With the Colts facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with Behind the Steel Curtain's Neal Coolong about the Steelers and this Sunday's matchup. The questions are in bold and then Neal's responses follow.
1. There's been a lot of talk about how this isn't anywhere close to the Steelers defense of old. What is your assessment of the defenses play so far this season, and perhaps more importantly, how much hope is there for a turnaround either this season or in the near future?
My assessment is this is not anywhere close to the Steelers' defense of old. I do think there are better days ahead, and we saw glimpses of it during an excellent defensive performance in the second half of the team's 30-23 win over the Texans Monday. The biggest issue, in my mind, has been the inconsistent performance of the team's front seven. Sometimes it's deficiencies at defensive end, sometimes it's with the lack of edge pass rush coming from the outside linebackers, and sometimes it's a collective failure of all of them to line up properly. The team has added a lot of new pieces over the last two years, and those pieces haven't come together yet.
And I'm not letting the secondary off the hook here, either. As a group, it hasn't played tight, aggressive coverage, and in doing that, they've missed tackles and allowed yards after the catch. Teams for a few years now have been attacking them by simply waiting at the line of scrimmage before the snap to see what they're doing, then adjusted their play to that. They've been taking quick throws away from danger and been patient enough with it to simply take gains as opposed to huge chunks, and not risk the sacks and turnovers that used to come frequently in this defense. Now, I believe they are still the lowest takeaway producing defense in the NFL over the last three years (and I believe Indianapolis is the second-lowest). They're currently on pace to record the least amount of sacks of any Steelers defense in the 16-game schedule era.
Some of it is caused simply by the evolution of the rest of the league. The Steelers (and Colts as well) enjoyed a huge amount of success overall during the 2000s, and this was a time in which we didn't see nearly as many multiple defenses as we see now. Before around 2008 you saw Bill Belichick's and Rex Ryan's varied 3-4 and 4-3 defense, and that was about it. Now it seems like every team does something like that, and in it, when Joey Porter (NFL All Decade Team in the 2000s) used to be a third round pick and James Harrison (2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) used to be undrafted, talented edge rushers aren't scheme-specific anymore. Projects like Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo wouldn't have been taken in the first round, let alone the top 10. The Steelers used to feast on that bountiful supply of athletic edge players because very few other teams were drafting them. Now everyone is. So instead of Porter going somewhere in the 90s range, they're getting Jarvis Jones with the 17th overall pick (all due respect to Jones, he's not half the athlete Porter was coming out of college). Add in the fact you can't give up next to nothing to the Chiefs to move up from 29 to 16 to draft Troy Polamalu, and you don't have a Man Among Boys nose tackle in Casey Hampton (also draft in the bottom portion of the first round) or strong developmental defensive ends in their primes (Aaron Smith, a fourth round pick and probably the best 5-technique DE in Steelers history, and Brett Keisel, an excellent player in his prime, taken in the seventh round), things are going to eventually move away from the consistently dominant level of defense this team used to play.
I'm rambling. If it doesn't change soon, I'm gonna start dropping "back in MY day," and "Get off my lawn!" on you.
Simply put, we've seen some positives recently, but overall, it hasn't been good.
2. The offense has three big name players - Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. Outside of those three, who is a player that Colts fans should be aware of on Sunday?
I'm not sure you'd really want to see more than that. Between the three of them, they're capable of moving the ball at a prolific level on the field. Unfortunately for the Steelers, though, those three have largely been it the last few weeks. Seems spoiled of fans to ask for more than an outstanding quarterback combined with two All Pro-level players at the running back and wide receiver positions, but more than anything, the issues they've had on offense are caused by a lack of efficiency in the red zone. Monday is a good example of that. Considerably fewer yards than average, but 1-for-7 combined in the red zone in two games against Jacksonville (17-9 win) and Cleveland (31-10 loss). Seven trips, one touchdown. That kind of kicker stats-inflation should be borderline criminal. They get in there twice against Houston, and granted, they ran 2-point conversion plays while there (not sure how sustainable a strategy of reverse passes thrown by Brown really is), they got in the end zone.
Point being...I'd call Colts' fans attention to what looks like the return to starting lineup for Mike Adams, the team's deposed left tackle from 2013. Many feel his highest and best use is on the right side, and starting RT Marcus Gilbert left Monday's game with a concussion, and may not play Sunday. He dealt with a good amount of J.J. Watt after coming in for Gilbert not even halfway through the game, and did reasonably well, considering he's J.J. Watt. We'll see how the Colts attack him, and I suspect they'll want to bring a lot at him early and often.
Also, keep an eye on rookie WR Martavis Bryant. He had his first two NFL catches Monday, including a 35-yard touchdown on his first one. A very raw route-runner, but incredibly athletic, and very much a one-trick pony kind of guy right now. But it's one helluva trick, and if he dresses again (I can't see him not being active for this game), they're going to try to get him the ball deep once or twice, as 6-foot-4 guys with low 4.4 speed tend to be seen as difference-makers in today's game.
3. What is the opinion of Mike Tomlin among Steelers fans? Is it safe to say that he's really on the hot seat?
First, let's establish there's a world of difference between fans' opinions on whether a coach is on the proverbial "hot seat" and whether he actually is. According to fans, Mike Tomlin should have been fired years ago, and every coordinator he's ever had work with him should have been immediately incarcerated with the charge of "he's terrible!" branded into their chests.
