How the Steelers' slumping offense can get back on track against the Chiefs
The short version for how the Steelers can win Sunday: pound the ball with Le'Veon Bell
We were promised deadly deep strikes to Antonio Brown, patient dissection by Le'Veon Bell and elite quarterbacking by Ben Roethlisberger. Instead, the Steelers offense's idea of doing damage this season is fighting Gatorade coolers. These aren't the Steelers we expected in 2017.
After an embarrassing home loss to the Jaguars -- losing to a 3-2 team isn't necessarily an embarrassment, but losing to a team without a quarterback by throwing five interceptions and two picks-sixes is -- the surprisingly vulnerable Steelers won't be given an easy bounceback game. On Sunday, the Steelers head to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs, the NFL's only remaining unbeaten team and, arguably, the only actually good team in football.
It could be a rough one for a team in disarray. Roethlisberger is talking like he's a quarterback who'd rather retire than respond. Brown is a week removed from a fight with a Gatorade cooler. According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, the quarterback and receiver are at odds over the team's decision to skip the national anthem a few weeks back. And Bell doesn't believe he's being used enough.
The Steelers are 3-2, so it's not like the sky is falling in Pittsburgh -- don't ring the death bells yet -- but they're suddenly in a dogfight with the 3-2 Ravens and the 2-3 Bengals in the AFC North. And it's not unrealistic to expect them to drop to 3-3 after a showdown with the Chiefs. But if the Steelers can end Kansas City's unbeaten season and somehow leave Arrowhead with an unlikely win, they'll immediately re-enter the contender conversation. It won't be easy. To do so, they'll need their talented offense to do its part.
Here's how they can do that.
Stop relying on Big Ben
"Maybe I don't have it anymore," he said Sunday, per CBS Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger has averaged a career-low 6.5 yards per pass this season, thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6), and accumulated an almost career-low 75.8 passer rating. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger is ranked 24th in adjusted completion percentage, 22nd in passer rating on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield (out of 22 qualified quarterbacks), and 29th in passer rating under pressure (out of 29 qualified quarterbacks). So, there's an argument to be made that he's one of the worst quarterbacks of the 2017 season.
I'm not going to tell you that Roethlisberger is done. He's always been a bit overdramatic, so it's not surprising to hear him say what he said above. Besides, he also walked back his comments on Wednesday. My guess is, he'll bounce back at some point this season. Maybe he'll never reach an MVP level of play again, but that offense is too stacked with playmakers for Big Ben to keep on sucking.
He knows it, too.
"I've been doing this a long time. I've had bad games before, had bad stretches," Roethlisberger said. "Had good ones, too, so you just find a way to move on and play better."
With that being said, the Steelers should take the ball out his hands on Sunday. This isn't the game for him to magically get back on track. For one, he's playing the Chiefs. Their statistics are weakened by Deshaun Watson's garbage time performance on Sunday night, but a defense featuring Justin Houston and Marcus Peters will challenge Roethlisberger. Peters has 15 interceptions since 2015 and Houston already has 5.5 sacks this season. And don't forget about left defensive end Chris Jones and his 3.5 sacks. The Chiefs don't have the best defense in football. But it's a defense that's good enough to reach the Super Bowl.
I mentioned how bad Big Ben has been under pressure. That's bad news considering the Chiefs rank eighth in sacks with 14 and, according to PFF, they've blitzed on only 22.4 percent of their defensive snaps. The league average is 29.7 percent. According to PFF, when the Chiefs rush only three men, they're still generating pressure 43.8 percent of the time -- that's insane! And it's a credit to players like Jones, defensive tackle Bennie Logan, and, of course, the Chiefs' pass coverage.
So, the Chiefs don't even need to blitz to generate pressure. Overall, they're getting pressure on 36.5 percent of their snaps. For context, Roethlisberger has been under pressure on 27.7 percent of his snaps -- the third lowest-pressure rate in football, per PFF. So, Roethlisberger has been bad under pressure even though he's rarely under pressure and the Chiefs are great at forcing pressure. That's not great news for the Steelers.
And two, the game will be played in Kansas City. Roethlisberger is not a good quarterback away from Pittsburgh. And we don't need PFF to tell us that. His career passer rating drops by nearly 10 full points on the road (98.4 at home compared to 88.7 on the road).
The Steelers just got beat by a team that has boldly decided to play football without a quarterback. Roethlisberger is still light-years better than Blake Bortles, but adopting the Jaguars' strategy this week wouldn't be the worst idea, especially considering they have Bell to hand the ball to. The Steelers are tied for the fourth-most passing attempts (195). It's time to lower that ranking.
Speaking of which ...
Keep ringing the Bell
And so, the Steelers should turn to Le'Veon Bell and ask him to carry their offense. Bell sounds like he's up for the task considering he thinks they abandoned the running game too early against the Jaguars.
"I don't think we had enough attempts," Bell said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Bell is not wrong. Last week, Bell got handed the ball 15 times, which marked the third time this year (in five games) that he's gotten 15 carries or fewer. That's unacceptable considering Bell is arguably the best all-around back in football (David Johnson is also in the conversation).
Last year, he averaged roughly 22 carries per game and turned that into nearly 106 rushing yards per game. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry. The Steelers need to lean on him while Roethlisberger figures out whatever the hell is wrong with his arm.
The Chiefs are ranked 24th against the run in DVOA. They're allowing 118.0 rushing yards per game. So, they can be exploited, especially by a back of Bell's caliber.
The Steelers faced the Chiefs twice last season. In those meetings, Bell averaged 157 rushing yards. And he did it in his typical patient yet explosive way.
It's time for the Steelers to hope for another Bell special. Look for the Steelers to run left. According to PFF, the Chiefs are allowing 4.9 yards per carry on runs to the outside of the left tackle, 5.5 yards per carry on runs behind the left tackle, 4.7 yards per carry on runs behind the left guard, and 5.6 yards per carry between the left guard and center.
Oh and one more thing: The Steelers' defense is currently ranked fifth in DVOA. This year's Steelers team doesn't need to go out and score 30 points a game like in years past. They can run the ball, control the clock, score somewhere around 21 points and still win.
Take advantage of Eric Berry's absence
Obviously, the Chiefs are an excellent football team. Their defense isn't just good, so is their offense, which is scoring a league-high 32.8 points per game. At some point, Roethlisberger will have to make some throws.
We all know what Brown is capable of, but it's time for him to get some help. Martavis Bryant, back from his year-long suspension, hasn't done much of anything through the first five weeks, catching 15 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers need more out of him.
The Steelers' receivers will face a tough task going up against Peters and Terrance Mitchell. Funnily enough, despite Big Ben's struggles with the deep ball, the Steelers will have some chances to hit some home-run balls if the Chiefs' first five games are any indication. Take a look at the Chiefs defense's passing chart (via PFF) because the deep right and deep middle portions of the field have been exploited by opposing quarterbacks:
That likely has to do with Eric Berry's absence. Berry, one of the best safeties in football, allowed the eighth-lowest yards per coverage snap among all safeties last year, according to PFF. He's been out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon since Week 1.
The Steelers should absolutely lean on their ground game, but take some shots downfield when given opportunities. With Berry out, there'll be more home-run opportunities. Big Ben shouldn't be asked to throw the ball 30 times, but he should be asked to make a few timely shots. Whether he can do that, well, it doesn't even sound like Roethlisberger knows what he's capable of anymore.
Luckily, he still has Bell and Bryant to make his life a bit easier.
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