The Pittsburgh Steelers are the top dog in the AFC. But to reach the Super Bowl, it will be about their defense thanks to a punishing front and an old Ben Roethlisberger.
For the better part of this decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been defined by their offense. After winning two Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008 with a punishing defense and complimentary offense, the roles were shifted as Ben Roethlisberger matured and the duo of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown emerged.
This year, the script is being flipped, and what once was old is new again. While the national perception of Pittsburgh is an explosive offense with enough defense, the opposite is actually true.
The Steelers are 7-2 after squeaking by the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, 20-17. The game was largely representative of what Pittsburgh has been all year, showcasing an athletic front seven that mixes up blitzes while the secondary plays an aggressive zone scheme. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger and the offense make a few big plays while going through starts and stops.
And all of this leads to the dirty secret for the Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is no longer capable of carrying a championship-caliber team.
In 2017, the Black and Gold has to rely on defensive coordinator Keith Butler to continue dialing up unique pressures with a vast array of characters, using a combination of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, James Harrison, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
So far, the result has been terrific. Pittsburgh entered Sunday ranked fourth with 26 sacks and tacked on another three against Indianapolis. The Steelers allowed 6.2 yards per pass, only behind the Jacksonville Jaguars. Overall, Pittsburgh went into the weekend ranking fifth in yards per game allowed (286.6) and second in points allowed (16.4).
On the other side, the numbers aren’t as sterling. Roethlisberger has 12 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while completing 61.1 percent of his throws. The completion rate would be the second-worst of Roethlisberger’s 14-year career, while his pace of 21 touchdowns would be his lowest full-season total since 2008.
The future Hall of Famer is armed with the game’s best back in Bell and top receiver in Brown. He has a quality rookie wideout in JuJu Smith-Schuster and one of the top offensive lines in the game. This isn’t about the players around him, but rather the toll 14 years of pounding has taken, along with Father Time’s natural slowing.
Pittsburgh might very well be the class of the AFC. The New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs might have something to say about that come January, but the Steelers are leading the conversation.
That in its own right isn’t anything unique. The Steelers are annually in the race for another ring, but this time around, Big Ben won’t be leading the charge. He’ll have to play a supporting role behind both a ferocious defense and a running game that will chew up yardage and time.
The Steelers are ready to make another run with familiar faces, but the optics of it are going to be wildly different.
Top 12 offensive weapons in the NFL
1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
2. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
3. Tyreek Hill, WR/PR, Kansas City Chiefs
4. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
5. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
6. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
8. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
9. Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
10. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
11. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
– Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson on his first half-ending playcall
Hue Jackson is referring to the last play of the first half in Cleveland’s 38-24 loss at Detroit. With the clock stopped at 15 seconds and the ball at the Lions’ 2-yard-line, Jackson instructed DeShone Kizer to run a quarterback sneak. The play was stuffed at the line, and without a timeout, the Browns helplessly watched the clock run out on them.
Jackson doesn’t have much talent to work with, but he’s been an indefensible disaster.
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After gaining 61 all-purpose yards on Sunday, Indianapolis Colts running back Frank Gore moved into 16th all-time with 17,160, surpassing Derrick Mason. Gore had eight 1,000-yard rushing campaigns with the San Francisco 49ers before tacking on another with the Colts in 2016.
Info learned this week
1. Eagles have company with Saints, Vikings
The Philadelphia Eagles have the best record in football at 8-1, but the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings are knocking loudly at 7-2, respectively.
New Orleans dismantled the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on Sunday, winning 47-10 in a game that saw Tyrod Taylor throw for 56 yards. Minnesota was able to outscore the Washington Redskins in a 38-30 shootout, giving both the Saints and Vikings impressive wins on the road over potential playoff teams.
The Saints have long been known as an offense-only, defense-optional passing team, but no more. New Orleans sports one of the game’s best defenses with an offense predicated on pounding the ball with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
For the Eagles, continuing to stack up wins is a must with so much company in the rear view mirror. After the bye, they draw the Cowboys on the road, following with road games against the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams over the following three weeks.
