Grading Pittsburgh Steelers' Positional Units at the 1st Quarter Mark
With four weeks of NFL action going into the books as we enter October, the Pittsburgh Steelers have played three games and are currently on their bye week. As they prepare to close out the first quarter of their season this weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles, it's time to see how each position grades out.
Here's a look at how each position grades through three games.
Only Ben Roethlisberger has taken snaps for Pittsburgh, but his play has been nearly flawless. Except for a late interception in Denver during Week 1 and a couple of typical sacks while holding onto the ball a little too long, he has been the team's best player and one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger has thrown eight touchdown passes, so far, this year, and his completion percentage is among the best in the NFL. He has thrived in Todd Haley's system and has turned up his game a notch.
What he's been able to do is even more amazing when you consider that he's done it without the benefit of a rushing attack that is falling apart. He's managed to maintain the effectiveness of his offense and the team's ability to score points. Both are invaluable as the defense has had a rough start to the year.
After a preseason in which the big question became whether or not Rashard Mendenhall would be able to find a relevant role in this backfield, the Steelers' vaunted running game has been stuck in reverse.
Isaac Redman entered the year as the starter and with an opportunity to earn a big contract after this season. He hasn't been impressive at all and may be relegated to a third down or third-string role once Mendenhall is back at full speed.
Jonathan Dwyer was the second back to start things out, but he's been slightly better than Redman and will likely be the top backup to Mendenhall if he returns after the bye week as many expect. He runs with greater urgency and a bigger head of steam.
Baron Batch and Chris Rainey haven't seen the field much, but both have had their moments. Rainey is finding the regular season much less friendly. Batch's opportunities have been severely limited, but he's produced when on the field.
Until this backfield gets on track, the Steelers will have trouble closing out games. That could be a huge issue going forward.
Mike Wallace looks like a guy who didn't miss any time this offseason. In reality, he missed all of it. He has actually stepped up his game this year as well as he plays for his first big contract in the NFL. He has shown an ability to work short and over the middle on slants and a variety of routes. That was the missing piece for him.
If not for a pair of fumbles against the Raiders, Antonio Brown would be right up there with him. He's been every bit as effective outside of those two plays, and he continues to be one of the league's most elusive wide receivers and one of the most difficult to cover.
Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery round out the group and have been effective in their roles. Sanders seems to know every route tree in the offense and is able to run them effectively. He's been all over the field and given the team the ability to show different looks.
The receivers have teamed well with Ben Roethlisberger to keep the offense effective, and they've improved their scoring abilities as well. They're once again one of the league's best receiver sets.
A year ago, the tight end position was virtually an afterthought for the Steelers. Bruce Arians focused more on a dynamic set of receivers than on his tight ends. The emphasis is now back on both positions, and the results have been great.
Heath Miller has been terrific and has done a majority of the work on third down and also in the red zone. He's emerged as one of the best two-way tight ends in the NFL with his work this season and has put himself back on the map.
The rest of the players at the position (Leonard Pope and David Paulson) haven't done a ton of work but have been asked to help out the offensive line and take care of some extra blocking assignments.
I've suggested going to a two-tight end system moving forward to give teams a different look in the passing game, but that might not happen until they get a boost from the return of the suspended Weslye Saunders.
The run blocking, just as it was last year, has been a really troubling spot for Pittsburgh. The guards haven't done a great job, particularly Ramon Foster on the right side, of opening holes. One guard having a bad day means that the center of the line is fully compromised because the center must help out.
Maurkice Pouncey has done an OK job, but he's been asked to do way too much. Hopefully, once David DeCastro returns to the right guard spot, things will be more simplified.
On the left side, Willie Colon has been a decent blocker but has hurt many drives with penalties.
The tackles have been OK, but they haven't been able to set the edge and keep rushers away from runners.
The pass blocking has been effective, and Ben Roethlisberger has mostly been able to work with a clean pocket. The exception was the second half of the first game in Denver where Roethlisberger was frequently running for his life.
The improvement of this line was expected after a heavy investment during the draft, but the results have been very mixed. Their improvement is key to the running game's success, and ultimately, how well this team does against some of the AFC's tough defenses.
Overall, the unit has done a passable job, but there's plenty of room for improvement.
Ziggy Hood has been the most disappointing player along the defensive line and hasn't really lived up to the expectations this year. He's been outplayed by backup Cameron Heyward who may be starting in his place before too long if things don't improve.
Casey Hampton is back at the nose spot for likely the last year, but the team has used him poorly and has neglected to realize his age and the fact that he's lost a few steps. He hasn't been as effective as a run-stopper, and he isn't helping generate pressure.
Brett Keisel has been OK, but he isn't nearly as effective as he was a year or two ago and is starting to show some age and some effects from the pounding he's taken over the last several seasons.
This is another unit that has been disappointing, so far. They are down a man with James Harrison still missing after an August knee operation. Harrison still isn't back to full speed, and until he is, this unit is going to struggle on one side.
LaMarr Woodley has been very good and seems to have found an extra gear now that his hamstring is back to full strength. The problem is he is really the only person pressuring the quarterback, so he can only do so much before teams shut him down.
Chris Carter has been the replacement for Harrison and just isn't good enough to be an NFL starter. Hopefully, we will get a look as Jason Worilds in that spot if Harrison misses more time.
On the inside, Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote have been steady but unspectacular.
The linebackers aren't doing a great job of stopping an opponent's rushing attack, and they aren't generating pressure. As I've said in recent weeks, they aren't being used effectively by coordinator Dick LeBeau. That may be hurting their overall performance.
After years and years of ignoring the secondary when it came to the draft, the Steelers may finally be forced to pay the piper for their negligence. The corners have been a disaster and look completely overmatched against some suspect receivers.
The safeties are OK, but an injury to Troy Polamalu that has shelved him for the last two games has compromised that spot too. Polamalu wasn't playing very well in Denver anyway, so the argument can be made that there hasn't been a drop-off since.
Keenan Lewis has been a huge disappointment as a starter. His coverage has been poor, and he hasn't made any big plays. Cortez Allen hasn't been too impressive in the nickel spot, but he may be sent to the outside just to change things up.
Ike Taylor is struggling as well, so far. He hasn't gotten any help from the rest of the secondary, but that doesn't excuse a terrible set of performances.
The Steelers badly need this unit to get on track. Since they aren't doing much to generate pressure up front, they need the secondary to step up. Something has to give, or this defense is going to lose the team more games than they can afford.
The specialists have been solid. While their coverage units haven't done a great job, kicker Shaun Suisham and punter Drew Butler have done everything possible to put Pittsburgh in a good position.
Butler has justified his selection over veteran Jeremy Kapinos by booming all but one kick, so far. His placement work has been improving, and he is giving teams trouble in the field position aspect of the game.
Suisham looks stronger than last year, and his accuracy has improved as well. There's not much more you can ask from him on field goals. The focus, now, really is gaining a little more length on kickoffs. If he can do that, he'll be a complete kicker.