5 Smoldering Questions on the Pittsburgh Steelers: Divisional Round Edition

BA639515-8ED8-47B6-B863-059E31BA4F1F.jpegPhoto via Steelers.com

The long, long bye week is over. Things are getting real. And that’s just for us, the faithful of Steeler Nation. I can’t imagine how real they’re getting down at the Southside, at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. And just like the Steelers, we have to keep our noses to the grindstone and our eyes on the prize, which at the moment is the prize of winning the Divisional Round. So buckle down, folks, and answer these 5 Smoldering Questions. Remember, how much work you put into it determines what you get out of it : )

1. Leonard Fournette, he whose running total back in Week 5 shall Not Be Named, has been said to have hit the rookie wall. Does this encourage you at all? Why or why not?

2. The Steelers also have a couple of rookies who are pretty important—notably T.J. Watt and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Do you see any signs of flagging in them, and if they aren’t (and Fournette is) what do you think is the difference?

3. The Ben Roethlisberger who threw five interceptions in the previous match looked nothing like the Ben Roethlisberger we saw the remainder of the season. To what do you attribute the difference?

4. And related to the previous question, by Week 5 Jacksonville had the No. 1 rated defense by any number of metrics, including the DVOA of Football Outsiders. They still do. How confident are you that the previous result was as much about the failings of the Pittsburgh offense as it was about the awesomeness of the Jacksonville defense?

5. If you were able to watch last week’s game between the Bills and the Jaguars (I, alas, was not*) what was the difference between the way the Bills’ defense and the Pittsburgh defense handled Jacksonville? Is the Buffalo defense’s approach something you think the Steelers’ defense can, to some extent, reproduce? Or do you think it doesn’t matter?

Bonus: If you’re a total masochist head on over to Steelers.com and watch Tunch Ilkin’s “Chalk Talk” episode in which he draws up all five interceptions and the 80-yard touchdown run (or perhaps it was 90—my doctor wouldn’t allow me to check). Not recommended if you have a weak heart, but interesting nonetheless.

*Although from what I hear I was spared…


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    1) It is the playoffs and walls are made to be broken. It will be up to the Steelers D to stop him, as I don’t think he will stop himself…though if it is a matter of him wearing out because he is a RB and is just not in condition to play this many games then he better get into a touch with a top notch fitness program in the off season or his coaches will be forced to limit his touches next year.

    You reminded me of the Rumpole of the Bailey series of books. Maybe I will have to dig them out and reread them again… as soon as I finish rereading Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series (I am at Wine Dark Sea atm).

    2) I don’t think our guys are flagging but Fournette will have bene taking quite a pounding due to his position. If anything holds him back, it will be the beating he is taking (normal enough for a RB).

    3) I never watched the Jags game so I cannot tell you.

    4) See 3 above.

    5) I didn’t see the game. If I am not able to catch all the Steelers games, I will be damned if I go out of my way to watch a game they don’t play in.


  • 1. It seems Fournette had some air about him of not being all in on football coming out of LSU since he was such a great college talent. Maybe that lack of dedication is affecting his conditioning. There is also some speculation that he has an ankle issue that needs to be resolved in the offseason (saw that on the JAX SBN page). I think that the pro season is just so much longer for rookies than even 2nd year guys. Rookies have bowls, combine, pro days, endless training to shave 1/10 of a second from their 40 times. It just seems a lot of them burn out toward the end of the NFL season when their bodies are used to being pretty much done with football for the year.

    2. I was wondering that about Watt a little a few weeks ago since he doesn’t seem to be as overly impactful as he had been. Although he’s been great for us, I just seem to recall thinking that he’s been just a step behind making a tackle on more than one occasion lately. Still, he did run down Flacco. JuJu had the benefit of being eased in to a starting role, and he has had 2 weeks off during the season. Maybe he was a little more rested, because he looks as energetic as can be.

    3. I think Ben had the drama queen game he needed in week 5. He was able to bring some “easy going” drama into his spotlight without it being a real detriment to the team. He then had something that he could point to as being better than, and he has been. Gotta love Ben, but I think he loves the drama too much some times.

