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Pondering two Steelers problems

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Posted Oct. 04, 2011 @ 2:42 a.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Some pressing problems can only be addressed in mere patchwork fashion. I was reminded of this while thinking of Pittsburgh's 17-10 loss at Houston on Sunday.

We all have to make decisions on how we use our resources, and sometimes there are issues that can't be completely addressed at the moment. It's akin to having a hole in the roof but not having the money to fix it. If that's the case, it's time to find a bucket.

With that in mind, it's time to consider the Steelers' problems and the ways of coping with them in the present and the future.

The PFW Spin

With one-quarter of the regular season over, two issues are especially pressing for Pittsburgh to fix — its run defense and pass protection:

RUN DEFENSE

Through four games, the Steelers are allowing 119.5 yards per game on the ground. They allowed just 62.8 rushing yards per regular-season contest in 2010, fewest in the NFL.

Save for limiting Seattle to just 31 yards on 13 carries in Week Two, the Steelers have had no shortage of problems vs. the run. The Ravens rushed for 170 yards on 31 carries. The Colts, not known for their rushing prowess, racked up 97 yards on 24 carries. The Texans gashed Pittsburgh for 180 yards on 35 attempts, with Arian Foster rolling for 155 yards and the eventual game-winning 42-yard TD on 30 carries.

One interesting note: The Ravens, Colts and Texans all employ zone-stretch running schemes to some degree. Pittsburgh plays Baltimore again later in the season, so how it fares in the rematch vs. Baltimore bears watching.

Injuries are a concern for Pittsburgh's D-line. DE Brett Keisel (knee) missed Week Three, and DE Aaron Smith suffered a foot injury. Also, ROLB James Harrison missed some of the game with an eye injury.

Short-term fixes: The Steelers have been so strong vs. the run for so long and have a good deal of blue-chip defensive talent, so this could be a blip on the radar screen. But it's clear they're going to have to go to school on some of their issues. For instance, SS Troy Polamalu didn't play especially well at times in Week Four, missing several tackles, including a diving attempt on Foster's TD run. What's more, LOLB LaMarr Woodley overran the play, giving Foster all the cut-back room he needed on a well-blocked play. When Polamalu and Woodley missed the tackles, it was all over.

Also, the injuries to Keisel and Smith mean that young DEs Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward are going to have to contribute in a major way.

Long-term fixes: Age is a concern all along the defense with eight Week One starters 30 or older. Getting more young talent up front is a priority, but there is only so much a team can do in the salary-cap era. Pittsburgh has prepared for the future, drafting Hood and Heyward with two of its three last first-round picks. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Steelers again looked at defense early in the 2012 draft.

Short of that, there's one other position group they will have to strongly consider upgrading. Which brings us to the other big Pittsburgh concern: 

PASS-PROTECTION WOES

Some might point to Pittsburgh's turnovers (11) or a lack of takeaways (one in 16 quarters!) as major issues of concern. Well, I would be surprised if the Steelers don't improve in these areas. Seven of their turnovers came in one game, after all, and their defense has playmakers. I think this problem will sort itself out.

But the Steelers' pass-protection issues? That's another story. QB Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 14 times in four games. He was sacked on one-seventh of Pittsburgh's pass plays (attempts and sacks) on Sunday. The Texans' pass rush can be formidable, but that's ridiculous. Roethlisberger, who suffered a foot injury in the defeat, was fortunate to have been sacked five times. Only once did I think Roethlisberger may have held on to the ball too long, and even on that particular play — when DE Mario Williams beat ORT Marcus Gilbert and reached Roethlisberger as he rolled left — it was hard to pin the sack fully on Roethlisberger.

We know the story with Roethlisberger: He holds on to the ball as long as it takes to make a play. He can roll away from pressure, and he can flat-out shake off a defender, as he did late in the fourth quarter on a completion to WR Antonio Brown. That's his game.

So, Roethlisberger is going to take some sacks. It happens. Two of Houston's sacks Sunday came vs. Gilbert, a rookie faced with the task of blocking Mario Williams. Gilbert is in the lineup for Willie Colon, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week One. Trai Essex, another reserve, was in the lineup for OLT Jonathan Scott (ankle), who missed Week Four. Essex was beaten for one sack. 

Teams starting reserve linemen can struggle in pass protection. It happens. The issue is that Roethlisberger has found himself under too much pass-rush pressure even when the lineup has been completely intact. Of note: C Maurkice Pouncey, widely regarded as the Steelers' top lineman, struggled Sunday. He was beaten for a sack by Antonio Smith.

So where do the Steelers go from here?

Short-term fixes: The Steelers could look to send out fewer players on pass patterns, with an eye on protecting Roethlisberger better. The majority of the Texans' sacks Sunday came when Pittsburgh had four or more players running routes. Of course, one of the strengths of the Steelers' offense is its ability to spread the field. Roethlisberger is a wonderful passer, and the Steelers have a very good WR corps.

The Steelers could also emphasize the run a little more. They have run on just 39.8 percent of their plays this season. An effective running game, of course, doesn't hurt a play-action passing game, and the Steelers have the elements to be very dangerous in this area.

Long-term fixes: The Steelers have invested in their offensive line in recent years. They re-signed Colon to a five-year deal in late July. Before injuries limited him to just one game in 2010 and '11, he had become a solid right tackle. They exercised a first-round pick on Pouncey in 2010, and he has largely been a standout. They drafted Gilbert in Round Two in April. More help at tackle is needed, however. And the Steelers may have to consider adding at guard, too.

The philosophy of the offense figures to be a hot-button issue going forward, too, if Roethlisberger, whose status for Week Five isn't completely clear as of Monday night, continues to take a pounding from the pass rush. The Steelers' offense doesn't lack for explosiveness in the passing game, but is there a way to keep the best of that aspect of the attack while better protecting their franchise quarterback?

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