A boiled down approach to it is this team has, in some estimation, underachieved, but like I was saying before about the outside linebacker position, Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones are no Joey Porter in 2005 and James Harrison in 2008. They don't have Troy Polamalu of 2010 anymore. Steve McLendon is solid, he's no Casey Hampton. The issue here isn't that Tomlin can't coach worth a damn it's the Steelers aren't currently blessed with strings of absolutely disgustingly productive drafts anymore.
Let's assume this team continues its current trend of W, L, W, L, W, L for the remainder of the year, and they join the rare group of average teams who win eight and lose eight for three consecutive years (not sure if that's ever happened because no one cares enough about 8-8 teams to look it up). I think what you're going to see is a few position coaches not returning (I'd even go as far as to say, right now, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake will be advised to take a college offer he may get come December, much like former wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery did and like former offensive line coach Sean Kugler did, but those are sore subjects in Steeler Nation). You may see a coordinator not returning. I don't think it's Tomlin yet, but the notion the Steelers will stick with their head coach through everything is a misnomer, and one I don't believe has been challenged in 14 years.
At the end of Bill Cowher's three-year run of mediocrity, the team reined back some control over things, and they made aggressive moves among their coaching staff. The team also finished 13-3 in 2001. If Tomlin's Steelers finish their third consecutive year at .500, logic would dictate part of saving his job would be a double-digit win season in that fourth year. That said, I don't think Tomlin's job is in jeopardy, but this isn't the same league, it's not the same team and it's not the same front office. Part of coaching is winning, sure, but I feel a bigger part is the manner in which a team is preparing, growing and executing. The 2000 Steelers missed the playoffs, but they won five games in a row at the end of the year, and missed out on the postseason - where I feel they would have made some major noise because of a defense that flat-out dominated those last five games - on a tiebreaker. That's a team that was growing fast at the end of the year, and could be projected to stay on course and have a big season the following year.
Are we seeing that right now with the Steelers? Will we see that at the end of this year? I can't answer that, but I guarantee you Tomlin will have to. Why we can just assume he has the greatest job security in the history of sports is beyond me. Tomlin's a successful coach, but he ain't no Chuck Noll, and he may not even be a Bill Cowher. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but the bottom line is wins and preparation.
4. With what you know of the Steelers, how would you expect them to attack the Colts this Sunday?
What we know is they seem incapable of playing two solid games in a row. I do feel they have some nice match-ups against a very good Indianapolis team, and the visitors pretty clearly have the better overall squad. But this game today is really all about the individual match-ups. I think a receiver like T.Y. Hilton will tend to struggle against a defense largely predicated on the desire to eliminate the big play, and I think that caves in the Colts' biggest strength - that awesome down-the-field passing ability. I also think Andrew Luck is a remarkably talented passer who's going to have success in any sort of offense.
I would think the Steelers will continue to blitz the way they do, but they're going to do it more from the inside. I see a decent offensive line in Indianapolis, not a dominant one, and the Steelers can scheme up some pressure. It's just too important to get in Luck's face. He's a completely different passer when he's seeing pressure, so I think the secondary is going to have to press a bit more than usual, and try to clog a passing lane or two to buy that extra second necessary for a pass rush to land. Ultimately, though, Luck is going to make plays, so offensively, I think they're gonna have to try to get the ball down the field a bit more but in doing that, they need Need NEED to control possession. They need to stay consistent in running the ball, and try to wear down an excellent Colts' defense.
This could be the best team the Steelers play this season.
5. How would you expect the Colts to attack the Steelers?
The wild card here is the unexpected strength of the Colts' running game. I honestly think Indianapolis is going to draw up a game plan more based on establishing the run and trying to open up the seam to throw to their wonderfully talented pair of tight ends (I want them. Please send them to Pittsburgh). Luck will do what Luck does, but I get the sneaky suspicion we're talking about a player other than Luck after the game. And when I say "we" I mean "Not CBS or ESPN."
Defensively, I think they'd be wise to bring multiple rushers over Adams, and force the Steelers to stay big. The Texans did a great job of this, to the point the Steelers were using tight end Heath Miller as a tackle because they continuously brought Watt inside, leaving an edge rusher with Miller 1-on-1. Miller got whipped, as most tight ends will, given that match-up, but it also took Miller out of the passing game almost entirely. The Colts will want to do that, and probably can, given the amount of pass rushers they utilize. Granted, none of them draw the same level of command Watt does, but it also helps get a player in a good spot to attack the Steelers' inside zone running scheme from the side, which is where Bell tends to go after reaching the line of scrimmage.
I see a lot of very interesting match-ups, and I think this has the potential to be an excellent game.
Bonus: What's your prediction for the game?
I hate predicting games, but since I get a bonus for it...I think the Steelers just aren't enough of balanced team to stay with Indianapolis over four quarters. I think they'll make it interesting, but in the end, Indianapolis will pull away. Colts 27-Steelers 17.
Thanks again to Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain for taking the time to answer these questions!
Editor's Note: FanDuel is hosting a $500,000 one-week fantasy football league this weekend. It's $10 to join and first place wins $40,000. League starts Sunday 1 PM ET and ends on Monday night. Here's the link.