The bye week was good to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Without improving on their 6-2 record, the Steelers gained a game on both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North race, and saw Kansas City drop a game to the Dallas Cowboys, transforming what was once a 3 way tie for AFC dominance into a two way tie.
- While a 6-2 record translates to a 12-4 overall record, past performance is not an indicator of future results.
And that might be a positive thing, because 12-4 almost certainly won’t be enough to secure home field advantage in the playoffs, or even enough to get one of those coveted first round byes.
So with that, here are 4 things the Steelers must do during the second half of the season.
1. Put It Together on Defense
8 games into 2017, Keith Butler’s defense brought a mixed bag on game day. Consider:
- The Steelers rushing defense got gouged left and right against Chicago and Jacksonville yet has been in shutdown mode most of the rest of the time
- The Steelers took a strong pass defense to Detroit, and then gave up 420 yards
- That same defense took a weak Red Zone record into Detroit and came out with one of the strongest Red Zone performances in memory
Let’s agree that the arrow is pointing up on the Steelers defense. Contributions from newcomers like T.J. Watt and Joe Haden are proving to be difference makers as is depth provided by players like Tyson Alualu and Anthony Chickillo.
But the Steelers defense needs to put it together for an entire game. Going into full shut down mode for one half might have worked against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It won’t work against Tom Brady in December…. Or, God willing January.
2. Get it Done in the Red Zone
Let’s get this straight: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense, complete with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and new comer JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the bye week just a hair above the absolutely bottom in Red Zone effectiveness.
- Chris Boswell is the team’s number 1 weapon inside the 20.
Sometimes it’s been because of an over reliance on the passing. Other times its been an over reliance on the run. Other times it’s been the failure to use Roosevelt Nix and the “Big Boy” Package. Other times execution has flat out failed.
Regardless of the reason, the Steelers Red Zone Offense must Improve. Period
3. Stop Ringing The Bell So Much
In hindsight, Chuck Noll made it look so easy. It didn’t matter whether he had legends like Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, journeymen like Frank Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie or under appreciated players like Merril Hoge and Warren Williams, Noll never had a problem splitting carries between his backs.
- Ok. NFL offenses have changed.
In fact they’ve changed so much that, in the post-Chuck Noll era, about the only time you see the Steelers splitting carries between running backs is when injury has forced their hand (think Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in 2004).
And Steel Curtain Rising has acknowledged an unfortunately reality a multiple times:
- It’s easy to limit Le’Veon Bell’s carries on paper, doing so in the heat of games is far harder.
Its also true that limiting carries of the primary ball carrier wasn’t a practical option in 2014 thanks to LeGarrette Blount’s antics, Bell’s injury in 2015, and DeAngelo William’s injuries in 2016.
But James Conner and Terrell Watson are both healthy and Le’Veon Bell is on pace for 458 touches in the regular season alone. Todd Haley must find a way to work Conner and Watson into the running game.
4. Expect and Embrace the Unexpected
OK, expecting and embracing the unexpected is stealing a from this site’s lessons from 2016 column. But the lesson remains valid.
- Yes, the Steelers are 6-2 at the bye, and yes that’s a very good place to be.
- And yes, Mike Tomlin teams have historically gotten stronger in the 2nd halves of seasons.
But streaks don’t necessarily carry over from the first half of a football season to the second. Did anyone have the 2007 or 2011 New York Giants pegged as Super Bowl champions halfway through the year?
- Steelers history provides its own examples.
In 2009, the Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in their 8th game and finally looked like defending Super Bowl Champions. They then promptly went out and lost 5 straight games. Everyone remembers the 2012 Steelers for their late-season implosion, but people forget that team stacked four strong wins in the middle of the season and was looking very strong 8 or 9 games in.
- The key here is to both expect the unexpected and to embrace it.
The Steelers lost Cameron Heyward 9 games into 2016. This site’s reaction was to say, “Cam Heyward lost for the season = “Game Over” invoking Bill Paxton’s quote from Aliens. Yet, the Steelers defense staged a remarkable turn around thanks to James Harrison re-joining the starting lineup and Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave playing like veterans instead of rookies.
The second half of 2017 will bring unanticipated challenges and inopportune injuries.
- Mike Tomlin’s Steelers won’t have a choice about the challenges they’ll face in the future, but they do have it in their power to choose how they react to those challenges.
That choice, perhaps more than anything else, will define the final 8 games of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2017 regular season.