Despite dominating in almost every statistical category the Steelers were forced to rely on another last minute field goal by Jeff Reed to eek out 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Whether you see the Chargers game from the half-empty or half-full perspective, there is no mistaking that ten games into the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is at a crossroads.
The game’s bizarre finish dominated cyberspace this morning, but the bigger story is the uncanny paradox that was the Steelers offense last Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice this week, and it showed.
- One can only look at the 13 penalties and wonder if the rest of his teammates joined him.
Plot these numbers of a map, and the zig zagging will make you dizzy:
- A quarterback who threw for three hundred yards, and completed 75 of his passes...
- A Pro Bowl half back returning to gain 115 yards on 25 carried, running on a wet field...
- Two 100 yard receivers...
- A defense that produced three turnovers...
...Yet the only points came off of Jeff Reed’s leg and James Harrison’s safety.
The Empty Half
Confronted with this dichotomy, the Pittsburgh press opted to embrace the negative.
Consider Mike Prisuta’s lead in the Tribune-Review to an article titled "Win Does Not Mask Steelers Problems:
- “The Steelers didn't so much as beat the San Diego Chargers as they did survive them Sunday. And themselves.”
In the same vein, the Post-Gazette headlined Gene Collier’s column:
- “The Steelers Barely Get it Done.”
There are real caution signs in the Charger’s game. Anytime your offense only manages nine points against an underachieving defense you have to be concerned.
The fact that penalties are suddenly a concern is alarming.
The Steeler's failure to convert yet another fourth and goal at the one rightly bothers the faithful in Steelers Nation.
Mike Prisuta’s lead is on target in a certain sense. The Steelers themselves created much of the adversity that weathered on Sunday. But the way the Men of Steel responded offers hope.
Improvising, Adapting and Overcoming
"Part of that [the game's difficult circumstances] is our doing, and it's discouraging. We're not a finished product, but maybe we found something today in Gary Russell." - Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin on the Chargers game
The failed 4th down conversion in the red zone provides the perfect example. Getting stuffed at the one, this is Steelers football mind you, is never pleasant, but it might have been the best thing that happened to them because the coaches responded by using Gary Russell in two other short yardage situations. Russell delivered in both cases, converting both of those opportunities.
Willie Parker is back to form, and Mewelde Moore impressed in his absence, but its good to see the Steelers coaches recognize that those two are not their only options.
Much was made about the fact that Roethlisberger “didn’t throw downfield” for a second straight game. That’s not quite true, as he did try to hit Santonio Holmes deep twice, and neither pass was on target.
So perhaps we’re right not to believe the coaches when they insist that the short passing game was only a function of “what was being given to us.” And no Iron City swigging Steelers fan wants to see the West Coast Offense make its home in Pittsburgh.
But Ben was better. He may not have thrown the deep ball well, but he made clutch throw after clutch throw, threading needle after needle.
This improved play allowed the Steelers to covert 50% of their third downs; going into the game were only converting 38.5% of their third downs.
Football is a game defined by situation. When you respond well, you win. When you don’t you lose.
Down 7 to 2 at as the first half was winding down, the San Diego Chargers were threatening to make it 14 two.
- James Harrison had other ideas, intercepting a Philip Rivers pass and returning it 33 yards.
Given the ball at their own 43 with 1:23 left to go, Roethlisberger answered by completing 6 of 7 passes, the last of which put the Steelers into position to score with 0:11 seconds left.
The Steelers strong finish to the first half didn’t result in much of a momentum shift, as penalty after penalty sabotaged drive after drive in the second half.
This kind of football frustrates fans, but the men on the field maintained their poise.
The Chargers marched from their 18 to the Steelers four yard line. Drives like that can demoralize, but the defense dug in when San Diego reached the red zone. Larry Foot and James Harrison limited L.T. to two yards before Ike Taylor and Fernando Bryant broke up consecutive pass plays to force a field goal.
Once again, Ben responded as he did in the Baltimore and Jacksonville games. Starting at his own 13 he directed a 15 play drive that brought the Steelers to San Diego’s two to set up Jeff Reed’s game wining field goal.
Can the Steelers Offense Put It Together?
Throughout the 2008 season the Steelers offense has had a maddening Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde character to it. Just two weeks ago ESPN’s Football Outsiders did a story that could be summed up this way: Steelers have one of the best offenses inside the 20, but one of the worst outside the 20.
And there they were Sunday, wracking up 400 yards of total offense, zero no turnovers, yet with nary a touchdown to show for it.
One way or another, the San Diego game will be looked at as the week where the Steelers offense reached a fork in the road.
Mike Tomlin must ensure that Steelers move in the right direction.
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