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What The Steelers Must Focus On During The Bye Week

(Photo by Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

Some people had much lower expectations for what the Steelers record would be going into their bye week. It’s pretty clear that they will take a 3-3 record for how tough the Steelers schedule is, especially as they trek into November.

There’s a lot they need to improve on and here are seven objectives I think they should do to help their cause after the bye week.

Objective 1: Get healthy.

It’s the most apparent first objective, but the importance, especially on defense, makes it go first. The Steelers have dealt with a groin injury that has kept a player out on defense, be it T.J. Watt, Cam Sutton, or Devin Bush. The emphasis of this objective lies solely on Stephon Tuitt, whose status is still up in the air. The run defense misses him greatly alongside the loss of Tyson Alualu early in the season. The pass rush could also use his boost as well.

The injury to Dan Moore Jr. opens the gates to the return of Zack Banner. Could Banner continue the offensive line’s growth? Time will tell.

Also, can Anthony McFarland Jr. return to practice, and maybe he can be the backfield partner for Najee Harris.

Objective 2: Shore up defensive concepts, namely tackling.

The top was blown off the defense in the first three games this season. Two of those times were for touchdowns, only against Buffalo where Josh Allen’s pass didn’t connect with Emannuel Sanders for a long touchdown. The secondary play is still not good, but at least against Seattle and Denver, they didn’t get burned to the crisps Las Vegas, Cincinnati, and what Buffalo could have done.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is not one of the worst safeties in the league per the metrics of Pro Football Focus, but there’s been a drop in how he has been for the Steelers since they acquired him in the 2019 season.

They should try to get him more mobile in the secondary and play him in different spots to get him around the ball. Could they use Karl Josephs as the deep safety like Chris Carter mentioned on the podcast when Malik Hooker was rumored to sign with the Steelers? The possibilities were to play Minkah as the slot corner occasionally to give a different look. Could Ahkello Witherspoon get another chance? Or are the same disconnects that got him shipped out from Seattle per our talk with Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic in Pittsburgh?

The tackling issue spawned during the Seahawks game, and that’s the first worry at a defense’s play. After they give up the yardage, they can’t stop the bleeding until it becomes a chunk play. While the offense is much maligned and doesn’t help the defense, missing their tackles and limiting their ability to get off the field hurts them much more.

They got some promise in Tre Norwood and James Pierre. Getting them to make as many positive habits right now helps the team in the long run.

Objective 3: Figure out who is the third-down linebacker and stick to it.

The curious case of Devin Bush continues. First, the Steelers give defensive communication to newly acquired Joe Schobert. Then it’s found that they are splitting duties with the green dot. Now Robert Spillane is the linebacker in dime situations. Bush has not been healthy, especially after last year's knee injury and groin injury this year. Is there more to the injuries, or do the Steelers no longer trust the player they moved up in the 2019 draft for? The Steelers have to figure out who’s going to be in every situation at middle linebacker.

Objective 4: Confirm their identity offensively and figure out proper usage.

I mentioned this in the podcast about the snap rate for Steelers receivers and tight ends. Ray-Ray McCloud gets used a lot more than James Washington, which is strange considering the expectations for Washington after JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season ended.

Eight snaps for Washington and 52 for McCloud should be inverted, especially after rumors of a trade request from the Oklahoma State product. Who knows why it ended up this way...Or did the relationship between James and Ben Roethlisberger never really heal the way people thought it did? Got to remember how Ben liked former returner/wide receiver Ryan Switzer and tried to get him more involved than he probably should have.

They could use McCloud sparingly and not give Washington the total 52 snaps as well and spread them to Cody White or Anthony Miller, who’s currently on the practice squad when he’s ready if they choose to do so.

Staying with the snap count, the Steelers’ tight ends have been a prominent part of their offense, as they’ve used single back, two tight ends, two-receiver sets, with Freiermuth having 45 snaps and teammates Eric Ebron and Zach Gentry logging 34 and 23 snaps respectively. This helps the run game with Najee Harris because that gives a guessing game of where the play is going for the defense when Roethlisberger goes under center. Also, in the last two weeks, the trio has been effective in the passing game.

Objective 5: Make sure the real Chase Claypool stands up.

This take could be pretty mid, but I thought that Chase Claypool, not James Washington lost the most from a return of JuJu Smith-Schuster last offseason. Diontae Johnson at his best fits the mold of a receiver Ben needs at this point, someone who creates separation. Claypool has shown capabilities as a big body in the slot. The Steelers want him to be that go-up and get-it type, and while he’s shown flashes, who knows if he could be that guy. I think that movement between the slot and the outside could help him find himself. You can’t write off a second-year receiver this fast.

Objective 6: Find out who can be a reliable second back in the stable to take some of Najee Harris’ touches.

Najee Harris is the brightest spot on this Steelers team, if not the brightest on offense. He should get the majority of the touches, but not the vast majority of the touches.

The ideal backfield combination should be Harris/McFarland/Ballage. But there is a question if McFarland is ready enough to take that position as the de-facto RB2, which is why Benny Snell and Kallen Ballage have had carries in spot duty.

I want to see Harris in more situations where he can be the closer and keep the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands as much as possible.

Objective 7: Recognize that Game Manager Ben is the best Ben for this team.

I think the Steelers have recognized this, and I see that through his attempts number, which gauges how much he’s being used—25 attempts vs. Denver and 40 attempts vs. Seattle in a game that ended in overtime. My sweet spot for his attempts number is 30 to 40, which the Steelers have done well in the last few weeks.

If he’s efficient and can hit a deep ball or two, that is the best version of himself that this team needs. At the same time, he’s fortunate over the last two weeks. Dropped interceptions from Alexander Johnson of the Broncos, and Jamal Adams has kept his stat sheet clean, but not by much.

He’s doesn’t look in sync with Claypool on those long balls, which force situations like that weird offensive pass interference where even if it was a legal play, he still didn’t get two feet in bounds.

The goal should be quality, not quantity. Even on his pump fakes, because that fumble was the weirdest thing ever.


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