The Steelers defense is doing what the red zone offense is not. Improving weekly. Making plays in critical situations, and seeing those plays made by a variety of individuals. Taking over games for long stretches. Being the reason the team wins.
That wasn't a problem yesterday at Heinz Field during what ended up being a 29-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, but believing it won't be one as these Steelers continue to chase what always has been most important to this franchise, well, that's just being naïve.
The red zone offense wasn't an insurmountable problem against the Bengals, because so many other elements of the team's overall performance refused to let it be. But 1-for-6 in the red zone, and maybe worse than that was going 1-for-3 in goal-to-go situations, cannot be described kindly, especially so when a team can trot out an embarrassment of playmakers in the way the Steelers can.
Even so, it wasn't a killer this time primarily because of a defense that after allowing touchdown drives on two of the Bengals' first three offensive possessions then clamped down and took control of an opponent in a way not seen on that patch of real estate since JuJu Smith-Schuster actually was playing the children's game he incorporated into his touchdown celebration.
Back in those days, the Steelers were doing it with defense, and if this version is not yet as accomplished as were those of nearly a decade ago, it has been a downright pain in the butt to every opposing offense on the team's schedule so far. Points allowed is always a significant measuring stick for a defense, and in that department the Steelers came into this game against the Bengals ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game, and in only one of their first seven did they allow the opposing offense to cross their goal line more than twice.
The Bengals are one of the teams that managed to cross the goal line twice, and as already mentioned, they did it on two of their first three possessions yesterday. But after that they ran more than three plays on only two of their final eight possessions and scored no more points. The Steelers sacked Andy Dalton four times and intercepted him twice – both times by cornerbacks, no less – and of the 71 yards rushing they allowed, 25 of it came on one play by Joe Mixon. In the three games coordinated by Bill Lazor, who replaced the fired Ken Zampese, A.J. Green had 22 catches for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Against the Steelers, Green managed three catches for 41 yards and no touchdowns.
And the statistics weren't as impressive as what the Steelers defense did when viewed within the context of the game.
Their 20-14 halftime lead was protected initially by a three-and-out on the first series of the second half; a potential emotional letdown resulting from settling for a field goal after failing to convert a third-and-1 from the Bengals 19-yard line was avoided when Joe Haden intercepted a Dalton pass for Green two plays into Cincinnati's second possession of the second half.
What followed was the settling for another field goal and another potential letdown as a result, but then on the Bengals' next possession, a Will Gay interception ended it before it could cross midfield. The Steelers turned the ball over on downs, but then a sack by T.J. Watt sealed a three-and-out for the Bengals. The Steelers then went three-and-out, but after a 19-yard punt return put the Cincinnati offense at the Steelers' 45-yard line to start, two sacks on the next three plays got it right back after the Bengals had to punt.
In short, there was no challenge or situation during the second half of the victory over the Bengals that the Steelers defense did not meet and deal with successfully. The direct opposite happens to be true when looking at their red zone offense.
The Steelers came into the game having converted 50 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns (10-for-20), which ranked them tied-for-16th in the NFL. Mediocre. But after the 1-for-6 against the Bengals, that percentage dropped to 42.3 percent, which can be expected to put them close to last, once the statistics from the other Sunday games all are tabulated.
The fans' focus will be to assign blame, while the team's focus must be to fix things, or at least to come up with some alternatives to the dual issues of execution and play-calling. First it seemed as though there was too much of a reliance on throwing the ball in that area of the field, and more recently is seems as though there has been too much of an effort placed on running it down there.
Those perceptions likely trace back to the simple fact that what's being tried isn't working, and when what's being tried isn't working the way out of the slump could be to become even more basic in an effort to hone in on the execution of what's being called, rather than make drastic changes designed to win the day by fooling the opponent.
Against the Bengals, the personnel grouping that seemed to be having consistent success had Le'Veon Bell in the backfield along with fullback Rosie Nix, but that changed once the offense closed in on the goal line. Maybe the emphasis should shift away from attacking an opponent's perceived weakness and shift more toward what's working best for the offense at a particular point in time, but right now that deserves to be viewed as what it is: a suggestion, not a solution.
Midway through the preseason, Mike Tomlin predicted the 2017 Steelers would be a team in development even through the early stages of the regular season, and today his assessment looks to be right on the money.
The defense has developed, and now it's time for the red zone offense to follow suit.