2. AFC South remains tied at the top
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans won ugly games on Sunday, putting both at 6-3 atop the division. Jacksonville had to get a Josh Lambo field goal at the end of regulation and then in overtime to beat the Los Angeles Chargers, while Marcus Mariota threw a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute to topple the Cincinnati Bengals.
At this juncture, it’s hard to see Tennessee or Jacksonville missing the playoffs. Nine wins probably does the trick in the AFC, and both should cruise to that mark with soft schedules ahead. In fact, there’s a very good chance the Titans and Jaguars play each other in the Wild Card round, guaranteeing one of them reaches the Divisionals.
3. Seahawks face daunting challenge with Sherman
The Seattle Seahawks won on Thursday night, but ultimately may have lost much more than a game. All-Pro corner Richard Sherman is out for the season with a torn Achilles, putting more pressure on an aging defense that has already begun to show cracks.
Sherman is both the emotional leader and unquestioned top corner on Seattle, a team that thrives on applying pressure in the secondary. Moving forward, Shaq Griffin will need to step up with the future Hall of Famer sidelined.
With the Los Angeles Rams continuing to play a winning brand of football, the Sherman injury might tip the NFC West scales in favor of the upstarts.
4. Packers stay in playoff race, beat Bears
The Bears were favored by five points over the Green Bay Packers, and still ended up getting beat soundly. Green Bay came out desperate and moved the ball throughout in a 23-16 win over Chicago, getting to 5-4 and staying in the conversation.
The Packers are going to struggle with Brett Hundley, but the schedule is forgiving in the coming weeks. Green Bay plays three games against sub-.500 opponents over the next month, with the Steelers being the lone exception.
5. Panthers host Dolphins in key MNF matchup
The Carolina Panthers are looking to stay within a half-game of the streaking Saints on Monday night, taking on the Miami Dolphins. Miami hopes to get some traction in the AFC wild card race after losing at home last Sunday to the Oakland Raiders.
Carolina would move to 7-3 with a victory, putting it both in the NFC South while keeping it in the top wild card spot. A loss would be crushing to divisional hopes, especially with the Saints having one of the easiest schedules in football moving forward.
The Dolphins are 4-4 and with a victory would comfortably be in the AFC playoff picture. Miami would be in a wild card spot alongside the Bills, with the two teams still slated to play twice.
In 1986, the Cleveland Browns had one of the wildest playoff trips of all-time. The top seed in the AFC, Cleveland hosted the New York Jets in the Divisional round, only to fall behind 20-10 with under four minutes to play. Incredibly, quarterback Bernie Kosar rallied Cleveland to tie the game before winning in double overtime, the third-longest game in league history.
The next week, Cleveland took a 20-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, only to allow John Elway to engineer “The Drive.” Elway took his Denver Broncos on a 98-yard touchdown march to knot the score at 20-20 in the final minute, before Rich Karlis won the game for Denver in overtime.
Sunday’s action gave us a proverbial thinning of the herd in the AFC playoff race.
Barring collapse, the Steelers, Chiefs and Patriots are going to win their respective divisions, likely filling out the conference’s top three seeds. The Titans and Jaguars are both 6-3 and reaching the postseason, with one winning the South and the loser being the No. 5 seed.
With the No. 6 seed the only seemingly available ticket, we can begin narrowing down the contenders. The Bengals, Texans, Chargers, Broncos and Jets all lost their sixth games of the season on Sunday, all but dropping them from contention. The Colts and Browns have long been out of the race, adding two more teams to the scrap heap.
This leaves us with the Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, Bills and Dolphins. Buffalo is in the driver’s seat at 5-4, while Miami is 4-4 (pending Monday night) and both the Ravens and Raiders are 4-5. Baltimore has the easiest schedule of the quartet, while Buffalo and Miami still have two games against New England and road dates with the Chiefs.
There is still plenty of road to go, but we’re starting to see the playoff picture shake out in the AFC.