The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got their first win of the season over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-24. Mike Glennon led his team on a late rally and found Vincent Jackson in the end zone in the final seconds of the game. As much as the Buccaneers played well, it felt more like Pittsburgh lost the game rather than the Buccaneers won it. Penalties and mistakes loomed large as the Pittsburgh offense moved the ball at will but could not get any keep stops on defense. Inconsistency has plagued Pittsburgh, not just this season but also the last few. Losing to Tampa after getting what seemed like a big win the week before in Carolina just highlighted that.
A big reason for the loss to Tampa Bay was the Steelers defense and their inability to get big stops when they needed them most, especially on the last and game deciding drive. Part of this is because of injuries and part of it can be attributed to the fact that their defense was not all that impressive before they got ravaged with injuries in the win over Carolina. During that win over the Panthers, Pittsburgh lost their best corner back, Ike Taylor, and two of their four starting linebackers, Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones.
In the passing game, the Steelers’ defense was always going to struggle whether or not they lost Taylor to injury for a big chunk of the season. The secondary has been very susceptible to big passing plays in recent years because of their lack of depth and increasing age. Taylor and longtime safety Troy Polamalu are both in the waning years of their respective careers and have lost a lot of their range when it comes to deep coverage. Mike Mitchell was brought in at safety to try to help improve the group, but his skills are much more tailored to defending the run than being a rangy free safety that can cover the back-end.
The same statement can be made about the line backing core that could be made about Mike Mitchell; they are much more skilled covering the run than they are covering the pass. Shazier was brought in to help exactly that because he has great speed for a middle linebacker and can hopefully become great in coverage. The 2014 first round pick has shown flashes of his coverage ability, but missing time through a knee injury will not speed up his development.
An aspect of defense that usually helps the secondary greatly is the pass rush, and the loss of Jarvis Jones does not help. After a mediocre rookie year he was looking like he was coming into his own as a pass rusher in the first three games this season. Luckily, Jason Worilds is still available and they have some depth at outside line backer so the Jones injury should be less costly than the Shazier and Taylor injuries.
For years, the Steelers’ defense has been the constant for the team. When the offense struggled, they could always count on them to get big stops. This year, however, it is almost the complete opposite with offense firing on all cylinders, outside of their six-point performance against the Ravens, and the defense is struggling to find their rhythm.
It makes complete sense that this switch has taken place with the playmakers that have developed on the offensive side. Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell have looked like elite players at their positions early on and Ben Roethlisberger can always be relied upon. The problem is there are very few playmakers like those guys on the other side of the ball, making it difficult for the 2014 defense to live up to famous Pittsburgh defenses of the past.
Improving the Steelers in the short term will be a difficult task for head coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert because of how little cap room they have over the next few years. This team has done a very poor job recently of being able to move on from players they have previously shown loyalty to. This summer they started doing that with the releases of Lamar Woodley and Ryan Clark, but they still did not do enough. Some tough decisions will likely have to be made over the course of this year and the coming years if this team wants to stay competitive.
With a 2-2 start to the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have continued to show the same sort of inconsistency that have shown in the last two seasons. A big win over Carolina was followed by a home loss to Tampa Bay. That is something that cannot happen to teams that want to remain in the playoffs year in and year out. Improvements need to be made to the defense in upcoming off seasons, but in the short-term, it looks like this is what Pittsburgh will be; a mediocre team who will be able to score but will be unlikely to keep other teams from scoring, especially in the deep passing game.
Commentary By Max Petkevicius