Is this team the real deal? What to look for ahead of Steelers vs Cardinals

Is this team the real deal? What to look for ahead of Steelers vs Cardinals

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 06: Devlin Hodges #6 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass during the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on October 6, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Let's say it together - Pittsburgh finished it. The Steelers' 20-13 win over the Cleveland Browns might be one of the most impressive wins in the Mike Tomlin era on many fronts, and that's what we'll get into this week. But here the Steelers are at 7-5 and in control of their playoff destiny.

1. I think Mike Tomlin deserves to be the NFL Coach of the Year. Mark it down. This is by far the most impressive season he's had in Pittsburgh because of all the adversity that's hit this team. First, you lose two of the most productive players in NFL history. Then you lose your future Hall of Fame quarterback six quarters into the season. Then the two guys (James Conner & JuJu Smith-Schuster) you have to replace those playmakers (Antonio Brown & Le'Veon Bell), are constantly hurt and in and out of the lineup. Then you lose your starting defensive tackle. Then you lose your captain, Maurkice Pouncey, to a two-game suspension. Then your "quarterback of the future" gets the yips and can't complete a pass. Then you have to play a guy who only made the team thanks to a rookie tryout back in May. And he goes out and does exactly what's needed. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the transformation of the defense under Tomlin's control. Mike Tomlin hasn't had a losing season in his tenure and it appears that streak will stay in tact despite a crazy 2019.

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2. I think Devlin 'Duck' Hodges is more than a great story for us in the media. This guy can play football and most importantly, he can win. Sure, he doesn't have the measurables, but he makes up for it with moxie and quick decision making. He just outdueled the No. 1 overall pick from 2018 and did it with much less talent around him. Think about that for a second. No stage has been too big for Duck and he does it with a smile on his face. His laid back personality, confidence and swagger resonate with this young Steelers offense. They thrive on it. And he deserves the chance he's getting to prove it against the Cardinals this Sunday.

3. I think the duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are the best outside linebacker tandem in the NFL. If there's a better pair, let me know. They were once again the best defenders on the field last week as they combined for eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble. Talk about production! Not sure why or how things have finally clicked with this pair, but you can bank on them to be difference makers each and every Sunday afternoon.

4. I think Benny Snell Jr. should remain the starting running back even if Conner is healthy. Which, by the way, Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Conner (shoulder) is questionable to play against the Cardinals. Snell rushed for 63 yards on 16 carries and scored his first career touchdown against the Browns. He has 279 rushing yards on the season, only 111 behind Conner. But the kicker is that he's done it with 37 fewer carries. Keep feeding the young fella.

5. I think T.J. Watt is a stud. He ranks first or second on the Steelers in sacks (12.5), tackles for loss (11), QB hits (27), forced fumbles (five) and fumble recoveries (three). His 27 quarterback hits rank second in the NFL, his five forced fumbles are tied for second, his 12.5 sacks are fourth and his three fumble recoveries are tied for fourth. He's also registered at least a half-sack in nine consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL. He's the first Steelers player with at least a half sack in 9 consecutive games since Lamar Woodley had a streak of 10 such games that spanned the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

6. I think James Washington is finally showing up in stadiums the same way he's shown during training camp and practices over the last year and a half. But I do find it odd he's doing this with Duck and not his college quarterback Mason Rudolph. Regardless, he's been the Steelers' leading receiver the last four games and had a career-high 111 yards against the Browns. His playmaking abilities are coming in tough conditions too. Just check out the touchdown against Cleveland. He was interfered with a few times but still managed to haul in the pass. He'll continue to be the top option as long as JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) is out, which Mike Tomlin said he's questionable for the Cardinals.

7. I think the defense is obviously the catalyst for the Steelers' success this season. They've won six of their last seven games but will be in for a huge challenge on the road this week. Yes, I know the Cardinals are only 3-8-1, but they feature a mobile quarterback, which the Steelers have struggled with in year's past. Mike Tomlin said 2019 No. 1 pick, Kyler Murray "runs a heck of a lot more than Baker Mayfield. Baker extends plays, this guy, he's got designed runs, he extends plays, he gets chunks of yards with his legs." I watched Murray play in high school back home in Dallas, where, by the way, he never lost a high school game. He's been a stud in every step of his career. Murray is the Cardinals leading rusher with 446 yards and outside of 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald, he doesn't have much talent around him. That doesn't mean he's not dangerous. Once the Cardinals get more weapons, Murray will be among the NFL's best at the position. But for this Sunday, the Steelers defense will be challenged to keeping him under wraps.

8. I think the Steelers' tight ends will be a big part of the offensive game plan against the Cardinals. "Well Chase," you might say, "They have been largely quiet for the majority of the season. Why this week?" Here's my answer. The Cardinals have given up league highs of 978 yards, 13 touchdowns and 49 first downs to tight ends this season. They're the only team to allow double-digit touchdowns to tight ends. The Steelers will still try to control the game with the run, but maybe pick up Vance McDonald or Nick Vannett on your fantasy waiver wires if you need someone. Or is this the week Zach Banner, reporting as eligible, will actually do more than block?

9. I think we should look at these defensive numbers because OMG. Over their last 10 games, the Steelers rank first in the NFL in takeaways (28), first in quarterback hits (78), first in passes defended (65), first in forced fumbles (13), tied for first in interceptions (15), tied for second in sacks (38), and tied for fourth in defensive touchdowns (3). They have also allowed 72.1 opposing passer rating (second), 58.8% completion percentage (second), 4.54 yards per play (second), four rush TDs (tied for second), 192.2 passing yards per game (third), 291.6 total yards per game (third), 17 touchdowns (tied for third), 16.4 points per game (fourth), 3.77 yards per rush (sixth) and 99.4 rushing yards per game (seventh). Basically, they're really, REALLY good.

10. Duck Hodges is the first undrafted rookie QB to win his first two NFL starts since Ed Rubbert did it for the Washington Redskins in 1987 when replacement players took the field during the 1987 NFL players' strike. Rubbert was the inspiration for Keanu Reeves character in "The Replacements." Hodges is the only rookie undrafted QB in a non-strike season to win each of their first two starts in the common draft era (since 1967). I wonder what kind of stats we can pull out after he wins his third straight start to begin a career?

11. I think we can't give this team, this organization enough credit for bouncing back from an 0-3 start. That ugly start seems like forever ago, but here they sit at 7-5 and the second wild card in the AFC playoff picture. It's the fifth time in franchise history they've started a season 0-3 and they've finished just one of those previous seasons with a winning record and failed to reach the playoffs in each of the previous four years. Maybe I'm looking through black and gold-colored glasses, but I think that streak comes to an end in 2019. I truly believe this team will make the playoffs. The Steelers have the Cardinals, Bills, Jets and Ravens left on the schedule, and three of those games will come on the road. It won't be easy, but nothing has been easy this season and somehow, some way this group plays its best football with adversity present. No matter what happens, the Steelers will go down fighting. They're incapable of anything else, thanks to the ultimate leader in Mike Tomlin.