After an 0-3 start, the Pittsburgh Steelers sit at 4-4 and just one game out of the last wild card spot, at the halfway mark of the season. Certainly surprising since they lost Ben Roethlisberger for the season and they seemed left for dead.
I figured since we are exactly halfway through the year, why not grade out each unit of the team. These grades are reflective of the coaching of that unit as well.
While the team did lose Roethlisberger in week two for the season and have had to play both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, they have managed to score enough points to win four games in the first half of the year.
Problem is, it’s really the defense that has carried this team. The team is averaging 22 points per game, which ranks 18th in the league. Let’s not forget the defense has contributed some of those points. Worse, the team ranks 29th in the league in total yards generated.
Certainly, the loss of Roethlisberger is a major reason for this but I think the bigger issue is Randy Fichtner. His play-calling has been abysmal. I understand Rudolph is still growing and learning but Fichtner hasn’t’ allowed him to develop properly. He’s been too conservative with his play calls. The short, conservative approach is hindering ball movement. The lack of production for JuJu Smith-Schuster is mind-boggling. The lack of carries given to the now-injured James Conner is nonsensical. The offense is not a threat to do much and teams know that.
Where the team should be utilizing the running game more (and they have a little bit more lately), they try short, dink and dunk no gain throws. The need to throw the ball downfield more often and run the ball up the gut to control the clock in the second half.
First Half Grade: C-
After a rough start to the season, giving up 33 and 28 points in back to back weeks, the team traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick and everything turned around. The team ranks 7th in yards allowed, 13th in points allowed and 2nd in turnovers created. This team had lacked energy in the past under Keith Butler but once Fitzpatrick was inserted into the lineup, everything changed. When is the last time you saw this team swarm the ball like they have these last six games? Fitzpatrick, along with Devin Bush and TJ Watt have been difference makers. It’s not just those three though. Cam Heyward has been a leader on the front line, Vince Williams has made run-stuffing plays consistently and even Bud Dupree seems to have finally arrived.
I expect this unit will get better and better over the second half as they play a much weaker schedule.
First Half Grade: A-
After last season, it was hard to know what Chris Boswell would bring to the table this year. But short of missing a 53-yard field goal, he’s been perfect. He’s made kicks when called upon and is as reliable as he was in 2017. That cannot be overstated in a year where the team is struggling to move the football as effectively as they should. Before I give the overall special teams grade, Boswell gets an A+ for his rebound.
The defensive kicking unit has been decent enough, not allowing too many long returns overall but the return team hasn’t done anything. I’ve been a big supporter of Ryan Switzer since he arrived last season and think he’s a good locker room guy but he was traded for last season to make an impact in the return game; he simply hasn’t. He’s an All-Pro at fair catching but certainly not moving the football effectively.
The return game needs to be fixed in the second half and they ought to consider throwing someone else out there besides Switzer, it can’t get worse in that department.
First Half Grade: B
The second half of the season kicks off this coming weekend against the Los Angeles Rams at home and it’s the first chance the team has since the opening week to go above .500. It will be a big step into turning a season that looked very bleak a few weeks ago into one of hope and aspiration.