1 - There has been a lot of hubbub about the Steelers' offense and how Todd Haley may or may not be the worst thing to ever happen to football. Is that true? Who really has more fault here? Big Ben or Haley?
You mean I get to be the end-all final word on the most hotly debated topic in the city of Pittsburgh? Some will say you have not described the extent of the damage Haley has done with enough magnitude. Problems in the Middle East? The recent stock market slide? Vintage Haley. Ebola? Got Haley's stamp all over it.
In the minds of others, Ben Roethlisberger is the diplomat, the positive trader, and the doctor with a cure. The reality is teams are figuring out what the Dyamic Duo are doing, and this team has lost its sense of direction. Roethlisberger changing plays at the line of scrimmage isn't a bad thing, and his decision to do it is not the straw that's breaking the Steelers' back. It's a matter of Haley, Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense getting corrected when to change plays and when not to. The receivers appear to be off the page at times when those plays are changed, suggesting to me they aren't aware of what play is being called.
Haley is right to give Roethlisberger that freedom, but it's ultimately on both of them to ensure it's the right decision at the right time. Mixing it up a bit wouldn't hurt, either. It appeared the Browns knew what the Steelers were doing a few times when Roethlisberger changed a play, suggesting they've studied their film and knew what was coming.
To answer your question more specifically, I think Ray Lewis is really the worst thing to happen to football (kidding), and the fault rests on Haley and Ben equally. You can't bash one while holding the other on a pedestal. There are lots of others to blame as well, and considering how intense the criticism has gotten, I expect a razor-sharp first few series from the Steelers in this game. They're going to stay on their scripted 15 plays, not deviate from that, and execute those plays with a sense of rhythm and purpose.
If not, we'll continue asserting "ISIS" is Arabic for "Haley."
2 - If you had to choose between only having Antonio Brown or only having Le'Veon Bell on the Steelers roster, who do you take and why?
That's a good question. At the risk of going the gushy homer route, the talent level of both of them is extraordinary. There are several reasons why one would choose either of them, and I can't say any of those reasons would be wrong.
For me, I'm going to go with Brown. I don't believe any receiver in the NFL is faster in and out of his breaks than Brown is. That makes him extremely difficult, bordering on impossible, to defend 1-on-1, and he's way too fast and fluid in his routes to defend in zone. He has 21 consecutive games with at least five catches and at least 50 yards. Not even Jerry Rice had that. This isn't to say he's Jerry Rice, but Brown's prolific route-running ability, his speed and his special teams contributions make him a truly unique player. While both are on pace to be All-Pro players in 2014, Brown provides a bit more in terms of pure football ability.
3 - What is the Steelers' biggest strength? What is their biggest weakness?
This team's biggest strength is the ability to create mismatches against probably any team in the NFL, offense to defense. The combination of Bell and Brown, along with Roethlisberger, gives their offense so much room for flexibility in their pre-snap reads. 'Course, that over-stimulation may lead to their biggest weakness as well - paralysis by analysis.
It's not that making adjustments at the line of scrimmage is a bad thing, but you have to keep in mind doing so gives the defense a real time look into how you're planning to attack them. It's like showing everyone else at the table you're holding a certain card. Do it often enough, they realize you like to do certain things when you have certain cards, and they can fill in the rest. But still, when Ben's holding three aces, it won't necessarily matter that you know he has the seven of hearts.
Ben is a smart quarterback. He really is. He has explosive playmakers around him, I think they've just tried to do a little too much so far this season. There's only so much he should do, despite there being so much pressure on him. Another weakness, defensive linemen Cam Thomas. When you know Thomas is waiting on the sideline to go back into the game and get whipped, you may try to do too much to ensure you retain possession too. At some point, Ben will simply have to go with what's there, and make the most of it.
4 - After a few consecutive seasons bouncing around 8-8, what is your opinion on Mike Tomlin right now?
It takes a lot to maintain a championship level team. I don't look down on Tomlin for a few years of mediocrity. I think some of his finest coaching was over the second half of last season. Before that, it seems clear to me the team's front office decided it was time to phase in a new era of Steelers football, and begin transitioning out of the last highly successful phase. There have been growing pains along with that transition, bumps along the way and mistakes. Overall, I see where they're trying to go, and my thought really was this team's vision was to rebuild and have a division championship-contending team in 2015.
I have my doubts about that here and there, but the reality is they're struggling on defense because they simply don't have the playmakers they used to have. The patches they've placed on the leaks on the defensive line haven't held as well as they would have liked, but they've been catering to the development of a lot of young defensive linemen - Stephon Tuitt being the top student in class. He'll play a lot Monday, and as the team's second round pick, he's a rare rookie who will end up getting extensive playing time his rookie season. Getting Cameron Heyward back to where he was last year, along with perhaps finding a better rotation among those defensive ends with a solid nose tackle, this defensive line is a lot better. That will boost the performance of the rest of the team.
That's where Tomlin is trying to get them. If they don't follow, the argument can be made it's on them. But at the same time, the question has to be asked, "is he the right man to lead them?" To me, I'm saving my judgment of Tomlin until after the season, when I can better see the full scope of what he's trying to do, what the team is doing, and where the gaps are. I honestly believe a coach can be the wrong person for the job even if they're successful. Some coaches just can't get enough out of the guys on the roster, and they can't fire 53 players. In that, there's a difference between firing the coach, and finding someone who can better reach the guys on the current team. I can't dismiss the possibility, if everything continues going south the way it has, that it's a possibility. I wouldn't predict it now, but I'm sure Tomlin's goal is doing much better than 5-5 the rest of the way. That, or much worse than that, I don't see why it isn't a fair discussion, but it's going to be based more in the manner in which those losses are earned.
5 - Put your name on it: The final score of this game will be Texans ______, Steelers ______. Why?
This is a tough one to predict, and like I told the Browns readers last week (in predicting a 31-27 Steelers win) I'm almost always way wrong about these things. I think Pittsburgh wins the game 27-26. Both teams can make claims their opponent is catching them at a bad time; the Steelers are at home after a two-week road stint and rarely lose on Monday Night Football. They're embarrassed, and now, jobs are on the line. That's sure to get the attention of the complacent starters in the locker room.
While Houston was cursed with the dreaded Thursday Night game against a divisional opponent, their reward was the most amount of time off without a bye week possible. That's a ton of time to break down their play as well as the play of their opponent.
Time used to be, a team with an advantage in one area of offense but not so great in another would get crushed by the Steelers' defense. They tee off on one-dimensional teams. I'm not sure that's necessarily the case anymore, but Houston's passing game isn't threatening. Of course, neither is the Steelers' pass defense, but hat on hat, I think the Steelers can get away with a bit more in terms of defending the pass so long as they hold a good zone running team in check. Because of that, I think they can get away with attacking the box a bit more, and with that, they'll probably give up a big passing play or two, but ultimately, put the game on a much more focused and better prepared offense to win it late.
(Be advised, I write something like this every week when it comes to predictions. I have no clue, honestly. We've seen it all from the Steelers this year, and we've seen it on a quarter-to-quarter basis. Your guess is as good as mine. Flip a coin.)
Thanks to Neal for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to head over to Behind the Steel Curtain to see what Steelers fans are saying about Monday night's game.
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