The Steelers looked mostly dominant in their first five games, if you assumed at the time that the debacle in Philadelphia was an anomaly.
The same Steelers looked downright horrific at times during their four-game losing streak, barely able to even put an offense together for most of the eight quarters they played against the Dolphins and the Ravens.
So are they Dr. Jekyll, or are they Mr. Hyde?
I think we’ll call them Mr. Jekyll. Or maybe Dr. Hyde. The point is, this team isn’t as good as they looked at 4-1, nor a bad as they looked at 4-5. Their reality right now lies somewhere in between the two extremes, but certainly closer to 4-1 than 4-5.
The case for “in between” is evident just from their record, which currently stands at 5-5. But it’s safe to assume their remaining schedule is somewhat handicapped in their favor, as they have the weakest strength-of-schedule remaining in the NFL. Those games are against on the road against the Colts, Bills and Bengals; and at home against the Giants, Ravens and Browns. The most realistically difficult game in that list is on the road against the Bengals, though the Ravens always play well in Pittsburgh.
This is a team that is still finding its way at several positions. Cornerback has been up in the air all season, though the team is seeing increasing success each week putting young corners Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns outside in man coverage, something we haven’t seen with regularity in Pittsburgh in years. Burns is having his growing pains, for sure, but he’s also showing why the team spent a first-round draft pick on him in April. He plays the ball well, and has two interceptions on the season. Those go along with another five or so he had his hands on but couldn’t pull in, including at least two almosts on Sunday against the Browns.
The pass rush is coming together as well, as defensive coordinator is unleashing the blitz more each week. That goes hand in hand with the team’s trust in Burns, so the pass rush is likely to go as the rookie goes in the final six games of the season. It appears, though, as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to say, that his arrow is pointing up.
The Steelers entered week eleven with just 13 sacks on the year; they ended the week with 21. The linebackers got after it, and James Harrison finally broke Jason Gildon’s long-held team sacks record. Up front, the team got a chance to find its feet without Cameron Heyward, who is injured and done for the year, and they got to go through that warmup against not just the worst team in the NFL in 2016, but against the worst Browns in the history of Cleveland — this is the first time they have ever been 0-11. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for the final six weeks.
The real head scratchers have actually been on offense. Tight end Ladarius Green looks exactly like someone who missed all off-season activities and the first nine games of the season, and then tried to jump in head-first. The receiving corps have struggled besides Antonio Brown, and they are effectively down two of their top three with Sammie Coates still nursing broken fingers and Markus Wheaton down for the year with a shoulder injury. The good news is pre-season addition Cobi Hamilton has stepped up in a big way. The bad news is he simply is no Sammie Coates. If he can heal in the next few weeks, the deep ball could return to Pittsburgh in earnest.
What is working extremely well is the three-headed monster of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Brown. Roethlisberger played what may have been his finest game in two years in the loss to the Cowboys, just one week after his customary bad game when returning from injury. And Bell is...well...he’s Bell. The guy accounted for two thirds of the Steelers’ offense Sunday. He ran well, just as he should have, in bad weather and especially against a run defense that is almost historically awful. It makes sense why the Steelers’ passing numbers were down: when you can get eight yards on the ground on first down, and do it regularly, why thrown the ball unless you have to?
Could this team still be as good as they looked at 4-1? Yes. Heck, they could be better than that. But the reality, for now, at least, is they are somewhere north of the Browns and somewhere south of the Cowboys right now. They are better than the middle, but worse than the best. Most rankings have them around tenth, and you will get no argument from me on that. They are a fringe top-ten team.