There are plenty of theories going around on what ails the 2-5 Steelers. They are slow starters, allow too many big plays on defense and can't run the ball on offense. All that is true, but the inability to score and prevent touchdowns in the red zone is as big a problem as any for this team.
As the Steelers approach the halfway point of the 2013 season, they are 30th in the NFL in red-zone offense. Only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars have a harder time scoring touchdowns in the red zone than the Steelers.
The Steelers are 13th in the league in red-zone defense, which is about where they have been the past two seasons but well off their percentages from their two most recent Super Bowl years in 2008 and 2010 when they were top-five in the league.
The 21-18 loss last Sunday at Oakland was a good example of how inefficiency in the red zone created problems the team could not overcome. The Raiders penetrated the Steelers 20 twice in the game and came away with touchdowns both times. That led to an early 21-3 deficit.
"Had we forced them to a field goal in either of those trips down, we probably would have won the game," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "That's why the red zone is so important. We will see where we are at the end of the year. I think our guys play pretty good. I think they understand the problems down there."
The Steelers still rank as one of the top teams in the NFL in total defense, but where they once succeeded in holding teams to field goals they are now surrendering touchdowns with more regularity.
Opponents have scored 16 touchdowns in the first seven games. The defense has been responsible for 14 of those (two were defensive touchdowns -- an interception return and a fumble return in the loss to the Bears).
In 2010, when they were AFC champions and lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers allowed 22 touchdowns in 16 regular-season games. In 2008 when they won Super Bowl XLIII, they allowed 21.
The offense has even bigger issues in the red zone. Against the Raiders, the Steelers got inside the Raiders 20 on four occasions and came away with touchdowns twice. That's actually higher than their season percentage. They have scored touchdowns on 40 percent of their trips inside the red zone. Last season, Todd Haley's first as offensive coordinator, they converted at a 55 percent clip.
"We're just not making plays," Haley said. "We're finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot. Penalties have shown up there. Inefficient runs last week, we had a minus-5 run because we missed a block.
"It's a little bit of everything. There's no one issue. It's just we've got to be better, and when the opportunities present themselves we've got to make the plays. In the last two games, we had a couple catches that potentially are points. And we've just got to do a better job across the board."
Much of the skill personnel surrounding quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the same as last season. The only major difference is the absence of receiver Mike Wallace, but Wallace accounted for only three of the team's touchdowns in the red zone a year ago.
"That's something we're trying to answer right now," receiver Emmanuel Sanders said of the team's struggles in the red zone. "Collectively, we all have to do better, whether it's coaches, players, all around. We all have to get better.
"We have to have more of a sense of urgency. That's what we've been talking about. When we get down in the red zone, let's not rely on Shaun Suisham as much. He's been clutch for us, but when we get down there let's have urgency and score."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.