AFC East: Pittsburgh Steelers

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers will hold two days of joint practices this week at St. Vincent College, which hosts the Steelers' training camp.

Wednesday's session will kick off at 2:55 p.m. ET, followed by a practice Thursday (5:30 p.m. ET) and a preseason game Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET) at Heinz Field.

To preview the joint practices, ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) answer three questions on their teams.

EJ Manuel
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesBuffalo Bills fans will take note of how EJ Manuel practices against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What has been your biggest storyline of camp?

Rodak: Far and away it's been the development of EJ Manuel. Entering his second season, the pressure is on Manuel to take the Bills to the playoffs. He has more help this season than he did as a rookie. The Bills, as we all know by now, traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up for Sammy Watkins, who has been everything as advertised so far. Watkins has been Manuel's best friend on the practice field, snagging everything thrown his way and stretching the defense vertically. While Watkins hasn't necessarily lit it up in preseason action (three catches for 21 yards in two games), there are no worries about him. The questions remain with Manuel and his abilities as a pocket passer. He took a step forward in last Friday's preseason win in Carolina, but he's been inconsistent in camp. Manuel can find Watkins for a big gain on one play, but then drive onlookers mad by patting the ball and taking a sack on the next play.

Brown: I’d have to say it is how much younger the Steelers have gotten, particularly on defense. Eight projected starters on that side of the ball are 27 years old or younger, and rookie Ryan Shazier has already won the starting job alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Shazier headlines a draft class that has created quite a buzz. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt will start sooner rather than later at left defensive end. Third-round pick Dri Archer is an electric and versatile playmaker who will line up all over the field. Fourth-round pick Martavis Bryant, Watkins’ teammate at Clemson, has a chance to develop into a big-time wide receiver, and could help right away. I have eight of the nine Steelers’ 2014 draft picks making the 53-man roster, and the rookies have indeed shown that much promise during camp.

What is one important question that your team could answer in these joint practices?

Rodak: Is the offensive line's struggles simply a matter of practicing against their own, ferocious defensive line? The Bills' front line hasn't done a great job protecting Manuel in practices this summer. Outside of center Eric Wood, a team captain, there a question marks abound. Seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson has filled in nicely for Cordy Glenn at left tackle, but he's been prone to rookie mistakes. Left guard Chris Williams is out with a back injury, while right guard Kraig Urbik -- a former Steeler -- is being pushed for his job by rookie Cyril Richardson. Finally, right tackle Erik Pears looks to have kept his starting job, but only by default, as second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio has been a disappointment so far. The offensive line has been dominated at times by the Bills' defensive line, which had three Pro Bowlers last season (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus). If they have breakdowns against the Steelers' defensive line, which will bring a different 3-4 look, then their protection issues extend beyond the talent across the ball in Buffalo.

[+] EnlargePouncey
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarCenter Maurkice Pouncey is one of the high draft picks the Pittsburgh Steelers have used on the offensive line in recent years.
Brown: How much improvement the Steelers have made along the offensive line. I can’t remember the last times hopes were this high for the Steelers’ offensive line, and that is due to the investment they have made in a unit that general manager Kevin Colbert used to be accused of neglecting. Since 2010 the Steelers have used two first-round draft picks and two second-rounds selections on their offensive line and three of those players will start this season. The Steelers also hired offensive line coach Mike Munchak last January, and he is expected to bring everything together up front. The first-team offensive line played well in limited snaps in the Steelers’ preseason opener last Saturday night. Now the coaches get to see how it fares against a Bills team that is stout up front and plays a different scheme than what the offense is used to practicing against. The two practices should give the Steelers a better gauge of where they are up front.

Who are a few players on your team that the opposing club might be looking down on the roster to say, "Who is that?"

Rodak: He's been a star of "Hard Knocks," but wide receiver Chris Hogan has been rising steadily since OTAs. At 6-foot-1, Hogan is a former college lacrosse player who brings some toughness to the Bills in the slot. He's not as short and shifty as a prototypical slot man like Wes Welker, but Hogan's hands are among the surest on the team. He also has some speed and can stretch the field vertically. He's been running with the first team and should continue to be in the mix this week. On defense, I'd look out for cornerback Nickell Robey. At 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, he's the smallest player on the team but plays as tough as any defensive back on the roster. Robey went undrafted last season but won the Bills' nickel cornerback job and was part of an underrated defense led by former coordinator Mike Pettine. You might see Robey disrupt the pocket as a blitzer, but he also has a knack for being around the ball, and should make for a compelling, competitive match-up with Lance Moore in the slot.

