The Pittsburgh Steelers secured a big victory last week against the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals and find themselves in the driver’s seat in terms of their own destiny within the division. At 8-5 and a season finale against the Bengals remaining, if the Steelers continue to take care of their own business, they will secure a division championship for the first time since 2010.
The next obstacle on the path to the AFC North crown resides in Georgia, as the Steelers wrap up their road schedule against the Atlanta Falcons, who at 5-8 have certainly had better seasons in recent years. Whether or not they have Julio Jones for this game will certainly have an impact on how it unfolds.
The defense performed better last week than they did against the Saints the week before, and part of that was due to being able to make the Bengals more one-dimensional by getting a handle on the running game.
Outside of a 20-yard quarterback keeper, the Bengals only had one run of over 10 yards during the game. Getting back Steve McLendon in the middle of the defensive line was obviously a big part of that, despite playing only 25 snaps.
Also new to the starting lineup was rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt, getting the first start of his career and logging more snaps than anybody else along the defensive line. There has been no indication to suggest any change in plans, meaning he figures to now be the starting left defensive end for this defense. No doubt he’ll continue to experience som growing pains, but we also saw in the last outing that he has the potential to make some plays.
Behind the line, the Steelers have begun to get healthier at linebacker while the secondary has been depleted. Only James Harrison is ailing among the linebackers, but while he may be their best outside linebacker, the Steelers should be able to get by with the three healthy edge rushers they now have.
The interesting question to me is whether or not Ryan Shazier sees any playing time on defense. He made his return last week, but only played on special teams as Sean Spence and Vince Williams split the defensive reps, which is what they had been doing since Shazier has been out with his two separate injuries.
Suffice it to say that the Steelers will need to concoct some type of pass rush against this high-flying Falcons offense, which produces yards through the air about as well as anybody else in the league, assuming they have Jones.
With their top two cornerbacks injured and underperforming, the starting secondary has consisted of William Gay and Brice McCain for much of the second half of this season. It hasn’t always worked—and it would be nice to have some size at that position—but it’s the best the team can do there at the moment. Antwon Blake has been serviceable more often than not when on the field as well.