Kevin Gorman: If Steelers are going to get back to business, it has to start up front
Maurkice Pouncey wiped a towel down his face and across the back of his neck while being asked about what the Pittsburgh Steelers have to do to establish a running game.
The All-Pro center wiped his face again, shook his head and let out a little laugh in exasperation inside the visiting locker room at Levi’s Stadium after the Steelers’ third straight loss.
“I don’t know,” Pouncey said. “If I knew, we would have (done) better out there.”
It is simple yet complicated.
The Steelers are enduring an identity crisis on offense, where they rank among the NFL’s best at pass protection and among the worst in run blocking. That’s a reflection of the pass-heavy approach that saw them throw almost twice as much as they ran last season.
The obvious answer is the Steelers are struggling without Ben Roethlisberger. Taking a future Hall of Fame quarterback out of the equation changes the entire formula.
But Roethlisberger started the opener at New England and the first half against Seattle, so that doesn’t excuse their inability to rush for 100 yards in any of their first three games or convert better than 25.7% (9 of 35) on third downs.
That has placed the onus on an offensive line that is regarded as one of the best in the NFL, with Pro Bowl players in Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and an 11th-year veteran in left guard Ramon Foster.
Keeping with his “we haven’t been handling business” theme, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin neither pinned blame on the offensive line nor absolved the unit from it.
They acknowledge there’s always room for improvement, especially as they adjust to a system suited for Roethlisberger but now belonging to second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph and a young receiving corps that no longer has All-Pro Antonio Brown to draw double teams to allow the secondary targets to get open.
Where the Steelers rank fifth in the league in pass protection, allowing only four sacks, they rank no better than 23rd in run categories, according to the advanced analytics of FootballOutsiders.com. They are converting only 50 percent of “power success” runs, which are based on third or fourth downs with 2 yards or fewer to go that result in a first down or a touchdown. They rank 25th in “stuffed” runs, where the ball carrier is tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
The short-yardage situations are cause for concern, starting with the fourth-and-1 at the New England 47 in the season opener. The Steelers switched to a five-receiver set, only for Donte Moncrief to drop a pass that would have ensured a first down.
Third downs are a bigger issue, as the Steelers converted 3 of 12 against the Patriots, 3 of 11 against the Seahawks and 3 of 12 against the 49ers. It doesn’t help that the Steelers have been without injured fullback Roosevelt Nix, or that tight end Vance McDonald is dealing with a shoulder injury.
“I don’t think anything has changed from last year,” Villanueva said. “It’s just the score. We’re 0-3. You give up a lot of plays when you throw the ball 30-40 times — pressures, sacks. There’s no one who can prevent them all — but when you lose the game, then you can point the finger at this play or that play.”
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is convinced the problem is not so much the offensive line protecting the quarterback but rather the other way around. Rudolph needs to release the ball quicker. The receivers need to catch it, and Conner needs to secure it instead of fumbling.
Nevertheless, the offensive linemen are taking the “Monday Night Football” game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field as a challenge. They appear to be taking it personally, deserved or not. They know what the Steelers know: If they are going to get back to business by winning football games, it has to start up front.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .