The Pittsburgh Steelers took care of business on Sunday afternoon with a handy 36-10 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals. With the victory, the Steelers continue their undefeated season.
At 9-0, no one else in the National Football League can claim to be without a loss this season. As odd as 2020 has been, the Steelers are setting a new franchise record with each passing week in terms of their longest winning streak to start a season.
There aren't many issues currently plaguing the Steelers, thus why they've been able to carry the undefeated streak to nine games. One big issue, however, is the lack of a run game the Steelers possess.
But this is Flavell's Five Thoughts. So I'll discuss that, and more, over the course of this column.
As always, there's lots to discuss and unpack. Let's get down to it.
So about that lack of a run game…
I hate opening a column with a negative thought in a season where the Steelers are 9-0. But the Steelers' run game has been scary bad over the past month.
James Conner was given the starting role to begin the season despite being injury-prone and inconsistent early on. He had a few solid games and is back to posting mediocre numbers as of late.
Conner has proven to be a talented running back when healthy. I still believe that is the case. There is a case to be made that this is the worst the offensive line has looked in years. They've lost a few starters over the past few offseasons and their staples on the line like Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are slowly aging. That's not ideal.
You'll argue that Ben Roethlisberger has only been sacked 10 times this season. However, Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball much quicker in 2020 than at any point in his career. In turn, that isn't allowing defenses to get to him easily. Roethlisberger dropped back to throw 46 times today. While Big Ben is proving he still has the talent, reducing that number into the mid-low 30's is much more ideal.
To do that, the running game has to improve. Eventually, the Steelers will run into a team that will be able to take away the short screen passes the Steelers have seemingly used to substitute the run in recent games. They'll force the Steelers to run the ball. If they can't figure out what is ailing them in that department, they're going to find themselves bowing out of the playoffs relatively early.
This is the biggest concern for the Steelers by a country mile. Get the run game figured out and Pittsburgh might be hanging around for a game in February. If not, elite teams will expose them come January and they'll be watching the remainder of the playoffs from their couch.
Okay, that's out of the way. Let's get to all the fun and positive stuff about the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
Steelers secondary stuffed a talented offense
The Bengals are not known for their defense. In fact, they've got a fairly lackluster defense.
However, on the offensive side of the ball, Cincinnati is building a very young and competitive core.
Everyone knows Joe Burrow is likely to be a top-10 quarterback one day. Talent-wise, he may already be there. Once he starts posting victories for the Bengals, he'll be more widely recognized. Couple him with young receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins along with a running game spearheaded by Joe Mixon and you've got a potential offensive juggernaut.
Mixon missed Sunday's game with an injury, so the ancient Giovanni Bernard played most of the snaps. Rookie Samaje Perine also played. They were without a starting lineman as well. Things were not all that bright for them. But they still had enough weapons to make noise.
All the Steelers did was shut them down. Cincinnati went 0-for-13 on third down in this contest. They punted a lot.
Cam Sutton forced a fumble for the third straight game. Joe Haden made several nice plays. Minkah Fitzpatrick scoured the field like the pest he's been in recent weeks. Everyone pitched in and held the Bengals to one passing touchdown.
The Bengals aren't a great team. Pittsburgh's defense is the better unit of the two. That isn't to say the Bengals can't be a top tier offense in a few years when everything starts to come together but right now, the Steelers are the better unit. Their domination led to such a lopsided score.
Good for them for seeing the Bengals as more than just an easy win. They took them seriously and took care of business.
The Steelers wide receivers showing they deserve respect
I'd like to reference the very first article I wrote for this website. I talked about the Steelers' pass catchers and how they were being disrespected.
Well, at 9-0, the Steelers receiving core has been excellent, just like I predicted.
None of them post gaudy stats. Heck, the Steelers might not even have a clear No. 1 wideout. Some people might say JuJu Smith-Schuster. Others will point to Diontae Johnson. If things continue trending up for him, rookie second-round pick Chase Claypool might assume that spot.
Smith-Schuster led the team in receptions on Sunday. Johnson picked up the most yards. Claypool paced the pass catchers with two touchdowns. A different receiver led in each important statistical category. That's a good thing.
Add in that Eric Ebron has been a great get for the Steelers, and things are going well for Roethlisberger. He's got more targets than he's ever had at any point. That doesn't even include James Washington, who often gets forgotten about because he doesn't contribute as often as the others. Vance McDonald has often gotten hurt as a Steeler. But when he's healthy, he's a good contributor as well.