    4. I believe in giving credit where it is due. The Jags had a great defensive game against us. They are definitely a premiere defense. We can’t take stats away from the game, but minus 2 pick sixes and the garbage time long Fournette TD, it was essentially a 9-9 game. Again, kudos to them for being the better team that day. It is no secret that our offense hasn’t consistently lived up to its lofty billing. That’s been changing, and I think we are actually firing on all cylinders finally (hate that phrase). Also, how many times during week 5 did you yell at the TV for them to run the damn ball? For some reason, their rush D is suspect. For some reason, cutey Haley decided to throw the heck out of the ball (even before the pick sixes if I recall correctly). Uh, if an opponent doesn’t do something well, keep making them work at it against you until they start to do it better. THEN CHANGE UP WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Ben had 55 attempts. That’s freaking stupid right there. Bell had 15 attempts. That’s freaking stupid right there. BTSC is sticking to the all Bell/Rosie all day line for Sunday’s game. I’m sticking to the balance line. Keep the O balanced (like you should against most opponents), and I think we’ll be fine.

    5. Not sure if I can come up with the difference between how the Bills handled them and how we did from a defensive stand point. I think the main difference was discipline. The Bills D was rarely too far out of what seemed to be their assignments for the most part. I seem to remember thinking that a lot of our guys were 1 or 2 lanes away from where the probably should have been. Bortles had several big runs against the Bills, but that’s because he took what the D gave him. Again, you can’t take away stats, but Fournette had 91 yards rushing without that 90 yard garbage time TD. JAX had 326 yards of total offense against us (236 without that run). I think that is the biggest thing that people are missing this week. They didn’t pound on us offensively, they took it away from us defensively.

    A little off the question list: Throw out the stats from the CLE game regarding our secondary. Most of the D said they were just winging it trying to get the sack record. I think that the Jags receivers aren’t a huge threat to our secondary, so we’ll be able to stack the box in a different manner than the Bills did. The Bills didn’t have as many turnovers as we did, so the Jags didn’t have a ton of short field starting drives. It was definitely a field position game that I think the Jags were losing for most of the game. Once time started to run out on them, the Bills tried to pass too much. Also, the Bills couldn’t punch it in from the 2 yard line early in the game because they tried to get cute throwing. Uh, McCoy is one of the better backs in the league, and the Jags run D isn’t great. Maybe do what they’re expecting and try to pound it in from that distance. Finally, If the Bills QB had the talent to hit some of the wide open throws he missed, it would have been a vastly different game. That is obviously where the main difference of this game will be. Ben is a vastly superior QB to Taylor. Our offense as a whole is a vast upgrade over anything that Buffalo had to throw out there at every single position. I doubt the game is a blowout, but I do think we win by at least a TD. Ben will be smarter, Bell will be rested, and I hope to hell that Haley doesn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express.


    • In regard to the playcalling, Tunch Ilkin thought that Ben checked out of run plays when he saw single coverage on Brown and Bryant, so it isn’t clear that Todd Haley should be blamed for the 55 passing attempts…


  • full disclosure, this is one of the few games in the early part of the season that was not primetime in New England so I had to go to a local hangout to watch. I left at half time. It was ugly and they still had the lead when I could see the writing on the wall. As I think about it now, it was a lot like the Wild Card game jags- buffalo. Ugly, just ugly!

    That said, I am confident for this weekend because the guys that were showing up early in the season on offense were but shells of themselves. The Jags D is for real but it won’t stop this O.

    On to Rebecca’s Questions:

    1. His production may be somewhat a reflection of conditioning due to the long season (relative to college) but I tend to think it’s more to do with the film that is available. Early in the season, first year players are a blind spots for D coordinators but by the time you get to January, what you had for breakfast is out there and available for study. It gives me comfort that the Steelers coaches have probably assumed they were facing Jacksonville for at least two weeks. They will have the team ready for him and the things they like to do on offense. His slump continues.

    2 The ability to know your opponents tendencies are always beneficial, I would say especially regarding TJ. Juju on the other hand has shown that he has been paying attention to AB. He is creative, he doesn’t stop moving and Ben trusts him. Rookie or not, it comes down to whether Juju out works the guy trying to defend him and so far, he’s been pretty effective at that.