Brown: The No. 1 player would probably have to be inside linebacker Sean Spence. It was, after all, a preseason game against the Bills almost two years ago when Spence ripped up his left knee and had to be carted off the field. His career hung in the balance in the aftermath of a devastating injury and even his own position coach, Keith Butler, later said it would be a miracle if Spence over played again. But watching Spence during his first camp since that injury you would never be able to tell he had torn several ligaments, dislocated his knee cap and sustained nerve damage. Spence has emerged as one of the storylines of camp, and the 2012 third-rounder could really help the Steelers this season. Bills coaches may also be asking about Jordan Dangerfield even though the hard-hitting safety spent training camp with Buffalo last season. Dangerfield as consistently flashed in practice, and he is among the longshots who appears to be putting themselves in position to make the 53-man roster. The separation among the contenders and pretenders as far as making the team has started this week, and the two practices against the Bills will help the Steelers’ coaches in their evaluations.

Live blog: Dolphins at Steelers

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Miami Dolphins' visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Hartline/WorildsGetty ImagesBrian Hartline, left, and Miami face Jason Worilds and Pittsburgh in a game with playoff implications.
The postseason has started early for several teams around the NFL. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) are two of those clubs, and they will meet Sunday at Heinz Field in what could amount to a playoff eliminator.

Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.

ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.

Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.

Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?

Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.

James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?

Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.

Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?

Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.

Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.

James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.

Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.

Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?

Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.

Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.

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Live blog: Bills at Steelers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Buffalo Bills' visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 

Double Coverage: Bills at Steelers

November, 8, 2013
11/08/13
11:00
AM ET
Roethlisberger/ManuelUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger, left, and EJ Manuel are trying to guide their teams through difficult seasons.
Two teams that have combined for five wins and don’t appear to be going anywhere this season meet Sunday at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be angry after getting routed Sunday in New England, but the Buffalo Bills might be equally desperate after losing four of their past five games.

It looks like EJ Manuel will return for the Bills, but rookie quarterbacks have not fared well against Dick LeBeau defenses. But no rookie quarterback has faced the Steelers defense when it has been this vulnerable under LeBeau.

ESPN.com reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take an in-depth look at the first meeting between the teams since the Steelers won a 19-16 overtime game at Buffalo in 2010.

Brown: Mike, is this team Pittsburgh North? There are a lot of Steelers connections there with general manager Doug Whaley and a handful of the players. The two I’m interested in hearing about are the starting guards -- Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik. How have the two played, and how has the offensive line played overall?

Rodak: Scott, I think Whaley would like it to be Pittsburgh North, eventually. The Steelers are one of the most successful franchises, and Whaley comes from that background. Defensively, there are similarities between Mike Pettine's blitz-heavy scheme and much of the zone blitzing that LeBeau uses. And offensively, Manuel is a big, mobile quarterback with some speedy receivers, much like Ben Roethlisberger and his pass-catchers in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, though, I think the Bills want to forge their own identity, and the Steelers connections don't run much deeper than Whaley and a few others.

As far as Urbik and Legursky, they haven't been Pro Bowlers by any stretch. Returning from a knee injury last month, Legursky helped stabilize a left guard position that has been reeling since losing Andy Levitre in free agency last offseason. But as a whole, the offensive line has allowed more sacks -- the seventh most in the NFL, to be precise -- than it would prefer.

Looking at the Steelers' big picture, what has gone wrong this season? From an outside perspective, an aging defense appears to be part of it, but that can't tell the whole story. What are the biggest problem areas?

Brown: Age is only part of the equation when looking at the Steelers’ struggles. The other half is that the Steelers were so good for so long at developing younger players to step in for veteran stalwarts who retired or signed elsewhere. That hasn’t happened in recent years, in part because the quality of Steelers’ drafts has slipped.

The drop-off in talent hasn’t been as severe as it would seem for a team that has lost 11 of its past 15 games, which leads me to perhaps the Steelers’ biggest problem on the field: This team is simply allergic to momentum. The Steelers, when they were winning regularly, played so well off one another as far as the different units. This season, more often than not, the offense has not been able to bail out the defense and vice versa.

I’m curious what has held back the Bills, aside from the instability and inexperience at quarterback. This team seems to have its share of talent, so why aren’t the Bills winning more?

Rodak: The quarterback situation is a big part of it, like you said. No matter who's been out there -- Manuel, Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel -- they haven't been able to make enough plays to win in the NFL. It's really been the defense that has picked up the slack in two of the Bills' three wins this season. Against the Baltimore Ravens, it intercepted Joe Flacco five times, and just when it looked like the Miami Dolphins were going to win a few weeks ago, Mario Williams came up with a game-changing strip-sack. So when dissecting why the Bills are 3-6, their quarterback play is the overriding factor.

Otherwise, I think the story is similar to Pittsburgh's. The defense has played well at times, but when it hasn't played well, the offense hasn't been up to snuff. And when the offense has started cranking -- and that's been rare -- the defense has dropped off. Doug Marrone referenced Wednesday the need for the defense to generate more turnovers -- it hasn't forced one in more than two games -- which has caused the Bills' turnover differential for the season to turn negative this week.

What has been the problem offensively for the Steelers? I've always counted Roethlisberger among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, and at least on paper, there is some serious talent between Le'Veon Bell, Heath Miller and Antonio Brown. Is the offensive line really that bad to drag everyone down?

Brown: The offense played without Bell and Miller for the first two games, and it showed as the Steelers managed just two touchdowns in those contests. Bell has stabilized the running game, and Miller’s return has been huge considering his value in the running and passing game.

The offense’s struggles stem most from the ongoing shuffling along the offensive line. The unit, for whatever reason, is consistently decimated by injuries, and this season is no different. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener. The Steelers even lost a lineman (Levi Brown) to a season-ending injury in pregame warm-ups. Those kinds of things have happened to the Steelers’ offensive line, it seems, every season since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.

The line has played better in recent weeks, and I thought it did fairly well in New England even with the crowd noise forcing the Steelers to use a silent snap count. It faces another challenge this week as the Bills have the kind of defensive line that can really give the Steelers fits.

Williams has been a beast, and the Steelers will probably have to give left tackle Kelvin Beachum some help with Williams. Mike, what about the two interior lineman, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus? They seem like they can be plenty disruptive.

Rodak: They certainly can be, Scott. Each has four sacks this season, which puts both on pace for career highs. It seems like each week, when we talk to opposing head coaches, they start off by mentioning Dareus, Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. They're the strength of the team. Kyle Williams in particular has shown a knack for being disruptive in the backfield at the right time, while Dareus has improved from what some felt were subpar seasons since being drafted third overall in 2011. The Steelers' offensive line will need to hold its ground and allow Roethlisberger to take shots at the weaker points of the defense.

What do the Steelers need to do to turn this season around? Does any hope remain that they will make the playoffs?

Brown: Believe it or not, the players still believe they have a shot at the playoffs given how mediocre the AFC has been aside from a few teams. But they are also realistic that their focus has to stay squarely on what is in front of them.

The biggest thing the Steelers need to do to turn around their season is get back to what has worked for them for so long. That starts with stopping the run. As much as some Steelers fans want to lay blame for the defense’s failings on LeBeau -- and the fact that he is 76 -- the reality is this: LeBeau didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. However, his defense doesn’t work if the Steelers can’t stop the run and force teams into obvious passing situations.

Offensively, the Steelers have been at their best this season when they have established balance. If they want to take better care of Roethlisberger, who is taking another beating this season, they need to limit his passing attempts. The best way to do that is establish the ground game and run Bell early and often. Sounds easy enough, no?

 

Double Coverage: Steelers at Patriots

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
12:00
PM ET
Ben Roethlisberger/Tom BradyGetty ImagesBen Roethlisberger leads the struggling Steelers against Tom Brady and the injury-plagued Pats.
When the NFL schedule was released six months ago, an early November game between the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots looked like it would be a clash between two of the top contenders in the AFC.

Yet as is often the case in the ever-changing NFL, it hasn’t unfolded that way.

The Steelers (2-5) are starting games slow, and in turn, their season got off to slow start. Meanwhile, the Patriots are 6-2 but have looked like a 2-6 team at times.

Can the Steelers turn it around? Will the Patriots ultimately play more consistently and have the look of a contender?

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Scott Brown (Steelers) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) help us break it down.

Reiss: Scott, take us inside the Steelers locker room for a feel on where things have gone wrong this season.

Brown: I think the players are truly perplexed at how they have gotten to this point. Effort hasn’t been an issue, and the Steelers have gone into the fourth quarter of every loss this season with a chance to win. Injuries have been a problem, but they can’t be an excuse since most if not all teams have to overcome them during the course of the season.

The biggest problem has been the different units not playing well off one another for the most part this season. The offense couldn’t do anything in the first two weeks of the season, but the defense kept the Steelers in both games. Two weeks later in London, the offense finally broke out but the defense couldn’t stop Matt Cassel of all quarterbacks in a loss to the one-win Vikings.

The Steelers’ 21-18 loss at Oakland offers a perfect summation of the kind of season they have endured. The defense played lights out in the second half after a shaky start. Ben Roethlisberger brought the Steelers back in the fourth quarter as he has done so many times throughout his career. In the end, the Steelers fell agonizingly short in large part because kicker Shaun Suisham, who had been automatic this season, missed a pair of field goals inside of 35 yards.

It seems like the Patriots have been just the opposite of the Steelers this season in that they find ways to win. I’m not sure many outside of New England can name the Patriots’ wide receivers and the defense has had to overcome the losses of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo.

Mike, how are the Patriots doing it?

Reiss: It’s a question that even Tom Brady recently acknowledged was a good one, because it has looked ugly at times. If I had to sum it up, the answer would be that their depth players (e.g. rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones) have answered the challenge when pressed into bigger roles and the team has made the few critical plays in the crucial situations that often determine the outcome of games. Furthermore, their turnover differential is solid, as it usually is with this team. That’s one of the big differences I noticed between the Patriots and Steelers -- the Patriots are plus-7 and the Steelers minus-9.

I know it’s probably an unusual question, as punters aren’t often a hot topic of conversation, but I’m sure Patriots followers are interested to hear about what unfolded with Zoltan Mesko, who punted in New England from 2010-2012. Also, maybe a little bit on receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whom the Patriots tried to sign to an offer sheet in the offseason as a restricted free agent that the Steelers matched.

Brown: You knew Mesko had been served notice when Mike Tomlin said last week that the former Patriot needed to eliminate the one “junior varsity” punt he seemed to have a game. You knew he was in trouble when Tomlin gave him an earful as Mesko walked to the Steelers’ bench after a 30-yard punt last Sunday in Oakland.

Some might argue he took the fall for the Steelers’ third consecutive loss in Oakland since punters are so expendable, but Mesko didn’t help himself with the inconsistent punting that ultimately earned him a pink slip.

Sanders has had his moments, but he has too frequently been what Tomlin would call just another guy. The fourth-year veteran is still without a 100-yard receiving game this season -- and his career. The Steelers should be getting more production from Sanders (31 catches for 396 yards), particularly with Antonio Brown drawing so much attention from opposing defensive backs. I’m guessing the Steelers now wish they hadn’t matched the Patriots’ offer to Sanders and taken a third-round draft pick for him.

Speaking of receivers, Mike, can you provide an update on Danny Amendola and how much of an impact he might make Sunday? Count me among those who just assumed that New England would be able to plug Amendola into Wes Welker's spot with little to no drop-off at slot receiver because of Brady’s greatness.

Reiss: Interesting thoughts on Mesko and Sanders. Mesko was a very popular player in New England and many were disappointed to see him lose a training camp competition to rookie Ryan Allen. The Patriots took some heat for that, as they did for not being more aggressive with their offer sheet to Sanders, who could be a Patriots target in free agency again this offseason.

As for Amendola, the big issue has been health, which is a knock against him that he’s fought over his NFL career. He was sensational in the season-opener against the Bills, but injured his groin and was knocked out for the next three games. Then he came back for two games, but in the second contest suffered a concussion which knocked him out for another game. So he’s only played four games this season, and the groin is probably something that’s going to have to be managed throughout the season. In his first game back from the concussion this past Sunday, Amendola had three catches for 15 yards and played 39 of 65 snaps (including penalties). That number is likely to rise in the coming weeks, so he should be a bigger factor.

