Labriola on a recipe for saving this Steelers season

Ready or not, here it comes:

• FULL DISCLOSURE: It’s a question I am totally unqualified to answer, but since I can be wrong with no real ramifications to the outcome of this season – and because I really don’t have a better idea on how to fill this space this week – I’ve decided to give it a shot.

• The question, of course, is some version of: How can the Steelers turn their season around?

• First, let’s take stock of where they are. Four weeks into the regular season, the Steelers’ record is 1-2-1, which ties them with the Cleveland Browns for last place in the AFC North Division. They are 0-1-1 against division opponents; 0-2-1 against conference opponents. And while that normally would be a negative because of the potential impact on tiebreakers, the tie on the Steelers’ record virtually assures they won’t be subject to tiebreakers this season, unless there are a bunch more ties in the NFL.

• While there still is a lot of football left to be played, there nevertheless is a sense of urgency associated with where the team is today, because not only do the Steelers have to make some significant improvement in themselves and then maintain that higher level of play, but they’re also going to have to do it against a markedly tougher schedule than the one they faced in 2017.

• What my untrained eyes are telling me about this particular Steelers team through this point in the season is that while it is capable of winning any game it plays, there is a fairly specific recipe it must follow to get the job done. And depending upon the quality of the opponent and the venue for that particular game, the margin for error on the recipe can disintegrate.

• In a couple of their first four games, the Steelers displayed some of the ingredients for this recipe, and the goal from this point should be to continue doing the things they have shown they are capable of doing that are a part of this recipe, while working to develop the other elements.

• Let’s start with the defense. In the games against the Browns and the Buccaneers, the defense largely played the way it will have to play to be able to contribute to winning games this season:

• Pressure on the quarterback – seven sacks and 10 pressures vs. the Browns; three sacks and 13 pressures vs. the Buccaneers. Active in pass defense – one interception and nine passes defensed vs. the Browns; three interceptions and 10 passes defensed vs. the Buccaneers. Stingy in the red zone – 2-for-3 against the Browns, which along with the turnovers deserve to be identified as the difference between a win and the tie; 2-for-5 against the Buccaneers. Take the ball away – one interception and a forced fumble that wasn’t recovered against the Browns, which is another area in which the defense didn’t quite measure up sufficiently to contribute to a victory in that game; three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown by Bud Dupree, plus a fumble recovery vs. the Buccaneers.

• The pressure on the quarterback is critical, and it must be achieved by any means necessary, but it also must be done in a way where the secondary isn’t exposed, because big plays also have to be limited. Granted, this is a tall order, and it can become more difficult as the season progresses and opponents benefit from more detailed scouting reports, but it’s a critical component.

• If the Steelers defense can be productive consistently in those areas – and I’m not implying that it’s going to be easy – when it comes to the goal of defeating a particular opponent, the unit will be more of a contributor to that end than a liability.

• Then, it’s going to be up to the offense, and admittedly there is going to be more of a burden placed on that unit, but, hey, that’s just the reality of the way this team is built and the way the league is trending.

• OK, so now the offense: There absolutely cannot be multi-score deficits early in games created either by offensive futility or turnovers. There is absolutely no justifiable reason why this offense has scored a grand total of one touchdown in the four first quarters of games so far this season, and even less of an excuse for being unable to attain even a single first down on any of its opening possessions in those same first quarters.

• Now, the turnovers. Besides eliminating turnovers early in games, the Steelers are going to have to cut way down on turning the ball over in general. Through the first four games, the Steelers are tied with Tampa Bay for the most turnovers in the NFL (nine), and five of those nine are interceptions. Roethlisberger is tied for 28th in the league in interceptions, with Derek Carr, Case Keenum, and Andy Dalton among the few quarterbacks who have thrown more.

• It’s worth noting that six of the nine turnovers, and four of Roethlisberger’s six interceptions, happened in the opener against the Browns. That means the Steelers are averaging one turnover per game since, which should be doable moving forward. But these Steelers aren’t good enough – not presently and likely not at any point this season – where they can get away with helping their opponent.

• If the team is going to be dependent on its offense, clipping Roethlisberger’s wings would be foolish, but being careful with the football down the field – and protecting the football in situations where the pass rush is closing in on him – has to be treated as being every bit as important as trying to make a play. Risk-reward must be a consideration, especially in situations early in games and/or when the score is close.

• The Steelers finished the 2017 ranked second in the NFL in third-down efficiency (44.0 percent), and through the first quarter of the 2018 season they are ranked 28th (30.6 percent) in the same category. Granted, there has been no Le’Veon Bell in the mix this season, and it’s ridiculous to contend that his multiple skills aren’t a significant loss on possession downs, but this current disparity in efficiency from 2017 to 2018 is unacceptable given the rest of the available personnel.

• A guy who has been under-used in this area is Vance McDonald, a tight end with the kind of skill-set typically found in opposing players at the position who have been a thorn in the Steelers’ side for years. McDonald has been targeted only 14 times through the season’s first four games, and of his 12 receptions on those targets, nine have been good for first downs.

• Something that would go hand-in-hand with better third down efficiency is time of possession, where the Steelers have been averaging 29:27 per game. Holding onto the ball just for the sake of holding onto the ball serves no purpose, but being able to keep the opposing offense on the sideline – along with limiting the exposure of their own defense – has to be part of the recipe.

• The other offensive component is one where the Steelers only would have to maintain the level of competence they so far have established through the first quarter of the season: red zone efficiency.

• Long a weakness – the 2017 Steelers finished 24th in the NFL in red zone offense, with 32 touchdowns on 63 trips (50.8 percent) inside the opponent’s 20-yard line – so far the offense ranks third in the NFL in this category, with touchdowns on 77.8 percent of its trips into the red zone. While 27 of the NFL’s 32 teams have more trips into the red zone than the Steelers’ nine, the key here is scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals.

• If the Steelers can get themselves together and follow the recipe outlined above, their season still could turn into a delectable treat. If they don’t, well, have you ever seen a poorly-prepared soufflé when it comes out of the oven?

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