Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers in need of ‘substantial’ growth on offense
There are statistics and rankings that could put the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season in perspective, but that isn’t necessary when the anecdotal evidence tells the story of their 2-4 start.
A perfect example: The Steelers beat the Los Angeles Chargers last Sunday despite starting a quarterback and a wide receiver who didn’t make the 53-man roster out of training camp.
No one could have imagined Devlin “Duck” Hodges or Johnny Holton would be playing such significant roles in Week 6, especially not Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin was in no mood to discuss who would start at quarterback once Mason Rudolph was cleared from concussion protocol, ending any speculation by saying Rudolph would be the starter “and it’s simple as that.”
But this season is so much more complicated.
The statistics and rankings aren’t pretty. The Steelers rank 29th in total offense (276.5 yards per game), 28th in passing yards (200) and rushing yards (76.5) and 20th in scoring (20.5 points). That explains Tomlin’s refusal to entertain anything resembling a quarterback controversy.
When asked how much room for growth there is on offense, Tomlin made a pfft sound and nodded his head.
“Substantial,” Tomlin said, with a laugh.
1. Time to heal: The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Steelers, who resemble the walking wounded.
Not only have they lost Ben Roethlisberger and Stephon Tuitt to season-ending injuries, but running back Jaylen Samuels is expected to miss a few more weeks after undergoing knee surgery.
The bye allowed an extra week of recovery for Rudolph, receiver James Washington (shoulder), fullback Roosevelt Nix (knee), cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steve Nelson (groin) and inside linebacker Mark Barron (hamstring).
It’s no wonder Tomlin didn’t want to talk about the Steelers developing a personality yet this season.
“What I want and where we are is two different things, so I like to deal in reality,” Tomlin said. “We’re in a fragile state from a health standpoint and from a depth standpoint. In the midst of that, we better find a way to win football games.”
2. Living in luxury: It’s a good thing the Steelers have invested on defense, with 10 former first-round draft picks.
They have needed them.
That luxury has been tested repeatedly, as every starter lost to injury has been replaced by a first-rounder.
When Vince Williams was out with a hamstring injury, 2019 No. 10 overall pick Devin Bush stepped into a starting role and is performing like an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.
When Sean Davis was lost to a shoulder injury, the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick to replace him at free safety, and the communication issues have improved immensely.
When Nelson missed the Chargers game with a groin, Artie Burns started for the first time this season. And when Tuitt was injured against the Chargers, Tyson Alualu moved into a more prominent role at defensive end.
Problem is, it’s now testing the Steelers depth behind those players. They can’t afford any more injuries, or we soon will find out what their lower-round picks can do.
3. Getting offensive: The Steelers finally showed signs of a running game against the Chargers, rushing for more than 100 yards for the first time this season.
They have a pair of power backs, James Conner and Benny Snell, who combined for 116 rushing yards and 92 receiving yards on 41 touches.
The return of Rudolph and Washington should be a boost, as Steelers wide receivers combined for five catches for 30 yards against the Chargers. No one would benefit more than JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had one catch for 7 yards.
“There’s so much more we can prove,” Smith-Schuster said. “Once we get a game where we can have a lot of runs and a lot of deep routes and deep passes — where it’s half and half, it’s a balanced offense — we have so much out there. … We have so many weapons.”
Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
There’s so much more the Steelers can prove.
4. Feeling insecure: If Rudolph can throw downfield, Conner and Snell combine to carry the load and Washington and Donte Moncrief complement Smith-Schuster — that’s a lot of ifs — how much potential do the Steelers have?
“I think a lot. I don’t know that you’d ever put a ceiling on it,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “We’ve got really good guys who want to be great. It’s just a matter of collectively all putting it together and doing the right things at the right time.
“I go back … if we just protect the football, I would be assured we’d probably have won more games.”
That’s what has to sting the Steelers. Two of their losses can be attributed to turnovers: fumbles by Conner at San Francisco and by Smith-Schuster against Baltimore.
They could just as easily be 4-2 and be a half-game out of first place in the AFC North instead of 2-4 and tied for second.
5. Benefit of bye: With the Steelers and Cleveland Browns on a bye, the division standings won’t change this week. But they could by the time the Steelers play again.
The Ravens (5-2) won Sunday at Seattle (5-2), which has beaten every other team in the AFC North, then have a bye before hosting the New England Patriots on Nov. 3.
And the Browns (2-4) play at the Patriots next Sunday.
So with a victory over the winless Miami Dolphins on “Monday Night Football” next week, there’s a chance the Steelers could be one game ahead of the Browns and only one behind the Ravens going into Week 9.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
What the Steelers want and where they are is a different reality. They better find a way to win football games.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .