It’s not one thing though four weeks that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive struggles can be pinned on.
Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been good enough while missing key throws; the offensive line can’t protect Roethlisberger and struggles to open up running lanes for rookie Najee Harris; Harris has missed some lanes through four weeks; and receivers not named Diontae Johnson continue to drop the football.
That said, one area that can be certainly blamed for some struggles is the performance by the Steelers’ offense on early downs.
According to Pro Football Focus, the offense’s -0.107 expected points added per play on first down ranks seventh-worst in the NFL and has played a large role in the struggles through four weeks under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
PFF’s Diante Lee, writing about things he likes and dislikes from Week 4, highlighted the Steelers’ early-down offense from the 27-17 loss on the road in Lambeau Field to the Packers.
The Steelers struggled to put themselves in advantageous situations on early downs, allowing the Packers to sit on crossing and other in-breaking routes throughout the game. According to PFF, seven of the 11 third downs Pittsburgh faced last Sunday came against single-high coverage, closing off the middle of the field.
“Through the first quarter of the season, this offense looks just as gummed up as it did in the second half of 2020 when it was clear Pittsburgh was not a real contender in spite of its record. On a down-to-down basis, Pittsburgh is flirting with being the worst offense in the league at staying on or ahead of schedule, currently 30th in success rate,” Lee writes. “Too often, this offense finds itself on second- or third-and “obvious,” where the defense can play the pass first. Against Green Bay, a defense with little to no threat of a pass rush, Roethlisberger still had a difficult time working the ball where it needed to be in order to convert.”
The offense certainly appears to be a jumbled mess through four weeks. While it was reasonable to expect some growing pains, it was not expected to be this much of a disappointment. Fortunately, there’s one solution on early downs that could really help the Steelers, according to Lee. It’s something that Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora have also touched on a ton in recent The Terrible Podcast episodes: the RPO.
It might not seem like the RPO is the best solution for the Steelers, since Roethlisberger isn’t mobile at this point in his career, but the Steelers run it well, according to PFF’s data, especially since they live in 11 personnel so much (80% of snaps in Week 4).
On 10 early-down plays in which the Steelers ran RPO, Pittsburgh had a 74.4 offensive grade and had a .291 EPA per play. On 15 early-down plays in which they did not run RPO, Pittsburgh had a 62.6 offensive grade and a -0.220 EPA per play, creating a staggering difference.
“To no one’s surprise, the Steelers’ first-down offense makes a seismic leap in its efficiency and performance when an RPO is involved. Not only does it fit the throws that Roethlisberger is best equipped to make, but it gets the ball in space and into loose coverage,” Lee writes. “It’s not even a requirement that Canada asks his QB to make accurate throws on slants into tight windows. Most of the attempts against Green Bay were “access” throws, taking the yards the defense concedes by playing in off-coverage. Leaning too heavily into any one thing can leave an offense in difficult territory, but the difference was staggering when Pittsburgh tried anything other than an RPO on early downs. It may mean running a gimmick offense, but a gimmick is always better than an abject failure.”
As Lee writes, it might not be ideal, but it gives the Steelers the best chance at success on early downs, which will keep them ahead of the chains and the options within Canada’s playbook open on third and fourth down play calls, rather than seeing whatever it is we’ve seen in back-to-back weeks on failed fourth-down swing passes to Najee Harris well short of the line to gain.