On Sunday, the Steelers lost to the Dolphins in an abysmal fashion. One could blame the loss on injuries, specifically a torn meniscus in Ben Roethlisberger’s knee. Likewise, one could use the excuse that there were a large number of rookies and/or second-string players in the starting line-up. While there are a plethora of possible scapegoats, the real cause for that loss comes down to the fact that the Steelers did not rush Le’Veon Bell enough.
Entering into this game, the Dolphins were dead last in run defense, a streak which seemed to continue, in that Bell was averaging 5.3 yards per carry and DeAngelo Williams was averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Yet, the two running backs combined for only nine carries in the first half. I was mystified as to why Todd Haley would not run his running back tandem into the ground, because, if it had been me, I would have given them each nine touches in the first quarter alone. Alas…
When Big Ben got hurt, I turned to my brother and averred: “This might actually be a blessing, because the offense will now be forced to rely on Bell… which they should have done from the beginning.” Mind you, in no way was I wanting Ben to be injured (obviously); I was thinking that if it was merely a thigh-bruise, that Landry Jones playing a few snaps might actually “force” Todd Haley to call some running plays. And it did. On the next three plays, Bell ran for twelve yards, eight yards, and six yards… setting up a very makeable third-and-one. In my mind, without question, Haley would give the ball to Bell again, since Bell was tearing up the Miami defense. Nope. Instead, Haley had Jones throw it in the general direction of David Johnson. Not towards Brown, not towards Bell, Jones attempted a pass to the second-string tight end. Ugh, ugh, triple ugh.
Halftime came and I was hopeful that Haley would see the error of his ways. To Haley’s credit, on their first possession of the second half, with Big Ben back in the lineup, Haley called a beautiful mixture of run and pass. That said, it was apparent to anyone watching that Ben’s knee was not allowing him to step into his throws, best exemplified by the drive-killing interception. Once again, I turned to my brother, and stated: “Now… they will give Bell the ball.” Alas, I was once again wrong… as evidenced by the Steelers throwing the ball nineteen straight times to close out the game. That was not a typo; I did indeed say “nineteen straight passes.”
Now, I admit that the Steelers were playing from behind, which can lend itself to a team passing more than normal. That said, there was almost seventeen minutes of game-time left, which is plenty of time to still run the ball. Nope. The next three drives were: pass, pass, pass, punt… pass, pass, pass, pass, punt… and ten straight passes (albeit, this drive ended with a touchdown).
I understand that Ben Roethlisberger is the best player on the offense, and the second best player, Antonio Brown, is a receiver, and in turn, I comprehend Todd Haley’s infatuation with passing the ball. That said, when a) the opponent has trouble stopping the run, b) you have Le’Veon Bell, and c) your quarterback is injured… it is a no brainer that you should be running the ball like it is going out of style. I get that you have to keep a balance on offense, and thus, they wanted Landry Jones to attempt at least one pass… but, on third-and-short, I am not taking the ball out of the hands of the best running back in the NFL (and putting into the hands of a very-average backup quarterback). In that situation, I would give the ball to Bell a hundred times out of a hundred times. Likewise, with Big Ben hobbling around, not only do I want to ease his workload, I want to avoid putting the quarterback in a position to take more hits. If there were ever a time to run the ball nineteen times in a row (as opposed to the aforementioned nineteen pass attempts), this was indeed that situation.
Maybe the Dolphins put eight in the box in order to stuff the run. So what. You play the odds, and give the ball to the best player on the field (at that time): Le’Veon Bell.
Speaking of which, with Big Ben out for the next three games, I would indeed give Bell (and Williams) the ball twenty times per half. Mike Tomlin is famous for the quote about running Willie Parker’s wheels off; well, this is the perfect scenario to do that once again. In fact, I am so confident in the Bell/Williams duo, that if Haley gives those two forty combined touches per game, I predict that the Steelers will win at least two of the next three games (the ones that Big Ben will miss). And, considering that those three teams are three perennial playoff-caliber teams (Patriots, Ravens, Cowboys) that is indeed a lofty prediction.
Alas, I have almost no faith that Haley will actually do anything that I have written. Oh well… when Ben returns, I guess that a 4-5 record is not insurmountable.