The Pittsburgh Steelers have to start forcing opposing offenses into low-percentage situations, something they didn’t do at all on two 12-play drives that resulted in the Ravens’ touchdowns on Thursday night.
The Ravens faced a total of just four third downs on their touchdown drives. None was longer than 4 yards, and Dick LeBeau’s defense is predicated on stopping the run and putting teams in obvious passing situations.
“If you can make a team one-dimensional, it’s so much easier to play the game,” Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. "But if you’re in third-and-1s and third-and-2s [offenses] can do whatever they want. We can’t continue to play teams where they can run and pass on us.“
The Steelers actually fared well when they put the Ravens significantly behind the chains. Baltimore did not convert a third down longer than 6 yards in its 26-6 win over Pittsburgh, and it was just 5-of-12 in third-down percentage.
The problem for the Steelers is they consistently gave up yards in chunks because of a combination of shoddy tackling and players not staying in their assigned gaps on running plays.
That allowed the Ravens to stay away from third-and-long situations for much of the game.
“I think it’s new faces, new guys understanding new techniques, new responsibilities,” veteran defensive end Brett Keisel said about why the Steelers have struggled on defense. “It’s a hard transition, but it’s a transition that has to happen.”
It won't get any easier against the 2-0 Panthers, who are coming off an impressive 24-7 home win over the Detroit Lions.
“I felt better today than I have in a number of weeks,” said Moore, who has been hampered by a nagging groin injury. “That’s encouraging and I’m looking forward to continuing getting better. Hopefully I’ll feel better throughout the week and hopefully be ready to go on Sunday. That’s my goal.”
Moore's return would help an offense that has struggled since putting up 27 points in the first half of a season-opening win against the Browns.
Moore gives the Steelers an experienced No. 3 wide receiver, something they haven’t had with first-year player Justin Brown the last two games. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Moore is just two seasons removed from catching 65 passes for 1,041 yards and six touchdowns for the Saints, and he could really help the Steelers as their slot receiver.
Moore has not played in a game since the Steelers’ second preseason contest Aug. 16 because of the groin injury that has tested the ninth-year veteran’s patience.
“It just takes time, and the days I was thinking it was ready I kind of got out there and did a little bit and it just wasn’t ready yet,” Moore said. “It was kind of one of those thing where you can continue to do that and make it worse or you can sit out a little bit longer and hopefully it heals up on his own.”
Dri Archer is hoping to join Moore in returning to the field, though the rookie running back/wide receiver is probably questionable at best for the 8:30 p.m. ET game against the Panthers.
Archer, who didn’t play last week against the Ravens because of a sprained ankle and a knee injury, said he practiced Monday on a limited basis after getting treatment at Steelers headquarters over the weekend.
“I did a little bit, just getting a test of how it feels,” Archer said following the Steelers’ first practice of the week. “I’m hoping (to play against the Panthers). It’s feeling a little better, and I’m just taking it day by day and getting more treatment.”
They appeared to improve themselves with the signings of a handful of outside free agents. But two games into the season the Steelers have not gotten the return they had hoped for from those investments.
Here is a look at the free agents the Steelers signed, and all analysis is prefaced with the caveat that it is way too early to draw any sweeping conclusions.
Also, punter Adam Podlesh did not report to training camp because of a family issue. That certainly takes priority over football, so he is not included in this look at the free agents that Steelers signed.
RB LeGarrette Blount: The former Patriot hasn't gotten on the field much in large part because Le'Veon Bell has been the Steelers' best player through the season's first two weeks. Blount, who signed a two-year, $3.85 million contract, has rushed for just 14 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Blount's carries will be limited if Bell keeps playing so well, but the 6-foot, 250-pounder is still nice injury insurance at running back. And the Steelers are going to need him at some point this season.
WR Lance Moore: The former Saint has yet to play a snap after signing a two-year, $3.5 million contract. Moore has been hampered by a nagging groin injury, and the Steelers really need him to get healthy and give them a reliable No. 3 wide receiver. Moore's career suggests the ninth-year veteran could thrive working the middle of the field -- and benefiting from the extra attention teams pay to Pro Bowler Antonio Brown and the emerging Markus Wheaton.
