The Steelers took a step in the right direction on Sunday, winning their second game of the year against the Denver Broncos.
As always, there are plenty of takeaways to be had:
1. Back in the race
This might be singularly the most important takeaway from the game. The Steelers now sit at a 2-3 record, and with both the Browns and Bengals losing on Sunday, catching up with their 3-2 records seems attainable. If the Steelers can stack some more wins, especially with 5/6ths of their divisional games still ahead of them, they have a chance at placing in the top half of the AFC North by the end of the season.
2. Thanks, JuJu
JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a painful shoulder injury against the Broncos that will sideline him for the rest of the season. It’s a rough turn of events for the wide receiver, who was betting on himself this season in hopes of cashing in on the free agent market in 2022.
Regardless, Sunday might’ve marked his last game as a Steeler.
If that’s the case, it will be hard to see Smith-Schuster go. He’s been one of the most reliable and productive members of the Steelers’ offense over the past couple years. Despite being underutilized at times by the Steelers’ offensive scheme and unfairly criticized by what can be an overzealous fanbase, Smith-Schuster undoubtedly played his heart out every time he stepped onto the field throughout his career.
Some will be glad to see him go, but in my mind Smith-Schuster embodies what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Steeler on the field. Here’s hoping he’ll be back next season.
3. The ups and downs of James Pierre
With starting cornerback Cam Sutton out against the Broncos, second-year defender James Pierre ended up with a starting role for the game. He had some fantastic plays, most notably his touchdown-saving tackle of Javonte Williams, as well as a game-sealing interception in the end zone. However, he was beat badly by Courtland Sutton for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the second big play he’s given up this young season.
That concerning trend is largely due to Pierre’s lack of elite athleticism, which hampers him when coverage becomes a footrace. Thankfully, such holes in his game can be fixed as his technique improves, and possibly some more safety help over the top.
Pierre has proven himself to have starter potential in the limited chances he’s had this season, and as he continues to develop his game should become more well-rounded. This is especially good news for the Steelers, as Joe Haden is nearing the end of his playing days, and the team might just have a quality replacement waiting in the wings.
4. Credit where it’s due
The Steelers’ offensive line has received a lot of criticism over the course of the season, and most of it has been well-deserved. However, they looked like a quality unit on Sunday. They opened up some running lanes for Najee Harris to the tune of 147 team rushing yards on the day. More impressive was their work in pass protection, where they allowed only one sack. Chuks Okorafor, who many (including this writer) have thought should be benched this season, did a fantastic job when up against future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller. Okorafor held Miller to just two tackles, along with no sacks.
5. Something that works
The Steelers’ offense played the type of game they’ll have to play the rest of this season if they want to win games. Ben Roethlisberger threw just 25 times for a solid 253 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger also didn’t throw any interceptions, although he had a few passes that were nearly caught by the opposing team. Still, it was nice to see a clean game through the air for the struggling quarterback.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned offensive line held up great in pass protection all while being a force in the run game. This helped the Steelers control much of the game and take the pressure off of Roethlisberger, who was able to spread the ball around more than usual.
It’s clear that the Steelers’ offensive keys to victory this year are a strong, consistent running game paired with a smart and efficient passing game. What’s important is whether or not the team can consistently do so.
The Steelers haven’t enjoyed as much pass-rushing success as they usually do this season, likely due to a number of injuries along the defensive front. However, Pittsburgh has found a new weapon to blitz the quarterback with: athletic linebacker Devin Bush. He notched his second consecutive game with a sack against the Broncos, and was a noticeable force on the field until he had to leave due to injury. His speed when shooting the gaps has been a valuable asset for providing pressure up the middle, especially with both Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu out with injuries.
Last week I wrote about how it was nice to see the Steelers’ inside linebackers making splash plays once again. Hopefully it’s a trend that continues throughout the season.
7. A position to succeed
Chase Claypool enjoyed his best game of the season so far, recording a touchdown and well over 100 yards against the Broncos. Besides just good play and effort, some of Claypool’s success came via matchups, most notably in the slot and routes in the middle of the field. While Claypool has struggled on the outside so far this year, especially when it comes to making contested catches, his impressive athleticism makes him an absolute nightmare in the slot where he can draw favorable matchups and gain separation.
Perhaps the one silver lining of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s injury is that Claypool will likely play more in the slot in place of Smith-Schuster. Don’t be surprised if he has several other big games throughout the rest of the season.
Could the Steelers’ win over the Broncos be a turning point in their season?
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the 2021 regular season.