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12 key takeaways from the first 6 weeks of the Steelers’ season

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After the Steelers’ thrilling victory over the Bengals, they head into the bye-week, and based on six weeks of play, there’s a lot that can be concluded.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers have reached their bye-week after a thrilling 28-21 victory over a Bengals team which performed extremely well throughout the first five weeks of the season. The Steelers’ rocky first six games have them entering the bye-week as a team with understandably high expectations after two consecutive, big wins. With that in mind, what can we take from the first six games? Here are my twelve takeaways:

Don’t worry about James Conner

With Le’Veon Bell holding out for the first six weeks and expected to come back during the bye-week, there’s no doubt the RB situation is going to have some turmoil involved in it — especially after impressive performances by future star-RB James Conner.

Conner showed he wasn’t just an average running back. He’s clearly a starter and, in my opinion, a future star. He runs as hard as any RB you’ll see and shows incredible balance on contact. As hard as it is to bring the man down, it’s easy to see why he leads the NFL in broken tackles.

The biggest key for Conner this season has been receiving and pass-blocking. He’s been terrific in both areas and is on pace for more than 70 catches. He has only given up one sack in pass protection. Conner has turned into an all-around RB that any team could trust as their starter, and I look forward to seeing a two-headed monster come Week 8 (as long as Le’Veon shows up).

Joe Haden is worth every penny

I know he’s often injured and isn’t what he used to be, but Joe Haden is the savior of this CB group. He consistently is covering opposing teams’ No. 1 WRs and he shuts them down. He shut down Julio Jones, and when he was covering A.J. Green, he kept him in check. We all saw how much this secondary suffered when he was out against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was truly a disaster in the secondary, as Tyreek Hill had his way throughout the game.

Without Haden, this secondary is in turmoil. He’s not a perfect CB, and he had an up-and-down game against the Ravens, but the secondary absolutely needs this man. He’s one of only two CBs on the team to have ball-skills, and it allows him to shut down these guys. Keep it up Joe.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a star

I cannot say enough good things about JuJu. He constantly comes up big in every situation where the Steelers need him, and his catch-in-traffic ability has gone up even from last year. He cooks everyone he faces in the slot and he’s one of the best blocking-WRs in the NFL.

You’ve seen what he did against every team the Steelers faced this season. In just about every game, he was incredibly productive and continues to make the biggest plays when the Steelers need him most. His catch-point skills are elite and he has become a more nuanced route-runner as well.

There’s no doubt about it, JuJu is a star and a great person. The guy is the second option on this offense and deserves to continue in that role. He’s a star.

Sean Davis has been fantastic

Yeah, you don’t hear his name too often. He’s not getting interceptions, but he’s doing his job on film. I invite you to review the all-22 of any game this season thus far and see how great Davis has been. He’s been rangy and helps so much over the top. There haven’t been many deep passing plays down the middle or to the right side of the field at all.

Why?

Sean Davis is roaming there all day. He has some incredible reaction and twitch at FS and he hadn’t showed this previously. Last time he showed it was on his college tape at FS. If there’s a RB who gets past the LBs, Davis always makes the touchdown-saving tackle.

He has been surest tackler on the team this season. He has only missed one tackle this season. Once you reach Davis, the play is done. The only truly bad play he had is the Mohammed Sanu TD against the Falcons, but Davis is finding his way.

Artie Burns is cooked

I really am rooting for Artie Burns to turn it around during the second half of the season, but he truly has had a dreadful first half. It seems in every game, the guy has some kind of mental error or just gets burnt.

For example, he was burnt multiple times by Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, Tyler Boyd, and others. I really don’t need to go on about how badly it seems the Steelers whiffed on this pick. It’s a shame the Bengals took William Jackson III from Pittsburgh, because he’s a beast.

Burns really has to work on the mental aspect of it but, in addition, he just seems so timid this season. His lack of aggressiveness and zone awareness cause him to be a constant liability on the field.

