LATROBE, Pa. – How does an offense that produces a 4,000-yard quarterback, two 1,000-yard wide receivers and a 1,000-yard running back be part of a team that finishes 9-7 and fails to make the playoffs?
By finishing tied for 21st in the NFL in red zone percentage.
The red zone is a designation for the area from the 20-yard line to the goal line, and it's given its own name because it is a very critical piece of real estate inside every NFL stadium. Teams that settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after penetrating the red zone often find themselves on the short end of the final score, and that's what happened too often to the Steelers in 2009.
The Steelers red zone percentage last season was 48.2, which came from the offense scoring 27 touchdowns in 56 trips. By contrast, Arizona led the NFL at 70.4 percent, while the two Super Bowl contestants – Indianapolis and New Orleans – checked in at 66.0 and 57.7 percent, respectively.
"That's situational football, and we want to emphasize the point swing in that area, not only offensively but defensively as well. So we walked the ball down the field from different locations – 15-yard line, 10-yard line and inside the 10-yard line – and work on different elements of our game," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "A lot of those plays are third-down plays where it's a difference of four points, depending upon whether you're effective offensively or defensively."
The Steelers spent an entire period of Tuesday's afternoon practice working on the red zone, and both Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich looked sharp in the drill.
Roethlisberger completed 3-of-5, with touchdowns to Heath Miller and Mike Wallace. Leftwich was 5-for-5, with touchdowns to Arnaz Battle, Brandon London and David Johnson. The pass to Battle was particularly nice, as it came on a fade-stop route with the receiver going down to make a nice catch on the ball just inches from the turf.
Dennis Dixon was the other quarterback to participate in the drill, and he completed 3-of-5, with a touchdown to Rashard Mendenhall.
The other highlight of the practice was the work Daniel Sepulveda did on kickoffs. This was the second time at camp where Sepulveda has impressed with his ability on kickoffs, and Tomlin said he will get work at it in the Saturday game against the Giants.
"I was very impressed with him, not only with distance, but also with ball placement and hang-time," said Tomlin. "He's got a skill-set that lends itself to potentially helping us in that area. We were prepared to explore it last year, but we put the brakes on it because he was coming off a knee injury and we didn't know how that double-duty would wear on him over the course of an entire football season. He's a viable candidate in that area, at least to share the duties with Jeff (Reed)."
It also was apparent throughout practice that the defensive players were intent on working to strip the ball from their offensive counterparts at every opportunity. They weren't successful, but they were persistent.
"They're teammates. They realize that's an area in which we need to improve, so they're trying to help the backs with that," said Tomlin about the issue of ball security. "At the same time, it makes them better. No instructions, they're just professionals who realize that's appropriate considering what happened last time we played."
INJURY UPDATE: Said Tomlin, "The injury list, and the nagging injury list is getting shorter. We're getting guys back. Jonathan Dwyer is still day-to-day with his shoulder injury. Steve McLendon is recovering from the procedure on his knee, and Chris Scott, of course, is still coming back from his broken foot. We're starting to get full participation from Jason Worilds and others, and I'm looking forward to watching them play this weekend in New York."