The Steelers have played much worse on offense, with much better talent available and vs worse competition. The difference is: this wasn’t a letdown, it was just a case of fear + lack of talent to be flexible on offense. The fear, however, wasn’t on the part of the rookie undrafted/unsigned QB making his 4th start, it was on a coaching staff who was so utterly afraid of their QB losing the game that they put him in a position to lose the game because of his lack of experience and failed to provide him easier opportunities and guidance.
— Chad Tyson (@chadtyson) December 16, 2019
People will point to the playcalling heavily unbalanced towards the run, but the ratio was 11 runs and 11 passes at the half. The Steelers opened the 2nd half with 2 runs and 5 passes, capped with a Conner TD reception. There were only two drives after that where the Steelers might have run more: one with the lead and three failed pas attempts and one in a tie that began with a 5-yard pass gain on 1st down, and then followed with two sacks. Additionally, the run game was up and down–inconsistent at best, although those results weren’t helped by the abrupt and completely unnecessary switch to wildcat formations. James Conner was on a pitch count, Bennie Snell was 100% ineffective, Jaylen Samuels was playing hurt and missing open space, and Kerrith Whyte isn’t allowed to touch the ball more than a couple of times per game.
Added to that, the Bills were determined to challenge Duck Hodges to beat them. They often had 8 or 9 in the box and took away the interior run game, forcing runners into strung out bounces to the outside that went for little gain.
Running the ball more into the teeth of the defense might have lessened the risks of Duck Hodges throwing the football into traffic and kept the game closer, but it wasn’t helping turn over the chains and convert 1st downs. The run game simply wasn’t consistent enough without competent blocking TEs, a FB, or James Conner at 100% health.
So, what needed to happen that didn’t? You want to get guys out of the box, there are generally 5 things you can do, only one of which Randy Fitchner and co tried to do:1. throw quick passes to the TE, which forces LBs and Ss to hesitate in run defense2. Play-action pass. Of course, that’s illegal3. screen passes. Tried a telegraphed one that was blown up but rarely tried this year–– and never a double screen or middle screen. And somehow Johnny Holton caught two short balls for negative yardage.4. spread the field. Spreading the field makes the QB reads easier, makes blitzing harder, opens up run game5c. throw deep with effect.
The Steelers first attempt at the deep ball to ‘loosen them up’ was double covered and Duck’s INT appeared to be intended to be a throwaway or “my guy or nobody” throw, but he held it too long and the Bills pass rush got there as he was letting go and the ball was short-armed right into Tre’Davious White’s hands.
Thankfully, that didn’t dissuade them from trying more deep throws (something that has been pretty successful for Hodges), because they hit a few that resulted in scores. But not attempting all of the other things reflects the preparation of Hodges being slowed down and made bite-sized. I’m guessing his playbook is wafer-thin and you can see it in the lack of presnap motion and window dressing/ball-handling. You can also see the staff’s lack of confidence in Duck’s ability to read defenses in the near total lack of throws in the intermediate and deep part of the field.
The staff was saying (and I’m sure they feel vindicated in this belief) that Duck was not ready to beat this defense. He was not prepared enough nor developed enough to do more than what he did. They seemed satisfied to not have a FB on the roster and to believe that this OL lives up to its press clippings in run blocking. Both decisions really hurt in this game.
As for Duck, although he shows a lot of ‘it’ and didn’t play scared, he was not up to the challenge of going beyond that to the next level of QB play: making that one big play in crunch time that put them over the top, especially in a playoff-type atmosphere. The throw to Washington on the final drive was fantastic but finishing out games and making plays to lead comebacks where you need a TD late separates the men from the boys, so to speak. However, I’d rather have a guy who goes down swinging than one who takes a sack throws it away at the end of the game or, say, dumps it off to his RB on 4th and 29. To me, I can hope his acumen gets more refined and better but if he gives up or goes fetal at the end of the game, then there’s not much hope for a recovery. How he recovers from this––coming right back to face a team whose run defense is excellent and will again challenge Hodges to throw the ball––will tell us whether he can potentially be the backup going forward. If he can bounce back and be good enough to win the games he’s supposed to while Ben is out, that has to be good enough. If he looks like his confidence is shot, holds the ball, gets goofy-footed, then other options for backup QB have to be secured for 2020 and beyond.
