PITTSBURGH — Football is coming fast and furious for the Pittsburgh Steelers and here they go into a Thursday night contest with their division rival, the Cleveland Browns, whose season is on life support, despite winning last week.
1. I think another game was played and Minkah Fitzpatrick keeps us in awe of what he's able to do on the football field. He recovered a fumble and scored. Oh, and he added another interception to his tally, which is, quite honestly, getting gaudy. He's the first Steelers player since 1984 with defensive touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. In his seven games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick has five INT's, two forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, and the team is 5-2. He's a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and somewhere Kevin Colbert is laughing at those who mocked him for sending a first-round pick to the Dolphins.
2. I think T.J. Watt also belongs in the discussion for the Defensive Player of the Year award with seven games left. Watt upped his sack total to 9.5 after getting to Jared Goff twice on Sunday. He's also forcing fumbles. He has four on the season. He's stopping the run. The outside linebackers are HUGE in the Steelers defense and he's no longer "JJ's little brother" but standing on his own merits. He's a stud and only getting better.
3. I think Joe Haden, age 30, is perhaps playing the best football of his career and that's saying quite a bit. He was all over the place against the Rams with FIVE passes defensed and an interception off Goff. He's getting targeted a lot by opposing quarterbacks, but he's holding up quite well. To me, it says they don't want any part of Steven Nelson, which is huge for the Steelers, and by being more involved defensively, for whatever reason, Haden is excelling. Let's hope his popping up on the injury report with an illness won't limit him Thursday.
4. I think Cam Heyward is perhaps the unsung hero on the Steelers defense. He played 69 of the 77 defensive snaps against the Rams and did nothing but produce. He had a sack, batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage, four quarterback pressures, three quarterback hits. On the season has 5.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and 19 pressures. He also uses his brute strength to collapse the pocket time and time again. See Jacoby Brissett's injury status. Heyward is doing this with more attention too now that Stephon Tuitt is out for the season due to injury.
5. I think the defense as a whole is playing at such a high level that many people believe the Steelers can not only get in the playoffs, but make a run because they're so dominant. They lead the NFL in sacks and yards per play in the NFL since Week 4. Credit Mike Tomlin. He's getting every ounce out of this group, and they need it.
6. I think Thursday will be an incredibly tough challenge for the Steelers, not only because of the short week, but the Browns may have found something offensively in their win over the Bills. Yea, I know, it's the Bills, however they added Kareem Hunt to the offense and he made his season debut after being out for eight games due to suspension. Nick Chubb is third in the NFL in rushing yards (919) and the initial worry for them was will Hunt's presence take away from Chubb's exceptional season to this point? And the answer is absolutely not. Chubb had 20 carries for 116 yards on the ground and did it with Hunt in the backfield at the same time. The Browns deployed the two-back set for 30 plays (45%) against the Bills and averaged 7.3 yards/play. That's pretty rock solid to have in your offensive arsenal especially with Baker Mayfield struggling to throw the ball. Hunt had 11 touches for 74 scrimmage yards. This will be a formidable challenge for the Steelers defense. Let's see if they can answer the latest call to step up.
7. I think this is the furthest I've gone into this weekly article and not mentioned the offense, but it's simply because the defense deserves the credit. Mason Rudolph, too, deserves credit for his performance against the Rams and a defense that has best player on that side of the ball in the NFL in Aaron Donald. He threw for 242 yards and a touchdown against the Rams and would've had more if there weren't four drops and a fumble by his skill position players. Randy Fichtner said it was his best game of "consistently making decisions and putting the ball in proper spots" and I couldn't agree more. Mason said he wants to be aggressive but, "In this situation, you gotta sometimes be smart and take what they give you." He's not coughing up the football, which is encouraging for any quarterback, let alone a second-year guy just trying to keep his head above water.
8. I think Tomlin's decision to go for it on fourth down & 1 yard, on their own 34-yard line, was the type of thing that could be the breakthrough for the Steelers offense. Why? Because they not only got the first down, but they marched down the field on a 14-play, 60-yard, 8-minute drive to kick a field goal that changed the way the Rams had to approach things offensively for the rest of the game. Tomlin said they had a lot of "significant plays at significant moments" and he's 100% right. There's a lot of nit-picking when it comes to this offense, but when the Steelers REALLY needed that unit to produce, they produced. To me, that's huge moving forward in terms of confidence.
9. I think the return of James Conner is going to pay massive dividends Thursday night. He was a full participant all week in practice and will be called upon in a big-time road division game. Nothing against Trey Edmunds, Jaylen Samuels or Tony Brooks-James, but they aren't the between-the-tackles type of runners, at least they haven't shown to be in the NFL, so having Conner in the backfield is going to be huge. The Steelers are 27th in the NFL in rushing and their 749 yards on the ground are the fewest they've ever had at this point in the season in the Mike Tomlin era. Conner needs to be able to produce and keep moving the chains in Cleveland.
>>RELATED: James Conner expected back vs. Browns
10. I think the Steelers are playing with house money when it comes to this season. Seriously. Look at all the injuries and departures they've endured and look where they are. As things stand, they're the sixth seed and the second Wild Card in the AFC playoff picture. Think about that. They have Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo and the Jets left on the schedule. Those teams are a combined 17-37-1. This team has everything ahead of them and can legitimately make some noise with the defense playing as well as they are.
© 2021 Cox Media Group