    3. GOOD QUESTON! My son can attest to the fact that during those first 5 games, I kept asking myself, him and anyone else within shouting distance why his throws were so off target. Occasionally, such as when Bryant would pull up or get lost, you could attribute the off target through to the receiver, not the QB. That wasn’t clearly the issue in all cases however. It’s as though the real Ben Roethlisburger “stood up” after that dismal display. I know some will say its the play calling and the relationship with Haley, its the lack of using the no-huddle………… It’s probably a little bit of all of that and the simple fact that he needed to get in a rhythm. If so, is there rust this week? I sure hope not.

    4. I think it’s entirely possible we underestimated them in week 5 but I for one am glad they are so highly rated. How many times through the years have we seen Ben dismantle a player or D after we listened to the talking heads all week about how awesome they were. I don’t think we score 40 or 50 but when facing a team who is lucky to score 20, you don’t have to.

    5. As noted above, I was not happy or entertained in October so I don’t know what happened in the second half except the highlights which was mostly of Ben throwing interceptions. That said, according to stats and a few PG articles, the defense did a decent job on them in the first game but the 14 points on pick 6’s was too much to overcome so I attribute the late 90+ yard run by fournette to the D either giving up or they were taking chances to get a turnover. Either way, even without Ryan, there is no way they score enough to beat the Steelers if the offense shows up at all.



  • 1. I don’t know if Fournette has hit a rookie wall or not. It’s certainly possible. He’s also been hampered by nagging injuries, I believe. Maybe that comes from constantly running into walls of defenders; Fournette had the 4th most carries per game in the league and was going against 8 or 9 man fronts as much as anybody because Bortles throwing the ball is a good thing as far as most defenses are concerned. I think all of those combine to explain why Fournette has averaged over 4 yards per carry only twice in his last 8 games and has been held under 3 yards per carry in over half of those games. Whatever the reason, I’m cool with it.

    2. Statistically, Watt’s production seems to be pretty constant throughout the season, with a few more plays early in the season probably because teams were testing the rook. I don’t see any real evidence of a rookie wall for him, and with his passion and dedication to the game I think he would probably laugh at the idea of a rookie wall and say he would play football year round if he could. Juju definitely hasn’t hit any wall, he’s just getting better. With AB out for the past 3 games (almost), Juju has averaged 8 catches for 111 yards per game, WR1 numbers. He’s showing his ability to adjust to the ball and catch in traffic are as good as advertised and his speed is better than advertised. That deep catch against Cleveland looked like him making up for a lack of speed by his strength and coordination at the catch point, but he had actually blown by the CB and would’ve caught it on the run two steps ahead of the CB if Jones hadn’t underthrown him. It was really a fantastic play that showed he can both get behind the CB on a go route with his speed and also adjust to a poorly thrown ball (unlike Bryant or Wallace, and a trait that QB’s love to see). Having established he can move the chains, and that he can take a slant to the house, he’s now added “solid deep threat” to his resume as he just keeps getting better and better. As much fun as he has on the field, I’d imagine he’d probably play all year if he had the chance too.

    3. Ben was throwing the ball as well as ever early this season. In the first half of the season, we played @CLE, @KC, @BAL, and vs. CIN in rematches from 2016 and Ben’s passer rating was substantially higher this year in each of those games. In each of those games, you could point to incredible pinpoint passes like him dropping a lob on the run right into Brown’s hands in the middle of triple coverage against the Ravens, a game which was one of the best of his career in Baltimore. His statistical totals were low because we were playing a lot of games on the road against good defenses while Bryant dealt with serious rust and Juju and McDonald were still learning our offense. The bad game against Jacksonville was bad decisions combined with bad luck. Haley and Roethlisberger didn’t respect the Jags defense, which hadn’t fully established their legitimacy yet in week 5, dialing up a pass heavy attack, and we got burned by some bad bounces and bad luck, a tipped ball INT, a tripped WR INT, and two INT’s that were 50/50 balls lost, two INT’s that got returned for TD’s when they probably should’ve been tackled that put us behind where we had to continue passing.

