Labriola On

Labriola on the WRs, 'only one game,' blame

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Maybe it was a one-game thing, just this particular unit’s contribution to what was a disappointing sub-par performance on a Sunday night in Foxborough. If it is a one-week thing, it quickly will be forgotten. If it’s not and it lingers, or if it becomes a recurring inadequacy, it could ruin their whole season.

• The most pressing issue regarding the Steelers passing game in the recent past has been whether they’ve been depending on it too much at the expense of their running game. Heading into Sunday’s home opener vs. Seattle, that’s still somewhat of a talking point among fans, but there was something more significant that surfaced on the floor of Gillette Stadium.

• Ben Roethlisberger attempted 47 passes, which largely reflected the size of the Steelers’ deficit throughout the second half, and he completed 27, and it was the distribution of those 27 completions that hinted at a potential weakness if it turns out to be more than a one-week thing.

• There were a bunch of completions in the underneath area, which showed the Steelers were able to work that part of the field successfully. There also were some shots taken down the field, and even though the only completion was for 45 yards to James Washington, Roethlisberger had Johnny Holton open on at least one other occasion, open enough to draw an uncalled pass interference penalty from the New England defensive back. But as Roethlisberger explained it, “I let it fly. Obviously, I didn’t let it go far enough. I think if I would have thrown it a little farther, he could have run under it and we could have had a big play on that first drive.” Those routes showed the receivers capable of winning in those types of matchups.

• But it was the in-between area, the intermediate area, where the Steelers weren’t as productive as they needed to be, weren’t as productive as they have been in previous seasons. The Patriots deserve some credit for that because of their coverage, but the Steelers receivers are going to have to do a better job of creating some space between them and the defenders in that area of the field.

• Roethlisberger laid a lot of the offense’s failure at his own feet by saying he needs to put the ball in better places to enable the receivers to make more plays, but there’s only so much ball placement can do. The weapons in the Steelers’ passing game need to be more diversified than routes in the underneath areas and then straight go-routes. That stuff won’t cut it over the course of a 16-game regular season, because defenses will adapt and do things to take away those areas of the field.

• When watching the game on Sunday vs. the Seahawks, keep an eye on how many times Roethlisberger completes passes to his wide receivers between 15-and-25 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s where receivers earn their keep in the NFL, and where passing attacks must thrive in order to be part of an offense capable of contending for a championship.

• If your favorite team opened its season in a less-than–successful way, you’ve probably been inundated with “it’s only one game” explanations. Maybe that comes across as an excuse, but in today’s NFL it’s actually the truth and it doesn’t require going back in time more than one year to find examples to support the contention.

• Here are some examples from 2018 to remind everyone not to overreact to Week 1 results. The most shocking opener of 2018 was Tampa Bay winning in New Orleans, 48-40, but the Saints ended up in the NFC Championship Game while the Buccaneers ended up in last place in the NFC South. The Bengals beat the Colts, 34-23, but the Colts won a playoff game and the Bengals ended up in last place in the AFC North. The Panthers beat the Cowboys, 16-8, but Dallas won a playoff game and Carolina finished 7-9. Green Bay beat Chicago, 24-23, but the Bears ran away from the field in the NFC North, and the Packers fired Coach Mike McCarthy. And the Broncos defeated the Seahawks, but Seattle finished 10-6 while Denver won only five more games to finish 6-10.

• It’s an argument that’s almost as old as the sport itself, and it involves where blame should be placed when things don’t go right. Is it the coach’s fault? Or does the responsibility rest with the players for their inability to execute whatever it was the coach was asking them to do?

• Most current players and the ex-players who have carved careers for themselves in the media typically fall on the side of execution, but fans seem to believe it’s all about the coach’s call, and that anything and everything can and should be fixed and improved by better coaching and better play-calls.

• It can be interesting to apply this debate to the Steelers’ three failures in short yardage during the second quarter during which New England was able to double its lead from 10-0 to 20-0 and effectively take total control of the game.

• On the first of those three failures – a third-and-1 from their own 30-yard line – came on the possession after a 25-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski had given New England a 10-0 lead. The play-call was a power running play, and James Conner was stuffed for no gain. On the next third-and-1 – from the Steelers 44-yard line on the series following a Patriots’ three-and-out – the play-call was a cut-back pitch, where the ball is tossed to Conner who starts to run wide and then cuts back into the center of the line, but that one was blown up immediately by penetration and lost 4 yards. The next situation was a fourth-and-1 – from the New England 47-yard line on the series after a Tom Brady touchdown pass had increased the deficit to 17-0 – and this time it was a pass to Donte Moncrief that was dropped.

• If offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called the same power running play all three times, and it failed three times, is that simple stubbornness or poor execution? Because he changed the play each time the previous one failed, is that an example of poor decisions or does he deserve credit for trying to find something that worked?

• When Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about those short-yardage failures, he said, “I didn’t think our plan was good enough, and I didn’t think the execution of the plan was good enough. I don’t know how to be any more black-and-white than that. We had five wide receivers on the field in (the third) instance, and they stayed in their nickel defense, so we knew they would be in zone (coverage). We ran a nice zone concept, and we dropped the ball. Is it a good plan? Only if it works. If you don’t catch the football, it’s a bad plan, for example. So collectively, we own that performance, particularly in the short-yardage area.”

• When Ben Roethlisberger was asked about those short-yardage failures, he said, “Well, Coach Randy said that the first third-and-1 we tried to run it and didn’t get it … he said that frustrated him and maybe shied him away from doing it the next couple of times. When it comes down to it, we need to execute. Whether it is third-and-long, or third-and-short, we just all need to be better.”

• Good thing there is plenty of season left to get better, because there seem to be a lot of areas that need it.

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