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7 reasons to feel good going into the Steelers’ bye week

The Steelers are going into their bye week, and there is a lot to feel good about.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick: name the only teammates in the NFL who both have 70+ yard touchdown catches this year.
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, Steelers Nation let’s talk. There’s a lot of negativity flying around Acrisure Stadium these days, and for good reason. The Steelers offense has been pretty rough, and the defense has been gashed more than once.

But there is reason for optimism. And I want to throw you a handful of reasons, on the bye week, to feel a little better. Many of you won’t anyway, but dammit, I’m gonna try.

The Steelers are inexplicably in first place in the AFC North

The Steelers are sitting in first place in the AFC North after five weeks with a 3-2 record and a 2-0 record in the division.

They’re the only team in the AFC North to be undefeated in-division. and they currently hold the AFC’s No. 3 seed.

These “if the season ended today” notes are meaningless, of course. But this team isn’t just “still in the mix.” They’re somehow ahead of the curve.

The Steelers have dominated the Ravens

Only Curly Lambeau and George Halas coached against each other more times than Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh.

The Steelers are currently on a 6-1 streak against the Ravens. Tomlin leads the series 19-15.

Sunday was an all-time game in terms of being completely bizarre and unexpected. It was ugly, sloppy, and inexplicable. And of course. the Steelers rose up at the end as they tend to do in close games with the Ravens.

  • The 2008 late-season burner, where Santonio Holmes scored falling out of the end zone
  • The 2008 AFC Title game (one of the roughest games of the entire era)
  • The 2010 regular season slug-out, where Haloti Ngata broke Ben Roethlisberger’s nose and Troy Polamalu caused a last-second fumble so Ben could throw the game-winner at the end
  • The 2010 playoff comeback (with rookie Antonio Brown’s 58-yard icing helmet catch)
  • The 2016 Immaculate Extension game
  • The 2017 shootout with the Steelers storing 19 in the 4th quarter to win by 1
  • The 2021 finale where T.J. Watt tied the NFL sack record, Ben played his last regular season game, and the Steelers snuck into the playoffs
  • The 2022 Kenny Pickett 4th quarter comeback (his second in two weeks on national TV).

Peter King once called Steelers/Ravens week “a football holiday.” If that’s true, then the Steelers are the Santa Claus of the story.

The Steelers sand-blasted the Ravens for this past game’s final 42 minutes.

If you only look at the final stats of the Steelers/Ravens tilt, Baltimore looks like they had a decent day – not extraordinary, but 67 plays and 335 yards are respectable. But look closer: during the first three drives, Lamar Jackson and company netted nearly half their yards and all 10 of their points. From the 12-minute mark of the second quarter until the end of the game, the Ravens' drives went like this:

  • 5 plays, 35 yards, lost fumble
  • 11 plays, 52 yards, loss on downs

(halftime)

  • 5 plays, 28 yards, punt
  • 4 plays, 36 yards, punt
  • 3 plays, minus-6 yards, punt (blocked for safety)
  • 3 plays, 8 yards, punt (fumbled by Steelers)
  • 3 plays, 2 yards, interception
  • 2 plays, 11 yards, lost fumble
  • 4 plays, minus-3 yards, loss on downs

Good Lord.

Let’s break this down a little more: Baltimore ran 24 plays after halftime and amassed only 76 yards (a dreadful 3.16 yards per play). The Ravens’ final five drives featured 15 snaps for 12 yards (0.8 yards per play), with two turnovers, a loss on downs, and a safety.

Anyone who claims that the Steelers don’t make in-game adjustments should probably revise that opinion. As much as the Ravens dropped the ball (literally and figuratively), the Steelers also demolished them.

The rookies are finding their way onto the field, and they look pretty good

Lots of people are frustrated the lack of snaps for Joey Porter Jr. and Broderick Jones, but Jones (who played quite well against Baltimore) recently said he was grateful for the slow pace. And I think that’s instructive. Sometimes it’s useful to throw a guy into the fire, but sometimes it’s good to make sure he’s ready.

