Steelers Hoping to Ditch Slow Starts

Pittsburgh has been dominated early in games of late

Josh Rowntree
October 04, 2018 - 6:21 pm
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin during the second half at Raymond James Stadium.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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After a bad first quarter, the Steelers hoping to fix first quarters. 

Including last season’s playoff loss to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh has been outscored 56-6 in the first quarter of its previous five games. 

The result has been a dismal first quarter of the season, in which the offense has turned the ball over and failed to gain traction, while the defense has let pass-catchers run through the secondary with ease. 

A 1-2-1 record, for a team with Super Bowl expectations, means the next quarter of the year needs to go like second quarters have played out in the last five games, with Pittsburgh outscoring opponents 80-17. 

“It’s hard,” safety Sean Davis said. “We’re fighting uphill. 0-1-1 in the conference, never good. But it’s a long season. It’s only the first quarter of the season. We’ve got twelve games to go, so anything can happen.”

Davis is culpable. Everyone is, really. But now the mission, especially for the defense, is how to not allow the team to fall in a hole so early in games.  

“Get back to grinding,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Focusing on little things, trying to just see where we’ve come up short and get back to our technique. When our technique is sound, we’re a better defense. 

“When we communicate and everybody knows what we’re doing, we’re a much better defense. When we have guys out of gaps and have mishaps in the back end, that’s unacceptable.”

‘Unacceptable’ is a good way to put it. The defense has five first-round picks of the team’s out there, plus a second-rounder in Davis and three third-round selections. Throw in free agents like cornerback Joe Haden, safety Morgan Burnett, who has struggled with injury, and linebacker Jon Bostic. 

“We’ve got to stop the big plays,” Heyward added. “When we stop the big plays, we’re good. I feel much more confident having the big plays out of there. We’ve got to get to more negative plays.”

“We've got to get on the same page, got to work together,” Davis said. “Fly hard, fly around and be relentless. As long as we get eleven hats to the ball, we're hard to mess with.”

No one has had much issue messing with the Steelers’ defense this season. It’s given up the seventh-most points in the NFL and the third-most yards. 

Despite sitting tenth in scoring, Pittsburgh’s offense has sputtered early in games, being shutout in four of the last five first quarters. 

“We have to limit the opportunity for penalties,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “We’ve been our own worst enemy at times. I challenged the guys to make the extra yard, in everything we do.”

Fichtner, in his first year leading the offense is, of course, having to deal with the absence of Le’Veon Bell. His quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and top wide receiver, Antonio Brown, have not looked in synch since the opening kickoff this season. 

Play-calling can be questioned, without a doubt. But execution, especially on third downs, seems to be a matter of execution. Currently, the Steelers are 28th in the NFL in third down conversion percentage, picking up first downs just 15 times on 49 attempts. 

“I worked for a coach a long time ago named Bo Schembechler (the legendary Michigan coach), and he basically said, 'get the first down on first and second down and *blank* third down,’” Fichtner said. That’s pretty explanatory. You don’t need to say anything else.”

“We can get the first down on first and second down and make more manageable third downs. It’s going to have to be manageable situations.”

It seems almost inevitable that Sunday’s game against an Atlanta team with an equally porous defense and immensely talented offense as Pittsburgh’s will be high-scoring. So starting on a good note is crucial. 

“It’s very important, especially with a team like Atlanta,” corner back Coty Sensabaugh said, calling back to the Falcons storming out to a 28-3 lead over New England two years ago. 

“If you don’t come out strong, they can get up on you. So I think starting fast is definitely big for us. It’s a necessity.”