Q: I have a tough time figuring out this Steelers team. At 7-5, they are right in the thick of the playoff race and have big wins over Indianapolis and Baltimore. However, they also have losses to two 2-10 teams (Jets and Buccaneeers), have two blowout losses (Cleveland and Baltimore), and have struggled against two other 2-10 teams (Titans and Jaguars). How good is this Steelers team? And why the inconsistency?
A: Yeah, get in line. Not sure anyone can really figure them out, but I'll try to explain. It's rare a team scores six points in one game (Week 2) and 51 in another (Week 8). They beat good teams and lose to bad ones. Somewhere in the middle lies the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers.
It gets much clearer when you throw records aside. Don't worry about the opponent. What you'll see is a team that has a great offense, but isn't particularly great on defense. Football is the ultimate team game, but it consists of a series of individual match-ups. When you have players who dominate their 1-on-1s, like an Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell, you can get high production. But when you conversely have guys who consistently lose their 1-on-1s, a la Cam Thomas or (God help us if he's in the game) Mike Adams, those losses can trump the gains. Add in the fact even All Pro level players like Brown and Bell will lose here and there, and you have a team that will be up one week and down the next.
Great teams get great production from its best players, but the basement of the team in terms of talent don't detract too much from the bottom line. They don't take anything away from the top guys. The Steelers, right now, are being led by their basement guys - i.e. the cumulative effect of their lowest low is greater than their highest high.
To put it in a more specific context, it's not the opponent, it's the Steelers. Antonio Brown has one bad game of the year, and the team isn't good enough to make up for his two lost fumbles against the Jets (he had two career lost fumbles heading into that game). The offense can't salt away the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, and their defense can't hold out, and they allow 10 points in the final quarter.
Ben Roethlisberger has a poor game against New Orleans, and the defense can't be expected to stop New Orleans' offense for four quarters. Mixed in there are a lack of takeaways and too heavy a presence of turnovers. If you want to lose in the NFL, turn the ball over, and don't take it away. If you give any NFL offense that many opportunities, they're going to beat you. Sometimes it's by 30, sometimes it's by 3 but they will beat you.
Q: In 2013, Ben Roethlisberger did not seem comfortable in Todd Haley's system and had somewhat of an off year. In 2014, despite losing Emmanuel Sanders, Roethlisberger is on pace for one of his best seasons ever - statistically- including being on pace for career highs in yards and touchdowns. What is different in 2014?
A: The Steelers' offense has gotten a vastly improved level of production from its running game this year than it did last year. Night and day, really. Le'Veon Bell is easily the team's most improved player from 2013 to 2014, and the offensive line has taken advantage of the fact first round picks Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro got on the field together consistently for the first time basically since they were both drafted.
Also, credit should be put on the surprising level of production coming from LT Kelvin Beachum in terms of pass protection. The rest of the AFC North has a high-level left tackle, and it was a big question mark heading into this season. Beachum has played very well, that's helped provide Roethlisberger with a bit of time (see Week 8 vs. Colts).
It's still not the greatest pass-protection unit in the game, but they've held up very well, and their future is bright...as long as Mike Adams doesn't enter the game.
The level of play from the wide receivers is much greater as well. Contrary to his stats this season (and good on him for getting them) Emmanuel Sanders wasn't overly productive last year. Solid numbers, not great ones, and it seems as if he left more than a few plays on the field.
What gets lost in the whole Sanders Leaves Pittsburgh to Dominate in Denver thing is the fact he wasn't playing the Z receiver position in Pittsburgh. And no one who knows anything about the wide receiver position can say Sanders is a better receiver than Brown. He's just not. Brown is the best Z receiver in the league. Sanders was an X receiver (a split end) in Pittsburgh. It just seems like Sanders is better working a more diverse but shorter route tree. Working in a great offense with great receivers around him (DeMaryius Thomas probably joins Brown on the first team All Pro team this season), Sanders is productive.
But before the idea of him dominating because he left Pittsburgh enters our minds, let's keep in mind, Sanders' contract with Denver was the highest of a few offers, and it was barely a shade over what the Jets gave Eric Decker. There wasn't a huge level of confidence in him on the open market.
Q: We all know how good Antonio Brown is and despite his size (5'10", 186 pounds), he leads the NFL in yards (1,258) and receptions (96) and is second in touchdowns (11). What does he mean to this offense? And tell us more about the Steelers other receivers.
A: It's hard to argue Ben Roethlisberger isn't the team's MVP, but no receiver in the NFL is having a better season than Brown. There isn't a better route-runner, and I don't think there is a receiver faster in and out of his breaks than Brown. His production this year speaks to that.
When Brown has an off game (i.e. the Jets) the Steelers' offense struggles. That statement is only kind of true, because he's only had one bad game this year. Two lost fumbles against the Jets, one on a screen pass and one on a punt return, really put them behind the 8-ball.
At the same time, though, the Steelers have gotten fair to decent production from their other receivers. When you have one as talented as Brown, you get him the ball and the others wait for their opportunities, but Markus Wheaton, in his second season, has had a few good games (and a few bad ones). Rookie Martavis Bryant has made an impact in a few games, and is a dangerous deep receiver. Tight end Heath Miller is on pace to challenge his career-high in receptions.
