After three weeks of play, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank 30th in total offense. They rank 25th in passing and they rank 29th in rushing. Their inability to sustain drives and put up points has worn the defense down in the first three games of the season. To this point, the Steelers’ defense has spent the equivalent of almost an entire game more on the field than the offense. While the loss of Ben Roethlisberger goes without saying and the less than stellar play of James Conner and some receivers, this all starts with the offensive line. They are not protecting like they have in the past and they aren’t creating holes we are used to seeing either. After studying the film I’ve come up with three pretty definitive reasons as to why they are struggling.
The Opposing Defenses Have Been Well Above Average
This is not, I repeat, “this is NOT” an excuse because in order to be great you have to compete and be able to defeat other great teams. The Steelers’ three losses have come against teams with a combined record of 8-1. Defensively all three rank in the top 11 in total defense (New England 1st, San Francisco 2nd and Seattle 11th). Against the run they rank first (New England), fourth (Seattle) and seventh (San Francisco). In terms of passer rating against, the Patriots rank first and the Niners rank fourth. Only Seattle slips here all the way down to 21st.
These stats are factual. I can’t make them up. The Steelers’ offensive line has faced three really good defenses. However, they haven’t exactly been helped either. From dropped passes to missed open receivers, the skill people aren’t doing much to help the offensive line out. That said, I can’t say there’s one guy on this offensive line who hasn’t had some “what in the hell” moments in the first three games. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler have each been bested by opposing rushers in somewhat humiliating ways. This happens to most players at some point in their careers but it’s happening too often right now. The inability to get the run game going is only accentuating the inconsistent pass blocking. So yes, the opposition has been stellar, but that’s no excuse for not playing better and these guys would say the same thing.
The Loss of Munchak Has Been Obvious
We all should have seen this coming and it’s not a knock on current offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett either. But the loss of Mike Munchak has left a significant void in this unit’s ability to prepare for games and to make necessary adjustments in games. The idea that because Sarrett has been learning under Munchak for five years that he wouldn’t miss a beat was presumptuous by all of us. He still has to be able to prove he can handle this unit on his own and largely I think he can. As games go on however I don’t see the necessary adjustments being made.
To no fault of Sarrett’s, it’s kind of hard to replace a guy who is a Hall of Fame player at the very position he’s teaching. That carries a lot of weight with players and certainly a level of respect. This isn’t to say the players disrespect Sarrett, not in the slightest, but you have to wonder if his messages carry the same weight as Munchak’s did.
One Problem Has Led to the Other
When you can’t run the ball, the opposing defense knows you only have one option remaining and that’s to throw the football. As a defender who routinely rushes the passer, I can pin my ears back and come after the quarterback with a greater level of aggression than I may normally have. If by chance you do run the ball, I’m confident I’ll see it coming and if I don’t my fellow defenders will.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have not run the ball well at all. James Conner is averaging less that three yards per carry and that is not even close to getting it done. Last week we saw the 49ers literally have eight guys in the box which dared Randy Fichtner to throw the ball with first time starter Mason Rudolph. Only in the second half when Fichtner was forced to open up a bit did the Niners have to back off. I don’t care how good your offensive line is; you are going to struggle to run against eight-man boxes. The Pittsburgh O-line is no different.
Ask any offensive lineman and they’ll tell you that run blocking is heavily preferred to pass blocking 99 times out of 100. The reason is that in run blocking the offensive lineman is allowed to take his violence and attitude to the defender. In pass protection, the offensive lineman is ‘absorbing’ the force and speed of the pass rusher. This is not difficult to understand. With the Steelers’ O-Line constantly on its heels it’s no wonder that they are struggling. Fichtner has to let the Rudolph throw against those eight-man boxes. If he doesn’t, the O-line will continue to have problems.