Pittsburgh Steelers Wild Card Q&A with Neal Coolong
Neal Coolong is the Managing Editor of “Behind the Steel Curtain” on SB Nation, covering all things Steelers.
You can find his work here.
Mr. Coolong was kind enough to lend his insight on the rival Steelers, as we look ahead to another chapter in this storied rivalry this Saturday night.
Discuss your thoughts on this Q&A, and the upcoming matchup, on our message board.
Baltimore Sports and Life: The big question is the health of Le’Veon Bell. Hyperextended knee. If he is unable to go on the short week, or not 100%, tell us a little bit about Dri Archer and Josh Harris. We saw Harris rip off a long a run against the Bengals that was called back because of a penalty.
Neal Coolong: The undrafted running back out of Wake Forest really only made a quiet name for himself this offseason when he suggested his non-selection after an up-and-down collegiate career was the fault of coaches who had departed the program before the draft and bad-mouthed him to scouts.
The Steelers thought enough of him to bring him in, and while he was a late addition to the team’s preseason roster, he didn’t make the final roster and spent the bulk of this season on the Steelers’ practice squad.
Happenstance brought him into the forefront again, not even 24 hours after LeGarrette Blount walked off the field at the end of the Steelers’ 27-24 win over the Tennessee Titans in Week 11. Pittsburgh released Blount and activated Harris from their practice squad. He really had nothing of note outside a few unmemorable carries over the second half of the year.
In the little I’ve seen of him, I like his aggression. He approaches the hole hard, but clearly, there is no replacement coming from the practice squad who’s going to replace Le’Veon Bell – the league’s best all-around running back. If it isn’t Harris, I don’t think Archer will be any more of a reason to think the Steelers will be able to have any more success on the ground than they usually do against the Ravens – which is to say very little. Archer, the team’s third round pick, saw his minimal snaps a game over the first half of the season reduce to none after he was removed from kick return duties after pretty bleak production.
The Steelers are, as of Tuesday afternoon, expected to sign free agent Ben Tate, a player who’s been released twice already this season after signing a long-term deal with the Browns back in March. I would expect the move implies something of insurance in case Bell can’t go, but perhaps more than anything, it gives the Steelers a capable veteran running back to help keep formations balanced and still being able to utilize a running back in pass protection. The Steelers may be hobbled with the absence of Bell, but they’re insane if they plan to utilize the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Archer in pass pro against a rushing Elvis Dumervil.
NOTE: Since the conclusion of this interview, RB Ben Tate has signed with the Steelers. It’s his third team this year.
BSL: Speaking of the running game, it appears the offensive line in Pittsburgh is playing much better than it has in previous years. What has Mike Munchack done to turn that unit around?
NC: Certainly, Munchak deserves credit and praise (head coach consideration?) for the work he’s done this year, but to suggest the issues in the past with the Steelers’ offensive line was solely the problem of the line coach is a stretch. The Steelers have been rebuilding this group over the last few seasons, and injuries and youth have been the biggest obstacles. I wrote this offseason the Steelers’ offensive linemen have struggled to pass Blocking 101 and 201 the last two years, but Munchak is the professor of the graduate level courses.
Credit should be given mostly to the players, particularly Ben Roethlisberger, who has done an excellent job playing within himself. At the start of last year, it was clear he was forcing the issue – and this was a team with a running game and protection scheme in complete disarray. It seemed Ben felt he had to do everything on his own. They took their knocks early in the year but rebounded nicely. The addition of Munchak helped a group that was already on the rise.
He’s getting huge value from left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who’s been playing at a good level all season – last year, in Week 1, he was a back-up tackle who served as the team’s third tight end in heavy packages. After a brief (and utterly disastrous) in-game stint as Maurkice Pouncey’s replacement, he eventually took over for struggling Mike Adams, and has been the team’s left tackle nearly every game since. All four of the starters – Beachum, LG Ramon Foster, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG David DeCastro and RT Marcus Gilbert – have done a good job overall this year, and while Ben still takes sacks (he will never throw the ball away), watch games like the Steelers’ 51-34 win over Indianapolis for an example of what this offense can do when Roethlisberger is sharp and the line doesn’t allow pressure.
BSL: Antonio Brown is clearly the best receiver in the NFL this season and a big reason that Ben Roethlisberger had one of his best seasons to date. Brown has caught at least seven balls in each game except for two. Martavis Byrant and Markus Wheaton are making strides in their young careers as well. What is the key to slowing this receiving group down enough to keep them from having yet another six receiving TD, blowout type of day?
NC: I think, and I share this same thought across the entire NFL, average receivers can be good ones if a passer is given time. Good receivers will have monster years in the same scenario, and excellent receivers will challenge league records. Antonio Brown is an excellent receiver, and his 129 catches are not a fluke, or indicative of some kind of shorter passing game.
But nothing beats pressure.
If you throw a receiver like Antonio Brown the ball 10 times, he’s probably going to catch seven of those 10 passes, and probably get around 80 yards. Week 17 clinched the 18thconsecutive game in which Brown has had at least five catches and 70 yards – a league record he’s been building on for a few weeks now. But in games in which the offense struggled a bit – Week 10 vs. the Jets, Week 5 vs. Jacksonville, Week 2 vs. Baltimore – you saw teams getting consistent pressure on Roethlisberger.
Bryant adds a new dynamic to the offense, in that he’s an excellent deep receiver. He tracks the ball at a level well ahead of his years and is improving in his shorter routes. A true split end, and possessing the big play ability Wheaton, for all his good traits, doesn’t have. Few have the raw skill Bryant does.
But again, it’s not easy to fully exploit a talented group of receivers if Haloti Ngata is planting his helmet in Roethlisberger’s ribs when he’s about to throw.
