11 things ‘I think I think’ ahead of crucial SNF game between Steelers, Bills

Mike Tomlin holds weekly news conference (12/10/19)

PITTSBURGH — Can you believe the Steelers have the opportunity to take over the top wild-card spot in the AFC if they beat the Bills on Sunday night? Hard to believe this would be possible after a 1-4 start to the season. But this team has smiled in the face of adversity, won seven of their last eight games and could be one of the hottest teams in the league.

Team: It's how the Steelers have approached each week. Someone new, it seems, steps up in every win, which has led to the NFL flexing this showdown on WPXI. So here we go! 11 Things I Think I Think heading into Week 15.

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1. I think the Steelers will make the playoffs and they'll do it in a way they haven't in the Mike Tomlin era. So much of that time frame was centered around the Killer B’s and their high-octane offense, but what we've seen this season is almost the complete opposite. With Duck Hodges at quarterback, the Steelers have been ultra conservative, rightfully so, and leaned heavily on the defense, which makes complete sense. I believe the circumstances have forced the coaching staff to go outside their comfort zones and be creative. It also helps having a defense like they do, however they're coaching up and scheming that side of the ball, because they know, without the turnovers and "splash plays" none of this would be possible. They have the Bills, Jets and Ravens left on the schedule. Buffalo will be at home in prime time, which bodes well, and then the Jets, who are more likely to be interested in what beach they're headed to than win a game. And the Ravens, who likely will have the #1 seed locked up by Week 17. I feel good about this. And the Steelers will get back into the playoffs, as unlikely as it would've seemed when they began the season 1-4.

2. I think Tomlin is as confident as he's ever been as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I watched him come off the field in Phoenix the other day and he was completely silent. As we know, Tomlin is an extremely vocal coach, but there was nothing but satisfaction written all over his face. All he did was nod his head, up and down, as if to say, “Yeah, look what I've orchestrated.” The win over the Cardinals also secured his 13th-straight nonlosing season since taking over the Steelers in 2007. Tomlin is one of three head coaches in NFL history to begin a head coaching tenure with at least 13 consecutive nonlosing seasons. Coach of the year? Absolutely. Especially when the Steelers make the playoffs.

3. I think there's no question the Steelers success is courtesy of what's been a dominant defense. Sure, Hodges is making plays at the right time, but let's not get it twisted – it's all about the defense. They lead the NFL in sacks, QB hits and takeaways. Since the 1970 merger, only the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl IX champions have led the NFL in both sacks and takeaways in a full season. Yes, that was the Steel Curtain defense. Is the 2019 defense the "new" Steel Curtain? I don't know, but what they're doing is working. Since their 0-3 start, the defense ranks second in the NFL in points allowed per drive (1.26) and percentage of drives ending in touchdowns (13.8%). They have forced 33 turnovers in the team’s first 13 games, which leads the league. The 33 turnovers are the most for the Steelers over the first 13 games of a season since 1996. They also have at least one sack in 54 consecutive games, longest active streak in the NFL, and longest in the regular season in franchise history. The Steelers defense does it all and don't forget how young the core group is on that side of the ball.

4. I think Hodges continues to impress every time he steps foot in an NFL stadium. Tomlin praised Hodges for "sticking to the script" but also acknowledged his ability to be "thoughtfully aggressive" when the time comes to make a play at a big moment of the game. Look at the series before halftime that led to a field goal, or the way he bought himself time to convert a third down pass to Diontae Johnson that ultimately sealed the game. Those are attributes you can't teach. Hodges also became the first undrafted rookie QB to win his first three NFL starts since replacement player Ed Rubbert went 3-0 in the 1987 strike-season for the Washington Redskins. No, I'm not saying Hodges is the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger, but his underdog mentality fits perfectly for what's been a season where the Steelers are underdogs no matter how you slice it.

5. I think T.J. Watt's defensive player of the year resume continues to build with every game, but his dominance has helped the arrival, finally, of Bud Dupree. The fifth-year player is having a career season in sacks and tackles for loss. Before last season Dupree and Watt were flipped on which side they would play and it's paying off as they're only one of two linebacking duos in the league (Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith of Green Bay) with at least 9 sacks apiece – however they're the only linebacking tandem with at least 9 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 13 QB hits. Dupree was the 22nd overall pick in 2015 out of Kentucky and this just so happens to be a contract year. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it could also be the combination of healthy and experience that's led to the "light bulb" going off. Either way, Dupree paired with Watt is a duo that's wreaking havoc for opposing offenses and the Bills would be wise to find some way, if they can, of slowing the impact of those two Sunday night. But even though teams know Watt and Dupree are coming, few, if any, have been able to stop them.

