Kovacevic: Will Steelers pass up another chance?
CINCINNATI — Just to make sure I've got this all straight before the first snap ...
The Steelers' offensive plan for this already-mega-critical Monday night matchup with the Bengals will include “striking a balance” by upgrading the run, according to Mike Tomlin last Tuesday. “Obviously, we are working hard to do so,” the coach added.
Because, you know, upgrading the run is a reasonable priority in a league that's gone from 55.6 percent running plays in 1972, the year of the Immaculate Reception, to an all-time low of 42.9 percent last season. In Week 1 of this season, NFL teams passed for 8,143 yards, most ever for a single week.
But hey, balance away.
The Steelers' offensive plan will include, again per Tomlin, a running-back-by-committee approach. You'll see Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer sharing the carries.
Because, you know, that approach last season resulted in a sickly No. 28 ranking even though, on the rare occasions one back was allowed to own the position, they often fared well: Redman scorched the Giants for 147 yards on 26 rushes on Nov. 4, then never touched the ball more than nine times in any of the final eight games. Dwyer sliced up the Bengals for 122 yards on 17 rushes at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 21, then had 107 yards on 17 rushes the following week against the Redskins, then was relegated to part-time duty.
Blame the tap-outs or the Cleveland turnover nightmare, if you will, but this coaching staff is short-attention-span-theater when it comes to these backs.
The Steelers' offensive plan will include, based on practices leading up to this game, Markus Wheaton watching from the sideline.
Because, you know, Wheaton tantalized all through camp and the preseason, drew thick praise from Ben Roethlisberger and others and was supposed to be part of a rookie class that helped shatter the stigma of 8-8.
The reason the Steelers' offensive plan will keep Wheaton out is that it'll be based on the standard three-receiver set with a tight end.
Because, you know, David Paulson.
The Steelers' offensive plan will keep utilizing all the usual screens and sideline routes, as if LaRod Stephens-Howling never left.
Because, you know, it's maximizing your best asset to have Roethlisberger throw 23 passes of less than 10 yards, compared to just nine longer than that.
That really happened vs. Tennessee. Count 'em up.
The Steelers' offensive plan will challenge their line, the clear weak link in the opener, to create the desired balance by driving back one of the NFL's most formidable defensive lines, the Bengals' front four of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Domata Peko.
Because, you know … ugh, I can't even come up with a quip for this one.
The Bengals aren't nearly as strong at linebacker or the secondary, but, hey, let's see how Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert fare in knocking back these guys.
That about cover it all?
OK, just checking.
It'll be good to know which players to blame if all this somehow goes awry.
Look, I'm not forecasting doom and gloom, I swear. My prediction for the Steelers to go 10-6, ambitious as that looks after Tennessee, will still look plenty doable with a W in this game.
It was based on:
1. The defense, which more than held its own against the Titans.
2. The soft schedule, including what's shaping up to be an awful AFC North if you caught that Browns-Ravens snoozefest Sunday.
3. The talent on offense.
Yeah, talent. The latter isn't what it's been, and the line in particular needs to perform infinitely better. But the notion that any offense led by Roethlisberger lacks what it takes to win is hard to support with precedent. Moreover, Antonio Brown is a recent team MVP who played like one in the opener. Emmanuel Sanders is capable of far more than he showed, and he knows it. Jerricho Cotchery contributed a couple key catches.
Once Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell return, there will be more stability, too.
But before and after that happens, you've got to coach to the talent at hand, and you've got to coach to the time at hand. This offense's strengths are almost entirely pass-based, and this era of the NFL and its rules that protect the quarterback and offer space to the receiver, that's no different.
It's well past time the Steelers get back to accepting that, even embracing it as they did not so long ago.
This isn't about being stubborn. It's about succeeding.