An early bye week can often seem like a curse. To have a week off when the season's barely begun, when the cold weather and lingering injuries and the playoff pushes are so far away, feels like a disadvantage
It all depends, of course, on how teams with an early bye week have handled the start of their respective seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently 1-2 and have some work to do if they want to be a postseason contender yet again, so a Week 4 bye is a particularly useful time to step back and regroup.
Here are the areas of highest priority the Steelers need to address during this week's bye.
What to do with Ryan Mundy
The Steelers have a lot of issues on defense to repair right now—safety Ryan Clark called the way the unit played in Week 3's loss the Oakland Raiders "predictable," for example—but many of their issues are big-picture in nature and cannot be turned around in one week.
They can, however, make seemingly smaller fixes that could impact the entire performance of their defense, especially when it comes to the passing game. Namely, keep Ryan Mundy off the field.
Mundy has been a starter in all three games so far this season, first in Week 1 replacing Ryan Clark, who could not play against the Denver Broncos because his sickle-cell trait is further aggravated at high altitudes, and then in Weeks 2 and 3 while Troy Polamalu dealt with a calf injury.
Though Polamalu has returned to practice this week and should be ready to play after the bye, the Steelers need to send a message to Mundy that his sub-par play (he's ranked 103rd out of 110 safeties by Pro Football Focus) and reckless on-field behavior (more than his fair share of helmet-to-helmet hits, including one on Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey that resulted in him going to the hospital and the league fining Mundy $21,000) will no longer be tolerated.
This season, Mundy has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks eight times, with receivers catching six of those passes, for 42 total yards and two touchdowns. Throwing his way results in quarterbacks averaging a rating of 126.0, and the more often he's on the field, the more often he's going to cost the Steelers downs and points.
There's no guarantee that Polamalu can remain healthy for the duration of the season, and chances are, the Steelers are going to want to mix things up in the secondary regardless of who is or isn't healthy. I suggest that one way they do this is to demote Mundy behind Will Allen, who at least has one tackle in his two snaps (Mundy has 11, though he's played 176).
It could be a case of addition by subtraction if the Steelers remove Mundy from the field—the whole secondary could actually get better as a result.
Plan for a James Harrison-less Future
Linebacker James Harrison was also hoped to get back to the playing field following this week's bye, and he seemed on track for that to happen considering he practiced fully on Tuesday. Harrison has yet to play a game this year after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in August.
However, on Wednesday, he left the Steelers facility in street clothes before practice even began, and all indications are pointing to him having a setback in that surgically-repaired knee.
Clearly, there's no word yet on how long this setback will keep Harrison out of practice and not playing, but leaving the facility in street clothes doesn't bode well for the remainder of his season. Considering that he's not been able to practice more than a day or two at a time without the knee bothering him again, the Steelers need to simply behave as though he won't play a single snap this year.
Without Harrison on the field, the Steelers' pass rush and short passing defense has struggled. Though Harrison's duties last year were primarily in pass rush and run defense, he also played 151 snaps in coverage.
Now, Larry Foote is asked to contribute more in coverage, and defensive backs have had to play shorter to help compensate in this area. Chris Carter and Jason Worilds have been taking up the snaps that would have been Harrison's, and neither has been all that productive, with just seven tackles and one sack between them.
It's looking as though Harrison's absence isn't going to be a temporary situation. Depending on the severity of the setback, it's possible he doesn't play at all this year. The Steelers now have to commit to Carter and Worilds as rotational starters, which means they need to be treated as such.
Whether this means reshuffling their linebacking corps, reassessing how they are going to get their pass rush going (the Steelers have only five sacks on the year and rank 25th in sacks per game), taking a look at free agents or promoting Marshall McFadden from the practice squad, the Steelers need to spend this week really focusing on minimizing the impact that no Harrison will make for the indefinite future.
Get Rashard Mendenhall Ready to Go
Through pretty much no fault of their own, running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer haven't been able to get the Steelers' run game going. The offensive line, in particular, has been shaky in run defense (though thankfully, much better in keeping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger protected), and as a result, the Steelers are currently 30th in the league in average rushing yards per game, with 65.
Last year, the Steelers weren't all that great at running the ball, but they did end the season ranking 13th overall, averaging 121.1 rush yards per game. That was primarily behind Rashard Mendenhall, who should be ready to return to the field after last season's Week 17 ACL tear.
It's not as though the 2012 iteration of the Steelers offensive line is all that much worse than it was last year—it's basically just as bad, only without Jonathan Scott to blame for any of it this time around (that's a good thing). The only difference in their run game, it appears, is that it's been without Mendenhall for the first three weeks.
Through three games, Redman has earned just 72 yards and one touchdown on his 32 carries; Dwyer has 70 yards and no scores on 24 runs. Last year, Mendenhall was averaging 61.9 yards per game; hopefully, upon his return, he can resume running the ball where he left off last year.
Yes, the Steelers passing game is going strong at the moment—they're a top-10 team in that area, averaging 284.3 pass yards per game—but without a run game, they become dangerously one-dimensional.
Clearly, without some miraculous improvement on the offensive line, the Dwyer/Redman duo isn't going to make much of an impact, so it's imperative that Mendenhall be at 100 percent health sooner than later if they're going to get their run game going.
For all of Mendenhall's faults, he's still the fastest, shiftiest back on the roster, and that's exactly what the Steelers need with an offensive line that can't seem to allow for more than a yard or two gain. He needs to be ready for Week 5 and the Philadelphia Eagles.