5 Smoldering Questions on the Pittsburgh Steelers: Week 11

The Pittsburgh Steelers headed into Lucas Oil Stadium heading out of their bye week, and although they appeared to end their bye week about 30 minutes later than they should have, they nonetheless triumphed over the Indianapolis Colts.

This is a short week featuring one of those dreaded Thursday night football games as the Tennessee Titans come to town. When the schedule came out most pundits marked this as a fairly straight forward win for the Steelers, but don’t look now, Mike Mularkey’s Titans are 6-3 and leading the AFC South. But before we can get into protocol planning for Dick LeBeau’s Heinz Field home coming, we must first resolve these 5 Smoldering Questions on the Steelers.

1. When the Steelers acquired Joe Haden in late August, Ross Cockrell was suddenly deemed expendable and shipped off to the New York Giants. Now that Haden will be out for several weeks at a minimum, his cornerbacking duties fall to Coty Sensabaugh. Are you comfortable with Sensabaugh as a starter, or would you prefer Ross Cockrell?

2. Tony Dungy, one commentator not given to hyperbole, recently suggested that the Steelers “struggles” (in as much as a 7-2 team struggles) come down to a question of maturity. Agree or disagree?

3. Our own Homer J, in his game recap/analysis earlier this week, noted the kerfuffle over the two-point conversion attempts. Unlike most of the people discussing this, Homer chose to demonstrate the poise and maturity displayed by Ben Roethlisberger during that sequence of events. Rather than being rushed into running the play with the wrong personnel or lineup, he took first the timeout and then the delay of game. And of course they successfully ran the play from the seven yard line in the end.

Do you agree with this positive take on the situation, or do you agree with the entire rest of the fanbase/commentators/etc. that this confirms all the things you/they have been complaining about with this year’s team? And if so, what exactly, in your estimation, are said problems? (Question by Rebecca, as you can probably tell : )

4. Early in the season it seemed to this writer’s eye that Ben Roethlisberger was trying to force the ball to Antonio Brown. If memory serves a question to that effect even found its way into this column.

The earliest opportunity to research the issue came during the bye week, and this is what the results look like:

The numbers appear to disprove the working hypothesis. Assuming you’ve agreed with the conclusion, what other insights can you glean from this data set?

5. Thursday night will be Dick LeBeau’s homecoming at Heinz Field. LeBeau of course coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers for 15 years. The Steelers know LeBeau’s tendencies well, just as LeBeau knows the Steelers coaches and their tendencies.

Which side has the advantage in the chess match?

Bonus Short Week Question:

The commenter known as Earthling left the following lengthy but fascinating comment, which has been lightly edited for brevity. Please read and chime in, yea or nay:

Here’s my theory on Ben. Ben likes to throw the ball to people he trusts and that trust may need to be earned game by game right now. He likes to look around, check out of a play and find someone else. Maybe he knows best, maybe he has donkey ears. It hasn’t entirely been a bad thing that he doesn’t seem to like Todd Haley because he loved Arians and well, I’m done with that topic. But…Ben likes to improvise, and maybe he needs receivers who know how to catch a Big Ben pass whatever that means, especially if it means compensating for some inaccuracy. All of which worked great when he had Heath Miller and AB on the field all the time. In fact it was pretty great when he had Hines Ward and Cedric Wilson. On the field, all the time…Same guys. Even if they were guys like Cedric Wilson who aren’t a household name anymore. Or Santonio Holmes who didn’t do so well after Ben. But they were Ben’s guys and it worked.

Is it my imagination or does Ben play best when he has the same receivers on the field all the time? THe same people all the time. They don’t have to be world class WR’s, just guys Ben’s developed a connection with. When Ben seems to struggle, for whatever reason, there are a lot of numbers running on and off the field right and left, perhaps for Too Clever By Half OC kind of reasons…Changing personnel. I think Ben doesn’t like it.

So in that memo you’re sending to dear Todd, please include this: just leave the really really good players we have on the field all the time. Stop running AB or MB to the sideline so you can send in Eli or switch one not great TE for another or add another TE and let Ben sort it out and get some rhythm going with the guys he’s got, whoever they are. Let Ben work it out.

Homer’s right. The best Ben thing is the calm, the way he has often been unruffled when it all looks bad. He centers the O and makes it work.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    1) Sensabaugh

    2) Perhaps… for a couple of players this may be true but considering the defence is outperforming the offence (which is older iirc) I think they statement is less based on fact than perception. I suspect some key players have been performing less successfully in the past due to age/injury/personal reasons.

    3) The Winnipeg Blue Bombers used to have a special teams player who took a larger proportion of the off-sides/false start penalties than anyone else on the team but he had a long career. After his playing days were through it turns out one of his roles was to realize when we had the wrong personnel on the field (or were short a player) and to take the 5 yard penalty instead of giving up the big play or delay of game penalty. He later worked his way up to GM.