I’m thinking big-picture here, because one of the big questions here in New England has been when the Patriots’ run of success might end. It seems like it’s been talked about, on and off, since 2006. What are your thoughts about the Steelers along these lines? Are they positioned for success, or are we witnessing a franchise primed for a little slide?

Brown: Rebuilding is a blasphemous term around a facility that displays six Lombardi Trophies in its library. The Steelers won’t even use the word transition when talking about where they are as a team. That said, all signs point to the Steelers being in decline. They need to win six of their last nine games just to go 8-8, a record they deemed unacceptable after posting it last season.

Their defense isn’t getting any younger and it’s still too early to tell if youngsters such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Cortez Allen will be difference-makers. I do think the Steelers have the most important piece in place as far as turning it around -- whether it is this season or in 2013. Roethlisberger is still in his prime, and if you have a quarterback in the NFL, you have a chance.

The Patriots have been masterful this season in finding ways to win, something the Steelers used to do with regularity. But are they legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and what do you need to see from them to believe that they are?

Reiss: I wouldn’t count them out, Scott. Bill Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, and in the end, you have to give credit to the players for stepping up in the critical moments. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but I see enough in the key areas -- such as turnover differential, adapting to elements, situational defense and the like -- to think this team will be a factor coming down the stretch. That’s the thing about the NFL. It’s not necessarily what you look like right now, it’s what the picture will look like as we get to Thanksgiving and beyond, assuming you’re still in the hunt. They’ve positioned themselves well at this point.

Double Coverage: Steelers at Jets

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
12:00
PM ET
Ben Roethlisberger and Geno SmithUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger and the 0-4 Steelers take on Geno Smith and the surprising Jets.

Things you didn't expect to see in the standings when the NFL released the schedule last April: The New York Jets at 3-2, the Pittsburgh Steelers at 0-4.

The rebuilding Jets were supposed to struggle under a coach who already was being called a lame duck, and the Steelers ... well, they were supposed to be the Steelers, a model of consistency.

The two teams meet up Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers are off to their worst start since 1968, the year of the Jets' only Super Bowl season. If the Steelers lose this game, they're pretty much done in terms of playoff aspirations. The Jets played a similarly desperate team Monday night, and that didn't seem to faze them, as they stunned the Atlanta Falcons on the road. The Steelers should be well-rested coming off a bye week.

ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Steelers reporter Scott Brown break down the matchup:

Cimini: Scott, I look down the Steelers' roster and I still see a lot of those familiar names -- Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, etc. It's hard to imagine how the Steelers could be this bad. I'm sure you could write 5,000 words on why they're 0-4, but how 'bout a few thoughts on what has gone wrong?

Brown: Rich, I think I have written triple that amount on everything that has gone wrong. Turnovers have been the biggest problem for the Steelers, and that is on both sides of the ball. The Steelers have committed 11 of them with six coming in the last two games by Roethlisberger alone, and they are still without a takeaway, which is unbelievable when you think about it.

Playing from behind has a lot to do with the Steelers' turnover problem, especially on defense. The defense is at its best when it puts opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations and forces them into the kind of mistakes that lead to turnovers. Would you believe the Steelers have had exactly two leads this season and those were 2-0 and 3-0 in the season opener against the Titans and in the second game at Cincinnati, respectively?

Rich, this defense usually confuses and frustrates rookie quarterbacks, but Geno Smith has hardly played like a first-year signal-caller. Has his play surprised you, and is it sustainable?

Cimini: I was surprised by how well he played Monday night in Atlanta because he had been a turnover machine -- 11 in his first four games. All of a sudden, something clicked. I don't know if it was a one-game thing or the start of a trend.

I know the Steelers' defense isn't what it used to be, but Dick LeBeau will have had two weeks to cook up something to confuse the kid. How Smith responds to new looks from the defense will decide this game. The Jets leaned a bit more on the running game last week, taking some pressure off Smith, and I suspect they'll take a similar approach on Sunday. Blitz pick-up will be a key, as will the receivers' ability to gain separation. I remember the Steelers were very aggressive last season in Week 2 with the Jets' wideouts. While on the subject of quarterback play, how would you assess Big Ben's play to this point?

