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Despite the Steelers defense being down 5 starters, it’s the offense that can’t find their way

I found myself going through a gamut of emotions last week heading up to the Steelers Week 11 matchup against the Browns in Cleveland. Knowing that the Steelers had followed a pattern of loss-win-win so far this season, this was the game that was setting up for a loss. But with the Bengals getting 10 days to rest before hosting the Steelers in Week 12, I thought perhaps that would break the cycle of where the loss fell and therefore maybe the Steelers could pull off this win. This, of course, was before the Joe Burrow situation.

When Deshaun Watson was decleared out for the season, I actually looked at this as a bad thing for the Steelers. I felt the Browns, a team already with the number one ranked defense in the NFL, would rally behind the unfortunate circumstances in order to prove they could still be contenders regardless of who is taking the snaps. But when the Browns announced it would not be P.J. Walker but Dorian Thompson–Robinson who would be the starting quarterback, I felt it was simply too much for the rookie to pull off the win despite the Steelers own major problems.

And what were those problems? It was an injury-depleted defense that was down three key communicators and looked to be struggling to find a way to all get on the same page.

The Steelers had just lost their “green dot” inside linebackers for the season in consecutive weeks. First it was Cole Holcomb, followed by Kwon Alexander. The linebackers tasked with providing the best possible coverage at the position were gone, and the Steelers had a significant liability in coverage ahead, let alone the communication issue.

One potential player who could have helped in the situation was safety/linebacker/safety (depending on which part of his career you are looking at would determine if safety went before or after the linebacker) Keanu Neal. But injuring his ribs on an interception return, it looked like Neal would not be available and he was even placed on the Reserve/Injured List (IR) ahead of the game. Add in the fact All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was missing his third-straight game, the Steelers defense, especially from a communication standpoint, was in shambles.

In fact, there was one more starter who was missing in defensive lineman Montravius Adams. When counting up all the players, they were five starters missing from the Steelers on their defense.

Could one get picky about what they consider a starter? Absolutely. Keanu Neal started all but one game in which he appeared for the Steelers. Montravius Adams was the starter when he was available as well despite Keeanu Benton potentially taking that role during his absence. Even though Kwon Alexander only started two games for the Steelers, he was the new starter after Holcomb landed on IR. In all, I’m counting five starters.

I was prepared early in the week to pick against the Steelers in this game because I felt it would take at least one, if not two, contests before they figure out what was going on at inside linebacker. But as the quarterback situation evolved for the Browns, I felt it might actually be playing into the Steelers strengths of the players they had on the field. Add in the fact Elandon Roberts played admirably as he was on the field for 100% of the defensive snaps, and the issue against the Browns wasn’t the defense.

It was the offense.

While it was the Steelers defense that was on the field in a tie game and allowed a field goal in the final seconds, I’m not putting the blame on this unit. First of all, the fact that they switched their defense into more of a prevent on the final drive in a tie game is head-scratching but should not be put on the players. The final drive of each half the Steelers were willing to give up field goals based on their defensive philosophy, which is not winning football when you’re in a tie game. But the defense shouldn’t have even been on the field in that situation.

When the Steelers received the ball on their own 48-yard line with less than six minutes to go and proceeded to gain 12 yards on the first play on a supposed catch by George Pickens that could not be challenged by the Browns, the Steelers were on the edge of field goal range with an opportunity to take the lead. Even holding steady, the Steelers might have attempted the 58-yard field goal with Chris Boswell. But instead, the next two plays netted five lost yards. On third down, on a play which seemed to obviously be to try to get into field goal range, the Steelers only gained three yards and had to punt. Had they been able to just squeeze out a couple more yards, or simply call plays that weren’t going to move backwards, the clutch Boswell would have probably given the Steelers their first lead of the game.

We will never know if the defense would have lived in their fears from a coaching and philosophy standpoint a drive sooner because they had a lead, but the way the game played out when it was tied was the defense was still in attack mode and forced yet another punt from the Browns. If the Steelers would have received the ball one more time with the lead, running the football would have likely been the strategy as the Steelers we’re gaining 6.6 yards per carry on the ground compared to 3.8 yards per pass attempt. But then again, in a game where the Steelers philosophy seemed to get in their own way more than help them out, the running back who was averaging 6.9 yards per carry without factoring his 74-yard touchdown run would have probably been standing on the sidelines and the Steelers would have only run clock and not actually moved the ball.

These “what if” scenarios can drive a fan crazy. The bottom line is, everything that comes to mind when looking back at this game, minus perhaps the philosophy of playing soft zone on the final drive of the game, where the Steelers didn’t get it done was offensively. An offense that was at full strength for the first time since the first half of Week 1 (the last time both Johnson and Freiermuth were on the field together) completely let down a defense that was playing their hearts out while missing almost half their starters.

One week ago I was worried the Steelers defense couldn’t hold the Browns to few enough points to win the game. I was completely off. Even with everything they had to overcome, giving up 13 points to the Cleveland Browns should have been enough to win the game.

Not with the current Steelers offense.


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