Despite their road struggles, the Steelers have the talent to get to the Super Bowl. The defense has been stellar, and probably better than anyone outside the Steelers’ locker room expected it to be. DE Camer
on Heyward is back after a torn pectoral cost him the second half of last season. Heyward and LB Ryan Shazier lead a unit that ranked second in the NFL in fewest points allowed heading to the bye week.
Offensively, the Steelers have discovered an identity with a power run game and RB Le’Veon Bell doing the heavy lifting. QB
Ben Roethlisberger can still throw the ball deep down the field, and WR Antonio
Brown remains arguably the league’s best at his position. After Bell shook the rust of a training camp holdout and the veteran line got some live reps, both the run game and the offense as a whole took a big step forward.
The Steelers are hoping their shift to a run-first attack and the emergence of rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster will help Brown draw less defensive attention, even if it comes at the expense of his numbers. Bell can still score at anytime, as he can turn routine short throws into big gains.
The Steelers have the opportunity to secure a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The team’s remaining schedule make both viable goals. Player to watch: Smith-Schuster has adapted to the NFL game and the rookie has broken the NFL record for most touchdowns by a player before his 21st birthday. It’s about production, not age, and as the Steelers move Brown to the slot on occasion to try to get him free, Smith-Schuster should continue to see single coverage as well as opportunities to make big plays.
Number crunching: 5. The Steelers’ leader in sacks last season was ageless veteran OLB James Harrison with five. An edge-rush upgrade was needed, and rookie OLB T.J. Watt already has four sacks. Heyward and LB Vince Williams have also been active in opposing backfields, and the offense provides the defense plenty of opportunities to play with the lead and tee off on opposing passers.
Up next: Nov 12 at Indianapolis. The Steelers should be able to jog to the AFC North crown, so the second-half goal will be securing a first-round bye and homefield advantage in the playoffs. The offense thinks it can continue to improve, and it will be facing a defense that leads the NFL with 30.8 points allowed per game. QB Andrew Luck doesn’t appear close to returning, either.
Steelers’JuJu Smith-Schuster CHARLES LECLAIRE, USA TODAY SPORTS