Who's hot, who's not for Steelers entering 2nd half of season
The second half of the Pittsburgh Steelers season kicks off Thursday, just four days after the first portion ended.
That doesn’t present much time for reflection, but it is a good marking point to provide a snapshot of the Steelers as they embark on the final two months of their regular season.
James Conner: This is a no-brainer. All he has done is render Le’Veon Bell to an afterthought with four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Entering the second half, he is second in the NFL in rushing yards (706), rushing touchdowns (nine) and yards from scrimmage (1,085).
Joe Haden: His value to the defense was proven when he sat out the home opener, and the Steelers gave up 326 passing yards and six touchdowns to Patrick Mahomes. Haden has proven to be a valuable shutdown corner while shadowing Julio Jones, A.J. Green and John Brown.
Stephon Tuitt: After a slow start, Tuitt responded with sacks in three consecutive games to close the first half. His resurgence as a pass rusher helped the Steelers finish the first half with 26 sacks, the most by a team that has played eight games.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: He has avoided the sophomore slump by leading the Steelers with 53 receptions and 672 yards. The only major receiving category Smith-Schuster doesn’t lead is touchdowns, with Antonio Brown getting nine to Smith-Schuster’s two.
Coty Sensabaugh: From inactive in the season opener to the starter at the midpoint of the season, Sensabaugh has made perhaps the biggest transition on defense. Not only has the rotation at cornerback ended, Sensabaugh’s play has sent former first-round pick Artie Burns to the bench.
Marcus Gilbert: Coming off a season in which he missed four games because of a suspension and five others to injury, Gilbert was hoping to put together a complete season. It hasn’t happened. He missed one game with a balky hamstring and is expected to sit out a third in a row Thursday with a knee injury.
Artie Burns: The former first-rounder hasn’t seen the field on defense since being called for pass interference in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. He has spent the past two games watching Sensabaugh play his position, and coach Mike Tomlin all but stated Burns is now a backup.
Chris Boswell: Selected to the Pro Bowl last season, Boswell hasn’t lived up to that accolade this year, missing four extra points. That’s one more than he missed in his first three seasons and 31 games. He has overcome early field-goal difficulties yet continues to struggle with the easiest attempt a kicker should make.
Stevan Ridley: Backups get little playing time in Mike Tomlin’s offense, but Ridley has dropped to third string since his fumble against Cleveland. He has watched Jaylen Samuels take his snaps whenever Conner gets a breather, and Ridley’s roster spot could be in jeopardy if Bell returns.
Cameron Sutton: His playing time mostly has come in the dime package, but he didn’t get a defensive snap against the Ravens on Sunday when the Steelers stuck with the quarters package that puts linebacker L.J. Fort on the field. With Sensabaugh locking down the cornerback spot opposite Haden, Sutton will face a difficult time getting onto the field aside from special teams.
THREE GOALS FOR 2nd HALF
1. Reduce the penalties: The number of flags thrown has dwindled since the Steelers were called for 37 penalties through three weeks. Still, the 87 accrued penalties and 74 accepted are tops among teams that have played eight games.
2. Develop James Washington: It was a positive for the rookie second-rounder when he caught two passes for 17 yards against Baltimore considering he was inactive the previous week and had five receptions through six games. Smith-Schuster’s rookie year took off in the second half, and the Steelers are anticipating Washington making similar strides over the final eight weeks.
3. Build on the defensive improvement: No longer do fans cringe when the defense takes the field. The unit started hitting its stride during the four-game winning streak as a consistent pass rush has enabled the secondary to play better in coverage. The tackling has improved and the mental errors have receded.
THREE QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
1. Is help on the way?: Well, Le’Veon Bell has until 4 p.m. Tuesday to decide whether he wants to play this season. No way he immediately moves into a starting role if he comes back, but Bell could help lessen Conner’s workload, particularly as the calendar turns to November and the playoff push begins.
2. Is any non-Le’Veon Bell help on the way?: Two possibilities are wide receiver Eli Rogers and outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi. Rogers remains on the physically unable to perform list, and Adeniyi is on injured reserve. They could be activated in the second half.
3. Will Terrell Edmunds hold up for the long haul? : The rookie first-rounder has played more defensive snaps than any other Steeler. Tomlin is hoping to move Morgan Burnett back into a starting role, but that is contingent on Burnett remaining healthy. The second half will be a test for Edmunds, whose longest season at Virginia Tech was 14 games when he was a sophomore.
The second-half schedule features games against five teams with winning records, starting Thursday night against Carolina.
The Panthers are one of three second-place opponents the Steelers will face in the second half. That doesn’t include a pair of first-place teams: New England and New Orleans.
The combined record of the Steelers’ remaining opponents is 38-28, with the 1-7 Oakland Raiders and 3-6 Denver Broncos representing nearly half of those losses.
The scheduling hazard comes in the form of a long flight to Oakland and a game in the mile-high conditions of the Rocky Mountains. The Steelers also don’t have much history on Bourbon Street, last winning at New Orleans in 1990 when Bubby Brister was the quarterback.
Best matchup: Steelers vs. Patriots, Dec. 16: The marquee game on the schedule when it released, the Steelers-Patriots matchup remains the standard entering November. Home-field advantage in the AFC might not be at stake, but a first-round bye could be the dangling carrot.
Worst matchup: Steelers at Raiders, Dec. 9: The game against Jacksonville might not be the only one flexed out of prime time. This clunker, involving the 1-7 Raiders, is a candidate to be moved to a mid-afternoon kickoff. It also has the makings of a trap game, as it is sandwiched between home games with the Chargers and Patriots.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.