The list goes deep for Pittsburgh in the pass-catching department. Giving your franchise quarterback unlimited options is a great way to win and keep him happy.
If any team knows how to draft and develop receivers, it is Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster, Johnson, Claypool, and Washington were all drafted by the Steelers. The young core is a fun group to get behind and is proving they belong among the game's elite receiving corps despite their lack of gaudy stats. Sometimes the eye-test is a bit more important than stats.
How good have the special teams been?
Special teams have been an area the Steelers have largely struggled in over the past five or so seasons. Much like the other facets of their game, the Steelers' different special teams unit has been on point.
Kicker Chris Boswell is as solid as they come. While his 2018 was abysmal, he bounced back in 2019 and has been just as good in 2020. He's nails when it comes to making field goals regardless of the range. No one is anointing him alongside Justin Tucker, but Boswell has been a top-3 kicker for the past two seasons. The difference between missed and made kicks could be the difference in a game or even a playoff berth. The Steelers are fine there.
Their return game has been bad in recent memory.
Antonio Brown returned some punts when he was in Pittsburgh. When he became a true star, they tended to take that duty off his plate for fear of unnecessary injury.
Ryan Switzer, the seldom-used wide receiver, handled those duties the past couple of seasons. He was a disaster. It got so bad he was benched for Johnson late last season and Johnson actually proved to be a good returner.
Ray-Ray McCloud was brought in to compete with Switzer in camp. He beat him out and took Switzer's roster spot off of him. McCloud has been so close to breaking a big touchdown run. Sunday, he beat everyone but was caught from behind after juking out the Bengals punter.
McCloud has the best punt return average (15.0 yards per return) and sixth-best kick return average (24.2 yards per return) in the NFL. Kickers have bigger legs and kickoffs come from the 35-yard line so kick returns have become more and more infrequent. But they're exciting, and when big returns happen, it can shift the momentum of a game. McCloud has the speed to do that.
This all goes without mentioning the punting game for Pittsburgh.
Dustin Colquitt beat our Jordan Berry for the spot at the outset of the season. It turns out Colquitt showed his age and continued his steady decline over the past few seasons. Pittsburgh cut bait with him and brought back the much-maligned Berry.
All of a sudden, Berry is consistently pinning teams inside their own 20-yard line. He is unleashing punts at lengths we've never seen him hit.
Despite the small percentage of special teams plays in any given game, they play a huge factor in field positioning. The Steelers are in the best shape they've been in on special teams in years.
Keeping an eye on divisional/conference races
Currently sitting undefeated, the Steelers obviously lead their division. Did anyone have them leading it by three games in week 10? I didn't.
The Ravens have been a disappointment to this point. They just lost by a touchdown to the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football to fall to 6-3 on the year. Their highly-touted defense has played well. Reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson has been good but not great in his MVP defense this season. In turn, they're 6-3 and in real danger of being out of divisional contention.
Assuming both teams win next week, the Thanksgiving matchup will loom large for AFC North supremacy.
It will be a two-game swing in the standings. If the Ravens win, they'd be two games out. If Pittsburgh wins that match up, they'll be four games up with five games to play. At 11-0, they'd all but assure themselves the division title.
The Browns also still lurk at 6-3, but we play this game every year. Baker Mayfield and Co. will implode and find a way to finish no better than 8-8. The Bengals are a non-factor in the division race, but they'll be a force in the coming years.
The real race becomes the top seed in the AFC.
In case you weren't aware, both the AFC and NFC will have seven playoff spots in 2020 as opposed to the usual six. This means that there will be three games on wild card weekend and not the typical two. In turn, only the top team in each conference will be given a first-round bye. In a normal season, both the No. 1&2 seeds get a bye.
Will the Steelers go 16-0? It's hard to fathom that happening. Anything can happen in the NFL. However, they will be favored in at least six of their last seven games, the lone exception being Thanksgiving. 14-2 seems much more realistic.
The AFC's other premier team, the Kansas City Chiefs, are 8-1. They're going to play a much tougher schedule over the last seven games. There are a litany of 6-3 teams. But with the way this season has gone so far, the Chiefs feel like the only team that will challenge Pittsburgh for the top spot in the conference.
Week 10 has come and gone. Playoff races will start to get tighter and heat up. The Steelers should make the playoffs but matchups and the coveted bye week race will start to take shape. Sit back and try to relax as the Steelers make their way towards a chance at an NFL record seventh Lombardi Trophy.