This isn't really a state of the union type post, just several reasons why I feel pretty darn good about the Pittsburgh Steelers and their chances at at least returning to the AFC Championship game this year. Do I believe this year's team is as good as last year's? I think they can be. They're just not there yet. And of course, a rash of injuries in the next 6 weeks could derail the team's chances of even making the playoffs, let alone making a return trip to the Super Bowl. Assuming though that the Steelers don't lose multiple players of Harrison, Ward, Big Ben or Polamalu's caliber, I like their chances just fine of playing playoff football games in January. Here's six reasons, one for every Lombardi Trophy resting in the organization's trophy case.
1) The defense is rounding in to form and should continue to do so. The Steelers shot themselves in the foot at the end of last Sunday's loss against the Bengals - James Harrison's penalty immediately comes to mind; the inability to bring down Bernard Scott on first contact hurt too. We're not used to seeing the Steelers have opposing teams close out games against them with the running game. Cincinnati didn't exactly do that like we did to Denver the previous Monday, but they certainly increased their chances of holding on to the slim lead by gobbling up some clock and forcing the Steelers to score a TD to win rather than just get a FG to tie.
Anyway, the defense still played very, very well for much of the game. Now if the special teams wouldn't stop handing away points, and if the offense would just get back to executing in the red zone like they were to start the year.
Here's the defense's number through 10 games (league rankings in parenthesis)
Points per game (team total): 17.4 (6th)
Points per game (defense only): 12.7 (1st)
Yards per game: 277.4 (2nd)
Rushing Yards/G: 69.3 (1st)
Passing Yards/G: 208.1 (12th)
3rd Down %: 41 % (24th)
Sacks: 25 (t-4th)
Interceptions: 8 (t-16th)
Forced Fumbles: 8 (t-18th)
Fumbles Recovered: 5 (t-20th)
Those passing numbers aren't too shabby when you consider how infrequently teams try to run the ball against Pittsburgh. There's also the undeniable fact that the Steelers have only trailed for a very small block of time in any game this season. Re-read that sentence again by the way if you count yourself in the camp that thinks this team is fatally flawed. The Steelers have yet to look outclassed once this season and really have only themselves to blame for any of their losses except arguably this past Sunday's game against the Bengals. William Gay had his best game as a professional last week too, which for me, was an unbelievably important development for this secondary if that trend continues. I was hesitant to claim that I thought this defense could be championship caliber earlier in the season. The primary reason was I thought William Gay's weakness (compared to the rest of the defense) would allow teams to systematically break down the defense as a whole by picking on him early and often. Since halftime of the Denver game, William Gay hasn't looked like a weak link or the type of player that opposing offenses will be able to go after time and again. Let's hope at least.
The bottom line to me is that I can not think of any other defense in the AFC that I believe is better than the Steelers. The Bengals? No. I give immense credit to Mike Zimmer and the job he has done with that defense in two short years. I just think the Bengals matchup extremely well with the Steelers. I'm not so sure I feel the same way about them lined up against New England, San Diego or Indianapolis. We'll see. Other than that, who else scares you defensively amongst the AFC contenders? Baltimore? We'll see in two weeks. Indy? Not really, though they can be tough when healthy. New England? Meh, not really. I like Pittsburgh's chances over any team in the conference in a defensive slugfest. And if we can avoid the injury bug and get Polamalu back healthy sooner rather than later, get better play out of Lawrence Timmons and Deshea Townsend, and I think we'll continue to see them round in to form at just the right time.
2) Special Teams play is really hurting the team. They're dead last in kickoff return coverage by Football Outsiders metrics and it's scary by how much. I do not at all think it's unrealistic to say that this can and will improve for the rest of the season. We're not talking about expecting a team like the Raiders to suddenly develop a potent passing attack. We're merely talking about paid professionals being more disciplined, more determined and more willing to bang heads in a very straight forward, uncomplicated way
If you read Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker article about football and dogfighting, you may have picked up on the commentary about special teams being the most violent and dangerous aspect of football. A disproportionate number of injuries occur on special teams - and on kickoffs in particular. There's technique involved in consistently covering kickoffs, but there's not that much. It's more about pride, mental discipline, and perhaps most importantly, a willingness to maniacly fly down the field at full speed, eager to put a hat on somebody at any cost. As Mike Tomlin has said on more than one occasion, the most violent team will win. Right now, we're the least violent and physical team in the most violent department in football. We can and will change that, and I think datruth hit the nail on the head by pinpointing Donovan Woods as the guy who could help change all that beginning Sunday. Improvement in this one small aspect of the game could subtly take pressure off both the offense and the defense. Frankly, I think it would help Bruce Arians call more coherent game plans if the team wasn't giving away points on special teams and keeping games closer than they might otherwise be. Translation - leads = more running, more opportunistic play-action passing, (hopefully) more cautious decision making from Big Ben with the football.
