The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to 0-2 on the 2013 season after losing 20-10 to AFC North rival the Cincinnati Bengals. While Pittsburgh's defense played well enough to win, the blame for the loss falls upon an increasingly familiar culprit.
Yes, the reason the Steelers lost—again—was their offense.
This was the Steelers' eighth straight game with fewer than 100 rushing yards, and their effort against Cincinnati (44 yards on 16 carries) barely bested their anemic Week 1 performance of 32 yards on 15 carries against the Tennessee Titans. They had just three third-down conversions in the entire game.
Turnovers ended two of the most promising Steeler drives of the game. The first came on a fumble by tight David Paulson, which led to a Bengals touchdown. The other was a Ben Roethlisberger interception by Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson that took any remaining air out of the offense's sails.
So, why is this happening? Why have the Steelers seemingly no offense, no way to consistently move the ball down the field and into scoring position? The answers are many, and some of the problems might be unsolvable without significant changes to the roster.
The first is the run game, which the Steelers likely believed was addressed by drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Bell is still sidelined for at least another three or four weeks with a foot injury and may not even be 100 percent healthy once he does take the field.
With Bell out, the Steelers had to turn to Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling. However, Stephens-Howling tore his ACL in the season opener, ending his year. The result was the re-signing of Jonathan Dwyer and the promotion of Redman and Felix Jones.
In two weeks, Redman has gained just 12 yards on 10 carries, including a mere four yards on three runs against Cincinnati. Jones was marginally better in Week 2—he got the start after Redman was shaken up on the opening kickoff—with 10 first-half rushes for 37 yards. However, after Redman returned, Jones got no other touches. Dwyer, too, stayed mostly on the bench, rushing just once for two yards.
Typically, the Steelers would have been able to get by with a minimal run game. However, injuries and offseason personnel decisions have rendered this year's passing game just as unimpressive: Tight end Heath Miller continues to work his way back from last December's major knee injury, with his return date still unknown. Mike Wallace moved on in free agency, too expensive to retain.
What's left is a group of receivers who cannot maximize coordinator Todd Haley's vision of a short-passing, ball-control offense. To pass short well, there needs to be a true deep threat who can stretch the field and draw coverage away from underneath routes.
That's what Wallace did best in this system last year, but his replacements, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, are simply not as scary to defenders. Nothing is open short, and Roethlisberger keeps having to force throws to make plays.
Roethlisberger completed 20 of his 37 passes against the Bengals for 251 yards and a one-yard touchdown to receiver Derek Moye. He was sacked twice and hit six more times, and he threw an interception. An inability to run has made the Steelers one-dimensional and predictable, and when that single dimension is down important playmakers, the result is what we've seen over the past two weeks.
What of Markus Wheaton, the Steelers' third-round draft pick, taken to fill the deep-threat void left by Wallace's departure? For now, he's on the shelf. Second-year tight end David Paulson is not taking up Miller's role as Roethlisberger's "reliable guy."
That job currently belongs to receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who has had 17 targets and seven receptions through two games, including three catches for 59 yards against Cincinnati. The numbers game thus works against Wheaton, with Cotchery joining Sanders and Brown in the Steelers' three-receiver sets. Wheaton's time will have to come later.
The Steelers offense cannot find an identity because there aren't enough parts to build one yet. The offensive line is struggling to both support the run and protect Roethlisberger. Losing center Maurkice Pouncey for the year is just salt being poured onto a perennially wounded offensive line.
The other option—the less preferable one to the team and its fans—is that this might just be Pittsburgh's offensive identity right now: a team that cannot run, cannot make plays in the passing game and cannot protect its quarterback.
The Steelers are in need of playmakers, and it shows. The returns of Bell and Miller, whenever they happen, should aid the offensive side of the ball significantly. But until then, the Steelers will have problems moving the chains.
Should this offensive drought result in more losses, Bell and Miller coming back may not be able to help a team whose season might well be lost by the time they return.