempting a play-action or dropback pass.
Also irrational to me is the imbalance within drives. The Steelers will run the ball over and over as they did starting the game in Cleveland and Tennessee, or in their second and third possessions against New Orleans, and yet never look to run a pass off of it. Then they'll come out in shotgun on their following possessions and become pass happy. To make no attempt to pass off their own run success is mindboggling. That lack of understanding by the coaching staff is inexcusable. Where is the balance series by series? Why run, run, run, one series? And pass, pass, pass in the next? A great offense always connects runs to passes and passes to runs. Each play is used to set up another. Watching the Steelers, it's as if they're just picking plays out of a hat with no rhyme or reason.
It's all about as illogical to me as using a fullback in the backfield only one more time the entire game after the longest running play of the day occurred when Will Johnson lined up in the offset I in the middle of the first quarter. It's also illogical to run a draw out of the shotgun on 2nd-and-1 to a tiny running back.
Against the Jets, when the Steelers attempted to pass their way out of a large deficit, they failed miserably. Against Tennessee, they ran their way out of their deficit and succeeded. Down 14-6, lessons learned would lead one to believe they would at the very least try to stay balanced. Instead, Haley opened the second half with the mistake-prone shotgun passing game. Roethlisberger's second shotgun interception resulted on the third play of the series, and put a fork in a team that was not going to overcome a 2-0 turnover deficit against Drew Brees.
The Steelers had four possessions to score points against a horrible defense before the Saints executed their first scoring drive. Illogical play calls killed the first three drives. Another high throw by Roethlisberger killed the fourth. An interception out of the shotgun due to another impatient playcall killed the fifth.
Roethlisberger's post-game comments seemed to suggest frustration over not having a checkdown on that play. Being in shotgun, perhaps Haley felt Ben needed the extra protection. Regardless, sending three receivers deep with nothing underneath is a bad playcall and play design. The result was a horrible decision by Roethlisberger, a 10-year vet who should've thrown the ball away. It was, after all, first-and-10, not third-and-long.
Instead of the score being 13-0 or 17-0 after their first four possessions, the Steelers handed a Saints a 6-0 deficit. There's often talk about how turnover ratios and teams that run the ball a certain amount of times are the keys to winning. Yet substantial early leads are most often the cause of those turnover and running ratios. The Steelers' offense squandered their opportunities. Had they stuck to balance, they likely would've jumped out to a huge lead.
This doesn't mean that the defense goes without blame. It would've been nice to see the run defense with Steve McLendon at nose tackle rather then Cam Thomas. William Gay has not played well the last three games (his pick 6 against Tennessee notwithstanding) and Sunday appeared to be his worst game.
The pass rush looked strong on the first three Saints possessions, but then it fizzled. On the long third-and-5 completion to Kenny Stills (against Gay) that set up the Saints' second touchdown, Jason Worilds' rush effort was awful. Why he fell down during that attempt I cannot explain. Nor can I explain how a running back rode him out wide before the safety could help on the long touchdown pass to Stills on his double-move past Ike Taylor. Brees could've set up a tent in the pocket on that play. That shouldn't happen with both outside linebackers rushing the passer.
There were some bright spots. I thought Taylor played well, other than the touchdown. And the Steelers deserve credit for shutting out Jimmy Graham.
Critics ought to take a closer look at Kelvin Beachum. The shot he delivered at the end of Bell's 18-yard first-quarter run was fun watch. And Beachum's pull helped spring Bell's five-yard touchdown run. According to Pro Football Focus, Beachum has the sixth highest rating among left tackles in the NFL. I'm seeing David DeCastro getting handled far more often than Beachum.
The weak links on defense Sunday appeared to be Gay, Cam Thomas and Sean Spence. McLendon and Ryan Shazier could make a big difference by returning to the starting lineup. However, Keenan Lewis reminded me of the Steelers' mistake in letting him sign with the Saints two years ago. You can never have enough good cover corners, and they should've held onto Lewis, whose savings are now in the pocket of Mike Mitchell, and that's hardly an even swap.
It's the same old song and dance. The coaching staff has little grasp on the strengths and weaknesses of their quarterback. It's an offense that, other than for two games, has consistently found ways to stop itself. The two late touchdowns scored on Sunday were only further annoyance that those scores against a prevent defense likely provided the staff false hope that a shotgun-heavy offense works for this quarterback, who's inconsistent at reading defenses and likes to hold on to the ball.
The defense is mediocre due to injuries, youth, and missed opportunities to re-sign important pieces. A 7-5 record with their easy travel schedule against below average non-conference teams is worse then the .500 record they've posted over the previous two seasons. This is not a Super Bowl caliber team due to an average defense. But it still should be a 9-2 team.