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Savran: Steelers must fix red-zone problem

Saturday, December 15, 2001

Grandma lays out all the fixins' for her famous holiday apple pie. With deft skill, the separate parts become a whole. And when she places it in the oven, all that's left for the family is to ask for seconds. Only this time, the pie comes out and tastes like it was made with Elmer's Glue and candle wax. How could this happen? All the ingredients were assembled for the perfect pie, and Grandma is an expert baker.

Bill Cowher must be wondering the same about his red-zone offense. Consider the ingredients on the table before him: Best rushing offense in the NFL. The top power runner in the NFL. A tremendous offensive line that might be the league's most physical forward wall. A pass offense that has excelled in a controlled passing game, which is exactly what a red-zone pass offense needs to be. The offense is dealing with limited space, so the throws and the routes must be quick and precise. There isn't time or space to run slowly developing patterns. But this is the type of passing attack that the Steelers have run from other spots on the field.

Let's add a few more ingredients to the mix. You've got a multi-dimensional quarterback who doesn't have to stand and wait for receivers to get open. He's got options stuffed inside his cleats. And because of that ability to run, defenders must keep one eye on him while keeping the other on their man.

And for some spice to sprinkle atop the crust, consider that the Steelers' offensive coordinator has added some playground play-calling. "Hey Plaxico. You go down by the telephone pole and do a buttonhook. Hines, cut inside that green Chevy parked down there in front of old man Wilson's house." Mike Mularkey has designed, and then called plays your buddy used to draw in the dirt with his index finger. So there's been no shortage of imaginative play selection.

So why are the Steelers last in the NFL in converting field position from inside the 20 into touchdowns? The league's best is 60 percent. The Steelers reach the end zone only 30 percent of the time once the ketchup bottle pours. All the ingredients for a touchdown tart are there. Why then, do they pull a burned, smoking mess out of the oven 70 percent of the time?

Some have suggested Mularkey has been too conservative in his play-calling when his offense gets close to the goal posts. I don't know about that. If anything, there have been times when they've gone with a "trick" play instead of doing what they do best: Give Jerome Bettis a shot on first down, which then dictates what you're able to do on second and third.

Some maintain they don't actually throw the ball into the end zone. There's some validity to that. Seldom have we seen Steelers' receivers on the move in the end zone. It's generally a stand still, go-up-and-get-it kind of pass. That gives defenders time to recover, making it a jump ball instead of the receiver taking the pass in stride. But in the past few weeks, they've beaten defensive backs between the 30s. Why not near the goal line?

Still, I believe it's more a matter of how you execute what's called. But perhaps a stodgy Steelers mindset is dictating what's being called.

When you run the ball as proficiently as the Steelers do, when you play defense the way they do, you've got to manufacture points whenever possible. Chances are, on most days, this team isn't going to have a large margin of victory. Therefore, there's little margin for error. That doesn't figure to change much once the playoffs begin, presumably against higher-caliber opposition. So, in thinking of protecting instead of attacking once you get inside the red zone, maybe you alter the ultimate objective. If you're thinking three, maybe that's all you're going to get. Perhaps the best way to alleviate some of the understandable concerns about the place-kicking is not relying on it as often.

"Hey," you're saying. "They're 10-2! What are you complaining about?" A valid point, to be sure. But against that anticipated higher-caliber playoff opposition, scoring touchdowns only 30 percent of the time just might end your season prematurely. And it's a long stretch from January, or maybe even February, until September, to lament opportunities lost.

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat, weeknights at 6:30 on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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