Kevin Gorman: Steelers must prove they can continue surge in second half of season
The Pittsburgh Steelers struggled so much in their first four games that Mike Tomlin delivered a quarterly report to his team, focusing on the trends that contributed to their 1-2-1 start.
The Steelers responded by winning four consecutive games, including three straight against division opponents to move from last place to first place in the AFC North.
So what’s the State of the Steelers halfway through the NFL season?
“That we’re a resilient bunch,” said defensive end Cameron Heyward, a team captain. “We can dig some holes for ourselves, and we can get out of some holes. There’s trends between our first quarter and our second quarter, and our third quarter hasn’t been defined yet. We look forward to being on the right end of that.”
The Steelers (5-2-1) start the second half with a test Thursday night at Heinz Field, when they play the Carolina Panthers (6-2), a team riding a three-game winning streak.
Not only do the Panthers boast an MVP candidate in quarterback Cam Newton and a dangerous dual threat in Christian McCaffrey but a linebacker duo in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis that Tomlin compared to Chicago Bears greats Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
The Steelers and Panthers share this: The majority of their victories came against teams from two divisions. The Steelers beat the AFC North’s Bengals, Browns and Ravens and the NFC South’s Buccaneers and Falcons, and the Panthers beat the NFC East’s Cowboys, Giants and Eagles, as well as the Bucs, Bengals and Ravens.
“They just beat two AFC North opponents already, so it’s time for us to show them that they’re not just going to run the AFC North and bowl us over,” Heyward said. “You put a lot of respect on what they’ve done and what we’ve done. But this team’s hot, and we’ve got to stone them.”
Stopping the Panthers will be a challenge. They rank second in the NFL in rushing at 143.9 yards a game, and the Steelers stunk against the run in the first quarter of the season. They allowed Cleveland to rush for 177 yards, Kansas City 127 and Baltimore 96.
“We understand the job’s not done,” Heyward said. “We’re going against the No. 2 rushing offense, and we look forward to a test like that.”
But the Steelers addressed their weaknesses following Tomlin’s quarterly report. They haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and their last four opponents failed to crack the 100-yard mark as the Steelers held them to an average of 64.8 yards.
Offensively, the Steelers established their rushing attack to the point that James Conner was named AFC Player of the Month. After a slow start, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown are connecting for touchdowns at a team-record pace, and the offensive line withstood starting two games without starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert.
Left guard Ramon Foster pointed to Sunday’s victory at Baltimore as evidence of the Steelers’ turnaround, going from a 26-14 home loss Sept. 30 to a 23-16 win four games later. The Ravens boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense, yet the Steelers accounted for 395 yards and converted 10 of 16 third-down attempts.
“I think you put a lot into it,” Foster said of the Steelers’ win streak. “We went against some really good defenses. We went against some teams on the road. We dropped some to a team early on that we ended up getting some get-back on, so I can say definitely from the first Baltimore game to this last one you’ve got to say that we improved.”
The second-half schedule should be more challenging, as Carolina is the first of five opponents with a winning record. The Steelers also face the Chargers (6-2), Patriots (7-2), Saints (7-1) and Bengals (5-3), a finale that could decide the division title.
That’s what made the three consecutive victories over the AFC North so important as the Steelers put themselves back into playoff position.
“It was huge, and having them back-to-back-to-back like that, I don’t know if anybody else has that going on,” Foster said. “It’s something you can easily collapse on. If you drop one of those, you’re fighting it in the last game of the season.”
It’s huge but inconclusive. The Steelers know that they are a resilient bunch, one capable of digging holes and climbing out of them. The Steelers proved they are good enough to beat their three AFC North foes and the worst team in the NFC South.
Now, starting with Carolina, we’re about to find out whether the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders or pretenders against a second-half schedule that promises to be challenging.
It’s not what the Steelers know. It’s what they can prove.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.