The second quarter of the 2015 campaign is complete and the Pittsburgh Steelers remain a team that sits at .500 with a record of 4-4, and in second place in the AFC North. The loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8 relegates the squad from Steeltown to being saddled with a seemingly-insurmountable, four-game disadvantage for the division title at the midway point of the season.
In a BTSC poll that appeared earlier this week, 57% of readers voted the overall team-performance at the mid-way point of the season a grade of C, 22% graded the team's performance a B and 17% game them a D.
To break it down even further, how does the team grade-out at each position through at the mid-season mark in 2015? So, what unit is carrying the team, who of the Steelers is average and what unit needs vast improvement?
In the first installment of a three-part series, BTSC assigns grades to each position-group on the offensive side-of-the-ball for a team that ranks a league 20th with 349.1 yards-per-game, 13th in points-per-game and 17th with 168 points. The offense was considered to be the strength of the team. But the second quarter has deflated those muscles completely.
This position grade should have been an A, it is truly a major strength of the team. But the injury bug hit this unit with ferocity. Before the MCL sprain of his left knee and the deep knee bruise, Ben Roethlisberger had a completion percentage of 75.3%. The veteran completed 67 of 89 passes and had a QBR of 113.1, while throwing four touchdown passes opposed to two interceptions. Rothlisberger did this while missing major puzzle pieces Maurkice Pouncey, Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell.
Big Ben's return to the lineup in Week 8 showed that the missed time took a toll on him. Against Cincy, #7 was 28 for 45 with a touchdown versus three interceptions. Although the entire team needs to share responsibility for the crucial defeat, the loss clearly belonged to Roethlisberger.
On the season, Ben has a 70.9 completion percentage for 1173 yards. He tallied five TD passes and 5 picks-thrown. Hopefully, his subpar performance was due to rust and not lingering pain that causes hesitancy. If so, Ben has a chance to rally the team in the second half of the year.
In Roethlisberger's absence, Michael Vick was slightly north of terrible. He completed 60.6% of his passes for 371 yards, two TD passes and an interception. Vick came through in the clutch against San Diego in the final stanza, but his play was dreadful all game. Couple that with a loss against Baltimore (that could have been prevented with slightly better than mediocre play) and a 6-yard showing (before being injured) against Arizona, and the Mike Vick experience is considered a bust.
Initially Landry Jones seemed like a savior, with a two-touchdown performance that saved the game against Arizona. But he drastically came back down to earth in the loss in Kansas City.
Jones, who remains the understudy to Rothlisberger, finishes the quarter with 377 yards, 3 TD passes, 2 interceptions and a competition percentage of 58.5%.
The C grade is best justified by the 4-4 record. Better quarterback play would have had the Steelers riding the wave of a monster winning-streak.
Running Backs: A
Le'Veon Bell's serious injury to his knee ended a season that was cementing the third-year back as the cream of the running back crop. Despite his loss, the running game in Pittsburgh was and continues to be a major strength of the team.
Bell carried the ball 113 times in six games for 556 yards, a yards-per-carry average of 4.9 and an average of 92.7 yards-per-game. As a receiver, Bell was targeted 26 times. He had 136 yards and 5.7 yards-per-catch.
It is devastating to lose a running back the caliber of Bell, but having one of the finest backup rushers in the game is a promising consolation. DeAngelo was ranked among the league leaders in rushing during Bell's suspension at the beginning of the season. He did not get many opportunities after the return of Le'Veon, but when he did he was effective
So far in 2015, Williams has 310 yards and three scores. Like Bell, Williams has an average of 4.9 ypc also.
This stable of running backs ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,006 yards, ninth with 125.8 ypg and seven TDs, third with 4.9 Yards-per-carry and were tied for first with only one fumble.
Wide Receivers: C+
Antonio Brown was the best receiver in the league the first quarter of the season, but suffered from neglect when his quarterback went down. His rapport with Vick was poor and the two failed to get in sync with one another. Despite absorbing double teams the first half of the season, AB still managed 52 receptions (tied for sixth in the NFL) for 718 yards (fourth in NFL) and three scores.
He was on pace to break team records for the third year-in-a-row for receptions and receiving yards, but that may be a tough task now due to Ben's absence. That may not be a bad thing, due to the fact that he needs to realize that team goals are more important than personal accolades.
Brown did have crucial drops in the first eight games, but should be revitalized now that his quarterback is back behind center and looking his way.
Martavis Bryant came back in a resounding manner with 3 scores and 13 catches for 231 yards, after missing the first five games of the 2015 campaign. His presence on the field reduces double-teams on Brown and forces defenses to account for him with great alarm, at all times.
Darius Heyward-Bey has been a reliable target of Roethlisberger and may emerge as one again. All of DHB's 17 catches for 204 yards and two touchdowns came during Bryant's suspension. He has been an afterthought ever since.
The Steelers receivers rank 21st in the league with an average of 223.4 and 15th in the NFL with 1,787 yards. These average and slightly below-average rankings are mostly due to poor QB play when Ben went down. But what can't be ignored are the alarming number of drops in crucial situations by each of the receivers.
Markus Wheaton was a disappointment the first half of the season. He was the original choice to take over for the banned Bryant, but did not make the most of his opportunity by catching a mere 13 balls on 26 targets for 257 yards. His lone bright spot was the 72-yard catch from Vick for a score that helped trigger the comeback in San Diego.
Tight Ends: C+
Heath Miller, in his eleventh season, ranks second all-time on the club list for receptions. He is the only Steeler TE to register more than one catch this year. His 27 grabs for 273 yards rank him second on the team in both categories.
Heath was an all-but-forgotten man during Big Ben's injury rehabilitation, but his huge catch in the final seconds at San Diego helped to ensure victory. Roethlisberger's return vs Cincy proved Miller's worth, as they connected ten times on 13 targets for 106 yards.
Miller is currently tied for 16th for receptions at his position.
Offensive Line: B
Mike Munchak has found a way to overcome the loss of a perennial, Pro Bowl center and a solid starter at the left tackle position valiantly.
Despite losing Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum, the starting five of LT Alejandro Villanueva, LG Ramon Foster, C Cody Wallace, RG David Decastro and RT Marcus Gilbert have allowed 21 sacks, but those numbers are inflated due to Vick's running style. The line is responsible for a highly-ranked running game and for giving the QBs time to throw. And now with a more fragile QB to protect, this patchwork group needs to continue playing with enormous heart and soul.