After seven games, the Steelers sit at 4-3 and are one game behind first-place Baltimore in the AFC North. The Steelers are riding a two-game winning streak and have drastically improved after some very questionable losses early in the season.
Each position has contributed somehow to the way this season has unfolded. Here is how I see each position grading out after seven weeks of Steelers football.
Ben Roethlisberger has a 101.4 quarterback rating and has thrown 14 touchdown passes against just two interceptions. If those numbers don’t tell the tale, then I don’t know what does. But there’s actually more to say about his success this season.
Roethlisberger has only been sacked 13 times and has been throwing quickly. He’s been nearly flawless behind some excellent pass blocking, and he's still been able to keep plays alive when necessary with his feet.
The scary thing is how much better his numbers could be if his receivers hadn’t suddenly contracted a case of the drops the last couple weeks.
The running game has been at both ends of the spectrum this season. For the four of the first seven games, they were terrible. Part of that relates to the offensive line and the blocking, but part of it was just poor performance on the part of the team’s running backs.
In three of the last four games, they’ve been phenomenal. The emergence of Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers a huge offensive boost and might just be making the offense more dangerous. If he can continue to run that way in the second half, Pittsburgh is sound.
Beyond Dwyer, the injuries to Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall have been disappointing, but they have given Baron Batch and Chris Rainey more reps. Rainey has been more and more impressive as a runner.
The Steelers wide receivers have been very good overall. Mike Wallace has improved to the point where he can be considered a complete receiver. He can now run short and medium routes just as well as he runs deep ones.
Antonio Brown has been spectacular for the most part besides two fumbles in Oakland. He’s been more quiet lately, as Emmanuel Sanders has gotten more touches, but he’s still deadly when he gets his hands on the football.
Sanders is blossoming this year, and he gives the Steelers a viable alternative if they cannot retain Wallace after the season. Jerricho Cotchery has been kind of lost in the shuffle, but he is still valuable as a possession guy in the red zone. He will get his catches down the stretch.
Heath Miller might have garnered the most benefit from Todd Haley’s offensive scheme. Next to Ben Roethlisberger, there has really been no better player. The two of them even are likely tied at the top of the list.
This really should be the year that Miller gets some notice as one of the most complete tight ends in the league. He’s always played second fiddle to guys like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, but right now, he is definitely in the top three.
The guys behind him don’t hear their names called as often, but Leonard Pope and David Paulson have been valuable as blockers and in their brief receiving roles as well. There’s not enough good things to say about this group, as they have picked up a struggling offensive line and helped solidify the Steelers offensive front.
Like the rushing attack, the offensive line has been both an abject disaster and a drastic improvement over last year. Injuries play a part in that. The Steelers had an awful finish in Denver, but that was after half the line left hurt. They’ve been very good lately despite missing some guys. That’s great news.
The depth along the line is questionable at best. Doug Legursky is a great backup at center, but he’s not effective at guard. Mike Adams has improved markedly this year, but he gets a lot of help at times.
My gut feeling on these guys is that if they can get and stay healthy, this line can be good. Their run-blocking has greatly improved (two straight games with a 100-yard rusher), and the pass-blocking has been very good all year.
I’m just not impressed here. This group has let me down on a number of occasions. Ziggy Hood has been serviceable, but Cameron Heyward likely would be the better starter at this point because he brings some big-play ability.
Casey Hampton is showing his age at the nose spot, and I’m at a loss as to why Steve McLendon hasn’t been elevated to the starting role or at least to a spot where he’s getting the majority of the snaps.
Brett Keisel has been his usual self, but he looks a step slower this year. Right now, he’s their best defensive lineman and is still a great starter, but I wonder how many good seasons he has left in the tank.
Overall, the line has done better lately, and they are benefiting from a healthy linebacker corps, but they haven’t helped put pressure on opposing quarterbacks or been effective at containing the running game.
That’s a big letdown.
The health issues have prevented this unit from really giving us a clear picture of effectiveness and consistency, but when all four starters have been on the field, this unit has been tough to stop. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are gradually getting better at pressuring quarterbacks together again.
In the middle, Larry Foote has had a nice resurgence, and Lawrence Timmons is his usual quiet-but-effective self. The big let down is that this unit hasn’t been as good at containing the running game, but they’ve done an adequate job since getting fully healthy.
I think that, with this unit finally put together, they’ll get really good down the stretch and start terrorizing quarterbacks. That will be the key if the Steelers are to disguise a banged-up and inexperienced secondary.
This is another unit that is confusing to grade.
They were terrible until about two weeks ago. They let teams like Oakland and Tennessee pound them. Then they shut down Cincinnati and Washington. They got some help Sunday when the Redskins receivers dropped a ton of passes, but overall, they have defended much better.
The bright spot so far has been the play of Keenan Lewis. Lewis didn’t have a terrible early part of the season; he just wasn’t fully adjusted to a starting role yet. He’s settled in fine and is now the team’s most effective corner.
Ike Taylor did have a terrible start and has only now gotten himself on track again. He was great against A.J. Green in the Bengals game. That’s a good sign. If he can continue to get himself back on track, the secondary could end up being very effective at defending passes.
Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown haven’t been very good, but they are also experiencing their first significant action on defense, so growing pains are to be expected.
I’m tempted to give an incomplete because we’ve barely had a chance to see the fully healthy safety combination of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Still, this unit has seven games and deserves a grade regardless.
It’s not going to be a very good one.
Ryan Clark, before injuring himself Sunday with a really dumb shot on a receiver, has been the best performer. Troy Polamalu hasn’t played much, and his injury has me wondering if we are seeing the end of the line for one of the game’s best-ever safeties.
Injury substitutes Ryan Mundy and Will Allen have had their good moments, but they have largely been awful. Mundy is not good as a strong safety, and he cannot cover tight ends effectively. Allen has a little bit better coverage skill, but it isn’t enough to make up the difference most of the time.
Overall, this unit needs some attention in the offseason. There’s simply no ignoring it anymore.
I’m going to break this grade into two parts because there are two different components I want to discuss. The first is the kicking and punting of Shaun Suisham and Drew Butler.
I can’t say enough good things about how consistent both have been this season. Butler has been great on directional kicks, and his leg is very strong. Apart from one shank, he’s been as close to perfect as it gets.
Suisham has looked stronger than previous years, and his accuracy has been phenomenal. He’s only missed once, and that was a borderline-ridiculous attempt at a very long field goal outdoors.
The coverage units, however, have been woefully inadequate. Opposing returners are getting the advantage of a lot of space and poor tackling. Pittsburgh’s own returners are getting handicapped by stupid penalties.
It’s a mess.
When Mike Tomlin made the change at special-teams coordinator, I thought it might spark this unit. Instead, they’ve been worse than last season. I fear that they may eventually cost this team a victory. They’ve already cost them points a couple times.