On the Steelers: Red-zone woes haunt offense much too often
October 23, 2013 11:21 PM
The Vikings' Everson Griffen sacks and recovers a fumble by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. The Steelers were inside the Vikings' 20-yard-line with a chance to tie the game, but couldn't convert -- emblematic of their play in the red zone in 2013.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Are the Steelers not scoring more from inside the red zone because they don't crack their opponents' 20 more often? Or do they not score once there because they just aren't good at it?
Turns out, both are true.
The Steelers have moved the ball inside the 20 only 16 times, third fewest among teams in the AFC and fifth fewest in the NFL. Once there, they put the ball in the end zone six times or just 37.5 percent. That's worse than every team in the league except the winless Jacksonville Jaguars (27.8).
It began when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not get a clean handoff to Isaac Redman on the first series of the season, from the Tennessee 6. The Titans recovered in the end zone, and the Steelers have found it tough to get the ball there any other way.
They have nine touchdowns from all over the field after six games, just two rushing, both by Le'Veon Bell, both in a 37-24 loss against the Minnesota Vikings in London.
"That's frustrating as a quarterback and as an offense," Roethlisberger said. "Because, when we get down there, we know what we want to do and what our goal is. We have to find a way to get it in the end zone."
A touchdown instead of that fumble would have put them ahead of the Titans, 9-0. They led their second game in Cincinnati, 3-0, when, still in the first quarter, David Paulson caught a 34-yard pass to the Bengals 16 and promptly fumbled.
Coach Mike Tomlin pointed to a pre-snap penalty, Antonio Brown's false start, for turning a third-and-4 at Baltimore's 5 into an ultimate field goal. Also in that game, Roethlisberger was sacked all three times in the game inside the 20, twice consecutively, and it helped keep them out of the end zone on two series.
"The defense usually blitzes down there because the ball has got to come out quicker and there's no deep-play threats," Roethlisberger said. "We just haven't been good enough down there in all phases of the game -- from the coaches to the players to the line, quarterback, receivers, running backs."
Not wild about wildcat
The emergence of the wildcat formation in the NFL is credited by many to the Minnesota Vikings in 1998, when quarterback Randall Cunningham split wide and David Palmer took the snap from center.
The Steelers, however, deployed it in 1995, when they split quarterback Neil O'Donnell wide and moved Kordell Stewart to quarterback. Stewart once threw a pass to O'Donnell, who did not catch it.
The Steelers hadn't used it since then until Sunday, when they split Roethlisberger wide and had Bell take four snaps against Baltimore in that formation. Like O'Donnell, Roethlisberger is not a fan of the formation.
"I don't like to go over and just be split out wide and take a chance that a [defensive back] is going to come up," Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan Tuesday.
He backed off from that a bit Wednesday, saying, "It's not that I don't like it. If it helps us win, I'm all for it. I just told coach I get actually physically tired running out to wide receiver all the time."
Roethlisberger said it was funny watching the Ravens decide whether to cover him or not.
"They need to throw it to me, but closer to the end zone so I don't have to run very far."
Trick will be to win out West
The Steelers will try yet another trick play -- not necessarily the wildcat -- in order to keep on their winning track after opening the season with four big thuds. They will enter the Black Hole to continue to climb out of their own hole.
Once known as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, but more recently as O.co Coliseum, the home of the Oakland Raiders has gone by the nickname of the Black Hole for a long time.
That's aptly named for the Steelers, because they see victory disappear there. They most recently won in Oakland in 1995, and, although they've lost only twice since then, including last season, they were favored to win both games.
The Steelers suddenly have a problem playing just about anywhere outside of the Eastern time zone. They have lost all seven of their most recent games played in other time zones.
"I haven't thought about it, to be honest with you," Tomlin said of his team's struggles on the West Coast.
So, as usual, the Steelers will depart at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday for their flight to Oakland. It's when they always leave for games, whether it's Oakland or Cincinnati. The only exception came when they flew to London Thursday evening, three days after the Minnesota Vikings left. The Vikings became the seventh team to beat them in another time zone, 34-27.
Bruce Gradkowski played the best game of his life in Heinz Field in 2009, when he quarterbacked Oakland to a 27-24 win. The Raiders arrived in Pittsburgh two days before kickoff.
"Usually, you do that when you travel from West Coast to East Coast," said Gradkowski, the Steelers' backup. "A lot of teams will come a day earlier than normal."
There was a time when the Steelers would leave Friday for a West Coast game, but previous coaches Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher had no set policy and sometimes would depart Saturday. No Tomlin team has left Friday for a Sunday game on the West Coast.
"Coming from west to east is harder," Gradkowski said. "You wake up, it feels like it's way earlier for you. At least, when we go out to Oakland, it won't be too much of a difference, it will just feel like we're playing a 4 o'clock game."
Jones says he's fine
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who missed the game Sunday against Baltimore with a concussion, went through a full practice and said he is fine.
Honor for Suisham
Shaun Suisham was AFC special teams player of the week after kicking four field goals against Baltimore. He is 14 for 14 this season.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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