The Steelers got off their losing streak in Week 16, just in time to lock up the AFC North and make their Week 17 matchup with Cleveland irrelevant.
I think we can all agree that the Steelers being on top, and Cleveland being irrelevant, help bring a very welcome dose of normalcy to a bizarre season. There are many reasons for the Steelers turn-around, there’s never one singular factor responsible, and we’ll dive into many of them throughout the week here at BTSC. One of those factors was the return of a few familiar faces.
James Conner has caught a pass in 12 games this season. The games he didn’t? Weeks 12, 13, 14 and 15. It shouldn’t take you long to see a correlation between those four games Conner was uninvolved in the passing game. (The offense stunk, that’s the correlation) Conner only ran 4 times for 20 yards, but his 65 yards from scrimmage was his 6th best output on the season. Conner’s value as a runner who can hurt you in the passing game while being a good blocker in blitz pickup is significant to this offense.
Was James Conner the difference? No. But he was part of it.
Kevin Dotson started at left guard, and he was fantastic. He moved people in the run game and largely shut down DeForest Buckner when they faced off, giving up one batted pass over the course of the game. Against the Steelers, Buckner had his second game of the season without a sack, QB hit, tackle for a loss, or a forced fumble, Kevin Dotson filling the hole at left guard was a big part of that.
The Steelers turned the game around with Ben Roethlisberger feeling confident enough to step up into the pocket and take shots downfield. Ben Roethlisberger turned the game around because he was more comfortable and could play his game.
Don’t underestimate the impact Dotson and Conner had in helping their quarterback find that comfort level.
But we all know the absolute No. 1 reason for the Steelers victory, and that is Minkah Fitzpatrick getting snaps on offense. Fitzpatrick is undefeated on offense, it even took two snaps to get the win this week.
On defense, the Steelers went from playing Marcus Allen the entire game in Week 15 to playing Vince Williams the entire game in Week 16. The inside linebackers remain the weakness of this team right now, but it isn’t panic time though. Why? Because even without Robert Spillane, if the Steelers have Vince Williams and Marcus Allen both available they can split dime linebacker duty from nickel and heavier sets and both players will fare better. Vince Williams playing in dime is not ideal, as is Marcus Allen playing in anything but dime.
Vince Williams played 100% of defensive snaps for the third time in his career, the other two times were in 2018, against Kansas City and Tampa Bay, all three games the Steelers gave up at least 24 points, and all three saw the opposition target Williams as a weakness in coverage.
If Robert Spillane returns for the playoffs, the linebacker unit will be fine. Amazing how far that young man has ascended from a practice squad player forced into special teams action last season to the Steelers second best inside linebacker behind only Devin Bush this season. Can’t give enough credit for the job Keith Butler and Terryl Austin have done scheming this defense to the players’ strengths.
Two other players saw an increased role this week, with Carlos Davis moving into the No. 4 defensive lineman spot, and Cassius Marsh seeing his first action as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Olasunkanmi Adeniyi was out for the game with a shoulder injury, while Isaiah Buggs was a healthy scratch. Both Davis and Marsh played well, Cassius Marsh was active, if a bit out of position at times on defense and delivered a big hit on special teams, while Carlos Davis played well in his snaps. I expect to see more of Marsh as he showed the athleticism needed to play the position, dropped into coverage well and plays made on special teams matter to Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
When this defense is healthy, they are the best in the NFL by a good margin, when they are mostly healthy they are still the top defense. Right now they are a Top 3 defense down numerous important players. It is impressive to see players continue to step up and fill holes at a high enough level to keep this defense going.