The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense has struggled, but you can’t say they haven’t made steps in the right direction during the past two weeks. One of the players who has improved his game, maybe more than any other, is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
After his 5-interception performance against the Jaguars in Week 5, Roethlisberger has started to look more like the quarterback Steelers fans have grown to love, and the reason why isn’t because he’s focusing on the game plan more or anything else. No, according to Roethlisberger, it’s improved offensive line play.
The Steelers’ line has only surrendered 10 sacks in 2017, but you can notice the time they’ve given Roethlisberger has been markedly better recently than earlier this season. What might have helped Roethlisberger the most could be the team’s running game. With the offensive line paving the way for Le’Veon Bell, it’s taken the pressure off of Roethlisberger and brought much-needed balance to Todd Haley’s offense.
Time to check on the news surrounding the Black-and-gold from outside the walls of BTSC:
At this time last year, Ben Roethlisberger was hobbling around with a surgically repaired left knee.
In mid-October, Roethlisberger had surgery on a torn meniscus that kept him from playing against the New England Patriots. He returned less than three weeks after surgery and was ineffective against Baltimore, a loss that ran the Steelers' losing streak to three games which eventually would reach four.
This year, Roethlisberger has helped win back-to-back games to vault the Steelers into first place in the AFC North and they’re also the top seed in the conference heading into their Sunday night game at Detroit.
Roethlisberger is coming off of his best game: 224 passing yards, two touchdowns and a 117.4 rating in a 29-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“I feel great. I feel healthy,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that's a credit to the O-line. They're really doing a great job of protecting me.”
Roethlisberger was sacked a career-low 17 times last year, including just three times during the second half of the season. This year, he’s been sacked 10 times as the Steelers approach the midpoint of their schedule. He wasn't sacked by the Bengals.
“I know last game was our first no-sack game, but every game it's just been one here and there. That's it,” he said. “So I'm really happy and proud of the way they have played. They are the reason I stay healthy and upright, so I can never say enough good about them.”
Whether it's his touchdown celebrations, response to a teammate's criticism or the saga of his stolen bike, Steelers Nation can't get enough of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The 20-year-old rookie receiver has become Pittsburgh's proverbial golden child, a social media star whose NFL career appears to be on a similar trajectory.
Smith-Schuster again will be in the spotlight when the Steelers play the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on NBC's Sunday Night Football, with the focus on football and follies.
“I think it's another opportunity to not only showcase my talent but to showcase our offense and our defense,” Smith-Schuster said. “For us to be on prime-time, usually we're playing early and watching other guys play at night. We're going to be together and everybody is going to be watching us, so for us to go out there and show the world what Steelers Nation is about will be pretty fun.”
Nobody knows fun like JuJu, who spent Thursday mugging for the PPG Paints Arena scoreboard at a Penguins game and Friday night in costume as Instagram alias “Chef JuJu” at the 96.1 KISS Halloween party at Stage AE.
“JuJu just brings that fun to the mix,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “He could (be quiet), but that's not his personality. He's being true to himself, and the great thing about being a Pittsburgh Steeler is we allow you to be you, within the guidelines of respecting the game and respecting the Rooneys.
“The great thing about it is, when it comes to the meeting rooms and time to pay attention, he's a pro. He knows how to turn that switch on and off. He's been a delight to be around.”
After entertaining the Heinz Field crowd with his hide-and-seek celebration with Le'Veon Bell following a 31-yard touchdown catch against Cincinnati last Sunday, Smith-Schuster provided a delicious diversion from the Steelers' latest controversy.
It started when Martavis Bryant responded to an Instagram post claiming that JuJu is better by saying that he's “nowhere near better than me, fool. All they need to do is give me what I want and y'all can have JuJu and whoever else.”
Six-year NFL veteran Coty Sensabaugh was standing in the middle of the Steelers' locker room last week when he took a second to scan the dozens of players around him.
“Some of these guys, they don't even realize how hard it is to make the playoffs,” said Sensabaugh, a cornerback with his fourth team. “My first year in the playoffs was last year — and we were one-and-done in New York.
“It's hard, man.”
No one, it seems, knows this better than the six NFL veterans who are new to the Steelers in 2017. They joined a franchise that’s made three consecutive playoff appearances and has won more games since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger than any other team.
Compare that to where they collectively came from: Sensabaugh, cornerback Joe Haden, defensive end Tyson Alualu, tight end Vance McDonald, receiver Justin Hunter and safety J.J. Wilcox combined for 31 prior NFL seasons. They collectively had four winning seasons, made the playoffs four times, won just two division titles and have a total of three playoff victories between them.
For a basis of comparison, during the past 31 Steelers' seasons, they have 21 winning seasons, 18 playoff appearances, 13 division titles and 20 playoff victories. Plus, two Super Bowl wins and nine appearances in the AFC championship game during that period.
The only time one of the Steelers' six new veterans had been part of a conference title game was back in 2013 when McDonald was a rookie for San Francisco. Now, this group — one that had won just 34.5 percent of their games in the NFL — is on a team that played in last season's AFC championship and is off to a 5-2 start.
“I have never been 5-2 since I’ve been in the NFL,” said Hunter, a five-year veteran. “So it feels good. It's a different feel from the locker room walking in every morning. No muggy looks and whatnot, so I can say I am enjoying it so far.”
One of the main reasons the Steelers drafted outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round was to become less reliant on the blitz. Getting pressure on the quarterback with four players and dropping seven into coverage is the preferred way to play on defense for obvious reasons. With seven players in coverage, the defense is less susceptible to being gashed for big plays.
The Steelers haven’t totally abandoned their Blitzburgh ways. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler still will dial up the occasional blitz, but the ability of the outside linebackers and defensive ends to create pressure with four-man rushes is a big part of the defensive resurgence.
The Steelers are first in the league in pass defense and second in total defense and sacks. They had four more sacks against the Bengals for a total of 24 entering Sunday night’s game in Detroit. They’re on pace for 55, which would tie a team record set in 1994 and later tied in 2001.
The way the Steelers came about those four sacks against the Bengals is the blueprint they would like to follow. Watt and fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree each had one sack, and defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu had the other two.
“It means a lot,” Watt said. “It makes things a lot easier as a defense when you can just send your front four. A lot of the credit has to go to the back end. They’re covering and allowing us to get those sacks. We’ve talked all year long about how rush and coverage go hand-in-hand, and it kind of paid off this past Sunday.”
For the season, Watt and Heyward have four sacks apiece. Watt is threatening the team record for sacks by a rookie held by Kendrell Bell, who had nine in 2001.
Dupree and reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo have three sacks apiece; nose tackle Javon Hargrave has two; and James Harrison and Alualu have one. That’s 18 of the team’s 24 sacks coming from defensive linemen or outside linebackers.