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Inefficiency in red zone plagues Steelers

This time, Coach Mike Tomlin started with the positives. He talked about 17-9 over Jacksonville being a road win vs. an AFC team, with the inference being such things can have future tiebreaker significance. He talked about the defense putting two good halves of football together, and then admitted it was the first time that had happened all season. He talked about how each of the team's three phases – offense, defense, and special teams – made a contribution down the stretch of the fourth quarter to help the team close out the victory.

Then, Tomlin flipped it around.

"I thought we needed to be better in our red zone offense," said Tomlin at his weekly news conference. "The way we were able to control the ball and possess the ball and move the ball, I don't think our points reflected that. Really, that's a function of some red zone failure."

Through the first five weeks of the 2014 season, the Steelers offense ranks 26th in the league in red zone efficiency, with seven touchdowns in 16 trips for a percentage of 43.8. To provide a little perspective, the best red zone offenses in the NFL this year belong to the Broncos (76.9 percent), Falcons (75 percent), Packers (72.2 percent), Bears and Chiefs (tied at 70.6 percent). Twenty-two of the 32 teams are at 50 percent or better in red zone efficiency so far.

Against the Jaguars, the Steelers were 1-for-4 in the red zone, including 1-of-2 in goal-to-go situations.

With a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line early in the second quarter, the Steelers had two incomplete passes and a sack before settling for a field goal. With a first-and-goal from the 7-yard line later in the second quarter, the Steelers had an incomplete pass, a 6-yard completion to Heath Miller, and then a 1-yard pass to Michael Palmer for the touchdown.

Against the Jaguars, the Steelers offense had 13 plays in the red zone – there were 10 passes, and the three runs were kneel-downs by Ben Roethlisberger to close out the game. The four trips inside the red zone last Sunday yielded one field goal, one touchdown, one lost fumble, and victory formation.

"Play selection is always the first place you look in terms of defining issues," said Tomlin. "Looking back at it, I wish we would've run the ball some considering that the passes were unsuccessful. Largely, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge some of the good things Jacksonville did defensively against us in the red zone. But we have to execute better, we have to look at our play selection, and we'll do both."

Issues in the red zone have plagued the Steelers to varying degrees under both Bruce Arians and Todd Haley.

During Arians' tenure as offensive coordinator (2007-11), the Steelers' best red zone efficiency was in 2007 when the team converted touchdowns on 58.2 percent of their trips to rank seventh in the NFL. In 2008, the Super Bowl champions ranked 15th at 55.1 percent; in 2009 it was 48.2 percent and tied for 21st; in 2010 the AFC Champions ranked 23rd at 48 percent; and in 2011 it was 50.9 percent and 18th.

In Haley's first two seasons, the Steelers ranked 14th in the NFL at 55.1 percent; and in 2013 it was 52.8 percent and 17th.

"We might not be presented with the same issues or problems or challenges in the red zone this week as we were a week ago, but nevertheless it's something to identify as something that's slowing us down as a unit," said Tomlin. "We have to work to rectify it and make sure it's a strength for us. I know when we're playing well, we're putting points on the board by 7s."

Or as Haley had said on the Thursday before the Steelers played the Jaguars, "We have shown some flashes of being really good and being able to move the football. But when you're averaging 400 yards per game, you really should be scoring more than 24 points (a game)."

"Ike Taylor (forearm) is doing fine, but he still is out. Ryan Shazier (knee) ran some Monday in the pool. I think he's going to run some today on the ground. We'll see where he is. We'll give him an opportunity to work himself back to us if he's healthy enough to practice and if he responds to that practice in a positive manner. Right now, he's slated to practice on some level (Wednesday), and we'll see where today and Wednesday take us in that regard. Shamarko Thomas had a hamstring injury in the game vs. the Jaguars, but not a significant one. He may be trying to run today, and we'll do the same thing with him. If he's able to practice in some capacity on Wednesday, we'll let him. We'll see how their bodies respond to the work and let the practice participation dictate their availability – and I'm talking about Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas."

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