To get ready for Sunday's Detroit Lions game, I exchanged five questions with Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain, SB Nation's Pittsburgh Steelers blog. You can check out his answers below.
1. What's the deal with these Ben Roethlisberger trade rumors?
They're only believable if you don't agree that Roethlisberger is okay with averaging 20 points a game, having a red zone percentage under 50 and Todd Haley's reputation for not being a player's coach is vastly overrated.
The long and the short of it is Roethlisberger is primed for an extension this offseason, and in what I'm sure was just a conversation (the Steelers do not formally offer contract extensions during the season), the topic may have come up. It's an example of something that might have come up as a stance of leverage, and was reported without appropriate context being given.
I think the main issue surrounds the future of the offensive coaching staff, and one way or another, the veiled threat of Roethlisberger requesting a trade if things continued the way they were was floated more as a leveraging chip than anything else. I don't doubt the conversation took place to some extent (those kinds of talks go unreported all the time), but I also don't believe it will come to that.
2. How has former Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performed since returning from injury?
He does much better when he doesn't have to make a move to avoid an untouched blitzer in the backfield when he gets the ball. The problem is, with an offensive line with more holes in their run blocking scheme than the Iraqi Navy has in its ship, he doesn't get the room in space any running back not named Barry Sanders needs to be somewhat competent.
Bell has been very effective in the passing game (something I would wager will be used extensively against the Lions), though, and the Steelers are getting him 20-24 touches a game. He's an often-used weapon, but that weapon runs the wrong plays here and there, and hasn't shined in pass protection. He's a work in progress, but there's plenty to be excited about in his development.
3. The Steelers have had a tough time running the ball and an even tougher time protecting Roethlisberger. What is the main source of their issues on the offensive line?
Top to bottom, I'm not an expert, but the main issue seems to be the fact they cannot consistently prevent defenders from doing whatever they want.
Sarcasm aside, this is a young group that lost its most experienced player, Maurkice Pouncey, eight plays into the season. They benched a second-year left tackle (a second-round pick in 2012) in favor of... a second-year left tackle who's been a guard, a center and even a tight end before becoming the team's blindside protector. The Steelers are getting All-Pro level play from right guard David DeCastro and solid play from left guard Ramon Foster, but center Fernando Velasco (Pouncey's replacement) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert have been up and down.
A quarterback like Roethlisberger, a guy who isn't afraid to go off schedule, extending plays to make coverage break down, is going to take sacks. Those sacks have been up a bit this year, but the running game has been more of the problem. Like Bell, the offensive line is a work in progress, and I get the feeling there will be some teachable moments in Sunday's game.
4. Since starting 0-4, the Steelers have gone 3-2. What went right for the Steelers in their three victories?
The recurring theme in those wins was defensive dominance. I don't think it's a coincidence, either; all three of those teams were forced to become very one-dimensional offensively. Buffalo ran for more than 40 yards under their season average, and between the Bills and the Jets, the Steelers crushed the rookie quarterbacks of both teams. Baltimore got a solid game from Joe Flacco, but like every other game they've played this year, they couldn't run the ball worth a damn.
Detroit poses a very difficult challenge in that regard, and it's one I would suspect is part of the reason the Lions are looking at a worst-to-first run. Whereas they were a great passing team with a freakish receiver, they didn't have great balance. The Steelers can choke out one-dimensional teams, which is what they saw in their three wins. That's going to be a bit tougher to do this weekend.
5. With the Bengals leading the AFC North at 6-4 and four of Pittsburgh's final six games coming against divisional opponents, do you think it's feasible for the Steelers to get back into the title race down the stretch?
We put people on the moon, they're making another Jackass movie and the members of Nickelback sleep on piles of money, so anything's possible, right?
When you can't sleep on the Browns in the second half of a season, you know it's a weird year.
When I look at the AFC North right now, what I see are four teams that can't run the ball, three teams with less-than-stellar offensive lines, two teams with good quarterbacks and one team over .500. Anything can happen, but the only thing I know for sure is I'm saving money to bet against whichever AFC North team advances to the playoffs.
Any one of them could do it, but health, consistency, coaching and luck will be big factors in however it plays out.