CB Brice McCain: The former Houston Texan signed a veteran's minimum contract ($635,000 salary cap hit for one season) with the Steelers to provide depth and play special teams. McCain missed the season opener because of a groin injury and he only played special teams last Thursday in the Steelers' 26-6 loss to the Ravens.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey: The veteran speedster played his way onto the roster but has yet to make a catch. I'm a little surprised Heyward-Bey, who signed a veteran's minimum contract, didn't get more snaps at wide receiver with Moore out. If the first two games are any indication, Heyward-Bey will play primarily on special teams, which means the Steelers could look to rookie Martavis Bryant to provide a deep threat now that he is healthy.
Points per game:
2013: 38.0 (yards per game)
Third-down conversion rate
Analysis: The Steelers have been better in almost all of the major statistical categories compared to last season and running back Le'Veon Bell is the biggest reason for that. The Steelers had no running game through the first three weeks of 2013 when Bell was out with a sprained foot, and he has been among the most productive running backs in the NFL through the first 15 games of his career. … The Steelers have clearly moved the ball through the first two games of the season but they have stopped themselves as much as the opposing defenses have because of penalties and turnovers. They have to clean that up. Obviously. ... I think the offense is going to be fine and I love the balance the Steelers should have assuming Bell stays healthy. How important is a balanced offense to the Steelers? They are 10-3 since 2012 when they rush for at least 1o0 yards in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers are 7-14 when they rush for less than 100 yards during that span. ... The return of Lance Moore, who has yet to play in a game because of a groin injury, will be huge. Getting Dri Archer back too from a sprained ankle will also help. Archer’s speed and versatility allow the Steelers to diversify their formations and force opposing defenses to account for the rookie running back/wide receiver.
The veteran cornerback also turned out to be a voice of reason following a dispiriting 26-6 loss to the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Let's just say there is no reason for panic," Taylor said after the Steelers were soundly beaten by their archrivals. "It's a marathon, not a sprint. Everybody likes to throw rocks but playing this game you've got to be honest and ask yourself, 'Did I play hard? What do I need to work on?' "
Taylor is right all the way around, even with his assessment that it's still early.
Yes, the Steelers better have a sense of urgency this week at practice when they prepare for a Sunday night game at Carolina.
But now is not the time for the Steelers to panic.
They are, after all, 1-1, which puts them a game ahead of where they were at this time lasr season.
With the Steelers getting a mini break because of playing last Thursday night, I did a comparison of the 2013 team and this on both sides of the ball through the first two games of the season.
Here is a look at the defense, where the comparison in major statistical categories shows there is plenty of cause for concern. A review of the offense will be posted later this morning.
2013: 18.0 (Points allowed per game)
2013: 119.5 (Yards allowed per game)
2013: 40.6 (conversion rate by opposing offense)
Analysis: A few troubling trends from last season have carried over to 2014. The Steelers are still struggling to stop the run, and they have been considerably worse in doing that through the first two games of this season. What is striking about the chunks of yards they are yielding on the ground is Browns starting running back Ben Tate played less than a half against them before going down with a knee injury. And the Ravens didn't have their projected starting running back against the Steelers, having released Ray Rice. ...The Steelers have to get more physical on defense and they also have to find a way to create turnovers. They are already minus four in turnover differential and the disparity between giveaways and takeaways was one of the biggest reasons why they started 0-4 in 2013. ...A rash of defensive penalties against the Ravens contributed to the Steelers' alarming numbers in overall penalties through two games. As bad as the Steelers were through the first quarter of last season they weren't heavily penalized for the most part.
And not the three they committed last Thursday, including a lost fumble that snuffed out an opening drive that should have resulted in at least three points.
The Steelers have not forced a turnover in two games, and such a statistic would not mean too much standing on its own since the 2014 season is still in its infancy.
But the Steelers have not fielded an opportunistic defense since 2010, the last time they played in the Super Bowl, and Brett Keisel is at a loss to explain why.
“I wish I knew the answer to that because you guys have been asking that for a while,” the veteran defensive end said.
The questions, Keisel would be the first to admit, are justified.
The Steelers forced 35 turnovers in 2010, and they erased a double-digit halftime lead against the Ravens in an AFC divisional playoff game with a couple of game-changing takeaways in the third quarter.
Since 2010, the Steelers have averaged a tick under 20 takeaways per season.
They had 20 last season -- none during a disastrous 0-4 September -- and if the start of 2014 is any indication the Steelers are still trying to figure out how to win the crucial turnover battle.
“They kind of just happen,” free safety Mike Mitchell said of takeaways. “You capitalize when you have an opportunity.”
The Steelers missed an opportunity early in the fourth quarter last Thursday night when they were still in the game.