Not trying to be That Guy here, but let’s be honest, the Ravens secondary, as banged up as it is, can’t keep up with the Steelers’ receivers over four quarters on an even playing field. They’re going to have to get constant pressure, and even with that, they still may get beat here and there. But if they aren’t getting a hurry on one of every three throws, the Steelers will have a big offensive game. Fortunately for Baltimore, though, getting pressure is what they do best. That’s the key to this game, as I see it. Baltimore’s rush landing and Pittsburgh’s protection of Roethlisberger.
BSL: Switching focus to the defense now. Much like the Ravens, the Steelers also have a pieced together secondary with William Gay, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Antwon Blake, and Brice McCain who came up with two INTs of Andy Dalton. Your thoughts on this unit, and would you agree that the Steelers secondary is their only team weakness?
NC: Find a Steelers fan who answered “Yes” to the question, “If the Steelers have three different starters among their five starting defensive backs (count the nickel as a starter for the sake of this example), will they finish 11-5 this year?” and I’ll find you a liar.
This group has been re-tooled and worked hard as the year has worn on, and we’ve been seeing the fruits of that labor. William Gay is a solid NFL cornerback and has been the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. But outside that, Mitchell was a free agent signing with a team playing a defense he hadn’t played previously. Blake was an undrafted Jaguars cast-off last year who was brought in to play on special teams. McCain was torn apart in the slot the last two years in Houston (Texans fans still absolutely HATE him). All of them are playing good football right now.
Blake’s strip of A.J. Green after a catch late in the game was the biggest defensive play by a Steelers player in the last three seasons. McCain had two picks, like you mentioned, and was part of a group that largely contained A.J. Green – a player who had 224 receiving yards in Week 14 when both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were on the field.
Just my opinion, but I don’t think Taylor and Polamalu are too injured to play anymore. I’m fairly convinced the Steelers are happy with the group they have on the field.
I think it’s fair to call them the weakest unit, but it’s certainly not the team’s only weakness. There’s a lot to be said about a team that gave up 30-plus point games a few times this year, and couldn’t close out the mighty juggernaut known as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who will select first in the 2015 NFL Draft). As a whole, the defense has improved quite a bit from where it was, and takeaways have become more frequent. I can’t say I see them as a group that will absolutely not allow more than 21 points in a game, but they’ve been at that level the last four games, and they’re playing with more confidence now.
BSL: With 5.5 sacks on the season, how much of an unexpected impact has James Harrison made?
NC: Until he met up with Andrew Whitworth in Week 17, Harrison was having an outstanding run of games. Whitworth looked like the excellent player he is, and took Harrison on aggressively, but Harrison has made an impact in just about every game he’s played. He beat the tar out of Chiefs’ second-year OT (and former first overall pick) Eric Fisher in Week 16, and dominated Atlanta.
In a few ways, I could make an argument for Harrison’s selection as team MVP this year. While Jason Worilds has done pretty well overall this year, Harrison’s enforcement of that offensive left edge is what the team has been missing in recent years (he was injured most of 2012 and in Cincinnati in 2013). While the Steelers still fell a bit short of goals of increased sacks this year, without him, I don’t think they’d be where they are right now.
BSL: Talking about this rivalry as it is about write yet another chapter in this epic battle, there are two schools of thought that I gather. The one that really breaks down the matchups, goes deep into the numbers in previewing the game. The other, throw everything you think you know about the other team out the window, and the last team standing in this violent battle wins. Which side are you on?
NC: I think the real trick is finding out what trends will most likely influence the game to end up around where it usually is – a late field goal winning it after a big defensive play by someone in the second half.
It still weirds me out how atypical this year has been, yet, it STILL found a way to turn out dead-even. Look at the stats now, Baltimore wins by a score of 26-6 in Week 2, then Pittsburgh evens it up, literally, with the incredibly uncommon score of 43-23, but one of the few combinations of numbers that would have given the Steelers a 20-point win AND even the points scored between the two teams at 49.
Maybe there’s a math major out there who can answer definitively whether any other score in the second game could have evened out the points totals on the year for both teams as well as give the Steelers their own 20-point victory, matching the Ravens’ first win.
As dumb as this sounds (maybe even a little Collinsworth-ish), but if I was to guess which two teams would see such a statistical abnormality in order to bring them back to dead-even, it’s easily the Steelers and Ravens.
Best part, though? I don’t have to listen to any more of that “Seahawks vs. 49ers” garbage. Both teams have to be consistently good to challenge this rivalry, don’t they? That lasted two years, and a coach has already been fired. Even Cowher vs. Billick has nothing on Tomlin vs. Harbaugh.
Anyway…to your actual question, both teams play each other like they know them as well as they do. This year is atypical, as you know, but I expect this one to be back to that 19-16 range, field goals are critical, big plays will be made but whomever makes the last one will probably win. It’ll be a battle, that we know for sure.
BSL: Prediction time. Who do you have moving on, a score? Care to lend a quick thought on the other matchups on wild card weekend?
NC: I hate predictions. I have no clue what the Steelers are like as a team without Le’Veon Bell. They are 19-10 with him over the last two seasons, that’s tough to ignore, especially considering no other running back has really gotten the ball in that time.
At the same time, we have plenty of experience watching the Steelers’ offense without a running game against the Ravens.
I just don’t know on two things, really. Can the Steelers’ secondary limit big plays, and can the Steelers’ offensive line provide consistent protection? I think if they do that, they’ll win. It’s a toss-up here, really. I get the sense the Steelers’ line can hold up here, and because of that, I think Roethlisberger will find a way to make it happen in the fourth quarter. Steelers advance 26-23.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]