The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2016 season has been, in a word, interesting.
On their way to a 4-3 record, the Steelers have been both outright dominant and utterly embarrassed. Pittsburgh’s four victories have come by a combined score of 136-59. In those games, the Steelers looked every bit like the contender they were touted as coming into this season.
Which, of course, makes their losses all the more frustrating. Excluding New England, Pittsburgh’s lost to teams most expected them to beat handily in the Eagles and Dolphins. As good as they’ve looked in wins, the Steelers have looked just as bad in losses. In fact, their three losses this year have come by a combined score of 91-34.
Pittsburgh fans needn’t fret. Their team began each of the past two seasons at 4-3 and that didn’t stop them from winning double-digit games and qualifying for the postseason. That said, the Steelers will need to address some issues during the bye week if they’re expecting to go on a late-season tear.
Stop The Run
In the beginning of the season, the Steelers looked like one of the league’s best run defenses. Through five weeks the Steelers allowed just 77 rushing yards per game. Exclude what seemed like an aberration against the Eagles and that yardage average drops to just 65 a game.
In the last two games, however, the Steelers have been hemorrhaging yards on the ground. The Patriots and Dolphins racked up a combined 362 yards on what’s supposed to be a vaunted run defense. What’s worse, Pittsburgh’s defensive front just looked to be physically worn down by Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and their respective O-Lines.
There are explanations for both Pittsburgh’s struggles and its successes defending the run.
In wins, the Steelers typically led by a bunch and rendered opposing run games useless. But, in its last few losses, the Steelers have been down two stalwart defenders in Cam Heyward and Ryan Shazier. That opened up plenty for opposing running backs.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it’s a problem the Steelers need to get fixed nonetheless. With the state of the pass defense, they can’t afford to suddenly struggle against the run.
Rushing the Passer
As noted above, and as is well known by most, the Steelers don’t exactly have a stellar pass defense. The team currently ranks 28th in passing yardage allowed. They didn’t fare any better last year, but were able to mask the weakness by coming up with sacks and turnovers and clamping down in the red zone.
Of course, the more a defense pressures or sacks an opposing QB, the better their odds of getting a turnover or just getting off the field become. The Steelers were great at this last year, posting 48 sacks without having one stud pass-rusher. In all, 16 different players accounted for at least half a sack in Pittsburgh last season.
This year? It’s taken the Steelers seven game to come up with all of eight sacks. And that’s with much of the same personnel. Again, some of it’s been by design. This year’s iteration of the Pittsburgh defense seems to prefer to rush three or four and play coverage. Given how well that’s been working, though, it seems like now would be a good time for Pittsburgh to start bringing the heat.
Last year, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Butler blitzed until his heart’s content. This year’s bend-and-don’t-break approach has been hit-or-miss. However, it’s a lot tougher to ask any defense to simply not break against the likes of New England. Which is why in the second half of the season, Butler should start creating more aggressive gameplans and try to dictate to opposing offenses what they can and can’t do.
Now, this one is largely out of Pittsburgh’s control. Injuries are a fickle thing in the NFL and sometimes they can knock even the most loaded rosters out of contention. That said, if the Steelers have any shot to contend this year, they’ll need the injury bug to be much kinder to them than it was in the first half of the year.
Ben Roethlisberger, DeAngelo Williams, Marcus Gilbert, Ladarius Green, Markus Wheaton, Sammie Coates, Cam Heyward, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and Robert Golden are some among the many names who missed time this year. The good news is that Pittsburgh expects to return most of them after the break.
In some sense, the Steelers have been fortunate. They’ve suffered very few season-ending injuries. They could come out of their bye with a lineup as close to full strength as any in the NFL. And when this team’s at full strength, it’s a handful for any opponent.