Sure, it would be easy to lose oneself in the things that happened during a three-hour period at Heinz Field yesterday. The Steelers won a game, and decisively at that, if the scoreboard is to be believed. It was exciting without being suspenseful, which always seems to be high on the fan base’s list. All three phases – offense, defense, and special teams – made big plays that impacted the scoreboard in a way beneficial for the home team. And the Steelers won a real game at Heinz Field, which hadn’t happened since last New Year’s Eve.
It would be easy to get swept up in the giddiness, and there could be enough details taken from Steelers 41, Falcons 17 to argue the point, but this 2018 edition in truth is more like a fat guy. The fat guy didn’t become overweight overnight, and he’s not going to get himself back into shape overnight, either.
It’s a process, and the Steelers took a decided step along the way in that process with a victory that got their record to 2-2-1 on the season. That record is significant mostly because it’s not 1-3-1, because the argument made last week after the loss to the Ravens that there still was a lot of football left to be played in this regular season is just as true after this victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
What is telling about yesterday afternoon is a lesson the Steelers hopefully learned from the way in which their game against the Falcons unfolded, because it may have revealed the manner in which they need to proceed to dig themselves fully out of the hole in which they placed themselves during the opening quarter of this regular season. And maybe they develop an identity in the process.
There are many different ways for a team to post a victory in an NFL regular season game, because accomplishing that is only about being better than the particular opponent on a specific weekend. But over the course of a season patterns can emerge, tendencies that come to serve as predictors of the outcome of games for a team over the four-plus months of an NFL season.
Following the fifth game of this Steelers season, I would offer their predictors as being an effective running game on offense, and pressure on the opposing quarterback from their defense.
It’s definitely not avant-garde reasoning to list an effective running game and consistent pressure on the passer as key ingredients to winning games in the NFL, but for these Steelers it is bordering on a requirement. Let’s start with their first five games of this season: in the three games they didn’t lose, the Steelers had 368 yards rushing and 13 sacks; and in their two losses, they had 52 yards rushing and three sacks.
For this team this season, the ability to run the ball puts its offense in a position to get Antonio Brown untracked in the passing game; it’s a help in converting third downs, which in turn leads to respectability in time of possession; and those things combine to prevent the kind of slow starts and early deficits that plagued the team vs. Kansas City and Baltimore.
Getting pressure on the passer limits the exposure of a secondary that’s relatively young and inexperienced, a group lacking a three-down linebacker and still growing into the concept of hybrid safeties being used to plug that hole. And it also seems significant for the Steelers to realize that attaining pressure on the passer is an end that justifies the means. Send as many defenders as necessary, but get it done so the quarterback doesn’t have time to hold the ball and survey the field to find the holes in the coverage, because those holes are going to exist.
The Falcons brought a balanced and high-powered offense to Heinz Field, but with Matt Ryan rarely having time in the pocket to ply his craft, the Steelers defense allowed only one 75-yard touchdown drive and forced Atlanta to kick a red zone field goal through the game’s first three quarters. And at that point, the Steelers held a 27-10 lead thanks to an offense that had gotten the ball into the end zone four times because it was running the ball effectively.
On the game-opening 78-yard drive that staked the Steelers to an early lead, 43 of the yards and the touchdown came on running plays. Their next touchdown drive covered 97 yards officially, but with 42 of those coming on penalties against Atlanta, the offense needed to cover only 54. Twenty-five of those 54 came via the run. And so by that point, the Falcons had gotten the idea – the Steelers were going to run the ball, and they were going to have to stop it.
That reality opens up what contemporary football people refer to as run-game alternative, and Conner added 75 yards worth of run-game alternative to the 110 he gained actually toting it, and Antonio Brown was seeing single coverage on the outside, which he and Ben Roethlisberger then beat twice for touchdowns of nine and 47 yards, respectively.
Moving forward, the Steelers should remember what they did against the Falcons yesterday, and how things worked out as a result. With Roethlisberger and Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald, it would be very easy to become infatuated with empty sets and multiple receiver personnel groupings and spreading out the defense, while forgetting about mundane things like handing the ball to Conner and having him follow Rosie Nix to the promised land. And there will come weekends where doing what’s necessary to get to the opposing quarterback will seem too risky or maybe even too predictable.
That doesn’t mean Randy Fichtner should turn Roethlisberger into a mailman, nor should Keith Butler forsake all else in the quest to send one more pass rusher than the offense has blockers. Creativity, sometimes finesse even, will be required to get the job done, but the important thing is that everyone now should realize what the job is.