    Sometimes it is better to add 5 or 10 yards to a play than to have the play fall apart due to incorrect/incomplete personnel. I think it was a smart play though a false start would have been better.

    4) AB is catching fewer of the balls thrown to him. Whether this is due to better coverage by the defence, poorer accuracy on Ben’s part or poorer hands on AB’s part is up to speculation. My eyeballs told me that AB was getting better coverage but Ben was still throwing to him but who is going to believe my lying eyes.

    5) Advantage to which ever team is best on making adjustments on the fly… actually, I would like to change that to which ever team has the best healthy players because other than a couple of notable miscues, I don’t often see coaches on the field.

    6) Bonus question: Who was the first player in professional football to throw for over 3,000 yards in a season. Clue: he was from Oklahoma.


    • Love the Winnipeg Blue Bombers story. As fans we’re all guilty of assuming we know what’s “really” happening. But how much do we really know? We say “Fire Haley!” when it was a Tomlin decision. We say “Fire Tomlin!” when it was a Big Ben improve. We say “Ben’s old!” when a receiver runs the wrong route.

      In the back of my mind this whole season, I keep wondering (hoping?) that the Steelers are sandbagging the whole thing. They surely know their most important football is in December / January, and right now everything else is just for show. What are they doing today that’s setting them up for then?

      Maybe nothing. But Tomlin et al aren’t the idiots the interwebs would have us believe. (By the way, Haley came to Pittsburgh after putting up amazing offensive numbers with a solid, but not overwhelming KC team. I find it hard to believe he suddenly forgot how to coach.)


  • 1. I’m excited to see Sensabaugh get some playing time, even if I deplore the reason for it. Joe Haden is a great guy and I hate to see his season derailed, at least for the nonce, but I think/hope Coty will do a good job in relief. Next man up and all that…

    2. I have no idea, because if I knew what was ailing the offense I would hire myself out to the Steelers as a consultant. Other than the end-around to Martavis Bryant. Somehow I seem to be taking that particular play personally…

    4. I think if I were Ben I would “force” the ball to the guy(s) I could rely on. Early in the season that is probably mainly AB and Bell. As the season progresses and Ben gains trust in other players he’s going to spread the ball around more.

    5. We’ll find out on Thursday night.


  • 1. Sensabaugh. Cockrell really did not help the defense much.

    2. There may be a bit of that happening with the struggles. This is a pretty young team with a lot of talent and some ego as well. Bryant’s actions could easily be taken as immature.

    3. I think Homer provided a good way to look at the situation. The fact that we then scored the 2-pointer shows this may have in fact been the case.

    4. I stand by the thought he was trying to force it to AB since you can see his catch % is way down. He is getting double or triple covered since we had a bunch of unknown entities opposite him. I think those numbers will change now that JJSS has shown he is a stud and Bryant (hopefully) will get into his own again.

    5. Steelers do I think. Since coach dad probably hasn’t changed too much in the way the defense works.

    Bonus: I won’t say since i cheated and looked it up.


  • 1. Sensabaugh

    2. We have young players, but was he referring to Martavis?

    3. Homer nailed it.

    4. For each year, I compared the percentage of targets for each receiver with the percentage of yards gained. Clearly Ben got a bigger bang for the buck out of passes to AB. So, force it in and let AB make a play.

    5. I’m remembering the 2011 playoff game in Denver (which we would all prefer not to remember). It was the first play of OT when Coach Dad put all eleven players on the line of scrimmage and Tim Tebow (of all people) threw the game winning TD pass on a slant to Demaryius Thomas. Game over. I think that made me no longer a fan of LeBeau. Advantage Pittsburgh.


  • 1. According to what I have heard and observed Sensabaugh was already in the process of replacing Cockrell when Haden arrived and bumped him. Even if Haden had not come it might have been possible that Cockrell’s role might of been diminished by either Coty or a healthy Cameron Sutton. However you want to characterize it Ross ends up expendable.

    2. Maturity as Dungy uses the term may not speak simply to age, or responsible conduct. One of the championship details that must be mastered is learning how to win, which involves more than the application of talent, schemes and the like. Bob Labriola and others liked the Colts game precisely because it was a test learning how to win even though things were going badly. This is why some teams may have the goods to get a championship but need several tries before they figure out how to get to the top. If the Patriots hold one advantage over the rest of the league it is this knowledge, which, btw, would be difficult to teach, as are all aspects of life involving gaining maturity.

