Steelers are finding offensive balance, but still have work to do
This is what it's supposed to look like.
The running game setting up the passing game and keeping the offense out of third-and-long. Diverse personnel groups designed to confuse the defense. A constant moving of the chains.
This is what Todd Haley's offense was supposed to look like last season and the first quarter-plus of this season, but until Sunday it more resembled a unit searching for an identity, a playmaker, a rhythm, a balance.
“That was more like it, but we're not going to settle for where we are,” Haley said Thursday, referring to the balance the Steelers showed in beating Baltimore, 19-16, on Sunday. “We're going to keep getting better.”
This certainly wasn't a finished product. For the second week in a row, the offense managed only one touchdown in a victory. There were passes dropped in the open field, open running lanes not taken, receivers not found, red zone opportunities not converted.
But for the first time in 12 games, the Steelers ran the ball with authority. Le'Veon Bell had 93 yards in an offense that ran for 141 yards — the most the Steelers had since 158 yards against the New York Giants on Nov. 4.
“We've been wanting to get it going, get it going in the running game,” receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “We worked so hard on it. It took a little bit of time, and we're still working, but it was good to see it going in the right direction. Whenever you're able to run the ball, it does so much for your offense.”
The Steelers were 7 of 12 on third downs, mostly because they repeatedly gained substantial yardage on first down. They had one third-and-15 and one third-and-9, but seven times they were third-and-5 or shorter. Their average third-down play was third-and-4 1⁄2.
By comparison, they were 3 of 11 on third downs in losing to the Chicago Bears, 40-23. In that Sept. 22 game, they ran four plays of third-and-10 or longer, and their average third-down play was third-and-7.
“Any time we run the ball efficiently and make yards and play on first down the way we did, that's a big thing, to win on first down,” Haley said. “When you're 6, 7 yards a clip on first down, that gives you a chance to be successful, as long as you're protecting the football.”
Not surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger's two best passer ratings of the season (113.7 and 107.2) were achieved the past two weeks in wins. He was a combined 40 of 53 for 424 yards and two touchdowns.
“I loved the offensive balance,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said, referring to the 145 yards passing and 141 rushing against the Ravens. “When I saw Le'Veon running the ball, it felt like the old Steelers.
“You have to have a balanced attack because we're not a spread offense team. That's our game.”
The next challenge is being more efficient inside the 20. The Steelers are next to last in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 6 of 16 drives (37.5 percent). Last year they ranked 14th at 55.1 percent.
“I always tell (kicker Shaun Suisham), ‘I hope we don't use you for anything but one point after a touchdown,' ” Roethlisberger said. “We need to be better down there.”