In week one, the Steelers were blown out against the Baltimore Ravens, and fans were completely stunned by their hometown team's performance. However, this newest defeat at the hands of the Houston Texans may redefine the term stunned. It is one thing for the Steelers to have a bad game and lose but the way they have performed through the first quarter of this season has been consistently mediocre.
Matt Schaub, one of the premier quarterbacks of the NFL, has often been criticized for not rising to the big challenges to put his team over the top. On Sunday, Schaub was, once again, out of the spotlight completing 14 passes for 138 yards.
That was all he needed.
Arian Foster ran over the Steelers for 155 yards and a touchdown as the Texans won 17-10. The once proud Pittsburgh defense, accustomed to complete seasons without giving up 100 yard rushers, surrendered their second 100 yard rusher of the season. Midway through the fourth quarter, Foster cut back across the middle of the field and scored on a 41 yard run. He was hardly touched on his way to the end zone. Last week Joseph Addai rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown without the services of Peyton Manning to keep the offense balanced. In week one, the Steelers gave up a combined 180 yards to Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. As Mike Tomlin always says "the standard is the standard". Well, for the first time in his tenure, "the standard" is going to be lower: do not give up 100 yards on the ground. That is truly stunning since the Steelers run defense was once a strength of historical proportions and now it is below average.
So who's to blame on defense?
Well, everybody. Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are getting completely blown off the line of scrimmage. In the past, Hampton and Smith would each occupy two offensive linemen, allowing the linebackers to penetrate the line and make tackles. Now, they are being pushed aside and the linebackers are unable to make plays. James Farrior and Larry Foote look old. Farrior tried to make a tackle on a third and short play in the opening drive and Foster ran him over. Meanwhile, the youngest members of the defense, Ziggy Hood, Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley have been invisible. Woodley and Timmons have underperformed to the highest (or lowest) degree which is alarming, considering they were given huge contracts in the offseason. While Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor have played well, it is completely irrelevant if the front seven is giving up six yards per carry.
The defense may be more surprising but the offense has been downright embarrassing for the past four seasons. The Steelers have an elite quarterback, talented running back, and three blazing wide receivers. Yet, they are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. One reason is that their offensive line is terrible as it has been since 2006. As I argued in a previous post, the Pittsburgh Steelers delayed their search to find an excellent left tackle to protect Ben's blindside. While Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert look like two solid options on that line, Ben is still getting crushed as the line tries to gel. With a bad offensive line, the Steelers struggle to run, leaving defensive ends the ability to tee off on Roethlisberger. Rather than try to adjust the gameplan, Bruce Arians proves he is as stubborn as ever, calling for complex routes that take time to develop. With a bad line and athletic receivers, the Steelers would be smart to infuse quick passes to move the ball. As we saw on Sunday, that rarely happened.
If you are looking for positives, you're in luck. The good news is the season is still young and the Steelers could be playing themselves into "football shape" as some may not have been working hard during the lockout. After week nine against the Ravens, they have an extremely easy schedule including two games against the NFC West, Bengals and Browns. If they can survive these next few games-with or without Roethlisberger (foot)- they may have a shot to make the playoffs. The AFC is still wide open, given the lack of dominant teams and if the Steelers can turn the ship around, they can get hot at the right time. At this point in time, it seems like a big "if" but remember, this is a veteran group and they are almost the exact same team that came within six points of another championship.