Offense, defense forge different paths for Steelers prior to bye week
The defense has overachieved, becoming one of the NFL’s best units at forcing turnovers, a sharp departure from last season.
The offense? Not so much. An injury to Ben Roethlisberger set the tone for the struggles the Steelers have endured scoring points this season.
Thankfully for the Steelers, they play in an underwhelming division and are still in the race to win the AFC North despite a 2-4 record.
Here is a positional look at the team as the Steelers return from their bye week:
Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury had the chance to be catastrophic, but Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges each have gotten wins as starters and the Steelers remain only two games out of the division lead in spite of all of the turnover.
Coach Mike Tomlin emphatically called Rudolph his starter after the bye, and it remains to be seen whether the coaching staff will become more aggressive with the playcalling. Rudolph has seven touchdowns against two interceptions, and he seemed to be finding his stride before he was concussed against Baltimore.
It took until the sixth game for the Steelers to crack 100 yards as a team, and rookie Benny Snell Jr., who entered the year as the No. 3 back, led the way with 75 yards in the win over the Chargers.
James Conner ranks No. 36 in the NFL with 235 yards. Conner has exceeded 100 scrimmage yards in the two wins, but he’s averaging 55.5 yards in the four losses.
Jaylen Samuel’s knee injury could extend into the second half of the season, so Snell could continue to get extra carries to complement Conner. Fullback Roosevelt Nix’s impending return after the bye could provide the additional blocking the running game has lacked.
Because of inexperienced passers and a conservative game plan, not to mention the absence of Antonio Brown drawing double teams, the Steelers wide receivers have been an afterthought in the early stages of the season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster leads his position group with 25 catches for 340 yards, putting him on pace for career lows of 66 receptions for 906 yards. Rookie Diontae Johnson has emerged as the second most reliable option with 20 catches for 212 yards. James Washington has just nine catches, and Donte Moncrief was inactive for two games because of his drops.
The Steelers need to put more reliance on getting the ball to the receivers and less on check-downs to the running backs to keep defenses honest.
A breakthrough year for Vance McDonald hasn’t materialized, and a shoulder injury is a contributing factor for the veteran catching just 14 passes for 127 yards. Nick Vannett, acquired from Seattle, has been serviceable and should become a bigger part of the offense as he learns the system.
The strength of the starting group can be found in keeping the quarterback clean, whether it’s been Roethlisberger, Rudolph or Hodges. Steelers quarterbacks have been sacked an NFL-low five times, a testament to the working being done up front as well as a mandate for the passer to have a quick release.
Run blocking, particularly out of the shotgun, has taken a while longer to develop, which is surprising considering the front five has been the only unit to remain healthy the entire season.
Stephon Tuitt’s torn pectoral muscle presents a huge blow to the defensive front, which coordinator Keith Butler calls the backbone of the defense. Tyson Alualu will step in while the Steelers are in the 3-4 base defense, and nose tackle Javon Hargrave can play outside on passing downs.
Cam Heyward has recorded 3.5 sacks, the same number Tuitt had before his injury. Hargrave has added two quarterback takedowns. Stopping the run will be key for the line after the bye. Opponents rushed for at least 138 yards on three of the first five games before the Steelers held the Chargers to 32 yards.
T.J. Watt’s appearance in the Pro Bowl last year was no fluke, as he has picked up with a strong start to his third NFL season with four sacks, six tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hits. Bud Dupree has three sacks, five tackles for loss and has held his own in run and pass coverage.
Devin Bush has been as good as advertised in his rookie season, leading the Steelers with 52 tackles while having a hand in six turnovers (four fumble recoveries, two interceptions). His play, along with injuries to Vince Williams and Mark Barron, has led to more snaps than the Steelers probably anticipated entering the season. But Bush has delivered.
Barron had a costly penalty against the 49ers that contributed to the last-minute loss and has not delivered the type of splash as his rookie counterpart. Vince Williams, when not injured, provides a steady presence in the inside.
The trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick was stunning in that it broke a five-decade streak of not dealing away a first-round pick. Fitzpatrick has stabilized the secondary that lost Sean Davis to a shoulder injury. It’s not a coincidence that the defense started creating more turnovers when he arrived in Week 3 against San Francisco.
Terrell Edmunds is second on the team with 42 tackles, and Kameron Kelly has settled into a role as a dime defensive back after his forgettable NFL debut against the New England Patriots.
Steve Nelson has provided the upgrade at right cornerback that the Steelers were seeking when they signed him to a three-year contract. Nelson and Joe Haden give the Steelers a starting duo that can play man or zone coverages based on the matchup.
Artie Burns filled in capably when Nelson couldn’t play against the Chargers because of a groin injury, receiving a game ball for his efforts. Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton have alternated in the slot with Hilton providing run support and Sutton also factoring into the dime defense.
Chris Boswell, so inconsistent a year ago, has regained his position as one of the NFL’s top kickers, making all 11 of his field-goal attempts and 12 of 12 extra-point tries. Although he’s not one of the NFL leaders in gross or net average, Jordan Berry has dropped nine of his 26 punts inside the 20.
The kick return unit drew criticism against Baltimore, and the Steelers are averaging one punt return per game with modest results.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .