By: Bill Washinski
The Pittsburgh Steelers season is hardly over. They are still strongly sitting at 11-2 and a Monday Night Football win from clinching the AFC North Division Championship. They have been crushed by a lot of injuries in a short period of time (which was largely a result of a schedule disruption) and a resulting two-game losing streak. However, to deal with the injuries and right the ship, there are some tweaks they can implement that could help them get back on track with three games left.
Small Shake up to Front Seven
After viewing film, Alex Highsmith is not going to fill the role of Bud Dupree in the pass rush this year. While I do not propose fully taking him off the field or giving up on him, when the Steelers go with a four-man front (something they do often), I would lean towards utilizing Tyson Alualu to play with TJ Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward.
- Alualu can play both DE/DT, but he’s not going to replace Dupree either. This is primarily focused to utilize in this front, as the edge rusher has been a DE in responsibilities.
- In the last two games, playing 60 fewer snaps, Alualu has more sacks, QB pressures, and total tackles, so he has played better.
- Alualu has only played 50% or more snaps in three games all season, which can be attributed to his role as the NT when the Steelers go into the base 3-4 and primarily to play vs. the run.
- The strategy would be to enable Heyward or Tuitt to line up as the edge rusher. This could mix up blocking schemes and prevent teams from utilizing the same strategy towards double teams like the Buffalo Bills did.
- Highsmith can be moved around as well, enabling him to fill in the middle zone and help out other LBs until Robert Spillane returns in playoffs as well as being a threat to blitz from a variety of positions on the field.
Very key about this is due to the injuries on defense, most notably to Robert Spillane and Joe Haden, as well as the absence of Vince Williams. When the secondary has Haden back, I think it would be huge to feature Mike Hilton on the corner blitz again. Until Williams and Spillane can get back in the line up, a little bit of a different look might not be a bad idea.
Derek Watt for Starters
Point blank: Get Derek Watt on the field as fullback and let him lead block. Our running backs aren’t superstars, but they also have zero chance to step up, so give them some help. I can already hear Arthur Moats preach about timing since Watt hasn’t practiced and I’m preemptively going to say zip it bro. I’ve watched enough film and the terrible way our OL/TE have badly blown assignments since the first Baltimore Ravens game and it hasn’t even gotten close to being fixed. I will be releasing a YouTube compilation to illustrate said issues in the running game and it’s ugly, so I will leave it with these two factors:
- Do not run out of a power formation. Goal line or not, run it with two WRs on the field and a 3rd as potential option.
- Do not run a sweep again until September of 2021 when Randy Fichnter and Shaun Sarrett are gone, we cannot execute them.
“Play him at Center”
In 1984, the Portland Trailblazers passed on Michael Jordan ignoring the recommendation of Bobby Knight, stating they needed a center. Knight (who coached Jordan on the U.S. Olympic team) famously replied, “Play him at center!”
Consider the creative ways Bill Cowher used Antwaan Randle-El even with the duo of Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. He sure as fire wasn’t watching the game all day.
The Steelers have a blistering amount of talent, but when it’s on the sideline, it’s not helping us win — so mix it up:
- James Washington sitting on the sideline watching while we have guys dropping the ball like he has is criminal. Get him on the field, especially as a deep threat.
- JuJu Smith-Schuster should line up where ever Ben Roethlisberger sees him in the best fit. Smith-Schuster has been the most reliable and important WR all year.
- Line up Chase Claypool as a de facto TE (he’s certainly big enough) when sharing the field with Washington and Smith-Schuster. He’s probably blocked more than Travis Kelce has all year anyway, so why not?
- Diontae Johnson can line up as a RB (especially with James Conner hurting), pitch him the ball so he can use his speed to hit the outside. Johnson and Claypool both would be threats to use for shovel passes or quick passes vs. mismatches used more like this.
Bottom line, get the best players on the field regardless of their “position.” So I will throw a bonus one out:
- Run Joshua Dobbs from under center on some QB sprints. Give a wrinkle that is not expected. Mason Rudolph is not part of the equation. This is only to give looks and throw the defense off and force them prepare for something else, unless a good old fashion gadget play circa 2005 AFC Wild Card Game is a thought.
Start ’em and Sit ’em
Before Diontae Johnson takes a snap again, both he and Eric Ebron can watch Monday Night Football vs. Cincinnati Bengals from the sidelines. With both the division title and playoff seeding at stake, maybe they can get the message that if you can’t catch the ball, you’re not playing. Hey, it worked when Mike Tomlin sat Santonio Holmes vs. the New York Giants in 2008. It potentially cost them that game, but it worked to get his attention as Holmes was the offensive catalyst of the Super Bowl XLIII run.
In a similar fashion, I would shift focus to the offense around a no-huddle. Let Ben-call-it-style. Roethlisberger is at his best up-tempo. In the same way the players aren’t getting it done, I want to take responsibility from the coaches who aren’t either.
Tomlin: Take a Stand
Tomlin needs to get everything under control now. The team has veterans, but a lot of young guys and they are going through a confidence problem (injuries are a big part). First, nothing else matters but the Bengals. If I am Mike Tomlin, I am not giving any nice speeches this week outside to the media, I’m not rationalizing anything. I’m making sure the directive is done. Clinch the damn division. Period.
If it were and my team, I would consult my veterans: Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward — in a private meeting to get their buy-in. Because nothing exists outside the Bengals, and losing is not an option, there is also no Division Championship celebration, I don’t wanna see a single t-shirt or hat.
To everyone else, you’re all in or you’re out because I have guys in this room who recognize the chance they have. If you think you won something, don’t kid yourself, becasuse you haven’t. Sell ’em on the real vision, bring in the old legends. Make sure it’s known, we can’t afford to lose a game or else everything we worked all year for is lost.
From there, the goal (though I would never say it publicly) is to secure the highest possible seed that can enable them to let veterans sit Week 17 out and prepare for the playoffs. The #1 seed is lost. Most important is to go into the playoffs with as much momentum as possible but healthy as possible.