Coach Killers, Week 1: Steelers look like a four-win team

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com

Pittsburgh's offense, Christian Ponder, Washington's safeties and Baltimore's secondary had long weeks. (USATSI)

Coach Killers is your weekly look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that put the guy in charge squarely on the ol' hot seat.

Steelers offense

Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey's 2013 season lasted eight plays. He was the victim of friendly fire when right guard David DeCastro accidentally collapsed his knee while trying to cut block a Titans defender. For the next 54 minutes, Pittsburgh's offense played some of the most uninspired football you'll ever see, and the post-game talking points were that without Pouncey the Steelers' season was already dead in the water.

We've already explained why this isn't necessarily the case, primarily because the team has overcome bad line play, specifically during their 2008 run to a sixth Lombardi Trophy. But that group had offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling plays. The Steelers forced him out after the 2011 season and hired Todd Haley, who's known more for his combative sideline demeanor (though we've yet to see that in Pittsburgh) than his ability to orchestrate high-scoring offenses.

Except that perception doesn't match reality. At least not through the first nine games of Haley's tenure. A year ago, the Steelers were 6-3, Ben Roethlisberger sported a 100 passer rating, completed 66 percent of his throws, and had 17 touchdowns versus four interceptions. He also took fewer hits than at any time in the Arians' era. Even if Big Ben not-so-secretly hated the new offense, it was hard to argue with the results.

Then Roethlisberger was injured against the Chiefs, missed three games, and wasn't the same once he returned in Week 14. Pittsburgh finished 8-8.

If you include the team's 2-5 finish in '13, their 0-4 preseason, and the demoralizing loss to the Titans on Sunday, the Steelers have dropped 10 of their past 12 games. In an organization where "the standard is the standard," blame has to fall somewhere. Haley's an easy target.

But here's the thing that Arians' apologist conveniently overlook: His offense yields big plays but they come at the expense of getting the quarterback destroyed. It happened with the Steelers, it happened last season with the Colts and Andrew Luck, and it happened in Week 1 with the Cardinals and Carson Palmer. That's the tradeoff that comes with seven-step drops and a downfield passing attack.

Is it worth it? The results -- two Super Bowls appearances in three seasons, including a Lombardi Trophy -- suggest as much, but the cost is prohibitive, especially in a quarterback-driven league.

Roethlisberger's a 31-year-old trapped in a body that's suffered 50 years of hurries, knockdowns and sacks.

Which brings us back to Haley. After a rocky start to the QB-coach relationship, the two men spent the offseason rejiggering the playbook.

"We focus on what he does best and let's scrap the stuff he doesn't like or that doesn't play to his strengths." Haley told CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora during training camp. "So I think we've made a lot of progress on offense. ... It's just a totally different feel."

You wouldn't have known it watching the Steelers' offense repeatedly throw up on itself against the Titans. Here's how Pittsburgh Magazine's Sean Conboy describes the Haley-Roethlisberger dynamic:

"These two are like the sad-sack couple passive-aggressively sniping at one another in the food court of your local IKEA. It's been over since the day Haley walked into the Steelers' practice facility with zero Super Bowl rings on his hand and zero desire to compromise."

In all seriousness, maybe this has little to do with Haley's football knowledge and everything to do with his interpersonal skills. But this isn't an accounting firm, either; what might be considered assault and battery in any other walk of life is just another day in the NFL. Put another way: Ben doesn't have to love his boss.

Also worth mentioning: During the 2011 offseason, wide receiver Antonio Brown said that Arians "always blew up ... he was argumentative and did things his way." Huh.

Obviously, the Steelers will only go as far as Big Ben takes them. And while Sunday's effort could kindly be described as a travesty, Roethlisberger was his usual efficient self. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he rated seventh among all quarterbacks in Week 1 behind Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler, Andrew Luck and Matt Schaub. Of course, Steelers fans would complain that Palmer and Luck -- current and former Arians' pupils -- ranked higher.

Wherever your allegiances lie, this much is certain: Big Ben's ability to extend plays is the difference between winning and losing in Pittsburgh. As we saw last season, he's gunslingin' ways are even possible in a regimented system. The question -- and this is always the question -- is whether there's enough duct tape and chicken wire to hold this offensive line together. Otherwise, we could be looking at a four-win team.

Christian Ponder QB -- Vikings

First, the good news: Third-year quarterback and former first-round pick Christian Ponder completed 64 percent of his passes against the Lions in the season opener. If you include the three interceptions, it jumps to 75 percent. Now, for everything else: Many of the problems that have plagued Ponder throughout his NFL career remain, including indecisiveness in the pocket, inaccuracy, and lack of arm strength.

