Four issues that the Steelers need to take care of in September
0 and 4.
As coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday, the Steelers shouldn't need any reminders about the importance of getting into regular-season mode in a hurry.
“If that doesn't turn you on, then you don't have a pulse,” Tomlin said of opposing the Cleveland Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Last year, the Steelers didn't begin to show a pulse until October. Their first 0-4 start in 45 years ultimately flat lined their season even after a 6-2 finish nearly was enough to launch them into the playoffs.
The Steelers don't make any transcontinental flights this September, like they did to London a year ago. But there are multiple potential detours to a fast start throughout a month that begins with two AFC North games in five days, against the Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
“We've got to win these games — now,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Now more than ever because of our divisional opponents.”
Now more than ever because of that 0-4 September.
Four potential Steelers worries in the first month of this season:
Two home games against four-win teams (Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) are balanced against two difficult road games against Baltimore, where they've lost four times under Tomlin, and Carolina, a 12-win division champion last season.
Three teams have defenses (No. 2 Panthers, No. 9 Browns, No. 12 Ravens) that will go up against a Steelers offense that didn't reveal much in the preseason — either to itself or to its opponents.
It's a passing league, but the Steelers still want to be a running team — after all, they've outrushed every other team by more than a mile since the 1970 NFL merger. But they also want to be a throwing team; Ben Roethlisberger is coming off one of his best career years.
But can they be both?
Limited preseason playing time for the starters meant limited work on blending all the many features of this offense: The increasing emphasis on the no-huddle, the Le'Veon Bell/LeGarrette Blount running back partnership, a new starting receiver (Markus Wheaton) opposite Antonio Brown, the still-being-polished outside zone blocking scheme that line coach Mike Munchak is incorporating, and the Dri Archer runner-receiver combination.
That's a lot to get right at the same time, especially given most of the prep work was done in practice.
“We haven't shown it (nearly everything they plan to do),” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said.
In a league in which cornerback play is as important to a defense as quarterback play is to an offense, the Steelers — for better or worse — begin the season with the same three corners as last season (Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay).
They chose not to make any changes even as the NFL pushes into an era where nearly every team throws 60 percent of the time. (Teams averaged a combined 70.8 passes per game last season, up from an average of 48.6 in 1973.)
The preseason also showed that Troy Polamalu and new safety Mike Mitchell appear to need more work getting comfortable playing together.
Better play in the back end also requires applying more quarterback pressure, a deficiency the past three seasons.
Their 34 sacks last season were the Steelers' fewest since they had 31 in 1989.
The signal callers
A defense with multiple unproven players (Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Jarvis Jones) goes against two quarterbacks (the Panthers' Cam Newton and the Browns' Johnny Manziel) who can take off with the ball — exactly the type who have proven troublesome in the past. (See Tim Tebow in the 2011 playoffs, Terrelle Pryor on his 93-yard run last season.)
“Obviously, Manziel has some unique run skills and capabilities,” Tomlin said. “I think they are capable of highlighting that within the framework of their offense.”
Joe Flacco of Baltimore is well known to them, but they have no experience against Bucs QB Josh McCown, who threw 13 touchdown passes and only one interception with the Bears last season.