I got a chance to catch up to Bleacher Report’s head AFC North writer, Andrea Hangst, this week via e-mail and get her thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Sunday’s matchup at Heinz Field.
Jeremy Pike: The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up a team-record 55 points in a loss to the New England Patriots last Sunday. Where is the team mentally right now?
Andrea Hangst: Right now, the Steelers are upset and rightfully so. It’s not just the 55 points— it’s the 610 yards of total offense their defense gave up to the Patriots, which is the worst performance in franchise history. I think they’ve seen the situation they are in, with two wins, and got a bit sloppy and desperate last week. They need to calm down somewhat and return to their fundamentals. This is not a vastly different team than the one that repeatedly made the playoffs and were Super Bowl contenders just a few years ago. But they aren’t used to having struggles like this and the frustration that causes needs to be harnessed positively and not have it hold them back.
Pike: The Steelers are averaging just under 74 yards rushing a game and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 32 times already this season. Is this an offensive line problem or is offensive coordinator Todd Haley having issues getting the Steelers to play in his scheme?
Hangst: It’s a combination of the two. Todd Haley is not a good fit at offensive coordinator. He wants to turn Ben Roethlisberger into a traditional pocket passer and that’s simply not how he’s had his success. While Roethlisberger’s style of play opens him up to big hits and injuries, that’s a risk the Steelers must take if their offense is going to work. As far as the run game, the offensive line is mainly to blame. Only guard David DeCastro has been good in the run game, and he missed last week with an ankle injury. The Steelers spent all summer trying to install outside zone run-blocking but gave it up once center Maurkice Pouncey’s season ended with injury. This is an offensive line without a scheme and with a lack of talent. It’s shocking how poorly they’ve looked in the run game.
Pike: Even though Roethlisberger is taking a lot of sacks, he is still throwing for just over 268 yards a game, good for eighth-best in the league. The Bills’ defense has improved, but is still susceptible to giving up big plays. Who should Bills fans be keeping an extra eye on in the passing game?
Hangst: The key will be to bring pressure to Roethlisberger and keeping him contained. If he has time to throw, he has a number of weapons at his disposal, all of whom can give the Bills a hard time. In short yardage, that means tight end Heath Miller and receiver Jerricho Cotchery. In the intermediate-to-deep passing game, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are the threats. Brown, in particular, is quite dangerous— he’s caught an impressive 61 of 78 targets this year, and 268 of his 701 yards have come after the catch. He’ll need to be locked down on Sunday if the pressure cannot get to Roethlisberger consistently.
Pike: The Steelers are giving up just over 131 yards rushing a game, second-worst in the league. What is going wrong with the run defense this season?
Hangst: Practically every player in Pittsburgh’s front seven are underperforming against the run. This mainly owes to a simple lack of talent the Steelers are dealing with at many defensive positions. There are a lot of older players— Larry Foote, Brett Keisel— paired up with just-a-guys like Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood. Add in younger guys like Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams and there’s a talent deficit in the front seven. It drags down good linebackers like Lawrence Timmons as a result. Tackling, of course, is a problem—they have 61 team missed tackles so far this year.
Pike: The Steelers defense has only mustered 13 sacks on the season. What player should Bills fans be most concerned about increasing that number on Sunday?
Hangst: Obviously, the pass-rusher who is of most concern to the Bills and to any offense facing the Steelers this year is LaMarr Woodley. Of those 13 sacks, Woodley has five, while fellow outside linebacker Jason Worilds have three. Those two will need to be contained on Sunday, but don’t forget about defensive end Brett Keisel—he can be a surprisingly effective pass-rusher, and he has two sacks this year so far.
Pike: This is the final game between the Bills and the AFC North this season. In your capacity as the lead AFC North writer for Bleacher Report, you have gotten to see how the Bills stack up against the other three teams in the North. How do you see Sunday’s game playing out?
Hangst: The Bills have been a tough team to figure out, especially on offense, owing to C.J. Spiller’s injury and the rotation of quarterbacks between Jeff Tuel, Thad Lewis and EJ Manuel, who comes back this week. If Manuel is fully healed, that obviously gives the Bills a boost but the Steelers defense is remarkably good at making things hard on rookie quarterbacks. Dick LeBeau’s defense may not be as effective as it used to be, mainly because quarterbacks have been there and done that, but rookies generally have no idea what they’re up against in their first meeting with the Steelers.
What matters the most is how the Bills stack up on defense. The Steelers’ two wins have come after they held the halftime lead. The Bills must put up points while not allowing the Steelers to do so themselves, especially early. Since the Steelers cannot run the ball, that means shutting down the passing game. That can be done in coverage but the best bet is to pressure Roethlisberger and test Pittsburgh’s struggling offensive line. For what it’s worth, I picked the Bills to win, even though they’re on the road.
I want to thank Andrea Hangst for taking time out for this interview. The insight is very much appreciated from someone who spends a lot of time covering the Pittsburgh Steelers. She brings up some very good points that will be a factor in the outcome Sunday afternoon.
First, wide receiver Antonio Brown’s stats so far this season are impressive. He and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appear to have a very well established rapport based off 61 catches on 78 targets. His 268 yards after the catch has him poised to give the Bills’ secondary fits on Sunday. Getting pressure on Roethlisberger early and often will likely be a necessity.
The second point is that the Steelers’ have missed 61 tackles as a team this season. If running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson can put together another effort like against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday, the Bills could very well have a huge day on the ground.
The third point is that Dick LeBeau gives rookie quarterbacks all sorts of fits. With it looking increasingly likely that EJ Manuel starts on Sunday, the Bills need to devise an offensive gameplan that will protect the rookie from as much confusion as possible. Manuel will need to be decisive and smart for all 60 minutes Sunday and limit his mistakes. Thankfully the Steelers are not forcing turnovers at a high rate this season (4 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles of which they recovered 2), so it isn’t like they are creating nor taking advantage of opponent’s mistakes.
Make no mistake, the Steelers are a veteran team whose coach and defensive coordinator have Super Bowl titles. They are still a threat, especially at home. There are no cakewalks in the NFL. This game will come down to who can protect their quarterback better and the running game, especially when the Bills have the ball.