Several key losses for competitive AFC teams made Week 11 a smashing success for the Pittsburgh Steelers on their bye, but now they must buckle down and take care of business. The AFC North title remains a long shot to re-capture thanks to the tiebreakers Cincinnati owns over Pittsburgh, but the #5 seed is well within the Steelers grasp. Even with the injuries Pittsburgh has sustained, it is difficult not to think of the Steelers as potentially the second or third best team in the AFC, with the ability to beat New England should the two teams meet again. All the talent in the world won’t matter however, if the team continues to struggle with some of the most important aspects of the game.
The goal, of course, is not only to make the playoffs, but to be playing your best football heading into the postseason. Several things will need to change or be improved upon if Pittsburgh is going to truly compete for a playoff spot, and eventually a Super Bowl title.
1. Red Zone Touchdown Efficiency
Last year, the Steelers finished 20th in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency, scoring six points just over 51 percent of the time when reaching the red zone. It was an area of major concern for the team in 2014, which the coaching staff looked to counter with plenty of red zone work during training camp.
But fast-forward to this season, and the results haven’t been much prettier. Pittsburgh currently ranks 15th in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency at just over 55 percent, but just 40 percent over their past three games, 28th in the league during that time. There is simply no excuse for failing to execute in the red zone as often as Pittsburgh does considering the talent they possess on offense.
A premier quarterback, a savvy offensive coordinator, a strong running game, and ideal red zone targets should have Pittsburgh in the top five teams in the league in this category, but the issues continue to slow the output of an incredibly talented unit. You can get away with these struggles against Cleveland, but if the Steelers wish to compete for a Super Bowl, they must find a way to quell their red zone struggles moving forward.
2. Third Down Efficiency
We’ve talked about this in great detail here at Steelers Depot, but Pittsburgh has been atrocious on third down this season. They’ve made up for it with big plays in many games, but that is not a recipe for long-term success. Have to be able to sustain and finish drives against top-tier opponents, which is what these first two points are about.
The Steelers are shockingly ranked 26th in the NFL in third down efficiency (34.7%), behind dumpster fire offenses like Detroit, Baltimore, Houston, and even the injury-riddled Cowboys. And don’t blame injuries for the team’s woes either, as the Steelers are actually a spot lower in the league rankings over the past three games at just a 31.6 percent conversion rate, all with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. Simply no way the team can continue to be this inefficient on the most important downs and expect to emerge victorious in big games.
3. Alejandro Villanueva
At this point in the season I’m not sure how much we can expect Villanueva to improve, but he’s been a major weakness since entering the lineup in place of the injured Kelvin Beachum. Our own Alex Kozora has Villanueva with 3.5 sacks allowed in just four starts, and there have been a plethora of additional pressures as well. There are likely worse options than Villanueva out there (looking at you, James Hurst), but Villanueva’s play down the stretch could be huge for keeping Roethlisberger healthy, and for allowing the Steelers offense to peak at the opportune moments.
4. The Return Game
Dri Archer obviously never set the world on fire as a return man, but at least he was improving despite a dismal blocking unit, and he could catch the football. Jacoby Jones has struggled mightily to do even that, dropping two kickoffs and a punt last week. Three fumbles in one game is about as poor a contest as you can possibly imagine for a return man, especially one brought in midseason to help alleviate the Steelers current woes in that department.
Jones needs to be released, but Mike Tomlin is likely too stubborn for that. I don’t really care if Archer is brought back or not, but he is clearly a superior option. Markus Wheaton and Jordan Todman are capable kick returners, and Antonio Brown should continue to bring back punts despite his fumble against Oakland. I know they are worried about keeping him healthy, but he’s a home run threat every time he has the ball in his hands, and against top-tier teams, the Steelers have to roll the dice with him back there. Either way, if Jones doesn’t turn it around, and I mean fast, Pittsburgh has to move in another direction before his struggles cost them on the scoreboard.
5. Antwon Blake
At this point, you’ve probably heard all the numbers. Leads all NFL defensive players in missed tackles this season, is the most targeted cornerback in the game, and has given up the most yards in coverage amongst any defensive back this season (according to Pro Football Focus). I don’t think Blake is the worst cornerback in the league, but he’s absolutely playing like it. A couple splash plays have salvaged his play slightly, but every team knows he’s a major weakness. It feels like we’re beating a dead horse with Blake, and we probably are, but you can’t write an article on things that need to change without talking about his inexcusable presence in the starting lineup. Arizona attacked him, New England attacked him, Cincinnati attacked him, and teams will continue to do so until he shows he can stop them.
Blake was already the weakest defensive line for Pittsburgh before he got hurt, but now asking him to play with a cast on his injured wrist is just ludicrous. He can’t tackle or be physical, both of which have been his calling cards in the past. There are other issues with his tackling too, but you would think the coaching staff would identify Blake clearly whiffing and laying off contact on tape, and realize a change needs to be made. Not many teams are in the position of being able to bench one of the worst cornerbacks in football for one of the best, but unbelievably that is where Pittsburgh finds themselves with Brandon Boykin on their sideline. I have no idea what to expect from Boykin if he steps into the lineup having barely played defense in Pittsburgh ever, but there really isn’t any way he can be much worse than Blake. This change won’t happen as the Steelers coaching staff has already iterated, but it may need to if Pittsburgh is going to win in the postseason.