Merry Christmas! With a dominating 34-6 victory over the Houston Texans the Pittsburgh Steelers got a visit from Santa. Under their proverbial tree they secured a first round bye in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers still have a chance to secure the number one overall seed, but that would involve the New England Patriots losing to the New York Jets in week 17. The Jets almost won the first meeting but are starting backup quarterback Bryce Petty. With that being said, don’t be surprised if the Steelers decide to rest most of their starters in week 17 and accept the AFC’s two seed in the playoffs. With all of that out of the way, here are my week 16 gut reactions.
Here We Go…
The Steelers are putting it all together at the right time. Antonio Brown has a pretty serious leg injury, but that didn’t stop the offense from putting up 34 points. Of course, getting Marcus Gilbert back helped the offensive line. Chris Hubbard has been solid in his absence but Gilbert can be dominant at right tackle. That’s a big reason why Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Living Up To The Hype
Juju Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant look like an elite one-two combination at receiver. Which is important, because rushing Brown back from injury is not beneficial for Brown or the team. Even more impressive, Ben Roethlisberger continued his hot streak even with Brown’s absence. Smith-Schuster had six receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown, and Bryant had three receptions for 60 yards. Both had big plays, the former pulling in a 49-yard reception and the latter catching a 36 yarder.
As good as Brown is, the Steelers have to feel good about that duo going into the playoffs. The usage of Justin Hunter, especially at the goal line, is encouraging as well. He’s been buried on the depth chart, but is almost the same size as Bryant. 6’4″ receivers don’t grow on trees. He should be a weekly red zone threat whether Brown is injured or not. The same goes for Bryant, who has seen more red zone targets of late.
Record Setting Bell
Also, I have to point out Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked, and didn’t turn the ball over. He’s one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league right now, but having Bell as a safety valve is invaluable. He can break tackles and turn broken plays into positive yardage and keep the chains moving. He led the team in targets with eight and broke the 400 touches plateau on the season. In doing so, he became only the 42nd player ever to cross that threshold. If anyone needs a rest, it’s Bell.
Tight At Tight End
I’d also like to point out that the passing game flourishes when the Steelers have two tight ends that Roethlisberger is willing to target regularly. A healthy Vance McDonald combined with a soft handed Jesse James are the secret to an elite intermediate passing game. James was only targeted once, and didn’t have a catch. But when James, McDonald and Bell are all running routes, it stretches even the best defenses thin. Not to mention, it leaves defensive backs isolated against the Steelers talented receivers.
When Roethlisberger is given time, and has all of these weapons running routes, he is dissecting defenses. The icing on the cake? Two tight ends are generally thought of as a running formation, resulting in defenses to play the Steelers like they’re handing the ball off to Bell. Mark my words, two pass-catching tight ends is the way to beat the Patriots. McDonald was out last week. Let’s hope he stays healthy throughout the playoffs. He’s also a superior run blocker to James.
Hitting Their Stride
The defense was one amazing catch short of pitching a shutout. There is undeniable talent all over the field. Like many games in the first half of the season, the opposing team’s offense looked completely overmatched. But that didn’t stop the Steelers from surrendering 108 rushing yards to Alfred Blue. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler used to be the linebackers coach. Maybe he’s pulling for Sean Spence. But they need to take a second look at Tyler Matakevich as Ryan Shazier’s replacement.
The Ugly Stuff
Yes, Spence has speed, and finished tied with Vince Williams with a team high eight tackles. He even had a sack against the Texans. However, he is a poor tackler, and even worse at shedding blocks. If you go back and watch the film both he and Sean Davis struggled against a mediocre offense. Both players were lucky enough to have Williams, or safety Mike Mitchell, near by to help get Texans players on the ground. Per Pro Football Focus’ rating system, a 50 grade is considered a poor NFL player. Spence’s overall grade is 32.1. He has the lowest grade I’ve ever seen at any position against the run; 27.6, and a 45.3 in coverage. To give some perspective, Shazier’s grade on the year was 84.7.
Davis, who’s started the whole season and made last year’s all-rookie team grades at 33. His coverage metric is 36.7 and his run defense metric is 35.1. He might not be the strong safety of the future. Robert Golden, who admittedly has a much smaller sample size, grades out at 74.2 – an average safety. The numbers don’t lie, these players aren’t playing bad, they’re playing extraordinarily bad.
On the flip side of the coin, Cameron Heyward remains unblockable. He finished with four tackles, two sacks and forced a fumble. Stephon Tuitt wasn’t quite as effective but still created havoc in the backfield, he had two tackles and a sack of his own. Mike Hilton, the Steelers slot corner had six tackles and half of them were sacks. Also, Joe Haden had a great game even though DeAndre Hopkins made a circus catch against him in the end zone. Haden seemed healthy in his return from a fractured leg.
All in all, the last eight quarters of Steelers football have been their most well-rounded of the season. The offense is hot, the defense is doing its job. It’s paid off too, the Steelers can get comfortable in Pittsburgh as they host the winless Browns in week 17. Then they enjoy a bye during the wildcard round of the playoffs before playing a home game again against the divisional round.
If the playoffs started today, the Steelers would have already played every team. Going 4-2 against their competition. The last time the Steelers had a bye in the playoffs was 2010, the last time they were in the Super Bowl. Hopefully history will repeat itself.
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