The first two issues were on display Sunday on Ponder's first interception. Early in the second quarter and facing an eight-man front, Ponder misfired on a slant to Jerome Simpson. The ball was batted in the air and picked off by linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Ponder's going to face a lot of 8-man fronts. He needs to do better than throwing interceptions. (FOX)

Just before the two-minute warning Ponder -- again facing an eight-man front because the Vikings' only offensive weapon is Adrian Peterson -- threw another interception, a wobbly arm-punt that was a direct result of Ndamukong Suh pressuring Ponder as he released the ball.

Get used to seeing a lot of defenders near the line of scrimmage, Christian. (FOX)

Not helping Ponder's case: a poor showing from a very good offensive line.

"We didn't play as well on a consistent basis that we need to win a game like that," coach Leslie Frazier said Monday. "In order for us to do what we need to on offense, we need to count on our offensive line to be a dominant factor for us, and we were not yesterday. Our guys know what has to be done for our offense to be successful. There's not one thing you can point to and say this is why we didn't perform as well as we should have."

Fine. The loss was a group effort. But Ponder, taken 12th overall in 2011, shows no signs of being the long-term option in Minnesota. Which means that opponents will continue to stack the box to stop Peterson and force Ponder to beat them.

Barring a drastic transformation into a competent, consistent quarterback, we could see backup Matt Cassel under center in the not-too-distant future. And this offseason, the Vikings will again be in the business of finding a franchise QB.

E.J. Biggers, Bacarri Rambo, S -- Redskins

One of the primary storylines coming out of the Eagles' Monday night win over the Redskins was about Chip Kelly's college offense blowing the doors off an NFL defense. Washington safeties E.J. Biggers and Bacarri Rambo had a lot to do with that.

Continuing a theme we saw in the preseason, Rambo, a rookie sixth-round pick formerly known as Goo Fudge (seriously), still isn't much of an open-field tackler. That's a problem for a position that requires a lot of, you know, open-field tackles. To be fair, the Eagles' new-fangled, high-paced offense, created issues for the entire 'Skins' defense, but the safeties were exploited more than the other nine players.

LeSean McCoy juked Biggers so badly on a 34-yard touchdown run that the safety didn't even touch him. Behold:

(USATSI)

And you can see the moving-pictures proof here.

Biggers was in the lineup because Brandon Meriweather was sidelined with a groin injury. Rambo, meanwhile, missed an open field tackle that led to a 28-yard touchdown reception from tight end Brent Celek, and later whiffed on quarterback Michael Vick that resulted in a 36-yard gain.

"We've got to get better at tackling," coach Mike Shanahan said afterward the game. "Like I said, we had a couple missed assignments from some young guys that cost us. ... We did have too many missed tackles. We had too many mistakes in the first half. You can't go against a team with a high-tempo offense and you have three first downs and expect your defense to play well in the first half."

The night wasn't a total loss, however.

In related news: Subway's motto is "Where Winners Eat."

Ravens secondary

The Ravens-Broncos season opener seems like a lifetime ago, and probably longer for a Baltimore defense that was on the business end of a seven-touchdown effort from Peyton Manning. There were several reasons for the Ravens' second-half collapse, but at the top of the list was a no-show secondary.

Cornerback Cary Williams, and safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed weren't re-signed in the offseason, partly because CB Lardarius Webb would be healthy and coaches liked what they saw from CB Corey Graham. There was the hope that things would finally click for former first-round pick Jimmy Smith. The Ravens also signed Michael Huff, a former Raiders top-10 pick who never reached his potential in Oakland, to play free safety.

And while Webb fared well after missing most of the 2012 season with a knee injury, Graham, Smith and Huff didn't come close. According to ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, Graham ranked 92nd out of 94 cornerbacks in pass coverage. Smith was 81st. Among safeties, Huff was 67th out of 70.

"Anybody that knows football can see that, what it was fundamentally," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday, via the Baltimore Sun. "That's exactly what it was, it was fundamental issues that he's definitely able to play better and he will. He worked very hard, and, personally, I feel good about him as a player. I'm just looking forward to seeing how he bounces back. I think he'l do well."

There's plenty of finger-pointing to go around, but we'll mention a two-play sequence early in the third quarter that gave the Broncos the lead for good. It started with a first-down catch that wasn't by Wes Welker that the Ravens failed to challenge.

From Denver's 31, Manning then hit Demaryius Thomas on a screen that turned into a 34-yard gain because Smith missed a tackle at Denver's 32. Two plays later, Smith was toasted by reserve wideout Andre Caldwell for a 28-yard touchdown.

(NBC)

In the screen shot above, Smith gave Caldwell a free release, and when the ball left Manning's hand, Caldwell was even with Smith. The old saying, "If he's even, he's leavin'" proved true because by the time ball arrived, Caldwell had two steps on Smith. See below:

(NBC)

 
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