A blitzing Ryan Shazier forced Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to make an ill-advised throw near the goal line that cornerback Cortez Allen had a chance to intercept. Allen made a nice play on the ball but he couldn’t pick it off and the Ravens kicked a short field to increase their lead to 20-6.
The catch was a tough one for Allen but the Steelers have to make those plays if they want to start generating turnovers.
“They’re going to come,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said after the 26-6 loss to the Ravens. “I’m not going to worry about that. We were in position a bunch of times. We just have to finish them.”
“We’ve got to give our offense the ball,” he said, “and give them short fields and put points on the board.”
Until the Steelers start doing that the question will persist as to why the defense has not been more opportunistic.
And away we go ...
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think it's personnel more than anything. Not to give Dick LeBeau a pass, because either opposing teams have figured him out or he has to adjust his schemes to fit his players. I refuse to believe the game has passed him by, but LeBeau is arguably facing his greatest challenge as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, because I'm not sure how much talent he has with which to work. Name the difference-makers on the Steelers' defense. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons and maybe defensive Cameron Heyward qualify. Linebacker Ryan Shazier will become one, but he is going through the typical rookie growing pains right now. The biggest problem the Steelers have defensively right now is they are not winning up front. They have to fix that and work from there. And last I checked, LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback, hasn't made a tackle in decades. The Steelers, as a whole, have to do a better job of tackling, and that is incumbent upon the players.
@ScottBrown_ESPN when are they going to realize that the no huddle works for them?— Dane (@Urunderarrest) September 12, 2014
@ScottBrown_ESPN: The Steelers used a silent snap count on Thursday night, and maybe the crowd noise was too much of a factor for them to use the no-huddle on the road. And, to be fair, the Steelers didn't have trouble moving the ball against the Ravens. They just killed themselves with turnovers, a couple of untimely penalties and some missed passes that Ben Roethlisberger usually completes in his sleep. I'm not sure how much the Steelers will use the no-huddle next Sunday since they are playing at Carolina. But if the offense struggles early, they will have to try something to shake things up.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: Tough to argue with you, but I would play Brett Keisel at defensive end in the base defense instead of Cam Thomas and get Stephon Tuitt snaps when the Steelers go to the nickel. I think Tuitt will play more as the season progresses, but right now Keisel is their second best defensive lineman. I'm not sure what the Steelers were thinking in waiting so long to bring Keisel back -- and thinking Thomas is starter material at defensive end after he lost his starting job at nose tackle last season in San Diego. It's still early, but Thomas looks best suited to provide depth at defensive end and nose tackle, something Al Woods did last season.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the Steelers signed Thomas as a stop-gap with the hopes that he could hold down a starting job until a younger defensive end was ready to take over opposite Heyward. It's not like the Steelers paid a ton of money for him, but certainly they expected more from Thomas than what they have gotten through the first two weeks of the season. No question the Steelers have to improve up front or they don't have a chance defensively. Everything with LeBeau's defense starts with stopping the run. They have been gashed in the first two games by Terrence West, Isaiah Crowell, Bernard Piece and Justin Forsett. Yikes.
@ScottBrown_ESPN: I think the offense is going to be good, and that it is simply going through a rough spot at a bad time. The return of Lance Moore, assuming the ninth-year veteran is able to play next Sunday night at Carolina, will be huge. Justin Brown isn't ready to play as many snaps as he has been getting and Moore is the kind of savvy veteran who should thrive as the Steelers' No. 3 wide receiver or at least be productive. More problematic is the defense. The Steelers haven't been able to stop the run or put consistent pressure on the quarterback. They have yet to force a turnover in two games, and free safety Mike Mitchell, their prized free-agent signing this year, has really struggled. Yeah, other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I'm still standing by my prediction of 10-6 for the Steelers, because I think the offense will start to carry the team and that the defense will improve as the season progresses. But, as you know, there is a fine line between 10-6 and 8-8 -- and even 10-6 and 6-10..
But Roethlisberger had some interesting things to say in the NFL Network interview that aired prior to the Steelers-Ravens game Thursday night.
"But I think the Pittsburghers appreciate me. I think that it's going to be one of those things when I'm done playing people will look back and say, 'Wow, he was a lot better than we gave him credit for,'" Roethlisberger said. "I've won two Super Bowls, I've been to three. There are a lot of greats that have never been and have never won. I'm just going to continue giving everything I have and try and get back and when another one."
The Steelers are coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons and have looked like anything but a playoff team through the first two weeks of the season.
