Fresh off their bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers visit Seattle on Sunday. They haven’t played there since 2003.
While the Northwest might be unfamiliar territory for the Steelers, they’re in somewhat familiar territory 10 games into the 2015 season.
They’re 6-4 for the third time in the last four years, but in 2012 and 2014, they fell to 6-4. They arrived at that record after a loss.
This season, the Steelers have won two in a row to rise to 6-4. The last time the Steelers won to get to 6-4 was 1995, and they went to the Super Bowl that year.
Super Bowl thoughts are premature at this point even though the Steelers have overcome a lot to earn their 6-4 record and hold the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff picture.
If the Steelers can check the following boxes, they’ll have good chance to make the playoffs for a second straight year.
Take care of the ball
The Steelers did a good job of this earlier in the season, turning the ball over three times in the first six games.
However, they’ve given the ball away 10 times in the last four games.
Half of those turnovers are Ben Roethlisberger interceptions. Roethlisberger is fourth in the NFL with 314.5 passing yards per game, but he was rusty when he came back from his four-week absence and threw three interceptions in the Steelers’ 16-10 loss to the Bengals.
Roethlisberger has thrown at least one interception in each of his last four games. The last time he did that was the four games the Steelers lost to open the 2013 season. After throwing nine interceptions all of last year, Roethlisberger has thrown seven in six games this season. He threw just one interception in December last year when the Steelers won their last four games and captured the AFC North. He’ll need to regain that form as the calendar turns to December this year.
Improve tight end coverage
The Steelers have allowed the third-most receptions to tight ends this season (58) and the second-most touchdowns (eight).
Half of those touchdowns came in the season opener. Rob Gronkowski caught three and Scott Chandler caught one.
Antonio Gates caught nine passes, two for touchdowns, against the Steelers in Week 5. Travis Kelce caught a 26-yard pass on third down to keep alive a Chiefs touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of their 23-13 win over the Steelers in Week 7.
The Steelers limited Tyler Eifert to four catches for 39 yards in Week 8 but two weeks later yielded six receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown to Gary Barnidge.
Next on the docket is Jimmy Graham Sunday in Seattle. Even though he hasn’t fit in with the Seahawks offense like he did with the Saints, he’s still 10th in the NFL among tight ends with 44 receptions and seventh with 530 receiving yards.
Winning in Seattle will be difficult enough. No AFC team has done it since 2011. It will be even harder if Graham has a breakout game.
The Steelers also encounter Eifert again at Cincinnati in Week 14 and Barnidge at Cleveland in Week 17.
Take advantage of backup (or aging) quarterbacks
When the 2015 NFL schedule was released, it looked like Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning would be visiting Heinz Field in December.
Now there’s a strong possibility it will be Matt Hasselbeck and Brock Osweiler instead.
The Steelers host Indianapolis in Week 13. It’s likely that Luck still will be sitting out with a lacerated kidney. If he is, then the Steelers would follow their first trip to Seattle since 2003 by facing the quarterback they faced in that 2003 game.
According to NFL.com, Manning is eyeing a return from his foot injury in Week 15. That’s when the Broncos go to Pittsburgh.
By then, Osweiler might have earned the starting job permanently. He threw three touchdown passes last week in his debut as a starter, a 17-15 win at Chicago. Manning, meanwhile, has lost his fastball. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes and a league-high 17 interceptions this year.
The 40-year-old Hasselbeck is 3-0 as a starter this season, Neither he nor Osweiler would be a walk in the park for a Steelers defense that’s 28th in the league in passing yards allowed. But regardless of who the opposing quarterback is in the Steelers’ two remaining home games, it won’t be a Hall of Fame-level Manning or a Pro Bowl-level Luck.
Then in Week 16 the Steelers will see Matt Schaub, not Joe Flacco, when they go to Baltimore. Schaub made the Pro Bowl for the Houston Texans in 2012, but has thrown 10 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions since then and hasn’t started a game since 2013.
Unless the Browns’ quarterback soap opera takes another dramatic turn, it will be Josh McCown under center when the Steelers go to the Dawg Pound in Week 17. Manziel threw a for career-high 372 yards against the Steelers in Week 10, but has been demoted because of a party video that surfaced. The 36-year-old McCown has never faced the Steelers in his career.
So the Steelers could be facing four backup quarterbacks, or some combination of backups and starters having down years, in their games against the Colts, Broncos, Ravens and Browns.
The defense is getting a break and needs to capitalize.
Jordan Berry has not fulfilled his preseason promise.
After averaging 49.8 yards per punt and beating out Brad Wing for the Steelers punting job, Berry has averaged just 42.3 in the regular season. That’s 30th in the league.
Wing, meanwhile, is averaging 44.8 yards per punt with the Giants.
Berry has done a decent job getting his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He’s tied for fifth with 20 of those. His punts have been returned an average of 6.8 yards, seventh-best in the league.
The Steelers haven’t ranked higher than 26th in average yards per punt since 2011. The defense gives up 371.4 yards per game, and even a couple of yards of field position would help.
Of course there’s nothing the Steelers can do that would guarantee they’ll be injury-free for the rest of the season.
But they can take measures to decrease the chances of another injury.
They can turn their pass protection up a notch and give DeAngelo Williams a breather every now and then.
Considering their fortunes this season, no one can assume the Steelers are out of the woods when it comes to injuries.
Le’Veon Bell and Kelvin Beachum have suffered season-ending injuries. Maurkice Pouncey hasn’t played since suffering a leg injury in the preseason. Ben Roethlisberger has been knocked out of games twice this season. Landry Jones left the game with an ankle injury four minutes into his Week 10 start against the Browns but should be ready to go as Roethlisberger’s backup on Sunday.
With so many players getting hurt, 2015 has sometimes had the feel of an injury-cursed season.
Fortunately, Williams is averaging five yards a carry and gives the Steelers hope that they can survive without Bell. But he’s 32 and the Steelers can’t run him into the ground. Jordan Todman will have to play a series here and there.
The best way to prevent another cart ride for Roethlisberger is to keep him clean. The Steelers have allowed 23 sacks through 10 games, which puts them on pace for 37 for the season. Roethlisberger was sacked only 33 times last year and he’s suffered 10 of the 23 sacks this year.
It will be hard enough for the Steelers to win their first playoff game since 2010 without Bell. Without Bell and Roethlisberger? Forget it.
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