The Bills OC, Rick Dennison, called a spectacular game. He was unpredictable on early down in the first part of the game, utilized several different looks in Red Zone, forcing the Steelers to adjust from play to play and making them have to defend a nearly indefensible read-option with n excellent running QB. He stuck with the run against a good run defense, with Singletary impressing with a slippery running style that made extra yards out pof every opportunity. I literally complained out loud that the Steelers were trying so hard to strip the ball from Singeltary that they were giving up extra yards… and the words had barely escaped my lips when 2019 DPOY T.J. Watt stripped the ball and created a huge turnover on a drive where the Bills were rolling.
Dennison managed the middle portion of the game with the lead, and once they got behind, he went to deep shots he’d been saving that won them the game. On the game-winning score, he used formation to get the Steelers in their most vulnerable coverage position: weakside cover 2/banjo with their two weakest coverage defenders, Mark Barron and Terrell Edmunds. It’s easy to blame this one on Edmunds, but it’s really Barron’s fault this play was as easy as it was. The coverage call wasn’t ideal but Barron’s job is to carry the first receiver who goes outside his leverage. He either has to funnel that receiver to the inside or stay on the outside receiver until he knows the safety takes the coverage handoff. Even if Barron simply continues the coverage another second, he probably dissuades the throw and forces Allen to look to his next read. Sad to say: this is not the first time Barron or other hook/flat defenders have made this same coverage mistake (see Jon Bostic vs Chargers last year). As I have often said: Barron is outstanding at defending the RB out of the backfield––he showed this earlier in the game on an excellent stop for no gain. He’s lost in space, though, and is easily distracted by stuff that’s not his job. And that’s when he’s engaged and hustling, which isn’t always. Like a lot of ILB and SS types, he’s great going downhill with purpose, but can’t play backwards and isn’t quick enough in his reads to do more. I once again take this opportunity to lament not plugging in LJ Fort when Shazier went down, and then pushing to re-sign him this offseason instead of treating Fort like a leper and pushing him out the door. One can only hope that Ulysses Gilbert makes a big year 2 move and challenges for Barron’s role. Barron should and likely will be a cap casualty and an upgradable starter.
Joe Haden’s terrific effort in this game, both in coverage and open field support was wasted in the loss. If only he hadn’t hesitated for half a beat on the first pass of the game, he might have had an easy interception that could totally have changed the narrative of the night. He who hesitates lost the game, in this case.
Other than that, Cam Heyward played a whale of a game and Tyson Alualu shined, as well. Their efforts were lost in the wash, though, and the DL were pushed around some for large parts of the game. The edge rushers were more or less taken out of the game because their focus seemed to be on containing Allen’s running at all costs (with good reason). There was also an unbelievable number of Anthony Chickillo snaps, which totally defied logic. I get trying to keep edge guys fresh so that they don’t get in a position where their tired and trying to chase Allen, but any snap with Chickillo is a wasted rush opportunity. Don’t we have this guy 92 who has shown something as an edge defender? Why is he relegated to Special teams and playing not only behind Chickillo but not even getting a single defensive snap?
Also of concern is the near invisibility of Minkah Fitzpatrick in the past several weeks. I get that teams are avoiding him
Bottom line: we got sucked into this team because they were unexpectedly winning and their rookie QB with some semblance of poise had helped them win 4 games. But the reality is: they’re capable of winning each week or losing each week. Never been truer for a Steelers team. However, it’s a week-to-week league, so who knows what the rest of the season holds. It’s easy to overlook their warts when they win and easy to pick them apart after a loss. We’ll have to wait to judge them once their season is over.
Luckily, the chances of their season lasting longer than another two weeks aren’t bad. Unless the Ravens lose at Cleveland, Baltimore will be trying half-heartedly to win in week 17, without some of their best players. The Jets are a mess on offense and are unlikely to even put up the 17 the Bills did. Tennesse has NO and HOU at HOU left. And no matter how we judge this team or its coaches, a playoff appearance this year, considering the circumstances… this would have to be termed a success and a good start on next year’s run for 7.