3) Ben Roethlisberger is our quarterback. I know he's coming off a subpar game last Sunday, but let's not let one game taint our view of his season to date. He's made very nice strides this year and is every bit the franchise quarterback he's paid to be. There's only a handful of those types of signal callers in this league. We have one of them. Don't underestimate the importance of that come December and January when the stakes are raised. Big Ben helped pull victory from the jaws of defeat numerous times last year after playing poorly for much of the game prior to his heroics. It didn't work out for him and the offense in the final drive last week, but Big Ben's resume in the clutch more than speaks for itself.
4) Turnovers. We're due for more than we've created through 9 games. Credit opposing teams for protecting the football, but a defense this physical and talented is going to force more turnovers than they have to start the year. We all know Ike Taylor doesn't possess the best set of hands in the league. But other guys are missing out on picks as well. Ryan Clark missed an easy pick last Sunday. William Gay missed out on one two weeks ago because Troy Polamalu crashed in to him unnecessarily. Let's make a few of those plays and have a forced fumble or two bounce our way (last year we recovered 75% of our forced fumbles; this year only 62.5%). A few more turnovers could lead to some cheaper offensive points throughout ball games, which in turn might actually lead to Bruce Arians utilizing our promising but underutilized running game.
5) The schedule is lining up fairly nicely. Now, the Steelers are the defending champs. It's about them executing to their fullest potential. If they do, they're going to win lots of games, regardless of who they're playing. But let's take a look at how the schedule lines up. You know the games by now - all games are very winnable. That's not the point - instead take a look at how the days of the week their remaining games fall on.
Week 11 @ KC (Sunday)
Week 12 @ Baltimore (Sunday night)
Week 13 vs. Oakland (Sunday)
Week 14 @ Cleveland (Thursday night)
Week 15 vs. Green Bay (Sunday night)
Week 16 vs. Baltimore (Sunday)
Week 17 @ Miami (Sunday)
What's the big deal you say? Well, that 10 day break in between Week 14 and Week 15 will be huge. It's never easy to prepare for a Thursday game following a game the previous Sunday, but look at our opponents. First, the Raiders at home, followed by a trip to Cleveland to take on the Browns. I hate to get ahead of myself, but let's be real - the Steelers should and will win those games. After that tough stretch, they get 10 days to heal up while the rest of the league plays on each week. Don't think it matters? Last year, the Steelers had a similar situation when they traveled to Cincinnati for a Thursday night game following the important victory over San Diego. They looked only so-so against the Bengals, but won, then had 10 days off before traveling to New England. They looked outstanding against the Patriots - fresher and more physical than they had looked in weeks. Their play then carried over the following two weeks when they survived defensive slugfests with Dallas and Baltimore. My hope is the Steelers survive these next four games with no worse than three wins, then close out the schedule with victories in their final three games following a week and a half of rest. So just remember Steelers fans, even if Pittsburgh loses in two weeks to Baltimore, stay way, way way away from the ledge. At least until the two teams meet again in Week 16. 12-4 is a very distinct possibility, even if they were to trip up on the road two Sundays from now.
I'm not one to put too much emphasis on these kinds of things, but it definitely matters in this league. Ideally, you don't want the toughest, most physical games on your schedule to be piled up together. It matters. And our remaining games are certainly spread out nicely in terms of travel, opponents and the brand of football that each opponent brings to the table.
6) To conclude, I honestly believe that the loss to the Bengals came at just the right time for this year's team. It's neither too late in the year to panic nor too early for the coaching staff to feel a sense of urgency to get some of the more glaring problems resolved immediately. We already saw Mike Tomlin make a personnel move this week for special teams purposes; now we need to see Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger make some slight adjustments. Big Ben is really hurting this team with his sacks. The easy retort is: 'but that's what he does, you have to live with the bad so that Ben can be Ben.' Hogwash. That's not what great quarterbacks do. To be clear, that's not what great quarterbacks rely on. It's a luxury that he has at his disposal for certain situations. But lately, Big Ben is expecting to break every would be sack. He knows that's his M.O. and he thinks he's capable of pulling it off each and every time he's under pressure. Not smart. Is it just me, or has Ben really not made that many guys miss this year after first contact. The Vikings in particular did a fantastic job bringing him down. He's had some nice plays, but he's hurting the team with his unwillingness to throw the ball away more frequently.
Arians meanwhile needs to assume that the offensive line isn't going to give Ben all day like they have during many of our games this year. The result of our early success was franchise records by Ben and the offense for passing yardage and points scored. I think it's also led to a false sense of security about how good the line really is. I think all that early success throwing the football has made Bruce and Ben a bit greedy as well. It's good to be confident. Now it's time to be a bit smarter. More quick-hitting passes, more creative screens, more utilizing Rashard Mendenhall's abilities as a pass catcher. Arians should watch New Orleans to see how those swing passes to Reggie Bush make it dangerous and tough to blitz too recklessly against the Saints.
Anyway, the margin for error is now smaller for the offense than it was last year. The defense is not quite as dominant; special teams are now a liability rather than strong suit; and we're playing from behind in the standings rather than as front runners. With the loss to the Bengals on Sunday - a game in which the offensive line looked legitimately overwhelmed for the first time all season - the offense needs to take a step back and rethink its strategy and identity for the remainder of the season.