On Sunday, Lambeau Field will host a Super Bowl XLV reunion between the Packers and Steelers. Neal Coolong (@NealCoolong) of Behind the Steel Curtain was kind enough to answer some questions about the Steelers and provide some insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: After a 2-6 start, the Steelers find themselves back in the race for the AFC North albeit on the periphery. What changed for Pittsburgh, and how well are they playing at this time?
As trite as this sounds, they stopped completely sucking. While the allowance of big plays has been a significant issue for this team all season, many of them came early, and pretty much all of them came in losses. This team hasn't been great (I don't think anyway) in any one game this season, but early on, the presence of "bad" vastly outweighed the presence of "good."
At the same time, and the Packers would probably know this as well as anyone, it can be tough to recover from injuries to key players. There are injuries to starters, and there are injuries to starters who don't have a reliable back-up. The Steelers didn't make a decision on Jason Worilds or Jarvis Jones until after midseason but Jones, for the time he was in there, played like a rookie. Vince Williams is not a capable every game NFL starter as a rookie, but he's played significant snaps this year. Shamarko Thomas was this team's nickel back for a spell, and...yep, he played like a rookie. The maturation of those players as well as the development of chemistry between those around them has definitely been obvious since the horrifying 0-4 start, but as you can see, clearly, they were all fatal wounds early in the year.
APC: Mike Tomlin recently discussed the team's decision to draft Le'Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy. Based on what you've seen, which running back would you rather have suiting up on Sunday in black and gold?
I can't say I'd be bummed with either one right now. At the same time, Bell has played 11 games in his career, and Lacy has played 13. Neither has ventured far into their pro careers, to put it mildly. Long way to go before my opinion can be truly formed.
From what I've seen of both, Bell is a more advanced pass receiver, which is an area of his game we've seen the largest increase in competency this year. Lacy has more power and is probably a better runner, particularly between the tackles.
I'd probably take the same route as Tomlin; I'm happy enough with the guy the Steelers have. I think both are poised for great careers, but suggesting one is leaps and bounds ahead of the other is ridiculous. Give the edge to Lacy now, but there's plenty to suggest Bell can have a 150 all-purpose yards a game kind of season next year. Tough to get upset about that.
APC: In his first year as the undisputed number one receiver, Antonio Brown has compiled over 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns. How much of his success is due to playing with Ben Roethlisberger, and how much do you credit to Brown individually?
Brown has boatloads of talent as a receiver. You won't find one in the game who gets in and out of breaks as quickly as Brown does, and that has earned him the amount of targets he's gotten this year.
He's as fluid a route runner as there is in the NFL, and his production shows that. While there's certainly no complaints about Roethlisberger as a passer, Brown has great all-around ability - he can run all routes at all distances, and he's caught deep balls, as well as being the team's primary option in their short-throw-running-game (which is what teams that struggle running between the tackles do).
The Steelers have had lots of individually outstanding receivers over the last 20 or so years. In fact, Brown is 91 yards away from breaking Yancey Thigpen's single season receiving yards record. Many of those receivers have had the benefit of a quarterback who's had some success, but when you start talking about the 1,300 yard and 100 catch range, it's clearly the result of two outstanding football players.
APC: If you were game planning against the Steelers, how would you attack them on offense? How about on defense?
Judging by recent history, I'd run a stretch option to the offensive right side on one of the first few plays when I had the ball. The Steelers have struggled to learn how to defend that one in recent weeks. Then I'm going to spread the field and try to isolate seam and drag routes, force them to stay in zone and try to get receivers at or around Vince Williams. When he comes off the field, and Troy Polamalu, the 215-pound inside linebacker moves down to replace him, I'm going to attack deep crossing patterns, and force communication between the cornerbacks and the safeties to be precise.
When I was defending them, I'd bring inside pressure on pretty much every snap. I want to test C Cody Wallace on every play. Overload him, stunt him, try to get him confused and leaning. The Steelers will use a bubble screen out of an audible if they read that inside blitz, and I'm pretty much going to have to play man on the outside. That's a dangerous proposition, but so is playing in Week 16 with your third starting center of the season. Pittsburgh's offense has improved quite a bit over the last several games, and it's a dangerous strategy, but to slow Roethlisberger down, I've got to get at his feet. Coming from the side only gives him a chance to escape. No quarterback is as good when his timing is off, so cut off his runway to throw by getting at his feet. Best way to do that is to run straight over the weakest link on the line.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Who wins this Sunday and why?
Since I can't possibly pick against the Steelers if this is something I'm planning to post on my own site, and since I just described in detail two particular strategies the Packers can execute at a high level, it's hard to provide an adequate reason behind such a prediction.
I will say this, though...I'm wrong with a lot of these picks and predictions (pretty sure I'm the guy who had Washington in the NFC championship game). Logic dictates this will be a high-scoring game. So I'll say it's a low-scoring affair in which the Steelers pull out a last-second win by virtue of a Shaun Suisham 42-yard field goal - the same distance he should have been allowed to kick against Miami at the end of the first half, but wasn't, because it's ok for Dolphins special teams coordinators to hit officials.
We'd like to thank Neal and Behind the Steel Curtain for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Steelers. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game day coverage of Steelers vs. Packers.
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