By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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Heading into the bye week, the Steelers have had plenty of ups and downs that have made them hard to read at times. In the games that they have won, they have looked like they have the capability of being one of the best teams in the league. In their losses, however, they have looked like they have no right to be in the playoff conversation. With a 4-3 record, the Steelers are still one game up on the Bengals and Ravens, who are tied for second place at 3-4.
With the season just about halfway over, what have we learned about the Steelers so far this season?
The Steelers Defense is Not Where it Needs to Be
When your defensive stars are vocally speaking to the media about their disgust with the performance of the defense, you know things are not going well for you. Both Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier spoke out about the defense’s struggles this season, especially as of late. Considering the amount of resources the Steelers have put into revamping this defense, they have little to show for it. The pass rush is non-existent (although the Steelers are blitzing at the lowest rate in the NFL). The secondary still can’t cover anybody. The run defense couldn’t stop a peewee football team. Something needs to change during the bye week if the Steelers are expecting to make a playoff run. The offense can only do so much to keep them in the game.
Expect the Pass Rush to be Addressed Early in the Draft
Speaking of a non-existent pass rush, I fully expect the Steelers to address the outside linebacker position early on in the draft this upcoming offseason. When James Harrison is your most effective pass rusher at 38-years old, something needs to change. With Jarvis Jones likely gone after this season (although this has been his best season as a pro) and Harrison not getting any younger, the team would benefit by trying to select a splash pass rusher to compliment Bud Dupree, who has yet to play a game this season. While the ineffective pass rush could possibly improve if and when Dupree is taken off of the IR, the Steelers would be smart to add another pass rusher to their arsenal. You can never have too many solid pass rushers on your roster.
There is No Replacing Ben Roethlisberger
Now this is no knock on Landry Jones, who admittedly had a solid performance against the Patriots. But realistically, Roethlisberger could have been a difference maker. Many of Jones’s passes were off the mark and ended up being costly mistakes (particularly his interception in the endzone to Malcolm Butler). For years, Roethlisberger has carried this team during the season, especially with the decline of the defense that has taken place over Big Ben’s career. We saw it last year and we are seeing it again currently: this team will struggle to win without Roethlisberger. While many see the Patriots loss as a moral victory due to it being a close game until the closing minutes of the 4th quarter, Jones is not the future at quarterback for the Steelers. If the team is expected to make any sort of deep run into the playoffs, the overall health of the players will be the biggest factor in determining whether that happens.
And that all starts with the health of Ben Roethlisberger.
Le’Veon Bell is the Best Player on This Team
While this team’s success this season hinges on the health of Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league, there is no denying one thing.
Le’Veon Bell is the best player on this team.
And quite frankly, he is the best running back in the NFL.
For some puzzling reason, his usage so far this season has been underwhelming, which is no fault of his. In the past four games in which he has been active, Bell has accounted for nearly 40% of the team’s total offense, even with his questionable usage. He is averaging 5.0 yards per carry right now, which is putting him on pace for the highest rate of his career so far. He is also averaging 86.0 yards per game, which is the 5th highest average in the league. What makes him even more dangerous is his ability to be a dual-threat running back, often lining up in the slot as a receiver. He has already set a career mark this season by having a nine reception game against the Jets while also averaging 49.0 receiving yards per game. His ability to make plays on offense is unparalleled and he has truly been a difference maker this season. He has flourished in Pittsburgh’s system and will continue to do so this season.
This Team Can Go Deep Into the Playoffs, But They Aren’t There Yet
As I mentioned previously, this team has the potential to be one of the best in the league. And when they are on, they are on. But the inconsistencies have overshadowed the bright moments so far this season. Against the Eagles and the Dolphins, the Steelers were outplayed and out-coached by two teams that have no where near the amount of talent on their rosters as the Steelers do. Yes, Carson Wentz is making a case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Yes, Jay Ajayi just became the 4th player in NFL history to post back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. But as a whole, neither team is considered to be a Super Bowl contender.
The Steelers have typically been effective at making solid mid-season adjustments as needed. But this team desperately needs to do some soul searching if they expect to bring home their 7th Lombardi Trophy.
While a large portion of Steelers Nation doesn’t think it can be done, there is still a lot of football left to play. If the proper changes are made and the team can stay healthy, this is still a team that can make a deep run into the playoffs.