I know what you’re thinking: the Steelers have only played 7 games, so technically mid-season for us doesn’t come until after this Sunday’s game at New England, and you’d be right. But with a 2-5 start, taking a long, hard look at the team can’t come soon enough. Our only signature win came against the rival Ravens, but the Ravens are also on the decline as well, so that victory doesn’t hold the weight it used to. We also beat an average Jets team, who could be a playoff contender down the road, but is still trying to find itself a midst injuries and a rookie QB. The games against a full-strength Chicago team and at Cincy could have gone either way. But the three other losses (Tennessee, Minnesota and Oakland) are totally inexcusable to what are supposed to be inferior teams. So I’ll take a position-by-position breakdown of what has worked and what hasn’t. This week, the offense is under the microscope:
QB: Roethlisberger is completing 66 percent of his passes, and is averaging over 275 yards per game, the highest so far of his career. His 8 TD passes don’t set the world on fire, but it’s efficient. The 7 INT’s however, are part of the turnover issues that have plagued him over his last several seasons. I have always been a believer in Big Ben, and I think (as long as he’s healthy) that he should be our QB for as long as he has left. His 3 super bowl appearances and 2 titles sway me more than any other stat, but he does need to cut down on those turnovers. He’s “the man” here, but Gradkowski is a good veteran backup with solid legs. I like him to stay in the off-season as well.
RB: Lots of questions here. Le’veon Bell has been here now for 3 games, and has 208 yards and 3.3 per carry. He’s still getting healthy and getting used to the offense and NFL speed, but his patience and decision making in the hole looks good. The jury is still out whether he’s our feature back, but he has large upside. One would think that either Jones or the injured Stephens-Howling will be gone at years’ end, as will Dwyer (who I like a lot personally, but the Steelers don’t seem to). But Jones has looked good at times as the 3rd down back and returning kicks, so this combo may get the running game back to where it needs to be. I’d push for Dwyer to stay as the short-yardage guy, but he has weight issues that hamper him, according to the front office.
WR/TE: Antonio Brown has really emerged as the chief play-maker in Pittsburgh. After a slow start that made us wonder why we let Wallace go, Brown has racked up 400 yards in the last 5 weeks, bringing his total to 630 for the season. Heath Miller has been solid since his return from injury, but a few fumbles and untimely drops have kept him from being as reliable as he had been. Then it gets dicey. Emmanuel Sanders is FAR from standing out as the #2 guy, averaging just 56 yards per game. He’s also been hampered by drops, just like he was all of last season. We have yet to see what rookie Marcus Wheaton can do, as he has just 3 catches on the year. I think they need to start playing him in the slot right now. He’s very quick and a good jumper, and may be able to recreate the kind of deep-threat that Mike Wallace was. Sanders has been shaky, and Jericho Cotchery is pretty old. His legs aren’t what they used to be and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was gone at the end of the year. They’ve used Derek Moye in the red-zone as a tall target, so he’s another guy that they need to see on a more regular basis. Backup TE David Paulson impressed me a lot this pre-season, but hasn’t done much since then. Two tight-end sets could really improve the run game and catch teams by surprise, but Paulson has to hold on to the ball to get on the field more. These positions have to be addressed in the off-season for sure.
Offensive Line: Where do I begin? What I once believed at the beginning of the season to finally be a strength of the team, went directly downhill as soon as Pouncey got hurt for the season on the Steelers second drive of the year. They tried to sign young Guard Levi Brown on a trade, but he got hurt in warm-ups (this is NOT a typo) for the season before he ever played a single snap on the field. Fernando Velasco was a nice pick-up, and has played admirably. He’ll need to be resigned at season’s end for depth sake. The line (as always) has been a mass-unit of injuries all year, and now DiCastro is banged up again (just as he put together a few solid games in a row). Other second year guys Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert have really struggled, with Adams being benched and Gilbert racking up penalties. While they have youth, their lack of depth and continuity have made them one of the weaker lines in the NFL, giving up 26 sacks so far (averaging nearly 4 per game). Another first/second round pick needs to be spent here, as frustrating as that is to type.
So there you have it. The personnel breakdown of the Steelers inconsistent offense. Next week, I’ll tackle the other side of the ball. Until the next opening kickoff, valued readers!
Pittsburgh Steelers Correspondent