Bad signs everywhere for 1-2 Steelers as team heads into bye week
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.
Signs the Steelers' troubles can't be fixed merely by the return of Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, whenever that occurs.
Signs that this 2012 season has already taken a sharp and perhaps irreversible turn for the worse. Signs that the problems — and they are many — might not be fixable this season.
Bad signs, too, especially for a team that, after coming out of its bye week by facing Philadelphia at Heinz Field on Oct. 7, plays three of its next four on the road. The Steelers (1-2) have lost four of their past five away from home.
One half isn't enough
The defense, statistically the NFL's best last season, can't get off the field in the second half. The Broncos and Raiders had eight meaningful second-half drives between them. The result? Eight scores. The Steelers have been outscored 44-37 in the second half despite a 14-0 edge over the Jets on Sept. 16.
“We've got to close out,” Mike Wallace said. “If we want to be a playoff, Super Bowl-caliber team, we've got to be able to close out games.”
One-dimensional won't work
Ben Roethlisberger is off to the best start of his nine-season career, playing at a level only the megastars do; he is 82 of 120 for 904 yards, eight touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 109.2 that was 120-plus the past two games. Three receivers already have 15 catches or more.
But the running game (195 yards in three games) is abysmal. And when was the last time a Steelers coach tried three different running backs in the same game in an effort to generate yardage, as Mike Tomlin did Sunday by using Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch?
Mendenhall appears to be close to returning. For this running game, it can't occur soon enough.
“The more we run the ball, the better we'll get,” an optimistic Willie Colon said.
Whose plays are these?
Roethlisberger made the surprising comment that he called some pre-Todd Haley plays while running the no-huddle during the 34-31 loss in Oakland on Sunday. Was it the levity a player of Roethlisberger's skills is permitted? Or a yearning for the Bruce Arians days?
“There were plays out there that I called that weren't in our playbook,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy; things we've had from years past that guys were on the same page with and it worked.”
Maybe it's not the schemes
Several Raiders players said the Steelers' blitzes and pass coverages were predictable at times. But maybe it's not the schemes, maybe it's the players carrying them out. The Steelers have only five sacks, and the pressure has been nonexistent at times.
Lawrence Timmons isn't making the impact predicted of him. LaMarr Woodley is seeing more double teams than Randy Moss in his prime. The defensive linemen aren't getting penetration, as evidenced by their zero tackles for losses.
Old, slow and done
Warren Sapp's prediction a year ago that the Steelers were past their prime didn't hold up in 2011. But the defense is built around players who started for them five years ago. In the NFL, that's an eternity. And as the long-time starters leave (James Farrior, Aaron Smith), the replacements to date haven't played up to their level.
The Steelers' worst two seasons since 2003, 2006 (8-8) and 2009 (9-7), were punctuated by losses to bad Raiders teams. The Raiders and Broncos have won only two of their past six games since late last season; three of those four wins were against Pittsburgh.
Third and long (drives)
Opponents have converted on 16 of 33 third downs. That kind of consistency keeps drives going, and keeps the defense on the field too long.
There's still time to get it done; 13 games can be an eternity. But what the Steelers haven't shown is that the players are here to get it done, except in the passing game. And that might be the most troubling sign of all.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.