The Steelers have the best record in the AFC at 6-2, and that’s about what they were expected to be at this point. What wasn’t expected was how they would get to this point. Let’s look at each position group and see if they were a winner or loser.
Ben Roethlisberger: Loser
The numbers aren’t too bad – Ben has had a completion percentage of 61% with 2062 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. But what is bad is Ben’s play so far this year at times. He has missed deep throws, which used to be his specialty. The expectation for the offense before the season began was that it would score 30 points a game. That hasn’t happened once. The Steelers are winning on their defense and the offense scoring just enough.
There’s a few theories on why Ben isn’t at his usual level. Is he too old? Hurt? In a slump? No one knows but the good news is the defense and running game are good enough that Ben doesn’t have to put the team on his back like he has in previous years.
Running Backs: Winner
Le’Veon Bell started the season slow due to missing all of training camp. He really got going in week 4 against the Ravens, rushing for 144 yards. Since that game, Bell has been the focal point of the offense and has responded well, rushing for 760 yards, good for 3rd the league. James Conner and Terrell Watson have been used very little and Bell is projected to get a record number of carries. Are the Steelers using Bell too much? They don’t seem to think so.
Wide Receivers: Winner
The problem with the offense last year was that there was no strong number 2 receiver besides Antonio Brown. That was supposed to be different this year with the return of Martavis Bryant from suspension and the drafting of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Has it worked out that way? Not exactly. JuJu has been a pleasant surprise and has had some good games. Bryant on the other hand has been a major disappointment on and off the field. In 7 games he has 18 receptions for 234 yards and 1 touchdown. For the Steelers to be successful, Bryant has to be productive on the field. Off the field, he’s unhappy with his playing time, his agent requested a trade and he’s complained on social media. The difference between the Steelers reaching the Super Bowl or not may rest with Bryant.
Offensive Line: Winner
The entire offense struggled in the early part of the season and the offensive line didn’t get off to a great start either. But they have turned into maybe the best offensive line in the league. They’ve given up the 2nd fewest sacks in the league and helped Le’Veon Bell to 3rd in the league in rushing yards. They should get even better with the return of Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert.
Tight Ends: Loser
If there’s one weakness on the offense, it’s the tight ends. Jesse James has 20 receptions for 193 yards and Vance McDonald only has 3 receptions. McDonald’s lack of production could be blamed on his being traded to the team shortly before the season began. Hopefully he can contribute more to the offense and give the offense another receiving threat.
Defensive Line: Winner
The defense as a whole has been a pleasant suprrise this year. They are 2nd in pass defense partly because the defensive line is putting so much pressure on quarterbacks. They’re 4th in the league with 26 sacks and that’s without DE Stephon Tuitt for most of the season. Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave were expected to be good but Tyson Alualu and LT Walton have provided great depth. If Tuitt is healthy, this defensive line could be devastating.
The Steelers have invested many high draft picks in the linebackers and it’s finally paying off. Ryan Shazier is healthy and might be the defensive MVP of the team and maybe the league. T.J. Watt has had a great rookie year. It’s been so good that James Harrison has hardly played. Will be play in the second half?
The secondary was the biggest weakness last year has been the most pleasant surprise this year. Two newcomers have made huge contributions: Mike Hilton and Joe Haden. It can be argued that the quarterbacks they’ve faced haven’t been very good and the Lions did have a huge day passing, so there is room for improvement.
Special Teams: Winner
The Steelers red zone offense has been terrible this year and they’ve had to rely on K Chris Boswell to get them 3 points. Luckily he’s been very good at that, making 18 of 20 field goal attempts. Punter Jordan Berry has been inconsistent.
It can be argued that the Steelers do not have a tough remaining schedule. It could’ve been a lot tougher but injuries to Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Andrew Luck have made those games a lot easier. They go to Indianapolis, are home to Tennessee and Green Bay, go to Cincinnati, are home to Baltimore and New England, go to Houston then finish with Cleveland at home. The biggest challenge will be New England and that may determine home field advantage in the playoffs.
So what can we expect the rest of the season? I believe the passing game will improve greatly, the running game will still be good and the defense will continue to be effective. IF they can stay healthy, I see them going 6-2 in the second half and 12-4 overall.
Lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan here.