Mike Tomlin often preaches about winning „situational football“ with his team. That can mean winning on third downs, short-yardage or any number of things.
Perhaps most important, it is about winning in the red zone. This season for the Steelers, offensively, the red zone has been the dead zone.
A year after scoring touchdowns on 73.5 percent of their trips inside the opposing 20 — the highest percentage in the NFL since 2003 — the Steelers have scored on just 8 of 21 trips this season, a 38.1-percent rate that ranks 28th in the league. That includes the Steelers going just 1 of 4 scoring touchdowns in the red zone in the win over the Colts.
„We’re still writing our story, but you can come to whatever conclusion you want in terms of our lack of productivity in that area,“ Tomlin said Tuesday as he talked about the Steelers‘ (4-4) upcoming game Sunday against the Rams (5-3) at Heinz Field.
Playing without Ben Roethlisberger for all but six quarters this season has been a part of that. But the Steelers had just two red zone trips in six quarters with Roethlisberger at quarterback, scoring once.
Mason Rudolph has played all but six quarters since, and the Steelers are five of 14 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Devlin Hodges has seen the remaining playing time, and the Steelers are two of five in the red zone with him at quarterback.
Quarterback play is most certainly an issue. Roethlisberger threw 20 touchdown passes inside the opposing 20 last season, with 14 of those coming inside the opposing 10-yard line. Five of those went to Antonio Brown, who is no longer with the team.
And Roethlisberger averaged 6.4 yards per completion inside the 20 last season, compared to the 3.1 yards per completion Rudolph, who has thrown three red zone touchdowns, has posted thus far.
The only positive for the Steelers in the red zone this season has been that they’ve scored points on a league-high 95.2 percent of their drives inside the 20, getting 12 field goals from Chris Boswell to supplement their eight touchdowns, largely because Rudolph has yet to have a turnover inside the 20.
But it goes beyond even that.
The Steelers ran the ball a lot as they got close to the end zone last season, as James Conner had 23 rushing attempts inside the opposing 10 last season, scoring nine touchdowns. This season, he’s gotten six carries and scored three touchdowns inside the opposing 10.
Conner missed Sunday’s 26-24 win over the Colts with a shoulder injury but could return this week to face the Rams. He leads the team with six touchdowns, four rushing and two receiving.
„He’s probably going to be limited some in the early part of the week,“ Tomlin said. „We’ll expect him to perk up as the week evolves and then make a decision accordingly.“
That would be a welcome addition to a rushing attack that struggled against the Colts. Though the Steelers produced 90 yards on the ground on 25 carries, 45 of that came on one carry by fourth-string running back Trey Edmunds.
Edmunds, called up from the practice squad a few weeks ago when Jaylen Samuels was out with a knee injury, got his first substantial offensive playing time since he was with the Saints in 2016, gaining 73 yards on 12 carries.
But he also failed in an attempt to score from the 1, getting stuffed in the backfield for a two-yard loss on second-and-goal in the first quarter.
„I thought that two-yard loss when we got stopped on second down, I thought ball placement was the issue,“ Tomlin said. „If Trey slides to his left and follows (David) DeCastro, he walks into the end zone. It has nothing to do with winning or losing the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, it’s ball placement.“
That has been a bit of an issue for the Steelers all season, especially in short yardage situations.
Conner’s return would help because it’s not something at which Samuels, a better receiver out of the backfield than runner, excels at. In his two seasons with the team, he’s had 10 carries for minus-3 yards on runs inside the 10.
Samuels caught 13 passes for 73 yards against the Colts — a team record for running backs — but produced just 10 yards on eight rushing attempts.
They won’t find things any easier against the Rams. Led by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Los Angeles allows just 96.9 yards rushing per game and 3.6 yards per carry. The Rams have, however, allowed seven rushing touchdowns.
„Collectively, they’ve got a really formidable (defense),“ said Tomlin. „You’d better stay on schedule. You’d better be able to do that. If you’re behind the chains, you’re swimming in shark infested waters with this (pass) rush.“
• Ramon Foster (concussion) is not yet out of protocol, but will practice on Wednesday, which is the penultimate step toward returning to field. He must still pass testing by an independent neurologist.
• Benny Snell (knee) remains out, while Trey Edmunds (ribs), Roosevelt Nix (knee) are questionable. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert (back) was placed on the reserved/injured list, forcing a series of minor roster moves.
• Tomlin said he hasn’t asked about the potential for safety Sean Davis to be activated from Injured Reserve because Davis is not yet close. Davis has been out since suffering a shoulder injury in Week 2.
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