With every passing week and with every carry Le’Veon Bell gets, the Steelers’ chances of recovering from a horrific 0-4 start and making the playoffs seem to get better and better. It’s still unlikely, but certainly not far-fetched.
Even the most skeptical of fans are turning into believers, and many more will follow suit if the Steelers can get their third straight win today. And a favorable second-half schedule only strengthens Pittsburgh’s chances.
There is lots to feel good about since the calendar turned to October.
For starters, the defense has cut down on the big plays the past two weeks and they’ve stepped up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Since Mike Adams’ demotion, the offensive line has started to jell — even though coach Mike Tomlin said this week that wasn’t the case — and the running game finally has a pulse. Bell has had everything to do with that, and he will continue to rise to stardom as long as he stays healthy.
Coming off their bye week two weeks ago, the Steelers had to string together a couple wins — someway, somehow — to have a chance at a turnaround. It didn’t matter how ugly or pretty the wins were. They just needed to “stack” some wins, as the players like to say. More importantly, they needed some confidence.
Tomlin this week denied that his team ever lacked confidence, but the body language in the locker room after the 0-4 start told a different story.
“I never sensed a lack of confidence in our guys,” Tomlin said. “I sensed some frustration, obviously, and rightfully so based on how we were playing. I can’t say that I ever sensed a lack of confidence in our guys.”
Whether Tomlin was truthful or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that the confidence is again part of the Steelers’ DNA.
Now it’s time to continue to build on the good things they’ve done the past two weeks. Next up, the Steelers need to improve on some of the finer details that separate playoff teams from bumbling pretenders the Steelers resembled the first month of the season.
That includes improving their third-down conversion rate, improving in the red zone, cutting down on costly penalties, most of which go hand-in-hand.
“When you are playing good people, penalties, particularly pre-snap penalties, generally kill drives,” Tomlin said. “We only had 8-9 possessions (against the Ravens last week). Some of those possessions were killed by pre-snap penalties. ... We had a third-and-four in the red area that went to a third-and-nine that we didn’t convert. We had to settle for a field goal. When you are playing somebody like that, and you get the opportunity to get seven, you have to get it.”
As I’ve written in this space many a time, Pittsburgh’s red-zone efficiency is an area that’s held the team back since the start of last season, at least. Only the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars are worse in the red zone than the Steelers, who have six touchdowns in 16 trips inside the opponents’ 20 this season. Today would be a good day to start cleaning that up.
Similarly, the Steelers rank in the bottom third of the NFL in third-down conversion rate, and it’s a statistic that’s been dragged down by their penchant for third-and-long situations. Pittsburgh made strides in that area last week, when Bell’s play helped the Steelers turn in big gains on first downs and keep the long third downs to a minimum.
And they need to keep making progress in that area because those are the situations the Steelers don’t want to find themselves in today against the Raiders today, Tomlin warned earlier this week.
“They have a multitude of things to prepare for, this dime, 32-package that they have with three down linemen, two linebackers, and the rest are defensive backs,” Tomlin said. “They have a variety of zone coverages and pressures out of that thing. If you get behind the chains, and it’s third-and-seven or more, they dial a variety of things up.”
Most of all, what I’d like to see that indicates to me that the Steelers are continuing their upswing and continuing to improve is a blowout win over an inferior opponent.
The dominant Steelers of old, regulars in the playoffs, would have two or three blowout wins every year, games in which they utterly dismantle teams like this year’s Jaguars, Giants, Buccaneers, etc.
Not so this year, and today would be a perfect time to cross that off the list.
Mirza Zukic is in his third season covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for The Indiana Gazette. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MirzaZuka.