Let’s play a drinking game. Take a shot for every member of the Pittsburgh Steelers that has suffered a major injury this season.
Don’t. I love my readers and don’t wish alcohol poisoning on any of you. Though it is amazing that we’re not all drowning our woes away at this point in the season.
I was going to write this earlier in the week and couldn’t find the will to do so. The Steelers lost All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell for the season with a badly torn MCL against the Cincinnati Bengals. Ultimately, the Steelers lost the best running back in football in a losing effort in a game in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed copious rust and discomfort in the pocket.
Bell is the third All-Pro on the Steelers to miss considerable time this season due to a significant injury. Center Maurkice Pouncey and Roethlisberger are the other two, in case you forgot (you didn’t). Other teams have had considerable injuries. They’re part of the game. I challenge anyone to find a team more significantly hit with injuries than the Steelers to this point.
I digress. Overcoming obstacles is what makes a great team. The Steelers, at this point in time, are not a great team. This team is littered with holes that they are not able to put band-aids over.
THE SECONDARY IS A PRIMARY CONCERN
I’m not above using bad puns at this point.
There is no sugar coating this any longer: the Steelers likely have the least talented secondary in football. Antwon Blake and William Gay are not NFL starting quality defensive backs. There is a case to be made (and I’d make it) that Blake is not an NFL quality defensive back period. I love his aggressive style of play and especially love his ability to lay a big hit, but this is best utilized on special teams. Blake’s inability to get inside or outside leverage has forced defensive coordinator Keith Butler to play him eight yards off of the receiver in order to prevent an explosive play. Blake lacks the ability to run inside the hip of his receiver and fails to get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the route.
It’s worth noting that Blake had a very good game against the Bengals, but these seem to be few and far between. There were times in which he was beaten and quarterback Andy Dalton missed a simple read.
The surprise star of this secondary has been cornerback Ross Cockrell, a player whom I’ve expressed excitement previously. Cockrell has had his struggles in games earlier this season, but he seems to be settling down. He has had a number of nice breakups this season.
Oh, Brandon Boykin, where art thou? I almost made this an entire subheading unto itself.
Where is Boykin?
The Steelers dealt away a conditional fourth round selection to the Philadelphia Eagles in order to obtain Boykin earlier in training camp. It was seen, at the time, as the front office’s way of covering themselves when Senquez Golson went under the knife. It has not panned out that way. Boykin, to this point, has played 23 defensive snaps. This is a cornerback that registered six interceptions in the 2013 season playing as the Eagles’ Nickle corner. He has shown particularly impressive ability in zone coverage which begs the question: why is he not playing?
The answer? I have no idea. The explanation from Mike Tomlin insinuates an issue adjusting to the scheme or consistent mental lapses in practice. If this is true, it’s probably a good thing Boykin isn’t on the field in a regular role.
Here’s the thing: I don’t buy this for one second.
The Steelers inquired about Boykin in the 2014 season, so the original thought of the front office trying to cover themselves after Golson went down goes out the window. Boykin has shown impressive ability when given the opportunity to be on the field, but the coaching staff has yet to give him such an opportunity. An NFL defensive back does not simply forget the basics of playing the position. Boykin still has considerable talent, but the coaching staff has yet to utilize it. Instead, week after week, the secondary continues to get shredded as Boykin makes his impact on the bench. Regardless of what one may think of Pro Football Focus’ grades and rankings (I have my own concerns and hesitations) they’ve had Boykin ranked as high as the sixth-best cornerback in football.
For reference, Blake is currently ranked 167th out of 172 cornerbacks.
If it truly is a mental issue with Boykin, how much worse can it get? Blake is surrendering easy catches on a drive to drive basis, allowing opposing offenses to make quick and easy work of an already-talented depleted secondary. Gay is still allowing quarterbacks to complete over 70% of their passes to be completed when throwing his way and is ripe for the pickings opposite Blake.
In case you’re keeping score, the Steelers best cornerback is currently playing in the Nickle and it’s quite possible the coaching staff is burying a top-15 cornerback in football on the depth chart.
I don’t have an answer.
It’s not all bad. Free safety Mike Mitchell has been a breath of fresh air into a stale secondary and has shown the type of talent and ability that earned him his contract with the organization.
Taking a right back into Negativeville, the strong safety position is a mess. Shamarko Thomas is currently a “Headache” on special teams, but not because of his big hits. Thomas has been invisible thus far and has only registered defensive reps in an emergency role. Will Allen has played adequately thus far, but lacks the talent and ability to be the long-term answer at the position. Robert Golden played against the Bengals. That’s how dire things have become.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Steelers are 4 defensive backs away from having a really good defense.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 18, 2015
It’s not all negative.
A SUDDENLY DOMINANT FRONT SEVEN
The defensive isn’t a mess all over the field. In fact, the front seven of the Steelers defense is actually quite good. Led by defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers have had a sudden resurgence in applying consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Tuitt, prior to his injury, was having one of the best seasons a defensive end has had for this team in recent memory. Not to be out done, Heyward was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second-best 3-4 defensive end in football behind only the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt.
Not a bad season for the two young “bookends”.
Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree has been steadily improving week-to-week and has registered four sacks on the season, good for third-best in franchise history among rookie edge rushers. While initially struggling to adjust to the speed of the game, Dupree has steadily improved.
I was able to ask Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller about Dupree’s game so far, and he tempered the excitement to an extent. Dupree’s first sack came as he was unblocked, and his third came as he was lined up against a tight end. Still, Dupree has shown explosion off of the line of scrimmage and flashed good strength against tackles. His ability to generate that speed to power around the edge is going to have to improve when tackles begin to stonewall him at the line of scrimmage, however.
