Somehow, some way the Pittsburgh Steelers are a game out of the AFC Wild-card picture.
This, after starting 0-4 and then 2-6 but the Steelers have won two straight and sit right behind the New York Jets who are 5-5.
Pittsburgh would own a tie-breaker with them because they won the head-to-head match-up earlier this year.
There are a lot of things we can point to that could ultimately cost the Steelers but one glaring issue right now has to be the problems within the Red Zone.
Pittsburgh currently ranks 31st in the National Football League in Red Zone efficiency when it comes to scoring touchdowns. They score TDs on just 42% of their trips inside the 20 yard line.
To prove just how bad things are, the team that is in last is Jacksonville and their percentage is 33%. The top Red Zone team in the NFL is Denver. They score on over 79% of their trips to pay dirt.
There are a few reasons in my opinion as to why the struggles in the Red Zone keep happening.
The first starts with the lack of consistency in the running game. Against the Lions on Sunday, the Steelers couldn’t have been closer to the goal line in the third quarter and on two of three plays they ran the ball and basically lost yardage. They would eventually settle for a field goal. Both of the runs were attempted by Le’Veon Bell.
In the fourth quarter, the Steelers were down on the goal line again but Jonathan Dwyer was stymied in his attempt. A large portion of the futility of the running game is based on the troubles of the offensive line. In my opinion however, I don’t care who is on the offensive line when you’re on the goal line. You find a way to get the ball into the end zone.
A second issue is just flat out execution or lack thereof. There were two key examples from the win on Sunday to use as examples.
First, as well as Ben Roethlisberger played; he was guilty of missing a wide open David Paulson on second and goal. The play was a play-action pass and Paulson and Heath Miller both did an excellent job of selling the run before releasing on their routes.
No one picked up Paulson and he was wide open in the middle of the end zone. Roethlisberger’s pass sailed high however.
In the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger was the victim of poor execution when he threw a perfect ball to Antonio Brown in the right corner of the end zone but Brown bobbled the ball and couldn’t corral it before going out of bounds. The Steelers would eventually score a TD on Roethlisberger’s pass to Will Johnson but the lack of execution is troubling.
The third and final issue is play-calling. This area improved significantly in the fourth quarter on Sunday but I believe those calls came from Roethlisberger rather than offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Prior to the final stanza last weekend, the play-calling in the Red Zone has been uninspired and more vanilla than the ice cream in your freezer.
For whatever reason, Haley goes to the run way too often on first and second downs inside the Red Zone leaving Roethlisberger often in third and long situations. This happens many times when the pass has gotten the team into the Red Zone in the first place.
One of the biggest critiques I have of any offensive coordinator is when they over-think things and Haley is often guilty of this. Instead of staying with what is working, he tends to get ‘sneaky’ and it backfires. Sometimes the simplest things are the way to go even in the NFL.
If the Steelers plan on continuing this march to a potential playoff berth after such a poor start then they must convert Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns more often. Failure to do so will result in what we already fear which is an all too soon offseason.
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard Mondays on Trib-Live Radio at 630pm ET talking Steelers and is a blogger for ESPN 970 in Pittsburgh.