There is hope for the Steelers

QB Ben Roethlisberger wants a third Superbowl ring (image edited at Picmonkey.com)

We have consumed eight weeks of the NFL calendar, i.e. the teams which have not enjoyed a bye week sit exactly at the halfway point of the season. That is the case of the winningest franchise in professional football: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The current 4–4 record may suggest that the Steelers are performing at a subpar level in comparison to their lofty standards. Ever since Ben Roethlisberger claimed sole possession of the quarterback spot in Week 2 of the 2004 season, Pittsburgh has been at .500 or worse this late in the season just twice (2006 and 2013), missing the playoffs on both occasions. In 2006, a terrible 2–6 start made the subsequent 6–2 rally down the stretch insufficient to save Superbowl-winner head coach Bill Cowher’s job. In 2013, the Steelers were doomed right off the bat losing their first four games, stood at 2–6 at the midpoint before mounting a miraculous almost-comeback to save their honor, although not enough to secure a playoff bid.

The statistical precedents do not appear to be too encouraging and the division title is unofficially out of reach given that the Bengals remain undefeated. Nevertheless, the two wild card spots are up for grabs. The Steelers may not be on the driver’s sit but their capability of erasing a half-game disadvantage from the Raiders and/or Jets is beyond doubt, starting with a direct clash versus the former this upcoming Sunday.

Football is more than numbers though. The barrage of injuries and suspensions the Steelers have overcome thus far to stay in the playoff hunt confirm the mythological competitiveness of the franchise. Never count the Black and Gold out. Here’s a brief analysis on each field department so far.

Quarterback

The expectations for Ben Roethlisberger were sky-high after posting a career-year in 2014 and not skipping a game for the last 2+ seasons. With a potent offensive line and the most talented playmaking crew he’s ever had around, Big Ben was poised to lead an unstoppable offense once all the pieces were available. Even without Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, Roethlisberger’s offense offered a glimpse of its potential in the first two games, a narrow loss to the Patriots and a demolition of the 49ers. But then disaster struck. A borderline illegal hit by Rams strong safety Mark Barron sprained his MCL and sidelined the future Hall of Famer for the following month.

Head coach Mike Tomlin then turned to newly acquired Michael Vick to guide the offense. Once a superstar with a cannon arm and privileged mobility, Vick is now a shell of his former self. The southpaw struggled mightily to keep the offense flowing with his bad reads and lack of accuracy, which forced offensive coordinator Todd Haley to overuse the run. Teams would pack the house to stop Bell. Barring some flukish drives, the offense was a mess for three straight games. The Steelers lost to the Ravens and squeezed a walkoff win against the Chargers. During the game versus the Cardinals,Vick got hurt. The Steelers rode a stellar red zone defense and a couple good drives by third string QB Landry Jones to the win. The former Oklahoma QB would not replicate this outing the following week, drowning the team with his turnovers against the Chiefs. No big deal, the fans thought, the team was 4–3 and Big Ben was due at the helm versus the Bengals.

Big Ben has been a force at QB for the Steelers (via pro-football-reference.com)

That table has “upgrade over a washed-up QB and an unproven youngster” written all over it, but people forgot how hard has been for Roethlisberger to regain form after in-season absences. So poor game against Cincinnati should not be a surprise. Here’s how he has fared in games 1, 2 and 3 post injury/suspension along his career.

Oops (via pro-football-reference.com)

The 5.82 yards/attempt ratio against the Bengals last weekend has been the lowest figure since the beginning of the 2014 season.

Oops 2.0 (via pro-football-reference.com)
Oops 3.0 (via pro-football-reference.com)

Although we can appreciate a spike in yards/attempt, neither of the last two tables are too encouraging for Steelers fans. They shall not expect greatness from rusty Big Ben right away.

Running Back

Good news: Le’Veon Bell leads the league in yards from scrimmage since the beginning of the 2014 season with 2,907…despite being suspended two games for smoking a blunt with LeGarrete Blount.

Bad news: Bell had to leave the divisional clash versus the Bengals after being hit by linebacker Vontaze Burfict (who celebrated taking the 2014 AFC Co-offensive Player of the Year out).

Terrible news: the Michigan State product will miss the remainder of the season with a badly torn MCL. He and Roethlisberger could only share the field for 39 snaps this season.

Relieving news: the Steelers won’t have to deploy a scrub. Offseason signee DeAngelo Williams has rushed an above average 4.92 yards per carry and 102 yards per game in the two contests he started earlier this season. He is a capable back who won’t fumble the team out of the playoffs (staring at you Ben Tate).