Third-year pro Jarvis Jones has been up and down this season. Miller said as much, though there was early talk of him perhaps turning a corner. His play thus far has shown the potential to do so, particularly in the run game. The infuriating thing about Jones is his inconsistency in rushing the passer. Jones will have a snap in which he beats a tackle clean across his face, followed by two quarters of nothing but bull rushes and generating next-to-no pressure off of the right side. It may be premature to start using that velvet-B label, but consider this: Dupree has 0.5 fewer career sacks than Jones to this point.
Ryan Shazier was excellent in his return to the lineup. Shazier has all of the traits of an elite inside linebacker. His sideline to sideline speed, coupled with his ability to generate turnovers and use his exceptional quickness to generate interior pressure on stunts, has been remarkable for this defense thus far. Health remains the only question for the young linebacker.
The overall depth in the middle of the Steelers defense is impressive. Lawrence Timmons has had his struggles at times this season, but he looks to be back on track. Behind the two starters are linebackers Sean Spence and Vince Williams. I have my doubts regarding Spence’s ability, but Williams remains stout when asked to stuff the run.
Arthur Moats and James Harrison round out the depth on the edges, and both have played adequately when asked to relieve Jones and Dupree.
The defense, in reality, has played surprisingly well thus far this season. In Roethlisberger’s absence, the defense stepped up and gave the Steelers an opportunity to win in every game. Quarterbacks Landry Jones and Michael Vick were not able to get the job done, but a .500 record in absence of your franchise quarterback is nonetheless impressive. The secondary needs an overhaul, likely coming next season, but the defensive front has held the Steelers in games. This will likely need to continue in the back half of the season with the offenses struggles.
BUELLER? BUELLER? BUELLER?
The last thing on the Steelers’ roster that was supposed to be of any issue was the offense. It was the unit that was supposed to carry a lackluster defensive unit deep into the playoffs. The combination of Roethlisberger to All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown was supposed to remain lethal, and Bell and budding superstar receiver Martavis Bryant were supposed to round out a flat out terrifying offensive unit.
Three devastating injuries to the offense later and this is a team hurting to find offensive rhythm.
Down All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey for another few weeks, the offensive line has not been the strength it was last season. Cody Wallace has struggled continually throughout the season and is a shadow of the ability of Pouncey in the middle of the line.
Roethlisberger has returned from his four-game absence after suffering a knee injury. In his return, Roethlisberger struggled and showed signs of rust. He’s the last player on this offense I’m worried about in the long-term, but his struggles after injury are concerning.
Bell is out for the remainder of the 2015 season with a badly torn MCL. Aside from losing Roethlisberger, this is the most devastating injury this offense could have suffered. Bell is the league’s best running back and I no longer believe it’s debatable. The patience, vision, explosiveness and play-making ability are not matched anywhere in the league. Losing this sort of weapon is irreplaceable. This is not a shot or knock on running back DeAngelo Williams, a player I feel can operate very well in this offense, but he can not match what Bell brings to the table.
The question is, where is the explosive offensive unit whose goal was to put up 30 points per game?
Roethlisberger’s rust had a lot to do with the ineptness of the offense against the Bengals, but this cannot continue to carry on. Brown was invisible without Roethlisberger earlier in the season and Bryant failed to make his presence known against the Bengals. This game, on paper, was supposed to be a mismatch for the Steelers against a secondary that struggles with the speed and talent the Steelers boast on the boundary. Instead, after the opening drive of the game, the Steelers struggled to move the ball in the air with any efficiency.
The Steelers have a very tough schedule remaining, including games against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, both of whom boast very impressive defenses. They face off against the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens again, and will play the Cleveland Browns twice. The Ravens and Browns are struggling this season, but will play the Steelers hard per usual.
The unforgiving schedule for the Steelers will make it difficult for them to mount a playoff run.
The Steelers play the Oakland Raiders on Sunday and will play against a secondary that has had issues stopping the pass throughout the season. On paper, once again, this appears to be a nightmare matchup for a Raiders team that has to play a rejuvenated Steelers’ offense, and find ways to cover both Brown and Bryant on the boundary.
More on this on Sunday morning.
If the Steelers are to mount a playoff run, they must get the offense back on track. I don’t know how far this offense can go in the playoffs down the best running back in football, but this team needs to continue to show life. The offense needs to become that terrifying force it was supposed to be early in the season, giving defensive coordinators fits on how to stop Brown and Bryant on the boundary with tight end Heath Miller roaming around the middle.
The secondary is going to continue to be a bullet hole-sized wound on this team until next season which forces the defensive front to continue the excellent play to mask it as best it can. Tuitt returns to the lineup this Sunday which provides a shot in the arm to a pass rush that sorely needs it.
? The Steelers claimed WR and KR/PR specialist Jacoby Jones from the San Diego Chargers on Thursday. As a result, the team has released RB/WR/KR Dri Archer. Archer never made much of an impact anywhere for the Steelers and had issues carving a role out for himself on this team. His inability to flip the field on special teams compounded with his inability to get consistent reps on offense has made the pick a disappointment. His 4.2 speed is undeniably impressive, but his inability to utilize it for this team has made him dispensable. Jones is brought in to help rejuvenate a return game that hasn’t done much this season. One thing to look for is if Jones is now on punts instead of Brown.
? Tuitt and W. Allen were full practice participants this week. Tuitt sparks a pass rush that missed him desperately and Allen brings stability to the back end of the defense.
? The Steelers host the Raiders on Sunday, November 8th at Heinz Field at 1 P.M.
? There will be a pregame article up on Sunday morning. Keep an eye out for that.