    4. Put it this way. Jacksonville intercepted Kizer twice, Tom Savage 1 time,Rivers 1 time, Gabbert 1 time, Garoppolo 1 time, Mariota 1 time in 2 games, Dalton zero, Brisset zero the first time, twice the next. They intercepted 10% of Roethlisberger’s passes in week 5, but on the season they’ve intercepted only 4% of opponents’ passes. Roethlisberger is not dramatically worse a QB than all these guys; actually, he’s dramatically better than most of them. Five interceptions is a fluke no matter how good you are. You have to be darn good to put yourself in a position to get 5 picks even with the help of great luck, and the Jags defense is very, very good against the pass, but they also got real lucky against us. They’re a defense that’s good enough to intercept 4% of an average QB’s passes typically, which is to say that in 50 pass attempts you should expect them to pick off 2 on average – anything beyond that is our mistakes and bad luck.

    5. I did watch the game, and there wasn’t a substantial difference. Keep in mind, Bortles completed only 8 of 14 passes for 95 yards against us in week 5. and half of Fournette’s 180 yards came on one play in garbage time. We’re as able as anybody to keep Jacksonville from moving the chains. Our only concern defensively is not giving up chunk plays so many times this season due to missed tackles and blown coverage assignments.


  • 1. An encouraging rookie wall? I find it encouraging that our D minus 50 got an extra bye week of practice while Fournette for went a bye week. Yes please forgive my marginal English. I have hit a posting wall it seems. Has Jacksonville’s OL had any late season changes?

    2. More walls. As was pointed out byothers JuJu had the two games off and lightly used in Sep so NA as to hitting a rookie wall. Watt comes from football royalty. OK that might be a little much but I believe fully JJ has his little brother fully prepared. Part of such prepation is for winter football and the longer season.

    3. I think the whole Offense is more in synch/timing with each other the longer the season goes on. For this I blame the very limited practice times in the CBA. For that matter I think our D and the Pats O & D has shown the same trend. As to specifically the five interceptions, any trend has some ups and downs.

    4. Playing below trend is much easier against the top Defense. That said we only lose this game if we beat ourselves.

    5. I did not watch last week. As poorly as Bortles plays we obviously 8 in the box with a ninth nearby. With our census at LB I would use four defensive linemen a good portion of the time.


  • 1. Fournette is all they have. He’s had eight in the box and a bullseye on his back all year long. That, and defenses have had a chance to do extensive film study. He’s damn good, but he’s beat up, and the element of surprise is gone.

    2. Pro football is TJ’s family business. The word from day one in camp was they’ve NEVER seen a rookie so well prepared. He knew what to expect and was prepared. Yeah, some weeks are more productive than others, and guys DO get tired, but this kid skipped his rookie year and went directly to veteran status, so there’s no rookie wall for him to hit. Also, he grew up in Pewaukee and played his college ball in Madison, so December and January Ice Bowl Football is not anything new to him. For JuJu, the injuries that held him out in camp, his slow start, and that week of unfair enforced vacation have limited his wear and tear. Plus he kept in shape by riding his bicycle to work until Burfict stole it.

    3. Did you ever have a day when everything went wrong? Everything? Well, Ben did. Two of the five picks were deflections. Bryant was clearly sub-optimal. Juju was still very much a green rookie and No Hands Vance was still getting acclimated to a new team and new offense. They fell behind, and Ben tried to get them out of the hole all by himself. He ended up in the Pit of Misery.

    4. JAX is the one team in the league that can best stop AB. Their young secondary may be the best in the NFL in terms of talent. These guys go after picks and fumbles like a bunch of hungry dogs after a bone. In the first game, they crowded the box and took away Bell in the first half, going one-on-one against AB and Bryant. And their cover corners were excellent enough to pull it off. Do not underestimate them. The difference this time is the Steelers have more arrows in their quiver, with Juju and McDonald, etc;

    5. First, the Bills held the football more than eight minutes on one drive in the first half, and they had a huge advantage in time of possession before the intermission. When you possess the football and keep moving it forward, as Chuck Noll once said, good things will usually happen. Second, Buffalo was more physical and had better control of the line of scrimmage than the Steelers did against JAX. But, when it counted, Buffalo was unable to stop Bortles from scrambling for critical first down yardage. Just like the Steelers have had problems with Kiser and other QB’s from scrambling for first downs. Keeping in their lanes and putting pressure on Bortles is key, and the linebackers will make or break the defense this week. If Bud Dupree shows up, it’s all good. But wait for Alvin has been like Waiting for Godot. Or the Great Pumpkin.


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