Brown: It has been fine other than the turnovers, and I think it will get better with tight end Heath Miller back and running back Le'Veon Bell giving the Steelers a legitimate threat in the ground game. Roethlisberger is on pace to throw for almost 5,000 yards this season, which would obliterate his career-high of 4,328 yards (2009). But Roethlisberger is also averaging just over 40 pass attempts per game. That number is way too high, especially given how leaky the Steelers' offensive line has been through the first quarter of the season.

The emergence of Bell should restore balance to the Steelers' offense. My question for you is, will such balance have to wait a week? The Jets’ defensive line looks awfully physical and it is hard to envision the Steelers having much luck running the ball against it.

Cimini: You're right, Scott, the Jets have been very good against the run. They've faced some good backs -- Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin -- and they're allowing only 76.2 yards per game and 3.0 per carry. I'd be surprised if the Steelers have much success on the ground.

The Jets' front seven is much improved from last season. They added more athleticism at nose tackle (Damon Harrison), tackle (Sheldon Richardson), weak inside linebacker (DeMario Davis) and rush linebacker (Quinton Coples). They're no longer vulnerable on the perimeter, as they were last season. I think they will make the Steelers one-dimensional, which should allow the Jets to get good pressure on Roethlisberger. Speaking of pressure ... four sacks for the mighty Steelers? What happened to that defense?

Brown: Man, depends on who you ask. The easy answer is to say that age has finally collared a once fearsome defense, but that is not entirely accurate. Defensive end Brett Keisel, strong safety Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are among the most tenured Steelers, and they have played well this season.

Age has caught up with the Steelers a little bit, and the defense needs to get more out of younger players such as cornerback Cortez Allen and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones, the Steelers' No. 1 pick last April, is going to be really good, but he has not made much of an impact as a pass-rusher. The Steelers desperately need Jones to emerge opposite Woodley, who has three of the team's four sacks.

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PITTSBURGH -- Here are some quick hits from the Steelers’ first open locker room of the week:

-- Ike Taylor has talked to left tackle Mike Adams and defensive Ziggy Hood, each of whom has been replaced in the starting lineup. Taylor lost his starting job for a five-game stretch during the second half of the 2006 season, and he said he turned out to be a better player from the benching. His advice to the demoted: “Act the same. Stay the same. Have the same approach,” Taylor said. “Take it personal and once you take it personal everything else will settle in.”

-- Hood said he took it hard when defensive line coach John Mitchell told him at the beginning of the week that he would be replaced in the starting lineup by Cameron Heyward. But the fifth-year veteran said he won’t let the demotion adversely affect him or his friendship with Heyward. “I’d be a horrible teammate if I allowed this to eat me up inside and turn away from him because he’s starting and I’m not because that’s not the type of guy I am,” Hood said.

-- Ryan Clark said during his ESPN visit last week that he thought quarterback Ben Roethlisberger needed to reign himself in at times since his propensity for extending plays also resulted in too many turnovers and sacks. Roethlisberger said Wednesday he hadn’t heard Clark’s comments but that he didn’t take offense to them either. “That’s the great thing about this country we live in," Roethlisberger said. "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. If Ryan feels that way that’s fine.”

-- Le’Veon Bell didn’t hear the praise that Roethlisberger lavished on the rookie running back during his weekly radio show. He allowed only a small grin when Roethlisberger said Bell had done some things reminiscent of Adrian Peterson in his NFL debut. “I don’t want to buy into too much of the praise,” Bell said. “I don’t want to buy into too much of the criticism. I just want to say level-headed and keep going out there and make plays. The fact that I’m getting compliments like that from my teammates is good for me. I’ve got to continue to do the right things and hopefully more will come.”

-- Jets coach Rex Ryan said during a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters that it doesn’t look good for wide receiver Santonio Holmes playing Sunday against his former team. Taylor isn’t buying it. “I think he is [playing],” Taylor said. “That’s just my mentality.” Holmes had been out after injuring his hamstring in the Jets’ fourth game of the season. He won’t practice today, Ryan said.

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