Receiving Corps

We are not going to discover Antonio Brown today. Brown is in the conversation of best wide receiver in the league, righfully so. By a mile the best route runner in football. He led the league in receptions and yards last season. He shared the AFC Co-offensive Player of the Year honor with Le’Veon Bell. Yet I am not committing a sacrilege if I say Brown is not the Steelers’ deadliest weapon. Not when sophomore Martavis Bryant can boast this career slash line: 13 games, 39 receptions, 20 yards/reception, 11 touchdowns.

Bryant may possess the physical tools of a deep threat, but the former Clemson star has shown that he is the full package. He must stop messing around with PEDs though, since his next suspension will be a lengthy one (full season). What were the Bills thinking when they traded their moms and dads to grab fellow Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins at #3 in the 2014 NFL Draft? Bryant was the Tigers’ crown jewel. Legitimate co-#1 receiver.

You’re welcome Landry Jones!

Besides the two superstars, Big Ben can turn to the always reliable Heath Miller at tight end, a genuine example of hustle and professionalism. No wonder he is a Heinz Field favorite. Finally, the backup WRs Wheaton and Heyward-Bey did a great job keeping the boat afloat while Bryant was suspended.

Offensive Line

Not looking too promising here. When are you returning Maurkice Pouncey? The All Pro center has not seen the field this season so far and the run protection has suffered a dropoff since last year’s top 10 unit. We can observe a spike in the sack rate. Backup Cody Wallace is being harassed.

Then starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down in week 6. Alejandro Villanueva had the chance to be the first ever Spanish player in the NFL. The army veteran has held his own with help from the tight ends but lost a couple crucial duels against the Chiefs defense in week 7.

Front Seven

Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward & Co. are doing a heck of a job at preventing the run. They are allowing a discrete 3.8 yards per carry to opposing backs. The only RB who owned the Steelers has been Justin Forsett (Baltimore). Just two touchdowns allowed and seven forced fumbles speak well about this group.

He’s past his prime, but James Harrison is as fearless as any defender in football. (edited at Picmonkey.com)

Linebacker Ryan Shazier has been outstanding when on the field. Stephon Tuitt will hopefully be healthy as well down the line. Rookie Bud Dupree is leading the squad in sacks with 4.0 despite his part time role. And James Harrison…is the face of the franchise (sorry, Ben). Nobody represents the Black and Gold values better than the 37-year-old linebacker even in limited playing time.

One critique: opposing tight ends (Gronk, Kelce, Eifert) are feasting on the Steelers lackluster coverage. That’s partially on the linebackers.

Secondary

It was a mess last year. Then legendary safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor hung their cleats. Projected starting corners Cortez Allen and Senquez Golson got severely hurt. It was a disaster on opening night versus the Patriots. It kept bleeding yardage all the way till week 8 but somehow the personnel has been clutch in the redzone. Antwon Blake has serious coverage issues but leads the team with two picks. In other words, they keep bending as a group but they don’t break anymore.

Kicker

Longtime kicker Shaun Suisham got injured for the year during preseason and so did his replacement Garrett Hartley. Then the Steelers had the great idea of trading for experienced kicker Josh Scobee. That did not work out, as you probably know. He shanked half of his attempts, costing the team 1.5 wins this season before getting cut after week 4. The Steelers proceeded to sign former Rice kicker Chris Boswell who has nailed every chance he’s had since. If the Steelers narrowly miss the playoffs this year, Scobee may want to go on vacation far from Pittsburgh. Steelers super fan Snoop Dogg will not welcome Scobee to his household either.

Special Teams

Blah. Mediocrity. Dri Archer hasn’t done anything noteworthy since entering the NFL. I know nothing special is coming when he receives the kickoffs. Ditto for Antonio Brown this season, he doesn’t seem to want to risk his body returning punts. Punter Jordan Berry has been irrelevant as well.

The Floor

Big Ben can’t fully recover from his lingering knee issue even after the bye week and throws a pair of pick sixes against the Legion of Boom. DeAngelo Williams is totally ineffective as the featured back. Martavis Bryant tests positive again and is banned from football until the 2017 season. Ryan Shazier can’t stay healthy and the secondary stops getting lucky breaks in the redzone. Pittsburgh only defeats the Browns at home en route to a 5–11 season. Mike Tomlin gets fired and Antonio Brown demands to be traded.

The Ceiling

Maurkice Pouncey comes back earlier than expected. Ben Roethlisberger starts torching opposing defenses behind a much improved offensive line. DeAngelo Williams benefits from better blocking and rushes for 100 ypg all the way to the playoffs. Brown&Bryant cannot be stopped by anyone, pushing each other ala Messi&Neymar rather than developing any sort of beef between them. The front seven remain healthy. The secondary keeps provoking timely turnovers. The Steelers cruise to a wild card spot before playing the best football of the season in January, beating the Broncos and Patriots back-to-back to reach the Superbowl, where they thrash the Seahawks 35–14. #StairwayToSeven is fulfilled.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.