The Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed every bit of their Week 8 bye, as several of Pittsburgh’s numerous walking wounded returned to practice early in the week. Let’s see how things look heading into Week 9:
The push - Stock up
With nine games remaining on the schedule (all of which are very winnable), the Steelers need to put some distance between themselves and both Baltimore and Cincinnati. At this point, the AFC West looks like it is going to send three teams to the AFC playoffs, so Pittsburgh will almost certainly be required to punch its playoff ticket with a division crown. Sunday will be a good start, as the Steelers will play their first of two games against Baltimore, who, at 3-4, look a lot more talented in theory than they do in person, or on paper.
Despite the fact Baltimore has lost four games in a row, a win on Sunday will put them in sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
Needless to say, there is a lot riding on Sunday’s game.
Expectations - Stock up
Among the players who participated in early-week practices in some capacity include Marcus Gilbert, Cameron Heyward, Markus Wheaton and, most importantly, Ben Roethlisberger. In all likelihood, Roethlisberger’s reported “two-to-six week” recovery window was always going to be closer to two weeks, and some outlets quoted Roethlisberger as saying that he would’ve suited up for Pittsburgh’s Week 7 game against New England had the game occurred in the postseason.
Aside from Roethlisberger and his cyborg-like recovery abilities, the Steelers will return arguably their best offensive lineman in Gilbert and the most integral cog in its defense in Cameron Heyward. Since Heyward’s injury, Pittsburgh has allowed over 140 rushing yards per game in Week 5 through 7. Not a good look for a team that ranked in the top 5 in run defense in Weeks 1 through 4.
Roethlisberger’s status for Sunday’s game is still very much in question, but, come on, this is Pittsburgh’s most important game of the season so far. Buddy is gonna play.
Tomlin’s patience with the secondary - Stock down
And rightfully so. Collectively, it seems like we have kind of given Pittsburgh’s secondary a pass for being generally sieve-like this season. So far, we’ve chalked it up to schematics or whatever. I’ve even seen the term “shutdown corner” used to describe Ross Cockrell. Ross Cockrell!
The reason Pittsburgh’s 27th-ranked pass defense worked last season is because the defensive backs generated a ton of turnovers (30, in fact, which was the fourth-most in the NFL last season). Not a single defensive back on the 2016 Steelers has yet to intercept a pass, which is a remarkable statistic given that opposing quarterbacks have attempted 274 passes against Pittsburgh.
Tomlin called the lack of interceptions “a concern” (early nominee for understatement of the season), and even went as far as to indirectly call-out the defensive backs by refusing to blame the front seven for its inability to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks (for what it’s worth, Pittsburgh ranks dead last in the NFL in sacks).
The 2015 Steelers secondary got away with being terrible because they, for lack of a better term, made plays when necessary. This year’s team simply isn’t doing that. However, with games against Joe Flacco, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning and whatever interception machine Cleveland puts under center in Weeks 11 and 17 still on the schedule, the Steelers will have chances to boost their lowly interception totals.
Overall - Stock up
Sunday’s game against the Ravens is tough to figure out. On one hand, it’s almost impossible to envision the Steelers losing three games in a row, especially coming out of a bye. On the other hand, it is tough to imagine the Ravens, regardless of who is on the roster, losing five consecutive games. Also working in Baltimore’s favor is the fact that they are seeking their fourth straight win over the Steelers. I’m a huge Mike Tomlin fan, but I think the boosters at Alabama would seriously consider cutting ties with Nick Saban if he lost to Auburn four years in a row.
Personally, I think the Steelers will respond after being humiliated by Miami and New England. In doing so, they will get the 2016 season back on track.
About time, if you ask me.