The best is yet to come for Ben Roethlisberger

Okay, Ben, you had a rough first few games of the season — typical Ben Roethlisberger. You can never expect the guy to have a good start to the year. He cost the team a game against the Ravens and was a huge liability against the Browns.

On the other hand, he played extremely well against the Falcons, and was masterful against the Bengals. Don’t worry about Big Ben. He’s going to be completely fine. His touch is coming back, he’s settling in, he’s reading the field and his game continues to get better every week. That’ll be just in time for a tough second half of the schedule, but never doubt Big Ben. He’s going to be the key to this team, and you can bet he will only get better.

Will Stephon Tuitt please show up?

So, the Steelers give Tuitt a 6-year, $60 million contact and he no shows every week? Is this really another case of LaMarr Woodley?

Tuitt seemed to wake up somewhat in Week 6, as he recorded his first sack of the season and was constantly getting into the backfield, but at times it seemed as if he wasn’t trying. He’ll just play at half-effort on some plays and it’s maddening. We know what he can do, but we have seen very little of ‘Do it Tuitt’.

He needs to have a big second half of the season to redeem himself from this lackluster start.

Vance McDonald was worth the wait

Some people were calling for McDonald to be cut. He never saw the field and missed all of training camp, but you are now seeing why the Steelers held onto the beast that is Vance McDonald.

He’s one of the hardest men to bring down in the NFL, and he illustrates that every week. No one will forget the absolute slaying of Chris Conte on Monday Night Football, or the tossing aside of Vontaze Burfict.

That part is flashy and great, but he’s a great target to have in this offense. He pushes it over the top and Ben loves to use him as a check-down option. On top of that, he’s just a nasty blocker too. What an underrated gem to have.

Jon Bostic: Best ILB on the team

Well, my preseason bashing of Jon Bostic sure does look stupid. Bostic had a pretty horrendous preseason, and it reached the point where I said the Steelers should start L.J. Fort or Matthew Thomas over him. While we still need an athletic LB in the middle, Bostic is not the issue. He’s a sure tackler, good in run defense, and has been surprisingly stout in coverage.

Bostic has proved a lot of people wrong, and Vince Williams has been the issue on the other side. Williams hasn’t had a good start to the season, and he should split time with L.J. Fort when Fort is ready to come back.

Nevertheless, Bostic has been a great addition.

This offensive line is elite

Yeah, you can talk about how you don’t care for how Alejandro Villanueva has played at times, or how Ramon Foster has his lapses too, but this is one of the top-5 OLs in the league.

David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Marcus Gilbert have been absolutely elite this season. Foster and Villanueva have caught up to speed since the Baltimore game. Week 4 and on, per Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot, this OL has only given up 6 QB hits and one sack, with an average time of 4 (!) seconds for Big Ben to find his guy.

Be blessed the Steelers have this OL, folks, because every single guy on the line is starter-level, and likely Pro Bowl level.

Burnett is MIA

Yeah, he was good in the first two games he played, but my goodness, what the heck Morgan Burnett?

Steelers fans should have expected that Burnett would be often injured when he signed with the Steelers, but no one expected him to be gone for four of the first six weeks. This is turning out to be one of the worst free agencies in recent memory, outside of Ladarius Green, of course.

Pittsburgh needs Burnett to get back on the field, stay healthy, and produce like everyone knows he can. When he’s in the lineup, this team will get better.

Free James Washington?

If there is one aspect of this team I cannot put my finger on, it would be Washington’s struggles. He has been targeted deep many times, and has been open several of those times.

Big Ben has missed him for a TD a few times deep, but he’s not getting open consistently either. Something needs to change with Washington, because none of the strengths from his college tape are currently showing up.

It could be a chemistry thing or an adjustment period. But I would love to see a strong second half of the season from Washington. He would add a deep-play threat which could make this offense even deadlier.