The Steelers first preseason game against the Jets looked all too familiar. Stewart hit Burress for a big play of 40 yards to put the Steelers on the Jets one-yard line, first and goal. Bettis went right twice and left once for a net loss of two yards. Predictably, the Steelers settled for three points despite being perched on the Jets end zone for three straight plays.
Many Steeler fans have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Coach Bill Cowher, citing his vanilla offense and conservative approach. Cowher used to be known as a gambler and his 1997 Steelers dominated the red-zone. Has Cowher changed? Is his offense really vanilla? In order to figure out this red-zone problem, these questions deserve a closer look.
Just how predictable is the Steelers offense in the red-zone? The fact is the Steelers do run the ball in the red-zone (at least in 2001) more than any other team in the NFL save the Atlanta Falcons. If you guessed run against the Steelers in the red-zone, you'd be right almost two-thirds of the time (65.8%)
However, the Steelers run the ball more than any other team in the NFL no matter where the offense is on the field. Certainly, play selection has to be seen as part of the red-zone problem. But execution is also part of the equation. One of the reasons the Steelers were so successful in the red-zone in 1997 was the dominating offensive line. The Steelers were practically automatic on short-yardage.
OT John Jackson said it best, ''Running the ball is what we do. They always put eight guys up there. We're going to see eight, nine guys. We just run it right at them. We didn't care.''
Everyone knew the Steelers were going to run the ball. That knowledge simply did not matter. The Steelers ran the ball anyway and they ran it well, right into the end zone.
This fact may highlight part of Cowher's problem. He is accustomed to running the ball almost at will. But times have changed and so has personnel. Yet Cowher does not seem to recognize this. What worked in 1997 may not work in 2002. The Steelers no longer own short-yardage situations and the heavy doses of red-zone running have been largely ineffective.
Maybe the Steelers can return to short-yardage dominance. But the first preseason game did not look promising in that regard. The Steelers need to figure out how to score through the air. However, the Steelers were not all that adept at doing that either.
Many have called for the fade to Burress. The fact is, the Steelers did try. The passing game just did not execute in the red-zone. In 2001, Stewart completed only 45% of his attempts for just 6 touchdowns. The Steelers were 27th in the League in touchdowns per passing attempt (a meager 14.6%). Furthermore, Burress simply has not learned how to use his size to his advantage. Burress plays the smallest 6'5" I have ever seen. Given the impotence of the passing game in the red-zone, is it any wonder why the Steelers ran the ball so often?
Running the ball often in the red-zone does not necessarily spell three points. Both the 49ers and the Rams ran the ball often in the red-zone. The Rams ran the ball about 57% of the time (9th most in the League) and the 49ers just over 61% of the time (6th most in the League). What sets the 49ers and the Rams apart from the Steelers is the TD success rate when these teams decide to pass the ball. The Rams were number 1 in the NFL in the red-zone in terms of TDs per passing attempt. The Rams scored a TD about once every three attempts (36.1%). The 49ers are in the neighborhood with 35.2%. Again, the Steelers chime in at a dismal 14.6%.
Really, the difference between the Rams offense and that of the Steelers is red-zone success rates. Outside the red-zone, the Steelers scored the same number of touchdowns as the high-flying Rams, 14. The Rams and 49ers demonstrate that you can run the ball a great deal of the time in the red-zone and still score touchdowns. The key is execution of the passing game. The Falcons even ran the ball in the red-zone more than the Steelers, but still managed to score a touchdown 30% of the time they aired out the ball.
What the Steelers clearly need is more work throwing the ball inside the red-zone. Running the ball left, right, and up the middle during the preseason does not help. The Steelers are capable of generating big plays, as last year showed so well. They need to reproduce that success inside the 20 and the time is well past nigh for focusing on the red-zone passing attack. The Steelers cannot afford to rush the ball 65% of the time while mangling the aerial show.
What I would like to see, along with more practice of the passing game during the preseason games, is a formation with El and Haynes in the backfield and Allred, Burress, and Ward as the receiving targets. Allred and Burress give the Steelers two players that should be able to use their height in the end zone. Haynes would give the Steelers a solid short-yardage threat, something that Bettis seems no longer as adept as he used to be. El is elusive and gives the Steelers that added dimension of another receiver/QB in the backfield. First and foremost, the Steelers must establish this as a passing formation. This should help open things up for Haynes, Stewart, and El. The Steelers (namely Cowher) must maximize the talent they have instead of acting like they have a spry running back in Bettis and a dominating offensive line as they had in 1997.
Simply put, Cowher needs to get with the times and with the players.