Welcome to the latest edition of the Steelers Stock Report of the 2020 NFL season: Buffalo Bills edition. I have been granted the distinguished opportunity to attempt to determine which direction individual players, or units, are trending after each weekly matchup, to the best of my ability. I will attempt to make each determination without the use of my Black-and-Gold glasses, but admittedly I can make no promises.
Let’s get started...
Steelers stock trending up: Cameron Heyward
The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line is quite possibly the most underrated unit in the NFL. Whenever members of the national sports media reference reasons for the Steelers stellar defensive performance this season, the defensive linemen are usually a ways down the list. DPOY candidate TJ Watt is always front and center, while Minkah Fitzpatrick and his big play tendency is never far behind. However, the Steelers defensive line group is the strongest positional unit on the team, and the starting three are all having outstanding seasons.
Stephon Tuitt has enjoyed a long awaited healthy season and is having a career year; already registering a new high water mark of 8 sacks with three regular season games left to be played, all while playing his always strong run defense. Tyson Alualu has proven to be the irreplaceable anchor in the middle of the Steelers run defense, and is playing the best football of his life. Alualu continues to be one of the highest graded interior defensive linemen in the league. Both men are worthy of Pro Bowl consideration.
With that being said, Cameron Heyward is the heart soul of the Steelers defense, and the unquestioned leader of the pack. His power is staggering to behold, and he singlehandedly dominated the interior of the Bills offensive line throughout the first half Sunday night. As he has done all season, he repeatedly manhandled his blocker straight back into the lap of Bills QB Josh Allen. He contacted Allen's arm on one throw, resulting in a Mike Hilton interception. He was unblockable in the first half, disrupting the Bills offense at every turn.
The Bills made the necessary halftime adjustments, and double teamed Heyward for the remainder of the game. The adjustments proved fruitful for the Bills, as Heyward's teammates couldn't take advantage of the extra attention being paid to him. The Steelers defense played admirably throughout the game considering they were missing multiple starters across the board due to COVID and injuries, but eventually wore down as the Steelers offense failed to uphold their end of the bargain. The Steelers lost for the second time this season, but Heyward put forth an absolutely dominant display of power football.
Steelers stock trending down: Roster health
Football is a full contact combat sport, and injuries are a part of the game. Every team experiences them, although some teams are more fortunate than others. Not every injury is created equally, and the "when" and "to whom" factors into the impact of said injuries greatly. The San Francisco Forty Niners; last year's Super Bowl runners up, have been absolutely devastating by injuries this season, with multiple key contributors lost for the season early on. Last season was like an enchanted experience for the franchise that had dealt with mediocrity for decades, only to see this season turn into their nightmare scenario.
The Steelers were haunted last season with multiple injuries, and they don't get any bigger than losing the face of the franchise to what turned out to be a no contact injury. Those type injuries have been frequent this season across the league, with many blaming the abnormal off season training schedules and lack of a preseason. Whatever the reason, the results speak for themselves. Standout performers Devin Bush and Bud Dupree have both been lost for the season due to these type injuries.
Throw in pandemic protocol and a rash of injuries during the past three weeks of discontent and uncertainties, and the Steelers suddenly find themselves struggling to find cohesiveness and consistency. It's not hard to figure out the why, but much harder to figure out how to fix all that ails them.
Ben Roethlisberger is a 38 year old future Hall of Famer who happens to be one of the all time greats to ever play the position. This team will only go as far as he can lead them. His transformation from rambunctious gun slinger to cerebral tactician has been something to behold, and a change made out of necessity. Ben fully understands his body after 17 years in the NFL couldn't withstand the rigors of his previous playing style. He has made many admirable adjustments to his game, but even more alterations are needed moving forward.
The Steelers simply lack the talent necessary at the running back position, and the physicality along the offensive line as presently constructed, to be consistently effective running the football. Personnel changes and additions will be needed after the season before that will ever change, but the Steelers are a playoff team and improvements are needed immediately. The Steelers have three weeks to make adjustments.
Oftentimes the most effective adjustments are the simplest, going back to the basics so to speak. Being less predictable by adding multiple play designs from some suddenly stagnate personnel packages and formations would be a good place to start. Simply taking some snaps beneath center would be an easy way to open more of the playbook and add the threat of play action.
This Steelers squad isn't going to suddenly morph into the rushing attack of bygone years, but they have to be able to run enough to keep opposing defenses honest. They have to find a way to get a yard when they absolutely have to get a yard. They have to show a renewed commitment to the running game in those short yardage situations, and a good place to start would be with the "want to" of the offensive line being on full display.
Ben Roethlisberger definitely gets frustrated handing the ball off and watching the running backs run into a brick wall of defenders for no gain or a loss. He prefers to not have to back pedal from center, or turn his back to the defense. All champions want the outcome of each play to be in their hands. Ben is no different. He might not be thrilled with all the adjustments needed for the Steelers to get their offense back on track, but I would be willing to bet he hates losing more than anything else.
Steelers stock currently free falling: Playoff momentum
The Steelers have done a great job getting all the newcomers and draft picks up to speed and worked into the rotations this season, often out of necessity. Seemingly every time the Steelers have been on the verge of taking their performances to the next level, to start firing on all cylinders so to speak, there have been scheduling changes due to COVID concerns not of their own making. Throw in the aforementioned injuries to key performers and a serious case of the dropsies from the receiving core, and the Steelers current two game losing streak isn't really that hard to understand.
The Steelers have lost their way at this point of the season, and lost any semblance of momentum right along with it. The Steelers qualified for the playoffs on Sunday despite the loss. That is always their first goal to start each season, but their final goal is so much bigger. The Steelers must utilize the final three games of the regular season to find their identity and a return to their winning ways.