The Pittsburgh Steelers exit their bye week with a 6-4 record holding the 1st seed in the AFC Wild Card race. With the Bengals falling to 8-2, the Steelers could conceivably take a long-shot run at the AFC North crown.
- The 2015 Steelers final 6 games which once seemed brutal now seem less daunting.
Yes, the Steelers travel in 4 out of six weeks including visits to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland, but Denver, Indianapolis and perhaps even Seattle look vulnerable.
But for Pittsburgh to make it to the playoffs, and, dare Steelers Nation dream, a run at Lombardi Number 7, here are 6 players who must step up during the 2015 Steelers final 6 games.
When reporters asked Carnell Lake following the 2013 NFL Draft why the Steelers waited so long to draft a corner, Lake began talking about Antwon Blake, whom the Steelers had picked up when Kevin Colbert went waiver wire shopping after making their initial 2013 cuts.
Steelers fans scratched their heads, but Blake’s splash plays in the form of an interception vs. the Colts and forced fumble and fumble recover vs. Cincinnati helped inspire confidence. And looking at his Antwon Blake’s 2015 stat sheet offers more to like, as he has two interceptions including a pick six vs. San Diego, an impressive Red Zone interception vs. the Bengals, and the Steelers have credited him with 9 passes defensed.
But stats and highlights can be deceiving. Neal Coolong of USA Today’s Steelers Wire reports that per Pro Football Focus’ accounting, Blake leads all NFL corners with 17 missed tackles.
- Focus on fundamentals like crisp tackling, or lack thereof, is often what decides “December Football”
Duirng their the 2015 Steelers final 6 games, Pittsburgh needs Antown Blake to focus on fundamentals
Chris Boswell’s name might be a surprise here, as Boswell’s performance since arriving after a string of injuries and the disaster that was Josh Scobee made placekicking a dicey proposition in Pittsburgh.
Yet Boswell missed an extra pointvs. the Browns and missed an field goal against the Raiders in a game that was ultimately decided by 3 points. A few weeks ago on Rebecca Rollet’s Going Deep: An Introspective Steelers Site, Ivan Cole asked if Chris Boswell’s performance signaled that the Steelers should part ways with Shaun Suisham.
- My response was “Let’s see how Boswell kicks at Heinz Field in November and December.”
Boswell first two misses came in November at Heinz Field on days when the weather was good. The real test will be how he kicks out doors in the AFC North in December. Suffice to say, the Steelers playoff hopes can ill afford a Chris Boswell slump during Pittsburgh’s final six games.
Three years into his NFL career, Markus Wheaton remains an enigma.
Early in 2014 Wheaton flashed explosivness that made him look like he could be a legit big-play receiver. His performance cratered at mid-season, and while he was largely an afterthought thanks to the emergence of Martavis Bryant, Wheaton quietly closed 2014 by making drive sustaining catch after drive sustaining catch.
In 2015 thus far, Markus Wheaton has made some nice plays in Martavis Bryant’s absence, most notably his 72 yard touchdown catch from Michael Vick vs. San Diego, but has yet to find a rhythm in the Steelers offense.
The reality is that Ben Roethlisberger’s first three targets during the Steelers final 6 games are probably going to be Brown, Bryant and Heath Miller.
- But there will be times when those men will be covered and Ben Roethlisberger will look Markus Wheaton’s way.
Wheaton needs to be ready.
Steel Curtain Rising does not pretend to have the time, the facilities, or the ability to do detaled analysis of the techniques of offensive lineman. But after both the Raiders game and after the Browns game, Neal Coolong of Steelers Wire cited Cody Wallace for poor technique.
- Wallace’s play was sold at the end of 2013 in relief of Fernando Velasco and has been solid for much of this year.
There’s been little word on whether Maurkice Pouncey will return from the short-term injured reserve list, and even if he does return there’s no guarantee he’ll be at full strength. AFC North contests played in December often comes down to who dominates the line of scrimmage. On offense, that starts with sound play at center. The Steelers need Cody Wallace to step up.
Early in the season Steelers Nation saw Roosevelt Nix to deliver some crushing blocks. Vs. the Raiders he forced a fumble, against the Browns he had his first NFL catch.
When the Steelers opted to keep Roosevelt Nix, many felt he held a luxury roster spot. Most expected him to go when Bell and/or Bryant came back. Mike Tomlin kept him on the roster.
- No one questions Roosevelt Nix’s roster spot now.
Teams that are successful late in the season often are the ones who can get the most value out roster spots 46-53. Nix would be in that range. The undrafted rookie free agent ahs done a lot to take advantage of the opportunities Steelers coaches have given him. Look for Nix to get more in December, and look for him to take advantage.
Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton or Cam Thomas
In Cameron Heyward the Pittsburgh Steelers have a budding superstar. Stephon Tuitt is not far behind. While no one is quite ready to say that the Steelers have the best two 3-4 defensive ends in the league, if both men keep up their current level of play they will soon.
- In Steve McLendon the Steelers have a solid nose tackle who helps take away the middle of the field.
Behind those front three, the Steelers don’t have a whole lot. Football has always been about attrition, and that tendency only takes on more truth as November fades into December. Even if Heyward, Tuitt, and McLendon stay, God willing, healthy, rotating defensive lineman is quite important to John Mitchell’s scheme.