The Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-0 for the first time since 1978 and have looked like a complete team. Will Locklin and I, Joe Cammarota, have been following the Steelers this season and this is how we have viewed them this season by positional groups. This is a review of how each position group has performed through the first five games of the season. Grades are always subject to the expectations coming into the year as well.
Joe: Coming into this season, future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a question mark. Through five games, Roethlisberger has answered those questions. He has an 11:1 touchdown to interception ratio, the best of his career to this point. He has been able to make good decisions which in turn has helped the Steelers stay undefeated. However, Big Ben does not get an “A” rating because he has not connected on many huge plays like Roethlisberger a few years ago was consistently doing.
Will: While the old gunslinger hasn’t put up the eye-popping stats he usually does in years past, he’s excelled at nearly everything the Steelers have asked. For the most part, the game-plan has been to set Ben up with shorter and quicker completions, hence the 7.5 yards per attempt. He’s still yet to have a game with the typical 300-400 yards passing and 4 touchdown performance but he’s also only turned the ball over once all season. The arm strength is still there and connecting on more deep balls will help unlock the Steelers’ offensive potential.
Overall Grade: A-
Joe: The Steelers running game last season was putrid to put it nicely. Injuries hurt them, but overall they could not get anything going. This season, though, the Steelers have been dominant running the football. In each game this season, Pittsburgh has surpassed 100 yards on the ground, and have had multiple 100-yard rushers this season. The Steelers run game has been a major reason for their success.
Will: A healthy stable of running backs has eased the pressure on Ben, in particular, allowing the Steelers offense to still thrive even if Ben isn’t throwing for a lot of yards. James Conner has found his mojo, with three 100 yards or more performances in five games. Overall, the Steelers rushing attack is 8th in the NFL, a vast improvement from last year’s bottom three run offense. A committee of backs has made the offense multi-dimensional and a threat that must be focused on.
Overall grade: A
Joe: Pittsburgh’s wide receivers have stepped up when needed, especially rookie Chase Claypool, but they have not been the focal point of the offense. Second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson has not taken that sophomore leap as expected, and Juju Smith-Schuster has yet to show he is a true number one receiver. They still get a B rating because they do make catches and plays when called upon. Also, the Steelers have been very run-heavy this year and that means receiver stats are going to not be as glamorous.
Will: If there was a phrase I could use to describe this wide receiver core in 2020, it would be they just ride the hot hand. There hasn’t been an ultimate star wideout who produced game in and game out. Nevertheless, Chase Claypool has proved to be yet another stud in the making for Pittsburgh. Without Diontae Johnson consistently healthy, he’s been the number one guy to step up. Juju and Washington have had their games but don’t require a high volume of targets. It’s exciting to think about this group’s potential with a healthy Johnson.
Overall grade: B
Joe: This group has just been irrelevant this season. Eric Ebron has had some moments but has yet to have a big impact. Vance McDonald has yet to do anything of note this season either. Blocking they have not done poorly, but have not been spectacular either. Through five games there is not much to say about this group.
Will: Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald have had quiet years but they’ve done what’s required and done it well. Ebron has shown some of that splash play potential and been a move the chain guy for Ben. McDonald as a pass-catcher has been very limited but he has been a stellar blocker, setting the edge for numerous jet sweep touchdowns this season. With more usage, this group’s grade can easily go up.
Overall grade: C+
Joe: Coming into this season, this group was a big question mark. Last year they had an awful season, failing to protect Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, while also being unable to open holes for the Steelers rushing game. This season has been the total opposite; Roethlisberger has had time in the pocket and the line has opened huge holes for running backs, James Conner and Benny Snell. Even with injuries, players such as rookie Kevin Dotson have been able to step in and the offensive line keeps motoring forward.
Will: This position group has been the unsung heroes of the Steelers offensive improvements. Despite injuries to Zach Banner and David DeCastro, they have plowed the way for a top 10 rushing attack and kept Ben on his feet. The Steelers haven’t allowed a single team to bring Ben down more than twice in a game all season. Rookie Kevin Dotson has proven why he was one of the steals of the draft. He came in for an All-Pro guard and the Steelers haven’t seen a massive gap in production. Chuks Okorafor has also handled the tasks of Garrett, Watt, and Chubb and allowed them to one sack combined in three games.
Overall grade: A
Joe: For a defense that has not lived up to its billing, this group is still stellar. No team has been able to run the football on them all year and I expect that to continue. They have gotten three or more sacks in every game they have played this season as well. A dominant group that is basically unstoppable.
Will: Nothing but sheer dominance has been shown upfront thus far. Heyward and Tuitt have been impactful in every aspect of the game. As a duo, they have combined for 5.5 sacks and 20 QB hits. They have also been the engine of the Steelers elite run defense which ranks second in the NFL. Lastly, Tyson Alulu has stepped up in Hargrave’s departure and delivered 3 pass deflections, and plugged up the A gap consistently.
Overall grade: A+
Joe: This group has had some great moments, but have also had some big mistakes. Vince Williams has done a great job stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. Devin Bush was doing a good job stopping the run and flying all over the field making tackles. Unfortunately, his season is now over with a torn ACL. Their one weakness is a big one, defending the pass. When lined up in pass coverage this group is a big liability. Outside they have been awesome with TJ Watt and Bud Dupree helping lift their grade up.
Will: Watt and Dupree could be put at either the line or linebacker positions since they’re edge rushers. Their production has been unmatched by any other duo in the league, 9.5 sacks in 5 games. This has fueled the Steelers first ranked pass-rushing defense and forced quarterbacks into making bad throws that result in picks. Bush’s season-ending injury will no doubt leave a hole in the middle of the defense but that doesn’t factor into the grade yet. Williams and Bush were excellent in run defense and on blitzes as always but struggled in pass coverage. Their lackluster coverage skills are why we can’t give this group an A+.
Overall grade: A
Joe: If it was not for this group’s knack for creating turnovers, they would be much lower. The Steelers have forced an interception for every game they have played so far and even took one back for a touchdown. However, it is not all good, as the secondary has allowed big play after big play this season. Miscommunication has been keeping games much closer than they should be. Cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Joe Haden look like they have regressed a little bit as well. They still do just enough to get wins though, and that is what keeps this group from being closer to the C-, D+ range.
Will: This group’s production doesn’t tell the full story. While they have nabbed 8 interceptions, a lot of credit must go to the pass rush for forcing errant throws downfield. Haden and Nelson have regressed from a year ago and there has been a concerning amount of miscommunications. Deep coverage, in particular, has been abysmal from the Steelers top two cover corners. Tackling has also been inconsistent across the board as Mike Hilton has been the saving grace in that area. The grade could be worse if it wasn’t for the Browns game. OBJ and Landry were held to 65 yards and Minkah proved he still makes a big impact.
Overall grade: C
Joe: Kicker Chris Boswell looks good and Dustin Colquitt looks better than Jordan Berry but they still have yet to do anything special. The return game has looked much better this year with Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud returning kicks and punts. Do not be surprised if one of the two takes one back to the house sometime this season. However, until then, this group has not done anything to warrant more than a B grade.
Will: Boswell has been perfect on his field goals and McCloud shows big return potential seemingly every time he catches the ball off a punt. In addition, the kick-off and punt coverage has been outstanding every game. If the punt distance and big plays start to take shape, then the grade will go up.
Overall grade: B