Mike Tomlin’s team has been playing with fire most of the season. And the Steelers’ lack of a running game is catching up with them.
One loss certainly does not a season make, especially when your team embarked on a franchise-record 11-0 start. But the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive approach has been questioned by many, especially in recent weeks. And the lack of any commitment to running the football came back to bite them in the backfield in a 23-17 home loss to the Washington Football Team.
Yes, Mike Tomlin’s AFC North leaders still own a two-game lead over the surging Browns. And the rival Baltimore Ravens and (obviously) struggling Cincinnati Bengals won’t win a division title this year. But there’s something amiss when one of the best defenses in the league can’t close the door after the team takes a 14-0 first-half lead.
So perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. And all one has to do is go back to the latter stages of the 2018 season to see where the Steelers began to rely very heavily on the pass and less on the run.
Entering this season, Tomlin’s squad was 11-12 in its last 23 games after a 6-2-1 start in 2018. The Steelers failed to run the ball at least 20 times in 10 of those games. In three of their last six games this year, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and his unit have failed to run the ball at least 20 times. And that includes kneel downs to end a game. In ’18, the Steelers finished 31st in the league in rushing and one year later, were a mere 29th in the NFL when it came to running the rock.
The real imbalance has been evident in the team’s last seven outings, six of which have resulted in victory. The team has gone to a quick passing game where veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball quickly. In six of those seven contests, the Steelers did not allow a sack. The only team to sack him over that stretch were the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 8.
So in their last seven games, the Pittsburgh offense has run a total of 466 plays (again, including kneel downs, reverses, etc.). There have been 140 running plays and 326 passing plays. Roethlisberger has dropped back to pass at least 45 times six times in the last seven weeks. Yes, it has resulted in victory much more times than not. But that lack of balance is detrimental to any defense. And when your pass-catchers have problems hanging onto the ball, most notably the last two weeks, it’s easy to see why the club has scored a combined 36 points in two games and just three offensive touchdowns over that stretch.
Is it panic time in the Steel City? Hardly. And while not having James Conner the last two weeks has hurt, it wasn’t as if he was getting a heavy workload lately. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers, who haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, handle the last four weeks of the season.