Players who were ready as week 1 rookies:

  • Ben Roethlisberger (Week 2)
  • T.J. Watt
  • Maurkice Pouncey
  • LeVeon Bell (once healthy)
  • Casey Hampton

Players that needed to sit for half a season or more:

  • Troy Polamalu
  • Cam Heyward
  • Ike Taylor
  • Antonio Brown
  • Lamarr Woodley

There is no correct way to do this. If a guy hits the ground running, that doesn’t mean he didn’t need a few weeks to settle in. Let’s just be glad that the guys are delivering when they get on the field.

This is an extraordinarily young team, especially on offense

The average age of the offensive starting lineup is 25 years old (I tried several different versions, and all of them were between 24.4 and 25.6).

Why does this matter? Well, these guys will grow up together. That’s going to get ugly sometimes and it’ll look terrific at other times. That’s what young teams look like.

We were spoiled with Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year. Because he was only 21, it seemed like a super young team, but that was a veteran roster. Hines Ward and Alan Faneca were in their seventh seasons. Joey Porter was in his sixth. Jerome Bettis was in his 12th. Even young guys like Plaxico Burress or Casey Hampton were in year five. Second-year man Troy Polamalu was the only other key player in 2004 who was very young.

This team (at least on offense) is a lot more like the Steelers of the late 80s and early 90s – when Chuck Noll built the powerful defense he bequeathed to Bill Cowher. Between 1987 and 1990, Noll and company drafted Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Hardy Nickerson, Carnell Lake, and others. But in 1988, the Steelers had the worst defense in the NFL in both points and yards. In 1989, they clawed upward, but were still in the lower half (15 in points, 19th in yards, out of 28 teams). Then in 1990, they were first in points and third in yards. How, you might ask? At least partially because all those guys grew up at the same time.

Those teams were inconsistent and frustrating – getting blown off the field one week, then beating a playoff team the next. The 2023 squad looks a little like that, doesn’t it? But you know, that 1989 team – which got shut out THREE times over the course of the year and only went 1-5 in their division – won a playoff game (against a division rival that had crushed them twice, including a 27-0 devastation in the regular season) and nearly dethroned the best AFC team of the era (Denver, at Mile High no less) in the divisional round. They started that season looking like absolute garbage and ended on an absolute tear.

Young teams are frustrating. They can be hard to project from week to week, but they can also be exciting as hell to watch.

Quick hits

  • T.J. Watt is on pace for a ridiculous 27 sacks.
  • Alex Highsmith has two game-sealing strip sacks against division rivals in the last four weeks, along with a pick-six.
  • Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth are coming back, maybe as soon as the next game.
  • Cam Heyward is coming back soon after that.
  • George Pickens is already one of the best wide receivers in the game.
  • Kenny Pickett has an absurd five fourth-quarter comebacks in his first 15 starts.
  • Pickett’s rainbow to Pickens for the game-winner was one of the best “lead the receiver” deep balls I’ve seen in years.
  • Broderick Jones looks like the real thing.
  • Joey Porter Jr. rose to the occasion in crunch time against a savvy veteran receiver (OBJ).
  • Joey Porter Jr. now has as many INTs against the Ravens as he did against every single college opponent he played combined.
  • When D.J. comes back, Calvin Austin is going to get open more too, and that means more big plays.
  • The linebackers look much better than pretty much anybody thought they’d be.
  • Larry Ogunjobi is playing great even though he’s the top DL now (imagine when Cam comes back).
  • Keeanu Benton is going to be a damned good football player.
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick is still the best safety in football.
  • Pressley Harvin seemed to finally turn the corner, and when he was out, Brad Wing came in and did a totally admirable job.
  • Chris Boswell is still an assassin.
  • Miles Killebrew may actually be the best punt blocker in the NFL.
  • And this team is in first place. For real.

So on the bye week, feel good. I know a certain coordinator is still in town. You all already know what I think about that (ahem). But let’s enjoy the ride for now. Go Steelers.