This has been a long week for Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Many are wondering how the Steelers can be "fixed."
After 6 games last season, the Steelers record stood at 2-4, on a 2 game win streak after dropping the first 4 games in a row. The season was thought to have been lost and adjustments were necessary. However, the team fell into a another 2 game losing streak, and after an embarrassing blowout loss to New England, a 2-6 record.
We all know how last season ended: grasping at playoff straws with a "kiss your sister" 8-8 record. The Steelers were neither good, nor bad. They were just average.
This year, the team stands at the same point of neither winning nor losing, trading each win for a loss in their last 6 games, with a marginally better record at 3-3. The comparisons with last season are great, because the Steelers are in the same position as before, though one could argue, so are their divisional opponents.
2013 AFC North Standings (Week 7)
2014 AFC North Standings (Week 7)
The Steelers had the anomaly of an early week 5 bye last season, contributing to one less game played than their opponents, but as you can see, everyone has fallen into line. Pittsburgh is still in the basement, and arguably lost games against weaker opponents.
So what has to happen for the team to turn it around and get hot like last season?
Let's take compare both seasons' first six weeks and the remainder of 2013:
2013 1st 6 Games
The Steelers averaged under 18 points per game on offense, with a miserable rushing attack. They were unable to turn the ball over while giving it up an average of twice per game.
2013 Last 10 Games
The difference came in scoring (nearly 10 more points per game) and an uptick in running the football. The defense contributed more turnovers, but otherwise continued to struggle, giving up, on average, more points, 1st downs and yards.
2014 1st 6 Games
And then comparing with this year's numbers, the defense is nearly in the same place as last season.
So what needs to be fixed? Red zone scoring is next-to-last in the NFL. If the Steelers are to turn the ship around, the obvious answer is they need to outscore their opponents. The defense still faces the same problems as last season, but needs the offense to bail them out on the other side of the field.
The team will have to be careful not to leave points on the field, as the next games will be extremely critical. The Steelers begin a 3 game home stand against formidable opponents. The Houston Texans come into town with the same 3-3 record, a defense capable of creating turnovers and the league's 3rd best rusher in Arian Foster. The Indianapolis Colts are next in line, with a pass-happy attack reminiscent of the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers; the Colts defense, however, is an inconsistent group much like Pittsburgh's. And then there's the Baltimore Ravens, who are always a tough division rival.
The Steelers play 2 more road games before their bye week: one game in New York against a poor Jets club and another "trap" game against the Tennessee Titans. Both teams seemingly bring their best against the black and gold.
At 3-3, the bar has to be set high. The Steelers can ill-afford to trade wins and losses every other week, as their division opponents have a similar schedule. Even finishing this 5 game stretch with 3 wins and 2 losses puts the Steelers at 6-4 heading into their final 5 game stretch following the bye. It's not an awful position to be in, as they could control their destiny with 2 games against recent AFC North leader Cincinnati.
However, to finish the final stretch in similar fashion, winning 3 of those 5 games, would place the Steelers with a final record of 9-6. This record would've been good enough to qualify for the playoffs last season, but that's also predicated on the Ravens and Chargers finishing 8-8 and the Steelers having a tie-breaker over several other 8-8 teams. Pittsburgh will need to have a strong AFC showing in the coming weeks to ensure they do not miss a potential playoff spot by losing conference games which could put them on the wrong side of a complicated tie-breaking procedure.
Beating the Texans on Monday Night Football would be a good start toward that goal.