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Can the Steelers Fix Their Issues on Offense In Time?

Over the past three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense has significantly regressed into a product that simply isn’t acceptable at this point in the season. There is far too much talent in the weapon’s core and it’s being led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. In the first 11 games, the Steelers offense wasn’t too much to write home about but they were far more polished than the current state. Issues that wouldn’t seem like issues for the Pittsburgh Steelers have become such. To put it short, the lack of any kind of run game, wide receivers dropping passes consistently, and Ben’s lapses in production have all coalesced to form an offense that can’t move the football.  

To start off the year one of the reasons the Steeler’s offense was seen as dangerous was because of the depth at the wide receiver position. They’ve been a mix of electric and erratic but as of late, the erratic side has shown through. 27 dropped passes on the year which ranks 1st in the NFL. The frustrating part is that close to half of those drops have come in the last three games. 

To fix this issue, Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson mainly must hold on to the football or sit on the bench and receive fewer targets. Their targets must be given to guys like Chase Claypool and James Washington who can make game-changing plays. For Claypool, it’s mainly about adjusting how he’s used as teams have game planned for him well. Targeting him on intermediate routes and on sweeps could help him return to being a key factor in the offense. Washington must simply get the ball more often because he makes a big-time play every time he catches the ball. In addition, Juju Smith-Schuster’s route tree has to be expanded as he’s been cut down to just 5-yard curls and hitches recently. The fix for this issue comes down to adjusting schematics and receivers just catching the damn football.  

Even with all-time great defenses and Hall of Fame quarterbacks, one staple in Pittsburgh has always been smash-mouth football. “Run the football and stop the run” is what Mike Tomlin himself said would be his focus as the next head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers during his introductory press conference. Mission accomplished for nearly every season he’s coached for this franchise but not right now in 2020. 

This issue has been caused by multiple position groups. It’s easy to point to the running backs but they can only do so much with no holes to run through. While the Steelers offensive line has been one of the best in pass blocking, they haven’t been able to get any push in run blocking. This group doesn’t have good chemistry and they don’t work well together as a unit. Sure, there have been injuries and guys in and out of the lineup but this has been a trend for most of the year even when the offense was playing well. Conner and Snell can get some blame as well, but that comes from the fact that while they are solid runners, they just aren’t talented enough to create something out of nothing enough times with this offensive line group. 

When it comes to the players, there really doesn’t seem like there is much that can be done. Meaning they are who they are but there is still a way to improve the run game. Using more power sets and I formation instead of shotgun draws is a good start. It will at the very least show more of a commitment to running the ball instead of the half-hearted run plays out of the gun.

Big Ben’s recent declined play might be the worst result of the poor run game. He was playing some very efficient football for the first ten games but he’s looked very flustered in these past few games. Two factors are in play here, one being that a 38-year-old Big Ben at this stage of his career isn’t built to throw the ball 40-50 times a game in order to win. Not only that but throwing it that much over the course of 16 game schedule is catching up to him and the offense a bit. 

Secondly, the knee injury Ben suffered against the Cowboys has lingered and only gotten worse. It didn’t seem like an issue when it happened because he came back in and played well for the next three games but it’s without a doubt become a problem now. If Roethlisberger wants to get back to his old play, he must get healthy and treat this injury seriously. Arm strength isn’t the issue here; it’s mechanics. A healthy knee would help him improve his mechanics which is what has resulted in his poor play. 

Due to the nagging injury, Ben is making too many all arm throws and stepping into his deep passes which throws off the release point. The reckless play that he’s displayed is who he is as a quarterback and who he has always been in his career, so per usual the Steelers offense must live with that for good or for bad. Fixed lower body mechanics due to a healthy knee will go a long way to set Ben Roethlisberger on the right track.  

Coaching/play-calling has been a problem for the Steelers all season long. Even when the offense was playing well it was due to the talented receivers and Ben’s stellar performances. Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offensive coordinator, is the main issue here and he will remain in that job for the rest of the season. Fichtner simply can’t manage his personnel correctly in the run or pass game. Far too many times he uses his speed running back in between the tackles and his power running back on outside run plays. 

The play calling has been very predictable as well. For example, he’s called normal run plays on second and long countless times this season when the Steelers clearly can’t run the football. There have also been several times when the Steelers have had opportunities to score at the end of the half and the play calling is extremely conservative. But the biggest area where coaching has failed this offense is the lack of willingness to adjust the game plan. 

The offense lived on the quick and short passing game but defenses have adjusted and figured out how to stop that. Despite that fact, Fichtner has yet to change the scheme and game plan enough to make a real difference. Again, some of the problems mentioned above with the run game and receivers are a reflection of poor coaching. Moving forward the Steelers must use more play-action and intermediate routes. Play action can still work even without a run game but it does have its limits without one. Working the middle of the field on intermediate routes will help balance the stale passing game. 

For the run game, using more power sets and showing a commitment to it is at the very least worth trying. Finally, the QB coach Matt Canada must be more involved in the scheme. His motion concepts could become useful for this struggling offense.  

Overall the Steelers offense dies on negative plays which they have seemingly every drive. They happen due to various reasons which are mentioned above but the offense must cut down on those negative plays that kill drives. The run game looks lost beyond repair and it’s not reasonable to expect much improvement there. 

An adjusted game plan in the passing game from the coaching staff, catching the football from the wideouts, and a healthier Ben would help these issues immensely. Will it happen in time for January football? Possibly, but a good number of these issues must be resolved come playoff time if the Steelers want to make any kind of championship run.     

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