The State of the Steelers

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The State of the Steelers

Mason Rudolph and James Conner celebrate after a touchdown. Photo from 10TV

Mason Rudolph and James Conner celebrate after a touchdown. Photo from 10TV

Mason Rudolph and James Conner celebrate after a touchdown. Photo from 10TV

Mason Rudolph and James Conner celebrate after a touchdown. Photo from 10TV

Oliver Ferguson, Writer

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This was destined to be an interesting season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were a relative question mark at the outset. They lost all-stars like running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, but gained solid defensive pieces like rookie linebacker from Michigan, Devin Bush, former Kansas City Chiefs cornerback, Steven Nelson, and newly acquired defensive back from the Miami Dolphins, Minkah Fitzpatrick.  Many thought that the removal of locker room nuisances like Bell and Brown would bring on a new era for the Steelers. Big Ben was resigned to an enormous three-year extension, younger talent like James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster graced the offense, and to top it all off, one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Their preseason performance looked solid with a finish of 3-1. What could go wrong?

Then the regular season began.

The first game was a tough match on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. The Steelers lost big. Tom Brady passed for over 341 yards and threw 3 touchdowns. The Steelers didn’t score a single touchdown in the bloodbath, losing 33-3. But who cares? It was week 1, the team would adjust.

Week 2 came, home against the Seattle Seahawks. The Steelers were ready to rebound. They started off strong with a 22-yard drive ending with a touchdown run by Conner. They had their first lead of the season. The defense was really strong as well in the beginning. They got 4 sacks on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a total loss of 26 yards. They led at the half 10-7. Then the second half began. Flaws that became apparent in the first half were more prevalent in the second half. They could not stop the run. The Seahawks rushed for 151 yards. Also, another thing happened: Roethlisberger got injured. In the first half, he left the game with an apparent elbow injury. Later, it was revealed that he needed surgery and would be out for the entire season. Second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph would have to replace him. Rudolph came in during the second half and threw for 115 yards. He also threw 2 touchdowns and 1 interception (which was really a result of the poor catching ability of wide receiver Donte Moncrief.) The Steelers fell 28-26 against the Seahawks. Their next matchup would be on the road against the San Francisco 49ers.

This game was important. If the Steelers were to lose, they would fall to 0-3, which they have only done five times since the days of Chuck Noll. The 49ers were coming into this matchup undefeated, coming off of wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This would be another tough matchup for the Steelers. They started off strong. On the first defensive drive, linebacker T.J. Watt got an interception. Rudolph, however, was unable to put the ball in the endzone, which resulted in a field goal from Chris Boswell. The defense had a very strong game. In total, the Steelers defense forced 4 turnovers. However, their offense was not as stable. This was a relatively rough start for Rudolph. He struggled in the beginning but managed to find his footing later in the game. He threw for 174 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. The main struggle on offense was running the ball. James Conner only rushed for 74 yards against the 49ers defense and fumbled the ball on a pivotal drive late in the 4th quarter. This resulted in the 49ers scoring their game winning touchdown. The Steelers fell to the 49ers 24-20.

Rudolph throws a pass against the 49ers. Photo credit to SB Nation: Behind the Steel Curtain

0-3. Not a good start at all. The Steelers were dwelling in the basement of the NFL with such atrocities like the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, and the glorified-SEC team known as the Miami Dolphins. They had to get a win this week. They were playing the Bengals, a divisional rival and a team the Steelers beat in their past 8 meetings. It was on home field and Monday night. This seemed like a perfect night for the Steelers to return to form, and they did. The Steelers defense only gave up 175 yards to the Bengals offense and limited running back Joe Mixon to only 62 yards on 15 carries. Linebacker Mark Barron picked got an interception and linebacker Bud Dupree forced a fumble. The only points the Bengals scored were 3 points from a field goal from Randy Bullock. The offense returned to form as well. Rudolph threw for 229 yards and two touchdowns: one on a screen pass to James Conner and the other on a deep throw to rookie wide-receiver Diontae Johnson. The Steelers also began to try some trickery by putting running back Jaylen Samuels in the wildcat formation. Although their opponent is 0-4 and considered one of the worst teams in the NFL currently, the Steelers showed promise and hope for the future.

1-3. It’s not perfect or what was expected for the Steelers in the slightest, but several aspects look promising. Although Conner has slightly struggled with rushing the ball, backups Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell  have provided insurance for the young running back. I really like the wildcat formation that the Steelers ran with Samuels and Conner and hope they continue to implement it into their offensive scheme. But what about Rudolph’s throwing ability? Although he got a 43-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson, he’s struggled throwing the ball deep. Most of his completions have been screens or short passes. However, Rudolph is still a young quarterback and will evolve more as he gets used to the starting role.

The defense started off weak but has shown moments of promise. Although the Steelers’ run defense seemed very poor compared to the rest of the NFL, they moved from 28 to 22 in the NFL rankings for rushing yards allowed per game. Defensive players like Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave continue to provide one of the most dangerous pass-rush defenses in the league. New additions to the team like Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick have boosted aggressiveness on defending the rush. Secondary has been solid as well, ranking 19th in the NFL in passing yards allowed. If they can maintain their form from the Bengals game, they should be set for a successful season defensively.

The Steelers will take on another AFC North rival in the Baltimore Ravens this Sunday at 1:00 PM at Heinz Field. It will be televised on CBS.