Improved Defense, More Dynamic Offense Give Steelers Look of True Contender

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Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

Football isn’t pretty, which means teams don’t have to win pretty in order to make statements. The Pittsburgh Steelers won ugly Sunday night in Detroit, and they made a statement while doing so.

In its first prime-time game of the 2017 season, a team that took heat for a weird loss to the inferior Chicago Bears in September and an even weirder loss to the inferior Jacksonville Jaguars in October reminded a national audience that it should be viewed as a top-tier Super Bowl contender. 

And it did so despite scoring just 20 points. 

That’s because the Steelers wrapped up the first half of their season with a five-point road victory over desperate, playoff-caliber Detroit Lions team known for fourth-quarter magic. And they found a way to do so even though Detroit held “Killer B’s” in check for practically the entire night. 

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was often erratic, completing just 55 percent of his 31 throws in a performance that lacked consistency. Running back Le’Veon Bell averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on 25 attempts, with zero of those rushes going for more than eight yards. And wide receiver Antonio Brown caught just five of the 10 passes thrown his way for a pedestrian-by-his-standards 70 yards. 

Previous version of this Steelers team would have lost a game like this under those circumstances. 

But this particular version is proving that it is more than Ben, Bell and Brown. 

First, this Steelers team has JuJu. As in 20-year-old rookie sensation JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught seven passes for 193 yards Sunday and became just the second player in the last half-decade to catch a 97-plus-yard touchdown pass. It was the longest receiving touchdown in Steelers history, and it came from the youngest player in the NFL, with the Steelers backed up in their own end zone while trying to protect a one-point second-half lead.

But the Steelers only had that lead because their much improved defense had just stopped Matthew Stafford and Co. on four consecutive snaps inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. That was one of five red-zone stops on the evening for a unit that kept Detroit out of the end zone for all four quarters. 

The Lions reached Pittsburgh’s 33-yard line on seven separate drives and averaged just 2.1 points on those possessions, scoring 15 points in a game in which they outgained the Steelers by 90 net yards while winning the time-of-possession and first-down battles. 

It was the definition of “bend but don’t break,” which is more than fine when you give up just 15 points in a quality team’s stadium.

And it isn’t a fluke. Entering Week 8, only two NFL teams had allowed fewer points per game (16.6) than Pittsburgh, and none had surrendered fewer yards per play (4.4). In terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Football Outsiders had the Steelers ranked second in the league. 

Smith-Schuster’s outing wasn’t fluky, either. Sure, his yardage total was inflated by the 97-yarder, which was an anomaly. But he now has at least two catches in seven consecutive games and is the first player in modern NFL history to record four touchdown receptions before turning 21.

On Sunday, five of his seven catches came on third down, where the Steelers converted seven of 14 attempts (compared to just two conversions on 12 third-down attempts for the Lions). 

Martavis Bryant included, the Steelers haven’t had a complement for Brown quite as special as Smith-Schuster. And while that defense has slowly reestablished itself as an elite group, it hasn’t performed like this since Smith-Schuster was in 10th grade. 

Defensive end Cameron Heyward, finally healthy, often has been unstoppable. Linebacker Ryan Shazier does everything, and he’s getting better by the week. Rookie edge-rusher T.J. Watt already has four sacks and twice as many impact plays in a half-dozen full NFL games. And those three are complemented well by key cogs from various backgrounds like Joe Haden, Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave, Robert Golden and James Harrison.

Fewest points per game allowed, 2017
1. Jacksonville Jaguars 15.7
2. Buffalo Bills 16.4
3. Pittsburgh Steelers 16.6
4. Minnesota Vikings 16.9
NFL.com

The Steelers likely will need more from Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But there’s little reason to believe those three won’t give them a chance, and the Steelers made it clear Sunday that they have surrounded that trio with a stronger supporting cast than in years past. 

Considering that they’re already running away with a bad division and will have a great shot at the AFC’s No. 1 seed in a wide-open season, that win on a less-than-perfect night in Detroit could be a clue that the Steelers have what it takes to go deep in 2017. 

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.





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