Football was fun again, yesterday, and the Steelers’ defense is to thank.
The Steelers clawed their way back into the AFC playoff picture with a mildly surprising but not shocking 26-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field for their third straight win and their fourth in five games.
It seems odd to be happy with a 4-4 record at the midway point of the season, but the Steelers should be. They have managed to create a new identity this season, from a handsomely talented offensive team to a defense first, score enough points to win team.
And that’s going to have to be the way it works for the rest of 2019. Face it – while proving himself to be highly competitive and somewhat competent, Mason Rudolph will not pass his way past good defenses, Juju is a complementary piece, not the lead dog, James Conner is brittle and limited, and, despite a very good offensive line, the Steelers’ offense is mediocre to worse.
So that means a few things need to happen, or continue happening, for the Steelers to seriously compete for a playoff spot:
- Devin Bush has to get better in pass coverage. Teams have taken advantage of the speedy, talented rookie. Bush is having a very good rookie campaign, but needs to cover better.
- TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward need to stay healthy. They have both been terrific pass rushers and difference makers – the Steelers need both in top form to beat good teams.
- The Steelers’ coverage schemes need to be tighter. They still cannot (and probably never will) man cover teams, and they tend to give up big plays in the passing game at bad times (see 3rd and 19 in the third quarter of yesterday’s game, for example.) For goodness sake, some guy named Ricky, or Billy, or Brian Hoyer threw three TDs on Sunday.
- Somebody needs to take the red challenge flag away from Mike Tomlin. Gave away two timeouts and his right to challenge legitimate plays by challenging something that has not been overturned this year in the NFL (pass interference), and a very clear catch that could have easily just stood in real time let alone slow motion replay.
Defense first teams have always been the favorite identity of Steelers fans since the 1970s. Time to bring out the old Jack-Splat t-shirts, the “Steel Curtain” memorabilia and the old polka fight songs of days past – this Steelers defense is now the key unit to a 2019 playoff run.
- As badly as the Steelers swung and missed on Donte Moncrief is as well as they connected on the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade. While the Steelers’ pass defense remains flawed, Fitzpatrick has been a play-making game changer. Sunday’s 96-yard pick-six was electrifying and certainly changed the inertia of that game.
- Purists argue that significantly changing the rules of a game in an overtime period is blasphemous at worst, and just plain idiotic at best when it comes to determining a winner, but if the 2:37 of 3-on-3 overtime in Saturday’s 2-1 Penguins’ loss to the Edmonton Oilers did not convince anyone who saw it that the NHL has the exact right idea with overtime, nothing will. Too bad the Oilers scored, but what a tremendous way to decide a game.
- Look for a special edition of the Musings where I address Bob Nutting’s assertion that spending more money to win in Major League Baseball is a false narrative. The research proves the only false narrative is the one Nutting spews – that hoarding your cash and maximizing your profits at the expense of winning is the right formula.