After starting the season 11-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost their last two games – relinquishing the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture for the time being. Their offense has struggled recently, and it’s been more than just two weeks. When they were 11-0, it was harder to focus on the blemishes. Now that Pittsburgh is riding a two-game losing streak, it’s worth looking at what they need to do going forward:
The Run Game
Problems: Currently ranked 31st in yards per carry and total rushing yards, finding success in the run game has become harder and harder for the Steelers as the season has gone on.
Through their first six games of the season, the Steelers had success running the football:
- Five 100-yard rushing games, and at least 90 yards in all six in all six
- Averaged 129.67 rushing yards per game.
- Averaged 25.83 running back carries per game
- Had four games with 34-plus minutes of time of possession. Won the time of possession battle in five of these six games.
Since Week 8, the Steelers’ run game has taken a sharp turn for the worse:
54.29 rushing yards per game, almost 70 less rushing yards per game than in their first six
They’re averaging 8 less running back carries per game
They’ve lost the time of possession battle in four of the last seven games
Solution: Part of the solution is staying healthy. They’ve been without guard Kevin Dotson since late November (came back but got re-injured in their Week 14 loss), running back James Conner for two games, and just lost guard Matt Feiler to injury in their Week 14 loss. That said, they were healthy when their struggles running the football first began. The biggest difference, quite simply, has been that Ben Roethlisberger’s pass attempts have increased while the running backs’ carries have decreased. Leaning on their running backs should provide Pittsburgh with more opportunity to control time of possession and take pressure off Roethlisberger. And that leads to the next issue:
The Pass Attack
Problems: In their last two games, they’ve averaged 34 yards rushing yards and 15 running back carries per game. As the Steelers have taken a sharp turn away from the run game, they have been leaning more on their 38-year-old quarterback.
Roethlisberger is having a good season, having thrown 29 TD passes with 9 INTs while helping the Steelers get to 11-2. For most of their season, the Steelers have done a good job at protecting him. Roethlisberger has been getting the ball out of his hand quickly — his time to throw is 2.29 seconds, which currently leads the NFL. In turn, he’s been sacked a career-low 2.1% of his dropbacks.
Where Roethlisberger has struggled has been when his passing attempts have been high and when he has had to stretch the field. Currently, Roethlisberger is on pace for a career low in adjusted yards per attempt with 6.7 yards, which is his lowest total since 2008. When needing to throw past the sticks, he has a completion rate of 42%. Roethlisberger has thrown seven of his nine interceptions in games where he has thrown 40-plus passing attempts. As the season has progressed, he has been asked to throw the ball more and more. From Weeks 1-6, he averaged 33 pass attempts per game. From Weeks 7-14, he’s averaged 44.5 attempts per game.
His adjusted yards per attempt has also decreased significantly over that span. In Weeks 1-6, his AY/A was 7.14 yards. In Weeks 7-14, it was 5.94.
His pass catchers haven’t made things any easier. The Steelers lead the NFL in drops with 37 (eight higher than the second-highest team). His most targeted receiver, Dionte Johnson, leads the NFL in drops with 12. The inconsistent hands of his receivers have been an added burden.
Solution: Get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands. He has struggled the most this season when he has thrown the ball 40-plus times in games, which has started to become the trend since Week 8. Take the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands and put it back into the running backs’ hands.
Something to Watch for Moving Forward
The final place where the Steelers have struggled recently is their ability to convert third downs. On the season, they have a third-down conversion rate of 43.5%, which currently ranks ninth in the NFL. From Weeks 1-12, they had a 45.96% third-down conversion rate. In their two losses in Weeks 13 and 14, they had a 28% third-down conversion rate. Failing to sustain drives has been killing the Steelers in their two losses.