MIRZA ZUKIC: Steelers' success rests on defense
August 20, 2013 10:50 AM
by MIRZA ZUKIC

The pressure is slowly mounting on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense.

With every snap the first offensive unit takes this preseason, it’s likely that 2013 will likely be a long and frustrating season for the offense.

And that means it will be up the defensive unit to shoulder the load and keep the Steelers’ competitive.

Sure, it’s just the preseason, and the Steelers played only the second of their four preseason games Monday. But no matter how you spin it, it’s hard to deny the Steelers’ offense is a long way from reaching its potential after the showing in Monday’s 24-13 loss to Washington.

The Steelers’ top offensive unit, with Ben Roethlisberger behind center, was on the field for the first four possessions, and there was little to feel good about.

In their first four drives, the Steelers gained 108 yards, with 90 coming on the eight-play possession that bridged the end of the first and start of the second quarter.

Even though the Steelers scored on that possession — a 28-yard field goal from Shaun Suisham — coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t happy with it. Pittsburgh gave back 30 yards with three penalties, and the drive stalled in the red zone.

The Steelers’ red-zone struggles date to last season, and it’s an area of concern for Tomlin halfway through the preseason.

“It says we are not playing with enough detail to win in situational football, to win when the field gets short,” the Steelers’ seventh-year coach said. “When you are not scoring touchdowns, when you are moving the ball and when you are possessing the ball, but you are not getting on the scoreboard, we are lacking the detail that is going to be required to finish drives, to finish games.”

It’s a small sample to work with, but in the first two games, the Steelers are 1-for-4 in red zone efficiency, and the first unit is 0-for-2.

Furthermore, the running game has remained dormant and predictable, and the offensive line has played poorly while trying to jell.

Overall, the top offensive unit was whistled for four penalties Monday night, gained only four first downs (one by penalty) and failed to reach the end zone in its only trip inside the Redskins’ 20.

And the offensive line takes the cake for the worst performance.

Roethlisberger was sacked once and pressured a handful of other times in his 19 plays.

After Bruce Gradkowski replaced him with about 10 minutes to play in the first half, the rest of the offensive starters remained in the game until halftime, but it didn’t get much better. Gradkowski continued to dodge Redskins defenders in the pocket on just about every play.

Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield tossed Maurkice Pouncey around like a ragdoll and disrupted the Steelers’ offense time and time again.

Promising second-year tight end David Paulson had a tough night trying to contain the outside pressure, and Mike Adams showed he is still adjusting to the move to left tackle. He was called for two drive-killing penalties and has been flagged three times in two preseason games.

Of course, there are other things to consider:

• The Steelers have a new offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr., and his unit is still very much trying to get comfortable with his zone blocking scheme.

“The outside zone is one of those things that it can be dangerous for a defense to defend if we block it well,” left guard Ramon Foster said, implicitly admitting the offensive line has struggled.

• We have barely seen Le’Veon Bell because of various injuries, but if he can stay healthy and establish himself as a every-down running back, that would add a much-needed spark.

• And the Steelers are still without Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller, whose underappreciated blocking skills are sorely missed.

Factors in the Steelers favor are that Roethlisberger is the healthiest he’s been in a long time, and that receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders appear to be in midseason form.

But if Roethlisberger doesn’t have time to get the ball to Brown and Sanders, and the running backs can’t get out of the backfield, well … you get the drift.

With all those uncertainties on the offensive side, the pressure will grow on the defense to keep games close.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Steelers have finished with the top overall defense in the NFL the past two seasons, and several key pieces of those groups returned to Pittsburgh this season.

That could be good enough for the Steelers to have a winning season or even contend for the playoffs.

It’s been done before. Case in point: the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and 2006 Chicago Bears. The 2000 Ravens didn’t score a touchdown in five straight games at one point during the regular season and still won the Super Bowl.

So if the offense does struggle this year, that doesn’t mean the season is lost. It will just put more pressure on the defense.

You better like low-scoring defensive football, Steeler Nation. That’s what you’re in for this year.

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