Steelers where they should be; but got there in a different way than expected

Halfway through the 2017 quest for Lombardi number seven; the Steelers find themselves with a 6-2 record and a bye week on the horizon.

I fully expected the Steelers to be boasting a 6-2 record after eight games but the manner in which they’ve achieved that record isn’t exactly how I thought it would go.

Offensively, the team has struggled a bit, in particular; quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been as sharp as expected. He’s thrown nine picks in the first eight games, albeit five of those are from one lousy game against Jacksonville. He just hasn’t seemed himself though. He’s not as elusive, he’s not as accurate and he’s certainly not as hard for defenders to read. That said, I think he’ll bounce back and have a strong second half. The team is going to need him if they want to go deep into the postseason this year.

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Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have been exactly who I thought they would be, however Bell took longer to get there than I expected. He has, however, proven that the offense needs to run through him. The running game hasn’t been without its surprises for me though. I fully expected James Conner to be a far more integral part of the rushing attack than he has been. He only has 18 total carries through the first eight weeks. I expected him to have around 50 carries for about 200 yards by now.

Martavis Bryant has also been a surprise for me. I thought he’d be a huge part of this offense, down the field (some of that may be on Ben) and in the red zone. He really hasn’t produced much of anything, other than drama specific to social media shots at fellow receiver and rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster has been a pleasant surprise for sure. He has clearly ascended to the number two option after the Detroit game and will in all likelihood hold that spot the remainder of the season and beyond. Bryant has talked (and typed) his way out of favor and most likely out of town beyond 2017.

The defense has been the biggest surprise of all for me. I expected growth out of Artie Burns and Sean Davis. I expected Mike Mitchell to be what he’s been and I certainly had no inclination that Joe Haden would be the second corner for the black and gold this season. The surprise though has been how good the defense has been against the pass this season (even with the blip they suffered in Detroit). I did not expect a number one ranking at any point in the season. I must admit, I think that will fall a bit and average out around 10th or 11th when the season finishes but we all have to take that with a smile.

Part of the reason for the improved pass defense statistics is the improvement to the rush. The Steelers have 26 sacks so far, this season and the biggest surprise out of that number? James Harrison only has one of those. He isn’t playing much at all, which I am still shocked by. Sure, TJ Watt is a big reason why and has played fairly well through the first half of his rookie campaign, but I still never would have suspected Harrison would be a relative non-factor.

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Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt (when he’s played) have all been key factors on defense, as expected. I’ve been a bit surprised by Vince Williams as I felt like he’d have more tackles to this point, but I expect a bigger second half from him.

Through the first half, the team has had a few ups and downs and I don’t think anybody suspected the offense would be the weaker unit on the team, but they have still managed to find their way to 6-2; atop both the AFC North and the AFC in general. They have slightly tougher second half to go, specifically a showdown with the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on 12/17 but I expect this team to improve to a 12-4 record and first-round bye when the regular season ends.

I think they’ll do that with a bit of a reversal in the second half as the defense will take a step or two back and the offense will take three or four steps forward. It should be a fun ride down the stretch, get buckled in, it starts again after this weeks’ bye.

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