    3. I think it may be time to ask if Todd Haley is getting in his own way. The late Bill Nunn argued that too much structure and complexity handcuffs and suppresses great talent. The Steelers offense is full of great talent that can probably prevail under most circumstances if placed in proper matchups, such as the deep completion from Ben to AB where the commentator said it was about creating a situation where the better athlete wins. Whether it is hubris or insecurity (needing to prove his own worth) he puts more faith in his schemes and machinations than in his players’ abilities to outperform their opponents. Why else, with arguably the best offensive lines in football, and inarguably one of the best running backs in a generation (and very good backups as well) you shy away from even the threat of running the ball in short yardage. Or having one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league running reverses and bubble screens but not very many deep patterns. Too clever by half they sometimes say.

    4. In sympathy, the Ben/Brown matchup can really be magical where the chances of achieving the improbable really are quite high, though often judged as ill-advised in hindsight if it fails in closely contested games. This may speak, in part, to Earthling’s observations, though given the erratic (and anemic) performance of the offense lately it feels more comforting to play the take what they give you card rather than the high wire Ben to AB show.

    5. Besides the revenge factor Pittsburgh has the advantage of talent and top to bottom knowledge.


  • 1. Sensabaugh, Cockrell is your guy for a very specific defense, that we don’t want to run as much.

    2. Timmons isn’t here, James isn’t playing, D-Will is gone, Heath is 2 years gone. Where is the veteran leadership? Ben has never been that guy.

    3. Football is the only game in the world where both teams set up elaborate plans and strategies for every play, and then resolve them by shoving a lot. It lends itself to chaos and ugliness, so I’m much more impressed by poise than I am surprised that football is still frequently ugly.

    4. I personally prefer % of targets and yards per target better than using percentage of team output, since what you do with a target is much more individual, but it’s roughly the same results. Right now the numbers say throw to Ju Ju more, as his yards per target (12!!) Is much higher than AB’s sub 9. Ben seems to be doing just that. I pity the team that decides to single cover AB to shift defenders toward Ju Ju.

    5. I think we win a tight and ugly game, I’d be more surprised by a pretty game than a loss though.


  • 1. Rebecca’s answer.

    2. I mulled this over and decided along the lines Ivan’s thinking. Age-wise, if Ben gets any more mature, he’ll need a cane and while JuJu’s a baby, he’s the only one so Dungy must mean as a unit, as a relationship. They’re new to this emanation of an offense, they don’t know and trust each other yet, they’re growing as a group…well that’s all I got. Maybe Tony was just talking.

    3. I love Goffthesloth’s description of football as elaborate strategies resolved by a lot of shoving. (Also sounds like seventh grade romance.) I don’t think it means anything that someone was shouting bad words at someone else. And Homer’s right about Ben on the field in that situation. But I think Ben’s post-game comments speak to some real unhappiness with his OC.

    Also, Ben’s Tuesday comments always make everything seem worse. The team should give out a “Gasoline on smoldering coals” media award just for him. I think he’s pretty funny, I’m sometimes curious as to how much of that is naive and how much of it is passive aggression but I don’t think we’ll ever know. I will definitely miss him when he’s gone. For the football, for those kinds of “he’s always yelling at me on the sideline but it’s okay, I don’t mind and I don’t hear him through the headset” comments. “Plus he wanted to do something stupid and I did something else…” Ben, you’re a gem.

    5. Steelers have the best color rush uniforms. Titans are in baby blue footie pajamas. So as far as edges go, it’s the black and blue bowl, and the cool guys will win while the others go home in their jammies. As for LeBeau, I don’t know. I thought I’d miss him and then I didn’t. I’ll be glad to see him on the sidelines again but it doesn’t strike fear into my heart. That it’s Thursday night does. I watched the Seattle game when there seemed to be more injuries than touchdowns and it scared me.

    Bonus: Rebecca, I’m flattered and thank you for even considering my opinon. but I think either it was tl;dr or just silliness on my part. However, I don’t have many strong Steeler opinions so I’m going to agree with myself. :0 Why not? Besides, it means I can agree with Ivan’s smarter point that the Steelers should trust their talent and let Ben have his way. Again why not? (I’ve worked for 12 hours straight, so I’m pretty devil may care at this moment about everything.)

    This is the end of Ben’s career and if he’s unhappy, we’re probably not going much farther in the playoffs than we did last year. I haven’t always liked Ben but this is his swan song. Even if Haley is the most brilliant OC on the planet, Ben deserves to go out in Ben-fashion for what he’s given us in the last fourteen years. At the beginning of the season with all the talk of his retirement, I started rewatching the games from his first appearance onwards and I’m stunned.

    If I were Haley, I’d give Ben a game or two right now to do everything his way. Unless Ben gets carted off, it could be a win-win for Haley even if we lose. If the games are terrible, Ben is chastened, takes direction with more grace and maybe stops making all those passive aggressive comments. If the games are great, Haley is a great OC for letting Ben be Ben.

    Maybe it’s good I’m not Haley. My family probably thinks so too. I hope.



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