The root of the Steelers loss to the Raiders
The final score was 31-34 in Oakland, which is a place the Pittsburgh Steelers generally play poorly. However, if the Steelers were going to lose in Oakland most would have expected an offense that couldn’t move the ball while giving up touchdowns on special teams and turnovers. While there were turnovers and special teams were leaky, that wasn’t why the Steelers lost the game. The Steelers lost the game because they got beaten by a team that was better yesterday. Over the course of 10 games the Steelers would likely go 8-2 against a team like the Raiders. However, yesterday happened to fall onto the “2” side of that record for one day. It’s easy enough to point to Jonathan Dwyer, Mike Wallace and especially Antonio Brown for fumbling the ball (even though Wallace recovered his and Brown recovered one of his), but they were not the sole culprit of this disheartening loss. No, there were two other factors that were very large in creating this loss. The first deals with a defensive front that was overmatched. The other, more hidden issue, deals with poor clock management.
This is a disheartening loss, though, because the game was lost in a way that almost seems like it may be an issue too big to fix; the defense simply cannot get off of the field against a quarterback who stays disciplined and continually will throw passes in the five to nine yard range. This is something that has always been somewhat exploitable in Dick LeBeau’s defense. However, in years past there have been some big differences. Usually if the first or second option was covered up the quarterback had to begin worrying about getting whacked. That pressure speeds up a quarterback’s internal clock and leads to more incomplete passes or, better yet, interceptions. Additionally, if the front seven is constantly getting pressure this leads to sacks and possibly fumbles on those sacks. Obviously a turnover would be in the defense’s best interest. But besides that, sacks set up obvious passing situations. For a team like the Steelers who is struggling against the run right now, this is a problem.
When a team’s front seven is failing to contain the run or get pressure, two things happen. The opposing offense remains dynamic. They can either run the ball or pass the ball. To more easily win any game you want to dictate what your opponent does. When you cannot then winning becomes much, much more difficult. The front seven will tend to creep closer to the line of scrimmage. When that happens, the underneath routes are more open. In past years those throwing zones were at least occasionally taken up by linebackers. When that happens you can see coverage sacks or at the least incompletions. When those linebackers are not in those windows because they are creeping to the line to stop the run or they are trying any way they can to create pressure then it becomes simple pitch and catch for a quarterback and wide receiver. Additionally, without linebackers roaming that zone as frequently the chance for a catch and run comes into play.
All of these issues can be traced back to the defensive line. When it was speculated as to whether or not Ziggy Hood was a bust, this was the worry. Could he stoutly stand up his side of the line as Aaron Smith did and allow the Steelers to have one more linebacker drop into coverage as opposed to needing multiple linebackers to plug multiple holes. This isn’t to place the blame at Hood’s feet and say he is definitely the bust some are wondering about (however, that conclusion seems more and more likely each game) as Brett Keisel was not particularly effective, either. Worse than either of them was Casey Hampton who looked slow and week. Usually a player who occupies to blockers which means he effectively closes two or three lanes becomes a player who, when he cannot shed his blocks, closes one or none. That is a huge difference. While the secondary looks like the scapegoat here, and they certainly deserve some of the blame, an overmatched defensive line is where the issues start with the defense.
The defense and turnovers weren’t the only culprit yesterday. The other culprit was poor clock management and particularly the ridiculous usage of timeouts. In the first half the Steelers were far and away the dominant team. However, one sequence of penalties led to a 3rd and 25. The Steelers were confused and Ben Roethlisberger called a timeout. While Roethlisberger has easily been the Steelers best player this season, his usage of timeouts in the past several years has been foolish. What play could the Steelers have called on 3rd and 25 that is expected to pick up the first down? In that situation, pocket the timeout, take the delay of game penalty and try again on 3rd and 30. If you think you can convert a third down for 25 yards then 30 yards should not feel like that much of a detriment either.
However they used the timeout and ran a play that picked up about 18 yards. It looked like it may have had a chance to go for 25 when it started, but nonetheless this was a terrible waste of a timeout and it potentially cost the Steelers a bit later. The timeout that was called was their third timeout and thus the final timeout of the half. When the Steelers were driving inside the final two minutes, Roethlisberger hit Emmanuel Sanders at the 25 with 1:12 remaining in the half. However, the Steelers were out of timeouts. By the Roethlisberger spiked the ball the time remaining was just 39 seconds. If Roethlisberger had not previously used his final timeout the Steelers would have had around a minute to work with from the 25 yard line on first down. As it was, the Steelers had about 40 seconds to work with on second down. Additionally, time for a better play could have occurred as well. The chances of a Steelers touchdown occurring as opposed to the field goal in this instance are likely doubled at the least with this timeout. Luckily, this is an issue that is easily correctible. Unfortunately, as it has not been addressed as to this point in his career I suspect the Steelers are not about to begin looking at it now.
The Oakland game for the Steelers should not begin a panic. It should, though, put them on high alert. The inclusion of James Harrison could pay big dividends to the front seven which could go a long way to correct the woes of the front seven. It may be that this defense is just not going to be good this year. However, as the offense has shown, when it can hold onto the ball it may not matter. As long as Roethlisberger plays at the level he is currently, the Steelers will win more games than they lose. However, if the defense can’t raise its play at least marginally than the number of games won and loss will be close enough that the Steelers will seeing the playoffs the same way as most fans do: from their couch.
Chris Patterson is an NFL writer for TPF and can be contacted at CPatterson@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.