We are just over one month away from the NFL Playoffs, and the Steelers’ playoff outlook is getting dimmer by the week. After an ugly tie to the winless Detroit Lions followed by two losses in which the defense struggled to make key stops, fans are calling for Ben Roethlisberger’s head and for Mike Tomlin’s shades.
Some are blaming Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Chase Claypool, and others for the team’s struggles, while others are putting the blame on the front office for drafting them. Preseason acquisitions Joe Schobert and Ahkello Witherspoon have not panned out as expected, and a multitude of injuries have depleted the defense of talent. Danny Smith has been preaching hangtime rather than distance, and Pressley Harvin has been shanking punts and struggling to place the ball consistently well. The offensive line is still a train wreck, and the team’s struggling quarterback will be fortunate to finish the season in one piece. Feeling nauseated yet?
All these knee-jerk reactions lead to one question: is the season still salvageable?
While we can go back and forth on what the correct answer is to that question, it is blatantly obvious that this team needs some players to become difference-makers down the stretch. It could be that a certain player needs to have a bigger role to have the opportunity to become a difference-maker. It could also be that a certain player is just in a slump and needs to step it up in order to make a difference. No matter what the reason is, this team needs more difference-makers than just T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward.
Here are my top three players that have the ability to save the Steelers’ season, whether that be by an increased role or by improved play.
Miller was highly sought after in the 2018 draft class, and it looked as if he was on the verge of a breakout in 2019, catching 52 passes for 656 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, he was never able to remain relevant in Matt Nagy’s offense for any extended period of time. Despite the quarterback situation being less than ideal, Miller found ways to get open and provide sparks for the offense. Unfortunately, the instability in Chicago made life difficult for him, and the constant change of quarterbacks likely made it hard for him to develop any sort of chemistry with one quarterback.
Miller was cut by the Texans not long after being traded by the Bears for late round draft compensation, and when he became available, the Steelers decided to sign him to the practice squad. Miller’s first game on the active roster was Sunday against the Bengals, but I would like to see him remain on the roster moving forward. He is a different type of slot receiver than JuJu Smith-Schuster was for this team, but his combination of quickness and agility could add a little electricity to a Steelers offense that could use another productive body at the wide receiver position.
If the Steelers can get him involved in the offense over the next couple weeks, opponents will have a difficult time defending him and Diontae Johnson at the same time. With two receivers that have such great after-the-catch ability, the Steelers will not be a team anyone with a suspect secondary will want to face in December and January.
The criticism is loud. The regression from 2019 pre-injury is clear. Has he just lost it? Is it a lack of effort? Is he still injured? While I believe his injury is a partial justification of his struggles, the issues are likely a combination of all three of the aforementioned concerns. Let us not forget that many players have second-year slumps, and when you factor in Bush’s 2020 injury, he is, in some ways, in his second season himself. Bush only played in 4 1⁄2 games last season, but he had shown so much growth from year one.
Just one year later, it has been a different story, and even I cannot deny what is happening. Bush is not moving near as fast as he was pre-injury, he is not processing things as quickly, and he is turning simple, everyday tackles into anything but simple. The criticism is getting louder, and fans are labeling the former top-ten pick as a bust and clamoring for the organization to move on from him.
But before anyone gives up on him, let’s see how he responds to the recent criticism. Arthur Moats, Keith Butler, and others have been outspoken about Bush’s struggles, but being a Michigan fan, I happen to know that Bush generally seemed to step up when the pressure was on and the team was being either trash-talked or challenged by the local media. As puzzling as it seemed to us fans when Mike Tomlin came out this summer and said that Kevin Dotson had not earned first-team reps, it was apparently clear to the coaching staff that Dotson needed to be pushed and challenged in practice to get the most out of him.
I am not saying that is necessarily why Keith Butler and others have spoken out about Bush’s struggles, but based on his time at Michigan, he played with more effort when the coaching staff challenged him and made him earn the reps he was given. I do not want to give an all-optimistic point of view, but if Bush can get back to where he was before his nasty ACL injury in 2020, this defense could reach the potential we all thought it was capable of before the season began.
Dan Moore, Jr.
The Steelers’ run blocking has slowly improved as the season has progressed, but the pass protection still leaves a lot to be desired. While Dan Moore has shown flashes of starter potential at left tackle, those flashes have been few and far between as of late. Steelers fans should not give up on either Moore or rookie center Kendrick Green, as almost all rookies go through growing pains. However, if the Steelers are going to make a playoff run, it will start and end with how well the offensive line can protect Ben Roethlisberger, and the left tackle is the biggest factor in that equation.
Although Moore has been inconsistent in pass protection, he will not be facing very many fantastic pass rushers the rest of the year. Tyus Bowser and Justin Houston are not scary matchups on paper when the Ravens come to town, and neither Danielle Hunter or Everson Griffen are playing at the level they once were. After matchups with the Ravens and Vikings, the Steelers will face a Titans team that is without Bud Dupree and a Chiefs team that has struggled to apply pressure up front all season long.
The matchups are winnable for Moore, and if he shows some progression over the next couple weeks, he would head into the postseason with more confidence. His technique still needs a good bit of work, but if he can give up his chest less often and his footwork can improve in pass protection, it will help him blow fewer assignments and be the type of tackle the Steelers need him to be down the stretch.
Which players do you think can help lead the Steelers to a playoff run? Which players will make or break the remainder of the season? Be sure to light up the comment section with your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers!