Most of the chatter surrounding the Steelers ahead of Sunday’s Week 7 game at Kansas City has been and will be centered on QB Landry Jones. And that’s understandable. He entered last week's game in relief of Michael Vick, threw two touchdowns and posted a 149.3 QB rating, helping Pittsburgh to a 25–13 victory over the previously 4–1 Cardinals.
It’s a great story and a huge moment for the Steelers, which improved to 4–2 (now 2–1 without injured starting QB Ben Roethlisberger).
But all the quarterback talk has overlooked the truly important development that will determine, once Roethlisberger eventually returns, whether or not the Steelers are true AFC contenders: the defense, once thought to be Pittsburgh’s weakest link, has turned things around.
There was strong circumstantial evidence of this heading into the Cardinals’ game. Since giving up 28 points to the Patriots in the opener (which in hindsight, considering what New England has done since, doesn’t look that bad), the Steelers surrendered an average of 16 points in the next five games: 18 to San Francisco, six to the Rams, 23 against the Ravens (would have been less if the offense could have properly closed out the game) and 20 to the Chargers.
After holding the Cardinals, which entered the game leading the league in points per game (38.0) and touchdowns (24), to just 13 points, the Steelers’ defense should be the topic of conversation.
Why the sudden improvement? Nothing fancy, just better execution that starts in practice.
“It's not how you start, it's how you finish,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said this week. “We came in there [New England] and we didn't execute the way we wanted to. And now with all the practicing we've been doing, it tells you how we practice. We're very business-like and it carries over to Sundays. We've been playing awesome because of it.”
Steelers’ film doesn't show some sort of dramatic transformation. There are still gaps in zone coverages deep and short that the best quarterbacks can pick apart (Carson Palmer made and missed some throws). The Steelers are giving up a ton of yardage. But they’ve made great strides in three areas: turnovers (they’ve forced nine since coming up empty against the Patriots), tackling (Pittsburgh is tied for second in yards after the catch allowed) and red-zone defense. After allowing the Patriots to score touchdowns on all four of their red zone trips in the opener, Steelers have improved to 46.2% in the past five (Arizona was 1 of 4).
“They did some very unorthodox things,” Palmer said after the game. “They changed some stuff up. They did a handful of things that they hadn't done on film but we expected they might do.”
Timmons said defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who replaced legendary Dick LeBeau this season, has been demanding in practice and it has showed up on the field.
“The thing I like about Coach Butler, and this is no disrespect to anyone else, is he's always pushing us to get better,” Timmons said. “He's never settling for anything. I feel that pushes us and drives us to be where we want to be, which is the No. 1 defense in the league. That's what we strive for.”
In the end, that may be asking for a little bit too much. The pass rush is still spotty when it’s not schemed up, and the secondary still has some major issues. But the Steelers’ fundamentals are executing at a higher ratem keeping them in a lot of games and wearing down some opponents. And the three-man defensive line in the Steelers’ 3–4 scheme looks to be where the resurgence of the unit has started.
“I feel like our D-line has been killing it,” Timmons said. “You have the two Cams—Cam Thomas and Cam Heyward—Stephon Tuitt … all those guys. They all have multiple sacks and they make it easy for us on the back end. We're just cleaning up behind them, riding their waves. That's why I think our foundation as a defense there.”
Tuitt, the 6'6", 303-pound end in his second season out of Notre Dame, has emerged as one of the NFL’s top young defensive linemen. Just 22, Tuitt has 3.5 sacks and 27 tackles in six games this season. He has rarely athletic ability for the position, especially for the Steelers’ scheme.
“He's a d-lineman that runs like a linebacker, which is crazy,” Timmons said. “Cam Heyward is the same way. The way they're all over the field is crazy.”
There is still a long way to go this season. The Steelers have two games against the undefeated, division-leading Bengals (the first is in Week 8 with Cincinnati coming off a bye) and dates with the Seahawks and Broncos in December. Those four games, with Roethlisberger back, will be the proving grounds for the Steelers heading into the postseason.
But six weeks after the rough start in Foxboro, the Steelers are on the right track, thanks mostly to the defense. Not many imagined we’d be saying that in Week 7.
“The NFL is the most humbling league ever, and we were definitely humbled that first game,” Timmons said. “But now, it's about what you do all the time. We can't really rely on the progress we’ve made. Every week in the NFL you have to come with it.
“But we’re a big part of the playoff picture now. That’s what we wanted. Now the rest is up to us.”
WET BLANKET REPORT
1. Stop trying to bury Peyton Manning: I’ve never been the biggest Peyton fan, especially in the postseason, but even I think the Peyton bashing has gotten out of control. No, he hasn’t been good so far this season, but I still think it’s too early to throw dirt on him because the line play is still bad, the Broncos can’t run the ball, Manning and coach Gary Kubiak are still trying to figure out how to mesh each other’s strengths and Manning is still figuring out how work with targets beyond Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. This group is nowhere near as good as Manning’s previous targets, so why would anyone expect him to put up numbers nearly as good? And there’s no way Manning should be on pace to attempt 632 passes, which would be the third-highest total of his career. Finally, the fact is, Manning made a lot of really good throws against the Browns, to go along with the stinkers.
2. Chill on the Seahawks: Yes, it’s concerning that they’re 2–4 and have blown nearly every fourth-quarter lead back to the Super Bowl, but they’re six games into a transition with the offensive line and with a new defensive coordinator. Things aren’t going to go perfectly from jump street. Give it a few more weeks before saying the Seahawks are on their way to an implosion.
3. Vernon’s hit on Mariota wasn’t dirty: The low hit by Dolphins end Olivier Vernon on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in the second quarter of Sunday’s game was unfortunate, but it wasn’t dirty. I’ve watched a lot of film of Vernon during his career, he’s a personal favorite because he’s a technician and gives maximum effort, and have never seen anything approaching a dirty hit. He’s just not that kind of player. To me, it looked like Vernon slipped a little on the Titans’ turf (it’s Bermuda so it thins and goes dormant this time of year), tried to hit Mariota on the hip and just missed.
1. Inconsistent officiating: From Golden Tate’s “touchdown” against the Bears, to the officials calling every single holding call against the Colts (deservedly so) but missing two blatant holds against the Patriots on their final scoring drive (Danny Amendola on Darius Butler during third down conversion, and Tre’ Jackson mugging Kendall Langford during the touchdown), officiating is still the same inconsistent mess as ever. Remind me what the point of the lockout against the referees was again? Wasn't it something about being able to develop a bench of officials (along with saving the NFL money, as always)?
2. Harvin drama: This is my shocked face that there’s drama swirling about whether Percy Harvin was not with the Bills in London because of injury or just personal frustration with his situation. It’s not like the guy hasn’t been an issue everywhere he’s been, from the University of Florida to the Vikings, Seahawks, Jets and now Bills. And to think, just six short years ago, Harvin was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Another example of talent just being part of the equation.
3. Newton a top MVP candidate: Finally, after a big win at Seattle, everyone’s talking about what should have been evident weeks ago: Panthers QB Cam Newton is having a special season and should be right there with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton in the MVP discussion. Not only does Newton have the Panthers 5–0 playing behind a line everyone thought would be terrible, and throwing to receivers no one’s heard of, but LB Luke Kuechly missed three of those games. That’s MVP stuff to me.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 6 injuries?
LT Kelvin Beachum, Steelers (ACL tear, injured reserve): Pittsburgh will go from an undersized left tackle to a jumbo sized one as Alejandro Villanueva (6-9, 340 pounds) will get the call. The former Army Ranger was playing defensive line for the Eagles just over a year ago. Steelers switched him to offense last preseason. Villanueva looked good as a pass blocker in extensive preseason action. His height is a problem in the run game.
LT Marcus Cannon, Patriots (toe, day-to-day): Called on to start with starter Nate Solder out for the season, Cannon lasted just 11 plays against the Colts before he has to go to the sidelines. Patriots shifted RT Sebastian Vollmer to LT and inserted Cam Fleming at RT. Vollmer is fine in about a 4-yard box but his slowing feet become a problem further out. Fleming needs a lot of help, so expect to see a lot of TE Michael Williams, a former tackle who played 40 snaps against the Colts.
CB Buster Skrine, Jets (concussion, day-to-day): An important player for New York especially this week against the Patriots. Marcus Williams is the top backup, but sat out last week with a hamstring injury. Jets would have to go further down the depth chart to Dexter McDougle is Skrine and/or Williams can’t go.
HUMANITARIAN OF THE WEEK
This is really cool. Rams defensive end William Hayes has started a “Hanging with Hayes” program with the youth at the Covenant House Missouri, which deals with homeless and disconnected youth between the ages of 16 and 21. The group seeks to help and empower them to find their own paths to independence.
Hayes treats a group of kids to a movie and concessions one a month to reward them for sticking with the program. Hayes also meets with all of the kids and mentors them on the issues they’re dealing with.
“To be able to spend time with the kids at Covenant House and let them know how much I care about them means a lot to me, and that’s what I enjoyed the most,” Hayes told the NFLPA, which honored Hayes as this week’s Community MVP and made a donation to the cause. “These are all kids who are homeless or have no safe and stable housing and are forced to take care of themselves at a very young age, but they’re still going out and doing the right things. They take full advantage of all the programs Covenant House has to offer, and that’s why I wanted to treat them to a night out for a little fun. It’s amazing how something as simple as a movie can go a long way.”
10 THOUGHTS HEADING INTO WEEK 7
1. There's little question that the game of the week is the Jets (4–1) at the Patriots (5–0). According to FootballOutsiders.com, whose formula factors in the opponent, the Jets are second overall in defense (to Denver), second against the pass and first against the run. This by far will be the toughest challenge yet for the Patriots’ explosive offense.
2. The most interesting part of this matchup will be who the Jets—don't forget, coach Todd Bowles orchestrated the Cardinals’ upset over New England in Week 2 of 2012—decide to match up with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Right now, I'm thinking Darrelle Revis on Edelman, and Antonio Cromartie on Gronkowski. The Patriots would be fine with that, because Edelman could wear out Revis, and Gronkowski could outmuscle Cromartie. Both Jets defenders (remember Revis’s ‘pulled’ hamstring after Randy Moss’s touchdown in 2010?) are also known for tapping out if they don’t find success early, and the Patriots might just push the issue against both.
3. The size of the Jets' wideouts could be a huge issue for the 5'11" Malcolm Butler and the 5'10" Devin McCourty. Butler has played very well this season, but this could be a rough game if he matches up against the 6'4" WR Brandon Marshall. I would not be surprised if Bill Belichick makes McCourty take the bullet for the team and cover Marshall.
4. The more I watch the Bills, the more I think Rex Ryan just doesn’t have his types of players to run his defensive scheme. Bills certainly have talent, especially on the defensive line, but Ryan more prefers players up front that can do multiple things so he can screw with the quarterback’s pre- and post-snap reads. The Bills’ line and edge players prefer just to get after the ball (see Mario Williams’s comments).
5. Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t taken off this season like most expected after a strong close to his rookie season and the return of RB Adrian Peterson. I wouldn’t use this as a referendum on Bridgewater. The Vikings offensive line has been poor (only Russell Wilson and Nick Foles have faced more pressure, according to ProFootballFocus.com), and outside of Kyle Rudolph, the Vikings have a dearth of viable weapons.
6. This has been a strength of his, but Colts OLB Erik Walden was especially awesome vs. the run against the Patriots. I can’t recall seeing Rob Gronkowski have as much trouble blocking a linebacker as he did on Sunday night. Walden definitely got the better of him.
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7. You can probably eliminate the loser of the Texans-Dolphins matchup down in Miami from a possible playoff push. QB Brian Hoyer has to have a good, mistake-free game. Beating Jacksonville didn’t prove anything.
8. A tip of the cap to Chargers safety Eric Weddle, who may have to miss his first game since 2009 with a groin injury. Weddle has started 86 consecutive games.
9. The Ravens have had a terrible time keeping things straight in the secondary, and they are facing at team in the Cardinals that is perhaps the most aggressive throwing the ball down the field. Baltimore could very well get hammered on Sunday in a raucous University of Phoenix Stadium, and a loss would all but eliminate the Ravens from the postseason (they’re just about there anyway).
10. Thought this story about Jim Zorn’s religious influence when he was Washington’s offensive coordinator was very interesting, and disturbing. To each their own, but shouldn’t workplaces (especially those of the NFL where players are chosen instead of them choosing to be there) be somewhat of a religious-free zone?