West Virginia online sportsbook bettors, there are two different ways to interpret the Pittsburgh Steelers line.
One concerns gambling and the Week 16 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. The Steelers, who opened at -2.5, slid to +2 as midweek approached, in a betting pattern showing no confidence in a once 11-0 team. Then some money came back on the Steelers.
The second interpretation of the line pertains to offense. Can the Steelers’ line protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and establish respect for a running game that has disappeared?
The wheels have inexplicably spun off for this team. Since leading the Washington Football Team 14-0 late in the first half of Week 12, the Steelers are being outscored 76-35. For a team with 11 wins? Unthinkable.
Let’s examine some causes, with potential solutions.
The running game is no longer a factor
Great Steelers teams, including Super Bowl winners, have featured a dominant back. From Franco Harris to the Bus to Le’Veon Bell, who tabbed nearly 2,000 scrimmage yards just three years ago. Throw in flashes of Willie Parker and James Conner, a now fading star in the Pittsburgh backfield.
The running game did get off to a blazing start this season. Benny Snell rushed for more than 100 yards in Week 1. Conner picked up the slack in Weeks 2, 3 and 6, surpassing 100 yards. This output placed the Steelers among the better running teams that included the Cleveland Browns with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Minnesota Vikings with Dalvin Cook and the Tennessee Titans with The Beast, Derrick Henry.
Equally important to the yardage was the number of carries. With Conner and Snell, that meant between 15 and 20 carries per game to take the pressure off of Roethlisberger. But the Steelers have not fashioned a 100-yard rusher for the last 10 weeks, and defenses know Roethlisberger must throw.
In the loss to Washington, the leading rusher was Anthony McFarland with 15 yards.
In the 26-15 setback to the Buffalo Bills, the gold standard was Conner’s 18 yards on 10 carries.
Against the Bengals, Snell did at least obtain 84 yards, but there’s still been no Steeler at the century mark since Week 6.
Roethlisberger is averaging just about 40 pass attempts per game as defenses discount the run. That would not be too bad if Big Ben could scramble to extend plays, giving his receivers time to improvise.
But he has not been able to roll in the pocket or step up into it, given the lack of time to get the ball off and his age, 38.
It started with the dropsies from talented Pittsburgh receivers dating as far back as Week 11, when they outlasted the COVID-19-decimated Baltimore Ravens. Dropped balls have continued and receivers look to be less in sync with Roethlisberger than early in the year.
Concentration hit a low point with three first-half turnovers in the 27-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night. Roethlisberger’s first-half pick, setting up the touchdown that put the Bengals up 17-0, was thrown right to the defender. Bad pass? Bad pattern? Either way, the Steelers looked lost.
Too much air
Roethlisberger is throwing balls a little too high, with the split second being the difference between completions and balls that are knocked away,
What has worked well?
Here is what is working for the Steelers:
Flooding the left side with multiple receivers
This play put the Steelers back in the game against Cincinnati. With three receivers spread out left, Roethlisberger threw a quick pass to speedster Chase Claypool. One block let Claypool loose down the sideline and he nearly scampered to a score, settling for a 37-yard play.
On the next step, Roethlisberger threw his best pass of the night, a touchdown to Diontae Johnson.
For prop players, Johnson remains the most reliable receiver regarding the ability to hold onto the ball. Roethlisberger targets him more each week, including in the red zone.
The defense remains stout
It was challenged by the three turnovers giving the Bengals a short field and all 17 of its first-half points. This is a proud group that has spent parts of this season leading the league in sacks and pressures.
Part of that dynamic is playing with a lead, teeing off on quarterbacks who have to throw. That hasn’t existed recently. The Steelers haven’t led in a game since the second quarter against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14.
But the Steelers also showed some mental toughness against the Bengals, with a fine open-field tackle setting up a punt rather than allowing the Bengals to run out the clock in the final minutes.
Tomlin is a special coach
He claims something few can, a long NFL career (14 years) with no losing season.
The closest was last year, when the Steelers were 8-8 as Roethlisberger spent most of the season out with an injury.
Before this season started, Steelers fans would have been delighted to be 11-3 now. Instead, they are concerned.
Here is what the Steelers can do now:
- Use the explosive speed of receivers in a different way. Fashion some well-designed end-arounds to burn defenses ready to blitz Roethlisberger.
- Throw some deep balls early in the game. Defenses must know the Steelers at least want to try the deep pass. Yes, Roethlisberger has struggled here, but the tactic must at least be shown to keep linebackers from “jumping the route” on short passes. Even if the deep ball isn’t completed, there is a chance to draw a pass-interference flag. That would also loosen up the defense. Opponents are reading the Pittsburgh passing game like a book. Maybe even one they could have written.
- Regain focus. The turnovers were caused by mental mistakes. Tomlin can correct that but may need to unleash a verbal tirade.
The Immediate Future
Regardless of where they finish this season, the Steelers need to begin drafting quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger is an exceptional talent, who reached 60,000 passing yards Monday night, and he has led the Steelers to two Super Bowls. But look at the league’s top signal callers. What do Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills, Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson of the Ravens have in common? They can dart from danger, picking up first downs on key third-down plays by running.
Even mid-level teams like the Arizona Cardinals, with Kyler Murray, and the Philadelphia Eagles, with Jalen Hurts, have QBs who can make plays with their feet.
This is the direction Pittsburgh needs to go.