I suppose you could look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 4-4 record and just give out a big fat ‘C’ and be done with it. That’s not how I do things and that’s certainly not how we grade teams anyway. Below are my thoughts on the Steelers through the first eight games of 2019
1st Quarter: @New England L, Seattle L, @San Francisco L, Cincinnati W (1-3)
2nd Quarter: Baltimore L, @LA Chargers W, BYE, Miami W, Indianapolis W (3-1)
Offense (1st Quarter Grade Incomplete), 2nd Quarter C+
We’ve now had an opportunity to see Mason Rudolph in three starts (five total), two of the three were wins and the other was an overtime loss where he exited early due to being knocked out cold. The arrow is up on Rudolph and he’s performed well in stretches and not so well in others. As he gets more comfortable I think the better throws and will come. He’s settling for a lot of checkdowns right now which is OK but those will be taken away as the Colts started to in the second half on Sunday. I expect to see improved and more stable play from Rudolph going forward.
The running game is still a work in progress. It doesn’t help that both James Conner and Benny Snell have been banged up nor does it help that the offensive line lacks consistency in run blocking. As a pass protection unit, the OL is still among the best in the NFL.
As you know, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s numbers are down significantly compared to last season. I do expect those to come up as Diontae Johnson and James Washington continue to improve as number two receivers. Vance McDonald had his best game on Sunday and I think Nick Vannett can have a bigger role in the offense.
Randy Fichtner has had a very up and down second quarter of the season. Getting what he could out of Devlin Hodges in Los Angeles was an excellent job of coaching but some of the play calling against Baltimore and Indianapolis has left a lot to be desired.
MVP so far: 1st Quarter None, 2nd Quarter James Conner
Defense (1st Quarter Grade C+), 2nd Quarter B+
The defense gave up 20 points per game over the second quarter stretch but also had a basket full of turnovers and sacks. The play of Minkah Fitzpatrick cannot be mentioned enough. His presence on the back end of this unit has been a major factor in limiting deep balls. With the loss of Stephon Tuitt for the season, Cam Heyward has picked up his play in recent weeks and that will need to continue as he gets help from Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu.
The linebackers have been terrific with the exception of Mark Barron who has struggled in coverage and with his tackling. T.J. Watt will be in the Pro Bowl and he very well could be joined by Devin Bush. Bud Dupree is having a terrific season but questions will linger into the offseason as to whether or not he should be re-signed. Some feel his play is all about a contract and that his play will fall off once he gets paid.
Outside of Fitzpatrick, the decision to sign Steven Nelson has been a great one. He has played well throughout the season and even Artie Burns has played better when he’s been called upon. Joe Haden is playing solidly and Cam Sutton has been a nice surprise on passing downs. Terrell Edmunds continues to be a bit of mystery to me. He has such terrific speed and closing ability that I struggle to find out why he just doesn’t turn the ball over more.
Overall, the unit is playing well. If they can continue to make up for the loss of Tuitt they may find themselves ranked among the best defenses in the league by season’s end.
MVP So Far: 1st Quarter Stephon Tuitt, 2nd Quarter Minkah Fitzpatrick
Special Teams (1st Quarter Grade B+), 2nd Quarter B
Chris Boswell is having a super season and nothing has changed with him in the second quarter. Jordan Berry is having a very underrated campaign. He currently ranks 7th in the NFL with an average of 47.1 yards per punt. My concern with Danny Smith’s units however are growing. Teams are averaging over 10 yards per punt return and the return game with Ryan Switzer has become less and less of a threat with each passing week.
MVP So Far: 1st Quarter Chris Boswell, 2nd Quarter Chris Boswell
Coaching (1st Quarter Grade C), 2nd Quarter B
This team was 0-3 and missing it’s starting quarterback. It fell to 1-4 before rebounding with three straight wins to even their record with eight games remaining. Mike Tomlin and his staff deserve some credit for this. I still think his job is a bit in jeopardy but he and his assistants have righted the ship and should the Steelers complete their three game home stand unbeaten with a win over LA then I really think the sky should be the limit.
That said, a loss to the Rams isn’t a death blow like a loss to an AFC team would be but that’s no excuse to drop this game. Tomlin got over the hump on Sunday by beating a Colts’ team that was over .500. Once they get past the Rams they’ll play the Browns, the Bengals and the Browns again so this is a great opportunity to put some pressure on the rest of the AFC.
3rd Quarter: LAR, @CLE, @CIN, CLE