PITTSBURGH — And we're off to the second half of the 2019 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers at 4-4, right in the mix for the playoffs despite taking it on the chin from the start.
Unbelievably the "standard is the standard" has held true where it matters most - wins. Here's this week's "11 Things I Think I Think" heading into a Sunday afternoon matchup with the Los Angeles Rams.
1. I think I'm going to state the obvious, but the Steelers' red zone efficiency is absolutely terrible. I had no clue just how bad until I dug though the numbers. They've dropped from 73.47% (first in the NFL) in 2018, to 38.10% (28th in the NFL) this season. It's a miracle they're on a three-game winning streak with numbers like that. I asked offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner what the biggest issue he has with his struggling offense and he said "situational football" and proceeded to talk for nearly two minutes about how they can't punch it in the end zone for six once they get inside the 20-yard line. There are many reasons why the numbers have dropped. Just pick one. No Ben Roethlisberger. No Antonio Brown. No James Conner. Yeah, he's hurt again. A prime example of lack of execution was last week against the Indianapolis Colts. David DeCastro pulled to the left and all Trey Edmunds had to do was follow him and he would've walked into the end zone. Instead, Edmunds cut it back inside and was met by a cluster of white jerseys. It's all in the details and the Steelers had better clean it up quick.
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2. I think we're on the verge of seeing Brown-like "popping off" from JuJu Smith-Schuster and I really hope I'm wrong. JuJu's numbers are drastically down from a season ago and the frustration is starting to show. When asked how he can get more involved in the offense he responded, "I don't know. You just have to throw the ball my way." That was the first time he's not "said the right thing" in my opinion about the offense's struggles. He basically threw Mason Rudolph under the bus and didn't take any accountability of his own shortcomings. How about catch the ball when it IS thrown your way? And not let it go right through your hands and into the opposing defense's hands for an interception. How about don't fumble away a game your quarterback had already won? How many times has JuJu done that in his career? Three by my count. I did a piece earlier this week on JuJu and asked, is he fighting through double teams? Or is Rudolph not getting him the ball? I think both are true, but when the ball DOES go his way, he can't waste the opportunities.
3. I think Rudolph is doing as well as he can, in spite of the circumstances in which he's been placed. If you recall 2004, Roethlisberger's rookie season, he, too, was handled with kid gloves when it came to the offense they ran. I think it's being pounded into his head over and over and over to not give the ball away. He has four interceptions and three of them weren't his fault. Does he go through his progressions fast enough? Probably not, but it will come with time. We forget, but he's only started five games in the NFL. He's recorded a passer rating of at least 81.4 in each of his six appearances, tied for the fourth-longest active mark in the NFL. He also is the fifth quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to have an 81.4 passer rating and throw a TD in each of his first five career starts. Relax. He's getting better.
4. I think I can't say enough about Minkah Fitzpatrick. Man, what a stud! He has four interceptions, three in the past two games, a forced fumble and what about that 96-yard touchdown return. What can't he do? I'll hang up and listen.
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5. I think Minkah's presence allows everything else to fall into place on the Steelers' defense. I asked Terrell Edmunds how he helps and he told me, for him personally, that he doesn't have to worry about anything behind him. He can be in the box, one-on-one and focus on his own job. That's the beauty of Fitzpatrick. He's so smart and can cover so much ground, everyone else can focus on what they do best because they know the back end is in good hands. I think I've said it every week since he's been here, but he is worth every bit of that first-round pick the Steelers sent to Miami.
6. I think you had better appreciate Bud Dupree while he's still in Pittsburgh. With the level of play he's showing on a week-to-week basis, his days in the black and gold are limited to these final eight games. The reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week is an unrestricted free agent and he's about to get paid! He's already matched his career high in sacks in eight games and whether he's motivated by a big payday or the light bulb has finally gone off, enjoy what he does every Sunday, because he could be gone before you know it.
7. I think the defense has to keep doing what they're doing if the Steelers have a chance at getting back into the playoffs. They've forced 22 turnovers (second in NFL) through eight games. This is the most during the Mike Tomlin era (since 2007) and their 29 sacks (fifth in NFL) are the fifth most in team history since 1982 when the sack became an official stat. Yeah, keep doing that.
8. I think Tomlin is having perhaps his best season as head coach of the Steelers. Alejandro Villanueva told ESPN, "Since I've been here, this is the best of Mike Tomlin. From a leadership standpoint, from an ability to motivate his players and get the best out of the current circumstances. Awesome." You have to acknowledge he and the team have been dealt a crummy hand when it comes to this season, but his ability to navigate this team through the AB drama, losing Roethlisberger, the poor start to the season, more injuries, Tomlin has thrived. It's never to be a smooth ride, but you can't help but applaud his ability to get the most out of what he has at his disposal. The Steelers are in the mix for the playoffs with all of the adversity and these players will run through a wall for him. I see it on a daily basis when I'm at the team's practice facility. They love him and you should, too.
9. I think I want to gush about Minkah Fitzpatrick a little more. And it's because of what his teammates are saying about him that makes me appreciate what he's done in such a short time with the Steelers. "It's working," Terrell Edmunds told The Athletic. "Minkah is a good football player. I'm glad we got him. He's a legit No. 1, and we're going to ride him." You can tell they appreciate what he brings to the defense, as they should, because he's completely transformed that group and kept the team afloat after losing it's future Hall of Fame quarterback.
10. I think this is a crucial stretch of the schedule for the Steelers. They have four games in 17 days. And then five of their final seven games are on the road. Practice has been shortened by a good margin this week as Tomlin is trying to keep his team as fresh as possible. It's worked getting his team back to .500. We'll see how they fare in the second half of the season.
11. I think we're in for a treat of a football game Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. The Los Angeles Rams and Aaron Donald come to town and both teams need a win to stay relevant in the playoff race. It's Donald's first game in Pittsburgh as a professional and, for what it's worth, will be a nice homecoming for a guy who has done so much for this community. I hope he gets a nice welcome from Steelers fans. He deserves it. As for the game, both defenses are playing lights out right now and it will be fun to see how each offense approaches their game plans. The Rams offense has been largely underwhelming through the first half of the season and the Steelers? Well, I think I've covered many of their issues at the top of this article. It's going to be fun. For Steelers fans 4:25 p.m. Sunday can't get here fast enough!
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