6. I think the Steelers offensive numbers are eye-opening yet deceiving and quite honestly nobody should care. Pittsburgh is one of only four teams without a single 400-yard game on offense all year. They're 28th in the NFL in yards and on pace to amass nearly 2,000 less than last year (Roethlisberger led the league in passing in 2018). I agree, the yards can be alarming, but they're moving the ball in an adequate manner, they're just not scoring touchdowns. In fact, they only have 12 touchdowns over the last eight games, of which they've won seven. The Steelers are doing what they have to and running the football. Against the Cardinals, they ran the ball 35 times compared to 27 drop backs. Three straight games the run has been used more times than the pass. It doesn't have to be pretty, which Steelers games haven't been recently, but they're effective and that's all that really matters.

7. I think it's been neat to see the emergence of young guys step up while the Steelers are trying to piecemeal a game plan each and every week. Last week it was James Washington, and in Arizona Johnson had what he told me was the "breakout" game of his rookie season. He returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, the Steelers first since Antonio Brown in 2015, and earned the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors in the process. But Johnson didn't stop there. He also chipped in with six catches for 60 yards on eight targets, one of which went for a touchdown. Plus, he ran the ball once for 16 yards. On the latest episode of "Inside the NFL" on Showtime, Tomlin said, "We got ourselves a young gun" after Johnson's punt return for a touchdown. Make no mistake about it, the rookie can do things on the field that many can't. His skill set, after he was drafted, was compared to a young Antonio Brown. I'd imagine the Steelers would take that on-field production for the next 10 years if he continues to develop. What we saw Sunday may only be the beginning for Johnson.

8. I think Joe Haden is getting what he deserves. He's won more games (30) with the Steelers in two-plus years than he did his seven years in Cleveland (29). He's having arguably his best season since his rookie campaign with the Browns. Haden has four interceptions in 2019 and all of them have come in the last five weeks. Many have told me Haden is the guy that keeps the secondary "in check" throughout the week as they prepare for the upcoming team. He got paid in the offseason and deserves every penny. The addition of Steven Nelson on the other side has been the perfect complement for Haden at the cornerback position, but the most impressive part of what he's done is the ability to communicate with the rest of the secondary down in and down out. Joe Haden, another incredibly strong piece to this impressive defense.

9. I think the Bills are going to be an extremely tough team to beat Sunday night at Heinz Field. They're coming off a tough loss to the Ravens, but who doesn't get beat by Baltimore these days? The Ravens are legitimate Super Bowl contenders, so there's no shame. But with that being said, it's easy to see how Sean McDermott has changed the culture in Buffalo and winning is now the expectation. Similar to the Steelers, the Bills have a stout defense and an offense that makes plays when they need to. That defense is hard to throw against as they only allow 195 passing yards per game – and in that loss to the Ravens, held the league-best offense to just 225 total yards. Yeah, they're salty, but if there is a weakness, it's their run defense. Buffalo ranks 21st in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt. That fits right into what the Steelers want to do on offense these days. Meanwhile, the offense is still trying to find consistency behind second-year quarterback Josh Allen. He's the latest dual threat quarterback the Steelers have to deal with, but he's built like a brick you-know-what. He's twice the size of Kyler Murray and not afraid of contact. With the Patriots struggling at the moment, the Bills have a legitimate shot at the AFC title. Like I said, they'll be a tough out Sunday night.

10. I think the Steelers would benefit more from JuJu Smith-Schuster's return and not as much with James Conner. Tomlin said both have a possibility of playing Sunday after missing the last three games due to injury. Don't get me wrong, if they're both healthy they'll make a huge impact, but I'd like another receiving option for Hodges over the next few weeks. Benny Snell and the cast of running backs have been more than capable recently, but another receiving threat would be nice, especially with the uncertainty of Vance McDonald clearing concussion protocol in time for Sunday night.

11. I think “Sunday Night Football” is the marquee game each and every week, and whoever made the decision to flex the Steelers and Bills into prime time on WPXI knew what they were doing. Both teams are having fantastic and improbable seasons, and both have plenty on the line, pertaining to the result of this game. If you need reason for optimism, I'll leave you with this. Tomlin has guided the Steelers to an 18-11 record in Sunday night contests, including a 9-6 mark at Heinz Field in his tenure. He'll have his team motivated and press the right buttons as he has all season long and have this team prepared for the challenge at hand. If that's not enough for you, the Steelers will wear their "Color Rush" uniforms against the Bills, and they're 5-0 since their debut.

Enjoy the game and we’ll see you on the “Black and Gold Zone” countdown to kickoff Sunday at 6 p.m. ONLY on Channel 11.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin holds weekly news conference