Roethlisberger represents the biggest hope the Steelers have of re-establishing themselves as Super Bowl contenders. If that doesn't happen it won't be because of a perception of a strained relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the veteran quarterback said.
"People made a big deal about us not liking each other or getting along -- that wasn't it at all. It's just a new transition thing," Roethlisberger said. "Now I think that we're starting to really understand each other. I think that things are going well."
Here are a few odds and ends with the Steelers off until Monday:
- The Steelers were determined not to give up the deep ball against the Ravens, but at what cost? The Steelers held Ravens deep threat Torrey Smith to one catch for 10 yards last Thursday night and Joe Flacco's longest completion was 24 yards. That came on a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta in the middle of the field where the Ravens exploited a defense that wanted to keep everything in front of it. "I know I worked hard this week staying deep," Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell said. "Coach [Carnell] Lake worked with me a lot playing everything top down so we had a lot of great coverages. Our corners did a great job of staying on top. We forced [the Ravens] to check it down."
- The Steelers came out of the Ravens game in relatively good shape from an injury standpoint. Nose tackle Steve McLendon hurt his shoulder but coach Mike Tomlin said that was the only the potentially significant injury that the Steelers sustained.
- Tomlin did not buy into the thinking that a lost fumble by wide receiver Justin Brown on the opening possession set the tone for the mistake-prone Steelers against the Ravens. "It's a game of 60 minutes," Tomlin said. "The outcome of the game's not going to be defined in the initial moments of the game, whether it's positive or negative."
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger struggled with his accuracy and simply didn't make enough plays for an offense that hasn't scored a touchdown in the Steelers' last four quarters. Big Ben can't be average if the Steelers are to return to the playoffs this season. Grade: C-
Tight ends: Heath Miller had been playing a pretty good game until the 10th-year veteran lost a fumble that all but ended any chance the Steelers had of mounting a comeback. Matt Spaeth played sparingly as the Steelers opted to go with three wide receivers over two tight ends for much of the game. Grade: C-
Wide receivers: Antonio Brown shook off an early hit to the head and led both teams with seven catches and 90 receiving yards. Markus Wheaton had his moments, but Justin Brown's lost fumble early was a killer. And that came after his only catch of the night. Grade: C-
Offensive line: The Steelers averaged 5.5 yards per rush and Roethlisberger was sacked just twice. But the Steelers averaged just 2.9 yards on 14 of their 18 rushes and Roethlisberger was constantly under duress. A third sack Ravens sack was nullified by a gift roughing the passer penalty. Grade: D
Defensive line: The Ravens rushed for 157 yards and the Steelers didn't get much of an inside push when quarterback Joe Flacco threw the ball. The Steelers have too often been pushed around in the last four quarters. Cam Thomas, who has played both defensive end and nose tackle, has really struggled. Grade: D.
Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier combined for 23 tackles but each struggled at times in pass coverage. Shazier looked particularly bad on a 24-yard catch by tight end Dennis Pitta, the Ravens' longest pass play in the game. Outside linebackers Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones have to put more pressure on the quarterback. Their counterparts on the Ravens, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, made the two look invisible by comparison. Grade: D.
Cornerbacks: Cortez Allen's 38 penalty yards on Baltimore's first touchdown drive helped put the Steelers in an early hole. Allen otherwise held up pretty well in coverage as did Ike Taylor. Allen almost intercepted a Flacco pass early in the fourth quarter. Grade: B-
Safeties: Troy Polamalu collected eight tackles but the eight-time Pro Bowler has been relatively quiet through the first two weeks of the season. Mike Mitchell is already drawing the ire of Steelers fans and making them nostalgic for Ryan Clark. The free safety took a horrendous angle on Justin Forsett's 41-yard run in the fourth quarter, and he is off to a rough start in Pittsburgh: Grade: D
Special teams: Shaun Suisham has been the Steelers' best offense in the last four quarters. The steady kicker made field goals of 25 and 43 yards. Brad Wing averaged 45.8 yards on four punts but his net average was knocked down to 34.0 because of Jacoby Jones' 33-yard return. The Steelers got little out of their return game. Grade: C
Coaching:The Steelers simply weren't prepared and that falls on Mike Tomlin. They are struggling with the fundamentals and that also falls on Tomlin. The Steelers were lucky they only lost by 20 points to the Ravens, and they have to make significant improvement in a hurry. It starts at the top. Grade: F
Just as Justin Brown’s lost fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line portended the kind of night it would be for an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown in six quarters, the Steelers’ defense drew two flags on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage.
