The week nine Pittsburgh Steelers head into their bye week in much better shape than they were one month ago. Following a painful 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Steelers looked completely discombobulated. The defense couldn’t tackle and get off the field on third down, while the offense completely stalled out. That’s been the low point of their season thus far. The Steelers had their backs against the wall, so to speak, and have bounced back over the last three weeks. They are currently the top seed in the AFC, and are in control of their division. Week nine Pittsburgh Steelers keys to victory, the bye week edition, is here. It looks at what the Steelers must do to build upon their first half momentum.

Adversity builds champions. The Steelers saw their share of it during the first half of the season, and overcame much of it. Consequently, they are the top seed in the AFC. Many expected the Steelers to have an explosive, high scoring offense capable of 30 points per game. Admittedly, that’s not who they’ve been. Who they are is a team that has returned to a run first mentality, because that’s where their strength lies. Despite their offensive struggles, the Steelers have two of the league’s best, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Brown leads the NFL in receptions and yards, while Bell is second in rushing.

The defense carried the Steelers for much of the season’s first half. Rookie T.J. Watt and new cornerback Joe Haden are a big reason why. The Steelers’ 26 sacks and seven interceptions rank second and eighth respectively. Watt and Haden are a big reason why, by stabilizing their respective units. The Steelers have 17 more sacks than they had at this point last season. They are more than halfway to last year’s 13 interceptions. The Steelers run defense has been stellar, except for two bad outings against Chicago and Jacksonville. They have improved their red zone defense as well. The Steelers still have work to do despite their first half success. Week nine Pittsburgh Steelers keys to victory looks at what they must accomplish during bye week.

Work on Red Zone Offense

Red zone success has been the weak link of the Steelers offense through the first eight games. The Steelers rank 30th in the NFL, scoring touchdowns in only 41.38 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line. Their touchdown percentage in the red zone at home, according to Team Rankings, is 23.08%. The Steelers’ red zone touchdown percentage on the road is 56.25 percent. Why is this important to know? Because the Steelers play five of their last seven games at Heinz Field. The percentage rate at home is less than half of what it is on the road, which needs to change.

What changes when the Steelers get to the red zone? It’s certainly not the talent. The problem rests with the play-calling and execution. Ben Roethlisberger used to rule the red zone with his plethora of weapons, so what has changed? Brown and Bell are still present. JuJu Smith-Schuster has been a solid addition, and Martavis Bryant, who has his issues, is still a weapon. So what is missing? The Steelers have been lacking a reliable tight end since Heath Miller retired. Miller was a valuable piece of the red zone offense. It no coincidence the touchdown percentage has declined since his retirement. The Steelers are hoping that Vance McDonald is the answer. Pittsburgh needs to get the red zone offense going, and raise the touchdown percentage to optimal levels. The bye week is a good opportunity to focus on it.

Fix Martavis Bryant

Bryant has yet to be factor in the offense this season, but it’s not entirely his fault either. He has been his own worst enemy lately by letting his frustrations get the best of him, and must work on making things right. First, Bryant has to stop listening to the bad advice he has been getting. Second, he needs to communicate his concerns with Mike Tomlin, instead of through social media. Lastly, Bryant needs to give maximum effort if he wants the ball. No more slowing down and pulling up on deep balls. He needs to attack the ball instead of waiting on it. Bryant complains about his targets and snaps, but has the same number of targets as Smith-Schuster.

While Smith-Schuster has caught 24 of 34 passes thrown to him, Bryant has dropped half of his targets. That’s the difference, and that’s on Bryant. Tomlin needs to reaffirm his stance to Bryant during the bye week, and Bryant needs to own his mistakes. In Bryant’s defense, Todd Haley needs to work him deep. Haley, Roethlisberger, and Bryant need to get back on the same page for the last half of the season. It’s very important they work on that this week, because not only is Bryant a dangerous deep threat, but a valuable red zone weapon as well. Fixing Bryant goes a long way towards fixing the red zone offense.

Conclusion

The Steelers are still evolving and developing as a team after eight games. They are the top seed in the AFC despite all their issues, meaning they have yet to peak. If they can fix the red zone offense, and get Bryant flying right, the Steelers could be the most dangerous team in the NFL by far. Also, it sure wouldn’t hurt if Carnell Lake could coach his defensive backs to turn around and make a play on the ball once in awhile. That could yield a few more interceptions for the good guys.

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