By Jeremy Hritz
What a difference two games can make?
I have been critical of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense this year. The dearth of sacks and interceptions, combined with the inability to stop the run created for poor showings that resulted in losses against the Oakland Raiders and the Tennessee Titans. While the turnovers and sacks have not come in bunches in the last two games, the performance of the defense has been markedly improved.
Sunday against the Washington Redskins, while the Steelers benefited by several dropped passes, there was significant pressure on Robert Griffin III, that while it did not produce more than one sack, it forced an erratic passing game incapable of achieving any consistency. Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, and LaMarr Woodley were all effective in putting pressure on Griffin, while James Harrison still appears a game or two away from returning to full strength. Hopefully the reported injury to Woodley’s hamstring is inconsequential as the momentum that defense has started to build cannot afford to be derailed.
The rushing defense had a strong showing in holding the first-ranked rushing offense to 86 total yards on the ground of which Griffin had only 8. Showing the ability to shut down a productive rushing attack should provide the defense with the confidence necessary to stifle the likes of Ray Rice and Trent Richardson later in the season.
The coverage today was solid, but again, it is hard to read too much into the performance of the defensive backs as dropped passes were the primary cause of the inept Redskins passing game. This much can be said about the Steelers defensive backs: they played physically. Ryan Clark, Will Allen, and Keenan Lewis all delivered hits that definitely made the Redskins receivers think twice about catching a pass, Griffin included.
The end result, only 12 surrendered points and optimism that this defense can continue to play well and improve.
Offensively, the Steelers arguably played their best football of the season Sunday, efficiently moving the football on the ground and through the air, while scoring points in the process.
The offensive line extended their successful play this week by keeping Ben Roethlisberger off of the ground and by opening holes for Jonathan Dwyer, who broke 100 yards again. Maurkice Pouncey’s return was noticeable, especially on his pull on the direct snap to Chris Rainey that went for big yardage. And Mike Adams played another solid game, and it is not a stretch now to say that Marcus Gilbert will only be seeing the field again this season if Adams or Max Starks go down (It’s scary to think what this line will be able to do if and when David DeCastro returns to the starting lineup).
Speaking of Dwyer, his physical style of running the football is providing a spark to the offense. Not only is he showing he is capable of getting the tough yardage, he is also showing that he is capable of breaking a long run consistently. Could Dwyer’s play over the last two weeks have made Rashard Mendenhall expendable? This is something worth watching closely during the course of the week.
Heath Miller continues to be a stud, and his reliability in the red zone is something to marvel. Is there anybody in the NFL playing the tight end position any better right now?
Lastly, Roethlisberger and his receivers had another solid game. The criticism of the offense of being too dink-and-dunk-ish is starting to look foolish as the scheme is starting to pay dividends as the players are becoming more comfortable with Todd Haley’s concepts and schemes. Watching today’s game, it felt as if the offense was on the verge of something great, and while they were very effective, I truly believe the best of this offense is yet to come.
If the Steelers can continue to make progress from game to game, they can get right back in the mix of things quickly. The injuries to Clark, Woodley, and Dwyer are worth monitoring this week as their services are definitely going to be needed against the Giants. If the Steelers can take another small step this week and build on their performance against the Redskins, 5-3 is a very real possibility.