The penalty the Ravens accepted – a 15-yard face-mask call on cornerback Cortez Allen – helped turn a short reception by Steve Smith into a 29-yard gain.
Two games into the season, penalties are a problem for the Steelers -- and the problem is not confined to one side of the ball.
They have had 20 penalties assessed against them and a handful more declined. The Steelers' 10 penalties a game is double the number of penalties they averaged last season.
And their 85.5 penalty yards per game is more than double the penalty yards (42.3) the Steelers averaged last season.
“We’ve got to play technically and cleaner,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The spike in penalties will be an indictment of Tomlin and his staff and – just as troubling -- a reflection of a decline in talent if it continues.
It is too early to call it a trend, but the defense hasn’t played well enough, dating to last season, to earn a pass either for the five penalties assessed against it Thursday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
Two of the penalties came on the Ravens’ opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown, and both were committed by Allen.
Allen, who signed a five-year, $26.2 million contact last Saturday, had 38 penalty yards on Baltimore’s first drive compared to 24 passing yards by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
Numbers like that explain why the Ravens beat the Steelers soundly -- and why the Steelers were lucky to lose by only 20 points.
Sure, there were a couple of questionable unnecessary roughness calls on Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell on the Ravens’ second touchdown drive.
But a roughing-the-passer call on Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw extended the Steelers’ first drive and Baltimore was able to overcome that.
The Steelers, meanwhile, did too many things to beat themselves, starting with turnovers and penalties.
When asked how to correct the latter, Polamalu said, “Just work on playing cleaner, practicing better.”
They trailed the Baltimore Ravens by just a touchdown, and the offense was on the move near the end of the first half when Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass that sailed over the head of 6-foot-5 tight end Heath Miller.
The Steelers punted instead of getting a fresh set of downs inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line.
And that errant pass defined their dismal night as much as the three turnovers they committed and the nine penalties that also had coach Mike Tomlin fuming during a terse postgame news conference.
The Ravens beat the Steelers 26-6 at M&T Bank Stadium. What should be most troubling to Tomlin, who is 17-17 in his past 34 games, is that Pittsburgh has been outscored 50-9 in its past six quarters.
True, the defense may actually be worse at stopping the run than it was last season, which was considered an outlier. But the offense was expected to carry the defense until the young players got more experience and the new players got a grasp of the system.
Roethlisberger, after looking shaky in the second half of the Steelers' 30-27 win over the Browns, was pedestrian in his second start.
The 11th-year veteran completed 22 of 37 passes for 217 yards against the Ravens. He missed three open receivers when the outcome still hung in the balance.
Roethlisberger didn’t lose the game, but he didn’t come close to conjuring up some of the magic that he has before in Baltimore.
Four years ago, Roethlisberger played through a broken nose and late in the game he held off Terrell Suggs long enough to throw away a pass. The next play he threw for the game-winning touchdown. Two years before that, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a 12-play, 92-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to beat the Ravens.
Those games seem like they are from a bygone era.
And maybe they are with all of the turnover of personnel that has taken place since the Steelers played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10.
Roethlisberger though is the one player who holds the Steelers together and gives them hope, and his wide receivers could have given him a little more help Thursday night.
Maybe Justin Brown was supposed to stop in the middle of the field on a third-down pass that Roethlisberger threw behind him in the second quarter. Maybe Markus Wheaton and even Pro Bowler Antonio Brown could have done a better job fighting for balls that Roethlisberger gave them a chance to catch.
But the reality is that Roethlisberger has to raise the level of play of everyone around him, not the other way around.
And he has to start with himself if the Steelers are to have any chance of returning to the playoffs after consecutive 8-8 seasons.
Searching for answers: Defensive end Brett Keisel looked perplexed as he stood in front of his locker and sorted through the Steelers’ worst loss to Baltimore since getting pummeled, 35-7, three years ago at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 11. “They beat us in all three phases,” Keisel said. “We have work to do if we want to get back to where we want to go.” It doesn't help a Steelers defense that has struggled that the 36-year-old Keisel, who wasn't re-signed until late Aug. 20, is arguably their second-best defensive lineman.
No mood to talk: Neither coach Mike Tomlin nor Ben Roethlisberger were very chatty after the Steelers fell to 1-1. Tomlin talked for less than three minutes and said, “I’m not going to accept it and they can’t accept it." Roethlisberger’s postgame news conference in front of his locker lasted a little less than 90 seconds. “We knew what it was going to be coming in,” he said, “and it was everything and then some.” Yogi Berra couldn't have said it any better.