PITTSBURGH – When Todd Haley was hired as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator last year, one of the decrees he received from head coach Mike Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II was to improve the protection of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
A season and a half into Haley’s tenure, it would appear that he has failed at that particular task.
Midway through the season, the Steelers have allowed 32 sacks, putting them on pace for 64. That would shatter the team record of 52, set in 1969 and matched in 1983.
It also would easily surpass Roethlisberger’s career high of 50 sacks in in 2009 – if he survives long enough.
“We need to protect better and do a better job of getting the ball out,” said Haley. “It’s not any one thing there with sacks. It could be coverage sacks. It could be not throwing the ball away. It’s a breakdown up front that you’re not expecting. It’s a little bit of everything. We just need to do a better job of execution across the board.”
The sacks have been a big part of the Steelers’ 2-6 record. And things won’t get any easier Sunday when Pittsburgh hosts Buffalo (3-6) at Heinz Field.
Led by defensive end Mario Williams, the Bills rank third in the NFL with 29 sacks. Williams has 11 sacks – two fewer than the Steelers have as a team.
“Our offensive line is going to have its hands full,” said Roethlisberger, who has been sacked 323 times since the 2006 season, the most of any quarterback over that time period. “They have a great pass rush. It’s going to be a definite test.”
The Steelers have failed miserably at similar tests this season.
But they’re not alone.
Sacks are up at an alarming rate around the NFL.
Led by Kansas City’s league-high 36 sacks – just behind the pace of Chicago’s league-record 72 in 1984 – 11 teams are on pace for at least 50 sacks. And 12 teams are on pace to allow 50-plus sacks, including Miami, which leads the league with 35 sacks allowed. Last season, only three teams reached 50 in those two categories.
“A lot comes into sacks,” said Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, an eight-year NFL veteran who has now spent time with five different teams.
“It’s not always just the offensive line. Fans always think, ‘Oh, our offensive line stinks!’ But there’s more that goes into it. Defenders are good; they keep getting better. You see a team like the Saints last week – they couldn’t protect Drew Brees. It doesn’t matter how good you are or what your record is, every week is a different week.”
Many teams allowing big sack totals can point to inexperience or injuries on their offensive line or at quarterback as reasons for their protection issues. The Steelers, however, might not be able to use that as an excuse. Though they’ve had injury issues on the line, the Steelers have had similar problems in previous seasons. Last year, however, Roethlisberger was sacked only 30 times in 13 games.
“We’ve had some moving parts at multiple positions, up front, running back, tight end,” said Haley. “That’s no excuse. I would think that could lend itself to some breakdowns at times. We’re not going to treat it as an excuse and we’re not going to lower our standard. We need to be better and protect the quarterback.
“Ultimately, Ben has to protect himself when needed. We’re working at that.”
Odds and end zones
Cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Vince Williams both passed concussion tests and were able to resume practice Thursday. … Offensive tackles Kelvin Beachum (knee) and Marcus Gilbert (ankle) were limited in practice.