Following a strange, almost frustrating 26-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-0. That means the Steelers are right where they were expected to be, at least according to the vast majority of the football-cognizant populace. Let’s take a gander at some of the particulars:
The Front Seven - Stock Up
The Steelers, following a seven-sack performance against the Browns in Week 1, swore fealty to the blitz yet again in Week 2. The Vikings surrendered only a pair of sacks, though this was attributable mainly to Case Keenum’s innate ability to launch directionless passes in the general vicinity of his receivers. The Steelers hit Keenum at least seven times and routinely forced him to hurry his throws, which prevented the journeyman from establishing any tangible continuity with his receiving corps. Cam Heyward, who didn’t register a sack, had arguably one of his best performances as a professional, amassing six tackles, two quarterback hits and a team-high two tackles for losses. It was a performance imbued with dominance and one that underscored Heyward’s Pro Bowl pedigree. Bud Dupree was similarly disruptive, collecting his first sack of the season (and his sixth in his last five regular season games, dating back to Week 14 of last season), thus ensuring that Mike Remmers will receive his fair share of negative feedback in film study.
This strong showing by the front-seven was made all the more impressive by the fact that Stephon Tuitt, perhaps the most physically-imposing member of this unit, was inactive for Sunday’s game. Furthermore, James Harrison, elder statesman and resident cyborg of Pittsburgh’s front-seven, is presumably being housed in storage until later this season, at which point he will be unleashed on unsuspecting quarterbacks like a shape-shifting clown monster. In other words, we still haven’t seen what this unit is capable of at full strength.
The Offense at Large - Stock slightly trending Up
The Steelers scored 26 points against what is objectively an extremely talented defense (the Vikings ranked third in total defense in 2016 and sent five players to the Pro Bowl), which is a praiseworthy achievement. On Sunday, it was clear that Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin had two primary objectives in mind: throw the ball deep and force-feed Le’Veon Bell. Roethlisberger attempted, in my estimation, seven deep passes, completing one to Martavis Bryant for 51 yards and drawing a pair of 40-ish-yard pass interference penalties, which are just as effective as completions. The deep ball is very much a hallmark of Pittsburgh’s offense, so the implementation of this strategy comes as no surprise. But it was interesting that the Steelers were so hellbent on testing Xavier Rhodes, who is one of the three best cornerbacks (if not the best) that they will face this season. Then again, Tomlin is famously opposed to living in his fears, so we can likely expect more of the same in the weeks ahead.
Bell, meanwhile, finished Sunday’s game with a respectable 87 rushing yards, but he needed 27 carries to reach that milestone. Through two games, the two-time All-Pro is currently averaging 3.2 yards per carry (YPC)—well below his career average of 4.4 YPC. He has yet to orchestrate any characteristically gorgeous forays through the line of scrimmage and, most troublingly, has been a non-factor as a receiver, essentially stripping Pittsburgh’s offense of a dimension that previously had distinguished it as one of the league’s most effective.
It should be noted, though, that Minnesota is quite adept at stopping the run, boasting one of the league’s best defensive lines along with a trio of monolithic linebackers and a pair of hard-hitting safeties who thrive near the line of scrimmage. There’s little doubt that the running game will sort itself out eventually. Bell and his offensive linemen are simply too talented to remain this ineffective for the duration of the season.
The Secondary - Stock Up
Say what you will about the aptitude of the quarterbacks it has faced thus far, but Pittsburgh’s secondary looks like a formidable group. Artie Burns, whose rambunctious nature in coverage customarily draws a greater-than-normal number of penalties, has played well, indicating that his up-and-down, but mostly successful rookie campaign was no fluke. The same is true for Joe Haden, who’s enjoying somewhat of a career revival following back-to-back-to-back injury-plagued and mostly unsuccessful seasons in Cleveland. Intriguingly, Keith Butler has exhibited some admirable creativity with respect to Haden’s deployment. Haden, who for many years was widely regarded as a lock-down defender, is now being used to rush the passer and he’s doing so with great success. From 2010 through 2016, Haden was credited with only two sacks. But against Minnesota, Haden came within half-step of collecting his second sack in as many games with the Steelers.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also call attention to former camp darling Mike Hilton, who’s become an actual Tasmanian devil. Hilton led the team in tackles and, much like Haden, just missed out on a sack. The Burns-Haden-Hilton lineup certainly isn’t what we envisioned at the onset of training camp, but this group is going to significantly influence the outcomes of games this season.
Alejandro Villanueva - Stock Down
Villanueva, tasked with preventing 275 pounds of screaming chaos from liquefying Ben Roethlisberger’s internal organs, had a rough day at the office. Everson Griffen, the aforementioned chaos, dusted Villanueva on an absolutely goofy inside spin move that was lifted directly from the Dwight Freeney Textbook of Quarterback-Murder Techniques. Villanueva would later leave the game with “heat-related issues.” Fortunately, he won’t face many pass rushers who are better than Griffen, and as for the hot playing conditions, Pittsburgh does tend to get chilly later in the year.
Chris Boswell - Stock Up
Over the course of his career so far, Boswell has converted 88.5 percent of his field goal attempts. If Boswell qualified for the all-time list, which he does not because kickers need at least 100 career attempts to qualify, he would be the third most accurate kicker in NFL history—a remarkable achievement considering the barren moonscape on which he plays half of his games. He converted all four of his field goal attempts on Sunday, demonstrating that a kicker with laser precision can alleviate the frustrations presented by stalled drives.
The Receiving Corps - Stock Up
Pittsburgh’s receiving corps is essentially the Elder Wand that makes one the master of accumulating yards and scoring touchdowns. They have a supremely talented, do-everything receiver who runs one or two routes that are literally impossible to defend. They’ve got a pair of sure-handed security outlets, one large and one small. They have a hyper-athletic outside receiver who’s part red-zone threat and part deep threat. The multidimensionality of Pittsburgh’s passing attack was on display at Heinz Field on Sunday, and this was only a small sampling of things to come.
(Another) New weekly feature - The game ball
James Conner. Conner only had one carry for nine yards, but it caused the home crowd to completely lose their minds. He didn’t play the remainder of the game, but it was a pretty awesome moment.
The Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
Despite the Steelers currently sitting at 2-0, I’m actually slightly inclined to bump the BRR Index up this week, and let me explain why. First, Roethlisberger was frequently interrupted by unwelcome backfield pressure, which is almost a foreign concept to him given how solid his offensive line has been over the past two seasons. He’s not likely to be sacked on a boat or on the golf course.
The second thing that might be directly influencing Roethlisberger’s retirement decision is the fact that his receivers keep dropping passes (though this definitely needs an asterisk, because a distinction must be made between run-of-the-mill drops and drops that occur when a screaming fastball caroms off of a receiver’s fingertips; Ben clearly is a disciple of the “if it touches your hands, you catch it” faith). Eli Rogers dropped a pass in Sunday’s game, and Ben flashed a trademark Roethlisberger grimace. You know the one:
Anyway, we’ll set the BRR Index at a 7 for this week. Ben is still all-in for a Super Bowl run, but much like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, he’s getting too old for this [poo emoji].