The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the most successful NFL franchises of the 21st century. Since the turn of the millennium they have made eight playoff appearances, reached three Super Bowls, and won two.
In the same period they have only once come out of a regular season having lost more games than they had won.
But when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers all-time leader in passing yards, and his teammates left the hallowed Wembley turf on Sunday evening, Pittsburgh’s 2013 record stood at 0:4.
Their 34-27 defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings, in the first of two International Series games to be held at the famous home of English football this year, confirmed the sorry state of the Steelers roster, marking their worst start to a season since 1968 – some 45 years.
So where do the problems lie for Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and co, and how can he go about solving them? Unfortunately for the eight times AFC Conference champions, there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer.
For some time now the Steelers have had problems in their offensive line, and a lack of protection for Roethlisberger – who was sacked six times against the Vikings – has cost them repeatedly in their first four fixtures.
On Sunday, left tackle Mike Adams, a second-round draft pick from Ohio State in 2012, was given a torrid time by the Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, a five time Pro Bowler and twice the league’s leader in sacks, while an injury to left guard Ramon Foster forced back-up Kevin Beachum into action.
Beachum was then at fault, as he allowed Everson Griffin to tackle Roethlisberger and force him into fumbling the ball on a potential game-tying drive, with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers are already without Pro Bowl centre Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, when right guard David DeCastro fell into him despite being untouched.
As a result of their struggles in the offensive line, their running game is also suffering. Injuries to second-round draft pick Le’Veon Bell and understudy LaRod Stephens-Howling forced Issac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones to carry the load in the team’s first three games, where they totalled just 155 yards. Bell returned against the Vikings and scored twice with short rushes, but the team’s 77 yards on 21 carries was still a disappointment.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been maligned since joining the Steelers prior to the 2012 season, but his reliance on bubble screens and other questionable tactics reached a high point in the first four games of 2013. The team’s need to play from behind against the Bears and Vikings forced him to allow Ben Roethlisberger to naturally freewheel in the passing game, but Haley’s insistence on utilizing Jerricho Cotchery instead of any of the team’s three speedier wide-outs on an ill-fated end-around against the Bengals served as a prime example of the style of play enraging Steelers fans.
Pittsburgh’s defence is also not what it once was. Adrian Peterson has dominated many matches throughout his all-star career, but the ease with which Vikings receivers Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings breezed past the Steelers ageing secondary was alarming. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark have both had great careers, but they form a unit that are now being exploited with regularity.
With the Steelers divisional rivals in the AFC North all enduring their own issues: the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns are all at 2:2 – the Steelers miserable start is perhaps not quite the death sentence it could have been, but they will likely to have to win at least nine of their last twelve matches to have any chance of making the post-season.
When the Steelers last started the year 0:4, they finished the season 2:11:1, before falling to 1:13 a year later. But it’s worth remembering that the franchise recovered to win four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s after some drastic chances both on and off the pitch.
Perhaps a similarly disastrous year for them in 2013 would give them the excuse they need to ditch some of their current, long-serving starters and give them the building blocks to begin building towards a new era.
Elsewhere in week four, the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks extended their perfect starts to the season to four games.
The Patriots gained the outright lead of the AFC East division as their 30-23 success over the Atlanta Falcons, coupled with the Miami Dolphins first loss of the year – a 38-17 reverse against the Saints – moved them one win clear of their nearest rivals. The New York Jets missed the opportunity to leapfrog the Dolphins into second, as they fell to 2:2 after a 38-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans, but the Buffalo Bills did pick up a surprise win – beating the Ravens 23-20.
Seattle recovered from seventeen points behind to stun the Houston Texans 23-20 after overtime, maintaining their 100% record and reducing last year’s AFC South winners to 2:2. The Indianapolis Colts now head that division at 3:1 after a 37-3 beating of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Victory for the Saints moved them two wins clear of their nearest challengers in the NFC South, although the Carolina Panthers do have a game in hand. Both the Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to defeat.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos were again impressive as they thrashed the Philadelphia Eagles 52-20, but Andy Reid and the Chiefs remain level with them at 4:0 in the race for the AFC West title – they defeated the New York Giants 31-7.
Along with the Dolphins, the Chicago Bears lost for the first time in week four: they were stunned 40-32 by the Detroit Lions, who replace them at the top of the NFC North.
Full List of Week Four Results:
49ers 35 (at the) 11 Rams, Ravens 20 (at the) 23 Bills, Cardinals 13 (at the) 10 Buccaneers, Steelers 27 (at the) 34 Vikings, Giants 7 (at the) 31 Chiefs, Colts 37 (at the) 3 Jaguars, Seahawks 23 (at the) 20 Texans, Bengals 6 (at the) 17 Browns, Bears 32 (at the) 40 Lions, Jets 13 (at the) 38 Titans, Redskins 24 (at the) 14 Raiders, Eagles 20 (at the) 52 Broncos, Cowboys 21 (at the) 30 Chargers, Patriots 30 (at the) 23 Falcons, Dolphins 17 (at the) 38 Saints, Bye Week – Panthers & Packers.
Week Five Fixtures:
Bills (2:2) at the Browns (2:2), Patriots (4:0) at the Bengals (2:2), Lions (3:1) at the Packers (1:2), Seahawks (4:0) at the Colts (3:1), Ravens (2:2) at the Dolphins (3:1), Saints (4:0) at the Bears (3:1), Eagles (1:3) at the Giants (0:4), Chiefs (4:0) at the Titans (3:1), Jaguars (0:4) at the Rams (1:3), Panthers (1:2) at the Cardinals (2:2), Broncos (4:0) at the Cowboys (2:2), Texans (2:2) at the 49ers (2:2), Chargers (2:2) at the Raiders (1:3), Jets (2:2) at the Falcons (1:3), Bye Week – Vikings, Steelers, Buccaneers & Redskins.
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