Following an 8-8 record during the 2012 NFL Season, an 0-4 record during the pre-season and the loss of their first game to the Tennessee Titans, the Pittsburgh Steelers are receiving plenty of critiquing. Some may even go so far as to say the team is being criticized. It isn't the first time that Steelers fans or NFL insiders have picked over a given situation that the Steelers find themselves in, and it surely won't be the last. Expectations have always been high for the Steelers once the team was able to really hold its own in the league beginning in the 1970s. The heat has been turned up and fingers are now being pointed as the 'blame game' begins to resonate loudly.
The Steelers saw potential in their 2013 NFL Draft class, set up shop in Latrobe to put Todd Haley's tweaked offense into effect, and then watched as it all fell apart in 60 minutes of play at Heinz Field last Sunday. Injuries to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, and linebacker Larry Foote were only the beginning of what would end up being a six-man injury list and the end of the season for the three players previously mentioned. Stephens-Howling saw playing time with Isaac Redman because rookie running back Le'Veon Bell hasn't healed from a foot sprain sustained during training camp. Bell did not practice on Thursday or Friday this week, and he may miss yet another game when the Steelers face the Bengals in Cincinnati on Monday night. When Pouncey went down, Kelvin Beachum was required to fill in at center, removing him from a position that was helping keep defenders off of Ben Roethlisberger's back. Beachum struggled and the entire offensive line became a sieve. Without a running game, Roethlisberger was forced to not only pay attention to what defenders were slipping through unblocked, but to find ways to reach receivers as they tried to get open. In essence, the performance against the Titans was almost shocking in how poor it was.
The argument heating up is who is to blame for the offensive disaster. Was it due to personnel or coaching? Is it Todd Haley's offensive playbook or inadequate performance by players? The fingers that seem to be wagging are pointed at both Haley and the players. Even head coach Mike Tomlin isn't out from beneath the magnifying glass.
Whether it was personnel to begin with, personnel is definitely an issue now. The Steelers called Jonathan Dwyer back to the fold to help with the running game on Monday, added Fernando Velasco at center and are praying that Kelvin Beachum will help keep Ben Roethlisberger on his feet and able to control the offense against the Cincinnati Bengals Monday night. Tight end Heath Miller is still limited in practice. The Steelers brought in Shayne Graham to kick for Shaun Suisham (hamstring), yet Suisham participated in practice (limited on Thursday only).
If Todd Haley wasn't feeling the heat before, he certainly is now. Only now, the issue will be whether or not the Steelers player can execute his offensive plays with the men they have available. Haley's response to media on Tuesday;
"Having a week to prepare, understand and figuring out what our strengths and weaknesses are is a big part of what we do."
The bigger question now is whether or not "those variables [that] changed this week with a couple of personnel changes," as Haley referred to them, will equate to an offense that can positively affect the outcome of the game.
A little personal responsibility on the part of the players should be expected as well. While Redman will get another shot on Monday to prove he can run the ball, he'll also have to prove that he can keep that ball in his hands and protected from defenders. Receivers will need to get open so that Roethlisberger can get the ball to them. The offensive line needs to dig deep, even if they are young, and mature to a level that is equivalent to NFL-level expectations. The Steelers can't afford for players to use excuses this week - or this season, for that matter. If they rely on that they may go all the way...through the season unable to win.
Whichever side you may be on, even if it is your own interpretation and not a part of the group on either side (blaming coaching versus blaming players), this argument will only end once the Steelers start performing, stop making mental errors and show that they can score points - not just field a top-level defense.
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