MIRZA ZUKIC: Steelers have plenty of problems
December 22, 2013 2:00 AM

Aaron Rodgers will miss his seventh straight game for the Green Bay Packers today. Considering he was hurt on the opening drive of their game against Chicago in Week 9 — seven plays into the game — it wouldn’t be unfair to say he’s really missed Green Bay’s past eight games.

Now look at the standings.

Even without their franchise quarterback for half the season, the Packers have a better record than Pittsburgh heading into their date today at Lambeau Field. Come to think of it, even if the Steelers beat the Packers today, at 7-8 they would still be behind the Packers, who would drop to 7-7-1.

And the Steelers are the ones who have had a healthy quarterback all season. Ben Roethlisberger has managed to start all 14 games and stay unscathed despite no consistency along the offensive line. If he plays in all 16 games, it’ll be only the second time he’s done that in his career.

Yet, the Packers have found a way to stack more wins than the Steelers despite playing half the season with quarterbacks you’ve never heard of.

I remember writing early this season that as long as Roethlisberger could stay healthy, the Steelers would be competitive. I think I was right and wrong.

The Steelers are 6-8, and only three of their eight losses have come by more than a touchdown. I guess they’ve been competitive. But that’s not what I had in mind.

It’s clear the Steelers’ problems are much deeper than keeping Roethlisberger healthy. They are just a mediocre team — nothing more, nothing less.

Being competitive makes the Steelers better than the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Houston Texans. But competitive isn’t the same as winning football or championship football. That’s the only thing that matters in Pittsburgh.

Just three seasons removed from their last trip to the Super Bowl, the Steelers are well off the championship track, and there are several problem areas to address this offseason.

Although the red-zone offense has improved markedly over the past four games, it’s been one of the Steelers’ biggest weaknesses. On the season, the Steelers are 22-for-44, an even 50 percent, in red-zone efficiency, and that’s after a recent hot stretch.

Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on all three of its red-zone possessions in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, went 2-for-2 in the red zone against Miami in the snowstorm two weeks ago and then scored on the first two red-zone possessions against Cincinnati last week, giving the Steelers seven straight red-zone conversions.

But their 50 percent red-zone conversion rate still leaves the Steelers in the bottom half of the league. More importantly, it cost them at least one game throughout the season, like maybe in Oakland.

Sure, it’s easy to blame Shaun Suisham for that loss because he missed two field goals. On the other hand, one more touchdown and one more red-zone conversion probably win that game for the Steelers.

Sticking with the offense, even though rookie running back Le’Veon Bell has given Steelers fans reason to believe a bright future is ahead, the fact remains that Pittsburgh is ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing. The Steelers had limited success running the ball in a handful of games, but the overall body of their work wasn’t a good one.

Certainly, some of the red-zone struggles can be pinned on the unsuccessful ground game. Far too many times this season, the Steelers passed the ball in goal-to-go situations because of an ineffective rushing attack.

Defensively, this has been one of the worst seasons in Pittsburgh in a while.

The Steelers lead the league in the number of plays given up of 50-plus yards. They’ve given up 100-yard rushing games with regularity, and for the second straight season, they’ve struggled to force turnovers. The lack of turnovers, more than anything, has taken its toll on an offense that could use some help.

Ryan Clark admitted just a few weeks ago that turnovers are a key ingredient for success, even if players like himself try to downplay it when the turnovers aren’t coming.

Only three teams in the league have forced fewer turnovers than the Steelers, and only five teams have fewer than the two defensive touchdowns the Steelers have managed.

When you don’t have a big-play offense, like the Steelers don’t, your defense is your best friend.

The Steelers’ offense has done an admirable job at limiting its turnovers since a disastrous September. Pittsburgh has three turnovers in six games since its 2-6 start. But when the defense doesn’t help the offense, it puts greater significance on every Steelers turnover and forces the offense to play a perfect game.

The Steelers have been far from perfect, and they have several areas to address during the offseason.

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