Brown is the straw that stirs the drink, and it makes those around him better. The rest of the team's receivers have shown some flashes here and there, but without Brown, it's far less effective of a unit.
Q: Like the Bengals, the Steelers have had some significant injuries to key players. However, it sounds like the Steelers may get some of those players back this week. What key players will be back this week? And are there any key players out for this week?
A: From the sound of it, nose tackle Steve McLendon will return, and he's probably the most important one. The Steelers' defensive line took a hit when defensive end Brett Keisel was lost for the year with a torn triceps. That puts the Steelers in a precarious position in terms of depth. Rookie Stephon Tuitt is said to be the Week 14 starter, and Cam Thomas will probably split snaps with him. Having McLendon back in the middle will help a limited Steelers' run defense.
I'm not sure how big a deal it is to get a few of the other guys back - rookie Ryan Shazier should play but he's splitting snaps with Sean Spence and Vince Williams anyway.
It's possible outside linebacker Jarvis Jones returns, but I'm not sure how much he'd see the field. The Steelers have to be pleased with the way ex-Bengals OLB James Harrison has been playing, and considering the fact Jones hasn't played since the first half of Week 3, I don't think they're going to push this week to get him back out there.
Q: When people think of the Steelers, they usually think of a good ground game and a great defense. The ground game has improved greatly with a healthy LeVeon Bell, but the defense is not a typical "Steelers/Dick LeBeau" defense. Why has the defense struggled in 2014? And how does the loss of Brett Keisel change the defense?
A: Oh, how times have changed. The Steelers haven't played at a high level defensively really since 2010. They were a good defensive team in 2011, and it came together late in 2012, right in time for an injury to Ben Roethlisberger that basically ended the season - not before an epic defensive battle between the Steelers and Bengals in Week 16 of that season.
They simply weren't a good defensive squad last year, and by and large this year, they haven't been either. Part of that struggle, in my mind, is due to an inconsistent front seven that has struggled to both line up correctly and put pressure on the opposing quarterback. Oh, and the secondary has been, at best, spotty. Much of that seems rooted in communication and failed gambles (see William Gay jumping a route against Tennessee that allowed an 80-yard touchdown, and Ike Taylor getting burned doing the same thing against New Orleans for a 70-yard touchdown).
They haven't had great play from their safeties, although Troy Polamalu has done reasonably well against the run. Free agent signee Mike Mitchell hasn't made much of an impact overall, and second-year heir apparent Shamarko Thomas has struggled to get on the field.
The problem with the loss of Keisel isn't so much he isn't on the field it's who replaces him. Tuitt is a rookie and looks like one, and Cam Thomas can't be categorized as anything but a bust free agent. As I said earlier, they're likely to split the snaps between them, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict the Bengals will run right at and probably over either one as a means to meet their primary game plan.
Q: What are the strengths of this Steelers team? And what are the weaknesses?
A: The strengths clearly rest on the offensive side of the ball. They're a strong running team and their passing game is probably even better. They're capable of scoring 30-plus points and can sustain 10 or more play drives. They should be a great cold-weather offense, but if they get the level of performance they got last week from Roethlisberger, they'll be in trouble. I wouldn't expect it again, it was way out of character for him.
Their weaknesses, as we've seen a few times this year, the team's defense can fall apart quickly. They've been beaten by the pass and the run in different times this season, and they've cooled off considerably from taking the ball away as they did around the midway point of the season. It's not a coincidence the level they were at both offensively and defensively from Week 7-9 came from their most productive takeaway defensive football in three years. The plays stopped and they began to struggle.
Q: If you were the Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, how would you attack the Steelers defense? If you were the Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, how would you attack the Steelers offense?
A: If I'm Coach Jackson, I'm running the ball. Then I'll add in a few rushes, and just to balance it out, I'll run the ball. I'm not going to trust Andy Dalton to put the ball in the air too often, and I'm going to stay on schedule in terms of down and distance.
Generally, teams turn the ball over more passing than they do running, and with Dalton under center, that's absolutely the case. Turnovers will kill the Bengals in this game, and they'll be better off controlling the line of scrimmage (big advantage with their offensive line) and playing more conservatively.
Defensively, as crazy as this seems, I'm not going to try to bring a huge amount of edge pressure. Instead, I'm going to attack the Steelers' interior offensive line. I'm going to run-blitz on early downs to get helmets in the face of Bell, an excellent inside zone runner who will wait behind the line of scrimmage before seeing where the holes open up. If I can plug the cutback lanes and force him to delay that cut, I'm in a better position to contain him.
Plus, Roethlisberger can elude pressure from the side - he's had plenty of experience thanks to Mike Adams' career performances. He isn't comfortable with pressure coming at him. He's a side-to-side passer, capable of making plays rolling to his left or his right. What he won't do is throw deep when he has to step up in the pocket. Pressure his face, not as much his back foot, eliminate the comfort zone in front of him and sit back in coverage.
It's tough to stop this offense for four quarters, and a defense just has to make them drive down the field. They're better at scoring from 30 yards out than they are from five, so I'm ok with forcing red zone plays as opposed to big scoring plays.