After seven weeks and six games, how are the Steelers handling the season?
The victory wasn't perfect—wide receivers dropped passes, the defensive front seven didn't sack Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton once and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over twice.
However, on the strength of their running game—led this time by Jonathan Dwyer, who took over for the injured Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall to carry the ball 17 times for 122 yards, and Chris Rainey, who had his first NFL touchdown—as well as a defense that was able to shut down the Bengals' dangerous passing game, they picked up the 24-17 win.
So let's take a closer look at where the Steelers stand after Week 7 and where they may be headed in Week 8, when they host the Washington Redskins and their rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III while sporting their 80th-anniversary throwback jerseys.
The Good: Third Downs; Time of Possession; a Run Game; Ike Taylor—Finally
The Steelers continued to be one of the best teams in terms of time of possession in Week 7, holding the ball for 37:20 compared to just 22:30 for the Bengals offense. Part of this can be attributed to the Steelers' high-percentage, short-yardage passing game (which Roethlisberger termed "dink and dunk" on Sunday), and in this game in particular, to the success of their rushing.
Prior to the Bengals game, the Steelers ranked 31st in rushing yards per game; thanks to Dwyer's 122-yard performance and the 167 rushing yards they put up in total, they're now ranked 26th—a pretty significant jump. But what's most telling about the Steelers running the ball in Week 7 is when they chose to do it—throughout the game, without the lead.
Clearly, time of possession is a major priority for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He wants to extend drives as long as they will go, ideally ending with a touchdown after eight or 10 (or more) minutes of moving the ball.
The longer the Steelers hold the ball, the fewer the opportunities opposing offenses have to make plays of their own and the less time that the Steelers defense—which hasn't been firing on all cylinders—have to make mistakes.
Part of this formula requires the Steelers to face and convert a majority of their third downs, and with a less-risky passing offense, they've done so better than any team in the league. They average 8.3 converted third downs per game, and convert third downs an impressive 53.76 percent of the time, far and away the best percentage in the NFL.
The Steelers successfully converted 10 of their 16 third downs against the Bengals, keeping their drives going and again, the ball out of Cincinnati's hands. When the Bengals did get the ball, the defense was rested and well-prepared and the Bengals failed to get much going in either the pass or the run, especially in the second half.
Surprisingly enough, one of those well-prepared defenders was cornerback Ike Taylor, who has otherwise been disappointing this season. Taylor spent the entirety of the game matched up with top Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Though Taylor did give up a touchdown, that eight-yard reception was Green's only one on the night, though he was targeted six times.
Cutting off Dalton's biggest playmaker played a huge part in the Steelers leaving Cincinnati with a win. Perhaps it will mark a turnaround for Taylor now that the second half of the season rapidly approaches.
The Bad: Mike Wallace's Dropped Passes; Pass Rush
Last season, Mike Wallace was Pro Football Focus' 13th-ranked receiver; now he's ranked 103rd out of 109 receivers to play at least 25 percent of his teams' offensive snaps. The switch from Bruce Arians to Haley at offensive coordinator makes up for one part of why Wallace is less effective—it's no longer a big-play passing offense, and Wallace is best-known for being a big-play receiver—but there's more than that going on here.
If Wallace was simply a good receiver, rather than just a fast one who is adept at getting separation downfield, he'd be having a better year, like fellow receiver Antonio Brown. On Brown's 53 targets, he has 36 receptions, 442 yards, 232 yards after the catch, one touchdown and two drops. Wallace has caught 29 of the 48 passes thrown his way for 397 yards, 128 yards after the catch, with four touchdowns and four dropped passes.
Wallace is less useful in shorter-passing situations. He's not a natural route-runner, but rather a deep scoring threat, as his four touchdowns to Brown's one further illustrates.
The difference between "getting open" and "being open" is well-demonstrated between the two receivers. Running routes and being smart about field position is the calling card of "getting open"; having separation from defenders thanks to blazing speed and physicality results in "being open." Haley's offense places a higher premium on the former, which has resulted in a relatively down seven weeks for Wallace.
However, Wallace isn't doing himself many favors. His three dropped passes against the Bengals killed drives and left points on the field. The offseason holdout didn't seem to harm his playing all that much, but it did exposed how one-note he can be.
There are benefits, of course, to being the kind of receiver who can go deep and get open, but with the Steelers no longer taking deep shots regularly, he needs to do more to stand out. Unfortunately, in Week 7, the only way he distinguished himself is by dropping three of the seven passes thrown his way—he caught only two, when it could have been five.
In terms of underperformance, the Steelers defense hasn't been showing much in the way of a pass rush this season—they have just 11 sacks, ranking them 24th. They notched just two hits on Dalton in Week 7 and six hurries, with no sacks, despite Dalton being exceptionally susceptible to making mistakes while under pressure.
The Steelers got to Dalton in other ways, by blanketing his receivers and preventing him from throwing deep. This is clearly one manner in which they can alleviate their lack of a pass rush, especially while being without safety Troy Polamalu, who is a key component to their blitz packages, but they still need to figure out how to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Clearly, the Steelers defense isn't as intimidating as in season's past, however they could bolster their reputation by adding more sacks to their stat sheet. No single Steelers defender graded positively (nor that negatively) in pass rush against the Bengals—they were just flat. For a quarterback like Dalton to get away relatively unscathed is not typical of Pittsburgh.
What's Next: The Washington Redskins
A rookie quarterback? A 3-4 team? A home game? Regardless of these facts, the Steelers have to be wary when the Washington Redskins come to town on Sunday afternoon.
Though the Redskins have lost to teams as dubious as the Bengals and St. Louis Rams this season, they've also gotten the better of the surprisingly good Tampa Bay Buccaneers and kept it close to the final seconds with the New York Giants last week. And it's mostly thanks to rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III that they've managed to do relatively well.
Griffin is averaging 213.6 passing yards per game, but the Redskins' rushing attack is the best in the league, averaging 179.3 yards per game. Griffin himself is putting up 66.9 rushing yards per week and running back Alfred Morris 94. Combined, the two have 11 rushing touchdowns on the season, while Griffin has thrown seven touchdowns to just three interceptions.
Griffin has the highest yards per pass attempt in the league and the Redskins' run game has the second-highest yards per rush attempt. Clearly, the Steelers defense will have their work cut out for them this Sunday.
This week, being without Troy Polamalu could potentially hurt them more than it has in any previous week. Griffin is a mobile, unpredictable quarterback and Polamalu a mobile, unpredictable safety. If there's any more perfect player in the NFL to operate as a spy on Griffin, I cannot think of one.
Therefore, the Steelers will have to find other ways to stop him. They cannot constantly assume Griffin will run, or they'll be burned in the passing game; they cannot constantly assume pass—and rush Griffin accordingly—or he'll take off, uncontained.
The Steelers will thus have to pick their spots accordingly, do a lot of film study to attempt to predict Griffin's reactions and do their best to bring the most complex parts of Dick LeBeau's defense to the field in hopes of overwhelming the rookie with things he has never experienced.
On offense, the Steelers have a better shot at success. At 328.4 passing yards allowed per game, the Redskins have the worst pass defense in the league; in contrast, they rank seventh against the run. Not being able to run and needing to pass is nothing new for the Steelers—in all but two games, that's how they've had to approach their offense.
Considering how effective and efficient the Steelers passing game has been thus far, as long as they can turn their red-zone appearances into touchdowns, they should have no trouble keeping pace with whatever the Redskins offense does on Sunday.