It’s once again time to grade the Pittsburgh Steelers. I always break the Steelers’ season into quarters and having already done the first eight games, here are my grades for the Black and Gold with four games remaining in the season. I’d like to also not the proper use of the horse racing term “quarter pole” as last time I screwed it up!
Games 9-12: W @ Indianapolis 20-17… W Tennessee 40-17… W Green Bay 31-28… W @ Cincinnati 23-20 (4-0)
OFFENSE: B+, Previous Grades C, B
Total Offense: 20th (after 4 games), 4th (after 8 games), 7th after 12 games
Passing Offense: 15th (after 4 games), 4th (after 8 games), 4th after 12 games
Rushing Offense: 21st (after 4 games), 13th (after 8 games), 20th after 12 games
Todd Haley’s unit picked up the pace in the third quarter of the season and much of that was due to a more consistent Ben Roethlisberger as well as using more no-huddle. Over the last four games the Steelers averaged just over 28 points per game. Prior to that stretch it was just around 21 per game. It cannot be lost on anyone that Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are leading the league in their respective positions.
The contribution from Chris Hubbard cannot be discounted either. He’s gone from a guy who is a solid reserve to a guy who may be playing himself into a starting job somewhere in the NFL in 2018. Marcus Gilbert will return following the Patriots’ game but given Hubbard’s performance, Mike Munchak and Mike Tomlin have to be confident any time they may need to call on Hubbard.
Pittsburgh’s red zone improvements must be mentioned here as well. For the season, they are averaging touchdown success in the RZ at a clip of just over 45%. In their last three games they are just under 54%. Play-calling and execution are big reasons why this has improved.
DEFENSE: B, Previous Grades B, B+
Total Defense: 3rd (after 4 games), 10th (after 8 games), 4th after 12 games
Passing Defense: 2nd (after 4 games), 5th (after 8 games), 2nd after 12 games
Rushing Defense: 23rd (after 4 games), 21st (after 8 games), 8th after 12 games
The defense’s only real hiccup over the last four games was against Brett Hundley and the Packers in Heinz Field. Strange, I know, but this unit has shown serious resilience. That was best exemplified in their second half performance against the Bengals while missing both Ryan Shazier and his replacement Tyler Matakevich.
The play of Artie Burns has been a concern but he’s looked a little better the last two weeks. Mike Mitchell being healthy is crucial if no other reason than to communicate with the rest of his secondary. Certainly the injury to Joe Haden has created problems but may have a silver lining. If Cam Sutton continues to play in his absence over Coty Sensabaugh then that gives big time experience to a rookie in need of it.
Not much can be said that hasn’t already about the play of Cam Heyward. He has been outstanding as both a leader and a presence on the field. He and Stephon Tuitt will likely need to step up their games with Shazier out. Keeping running backs from getting to the next level is beyond important.
The final four games will yield interesting results for this unit. The first two games against Baltimore and New England will likely dictate where the Steelers are for the postseason. The latter two games at Houston and home to Cleveland could provide an opportunity to rest players.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+, Previous Grades B, B
The move from a ‘B’ to a ‘B+’ is strictly due to the guy named “Chris Boswell.” What a find this guy has been. All he’s done is be the difference in three of the Steelers last four wins. As for the rest of the special teams’ units it’s been rather “ho-hum” with two exceptions. First, the penalties continue to be an issue. See Monday night’s game in Cincy as an example. Secondly, the Steelers appear to have found their kick return man in Martavis Bryant. He was the victim of a penalty when his touchdown return was called back.
Overall, the unit is sufficient, but as we head into cold weather games and typically more defensive battles, special teams become more important. Danny Smith’s charges can’t afford mistakes.
Coaching Staff: B+, Previous Grade B-, B
Can’t say enough about the way the team rallied against the Bengals. It would have been very easy to just start the bus and go home with a loss after Ryan Shazier’s injury but they fought back. The adjustments have been better as well overall too. I do think Keith Butler’s worst game was against the Packers. He has to identify when things aren’t working quicker and make the proper adjustments.
Haley had a better four-game stretch and I attribute most of that to increased use of the no-huddle offense. While this doesn’t have to be used all the time, I think the offense functions better with it.
Overall: B+, Previous Grade B, B+
Key Things to Address: Pressure from the OLBs… Consistency against the run… More no-huddle offense… Getting healthy for the stretch run.
Photo courtesy: Concord Monitor