Steelers aiming for fast start on offense against Tampa Bay
When the Pittsburgh Steelers gave up the first 21 points to the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday, it not only evoked disturbing memories of the January playoff loss to Jacksonville from a defensive standpoint, it also showcased the offense’s early shortcomings.
It wasn’t until the third drive that the Steelers got a first down. It wasn’t until the fourth that they got a touchdown.
Two games, two seasons, same venue, same scenario.
That the Steelers managed to tie the score against Kansas City — unlike that home playoff defeat eight months prior — did little to erase the issues created at the outset of the game.
“You need to start faster,” tight end Jesse James said. “We didn’t, obviously, and we put our defense in a bind early in the game.”
Counting that playoff loss, the Steelers (0-1-1) haven’t scored in the first quarter for three consecutive games, a streak they will try to snap Monday night at unbeaten Tampa Bay (2-0).
Through the first two weeks of the regular season, the Steelers were one of five teams that hadn’t produced any points in the opening 15 minutes. That had the Steelers grouped with the likes of Buffalo and Arizona, teams with 0-2 records heading into Sunday’s play, plus Philadelphia and Washington, who sported 1-1 records.
Establishing an early offensive rhythm against Tampa Bay not only will enable the Steelers to play with confidence, it will help quiet the crowd at Raymond James Stadium. And, perhaps most importantly, it will allow the Steelers to match scores with FitzMagic, the phenomenon created by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s hot start. Thanks to Fitzpatrick, the Buccaneers are averaging 482 yards and 37.5 points.
“On the road, it’s definitely important to start fast,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “If you can put pressure on the other team, that’s always better.”
The inability to score in the first quarter is a departure from the previous two seasons. The Steelers ranked 10th in first-quarter points last year while going 13-3 in the regular season. They never went two games in a row without scoring in the opening quarter. In 2016, during the march to the AFC championship game, the Steelers were No. 4 in first-quarter points scored.
“It’s always one of our goals to come out and start fast and put points on the board quick,” Roethlisberger said, “but the other team is trying not to let us start fast. A lot of times, whether you’re playing a common opponent or someone new, you’re kind of feeling each other out early.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not trying to score. You might be throwing different personnel groups out there to see what the defense is going to do, to see how they are going to line up.”
Randy Fichtner’s first game as an NFL offensive coordinator began in Cleveland with the Steelers punting after their first two possessions and Roethlisberger throwing an interception on the third. The number of first downs generated in those three series? Three.
Against Kansas City, the Steelers went three-and-out on their first two drives, then started moving the ball on the third. But after the Steelers produced four first downs, the drive stalled, and Chris Boswell missed a 49-yard field goal. On the fourth series, the Steelers finally cut into a deficit that had grown to 21-0 when James caught a 26-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter.
“We’ve kept having guys taking turns making mistakes, having a bad play or getting into some long third-down conversions,” James said. “It’s tough when you get in a hole like that.”
Perhaps it’s critical for the Steelers to not only score at the outset of the game but also to do so on a long drive that burns time off the clock and keeps the team’s maligned defense on the sideline for as long as possible. That could mean a reliance on running back James Conner, who carried 31 times in the opener against Cleveland.
“It’s always better if you are able to sustain long drives,” James said. “Great defenses aren’t on the field long. That’s what they say. If you have an offense controlling the ball and keeping the defense off the field, it’s always going to help your team.”
Finding such balance has been elusive for Fichtner, who watched Roethlisberger throw 41 passes in the opener and 60 while trying to play catch-up against the Chiefs.
“It’s never going to be about a statistic,” Fichtner said. “It’s never going to be about you rushed this amount or you threw it this amount, or you threw for that many yards or you threw that amount of touchdowns. We don’t talk that way. We’re never going to talk that way. That’s just not going to be my approach, and they know that already.
“Whatever it takes to win the game. Maybe we contributed to that early by not having some success.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.