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Labriola on the 2019 Steelers at the bye

A look at the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers as they head into their bye weekend:

Whenever the injured reserve list contains the franchise quarterback in mid-September, it's not a good thing, and that's exactly the situation in which the Steelers found themselves this season. Ben Roethlisberger had surgery on his right elbow in the days after the team played the San Francisco 49ers, and the team immediately announced he would miss the entire season. The hopeful expectation is that Roethlisberger will be able to return to top form for 2020.

Right now, there also are two other starters on injured reserve, and the impact of their absences vary. Under the significant category is Stephon Tuitt, who through the first portion of the schedule was the team's best defensive lineman, and that had nothing to do with Cam Heyward being disappointing or ineffective, because he has been neither.

The other player on injured reserve is Sean Davis, and it's not difficult to argue that the Steelers improved themselves at free safety by trading for former 11th overall pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. In four games with the team, Fitzpatrick already has an interception and a forced fumble.

Also, don't forget the walking wounded, because that's also a list containing some significant names, and at 2-4 the Steelers aren't in any position to be able to ease themselves back into things once they return to play against the Miami Dolphins on Monday, Oct. 28.

Jaylen Samuels, Rosie Nix, Mark Barron, and Steven Nelson already have missed games with their injuries, and T.J. Watt, James Conner, and Joe Haden all sustained injuries of unknown severity during the win over the Chargers. While Benny Snell did a representative job in place of Samuels and the Steelers have learned to live without a fullback, any protracted loss of any of those other five aforementioned players would have to be considered a concern.

Everything that has to do with the team's offense has been, and will continue to be, impacted by Roethlisberger watching from the sideline, and that's not exactly a groundbreaking contention. Running the ball theoretically is more difficult because opponents know there is less chance of the offense being capable of countering a defense that's crowding the line of scrimmage by making it pay with a succession of intermediate-to-deep passing plays that either would force the opponent to back off or would force the opponent to start having to play catch-up following a couple-or-three easy touchdowns.

While not impossible, that's less likely without Roethlisberger, but the post-concussion version of Mason Rudolph will have to develop a better feel for when to push the ball down the field a bit without getting reckless and turning it over. An offense cannot survive on dink-and-dunk alone, not only because any offense must make the defense defend the field vertically, but also because constructing touchdown drives in the NFL without plays that gains chunks of yardage requires too much perfection from too many people for too many consecutive snaps of the ball.

And it should be understood that successful chunk plays are not the sole responsibility of either the coordinator in making the calls or the quarterback in making the throws. There is nothing in the rulebook prohibiting a short pass from turning into a long gain through the receiver making something happen after the catch and/or through his teammates getting themselves into position to help things along with legal downfield blocks. And acknowledging that chunk plays from the running game are somewhat rare in the NFL, the Steelers nevertheless have the personnel capable of carving out more of the 10-to-20-yard gains than their running attack has mustered through the first six games of this season.

Since the Steelers don't have Roethlisberger to attract the bulk of the opposing defense's attention on a week-to-week basis, they will need other individuals, or other units within the offense, to take turns being the thorn in the opponent's side. It doesn't have to be a single individual or a single unit over the course of an entire game, but rather one individual or one unit delivering the big play in a critical situation in a particular game.

The business of the NFL is never about the aesthetics of the sport, just the outcome, and under those parameters, it can be good enough, as an example, for the running game to convert a short-yardage opportunity at a significant moment vs. a particular opponent and be seen as successful, as opposed to being judged on where its third-and-1 conversion percentage ranks among all NFL teams.

Undoubtedly one of the critical elements in the Steelers setting themselves on a post-bye course to get back into the thick of things in the AFC North will be the continued development of Mason Rudolph. For all of the feel-good attached to the Devlin Hodges story, and acknowledging he deserves credit for helping the team to a victory in his first NFL start, the fact is that Rudolph is the most talented and capable healthy quarterback the Steelers have under contract today.

And while the expectations of him and the patience with him fail to recognize he, too, is a highly inexperienced player, his performances and the statistics accumulated in those performances are praiseworthy. Heading into this weekend's games, Rudolph's 102.5 passer rating is eighth best in the NFL; he has completed 67 percent of his attempts, with seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. His 6.87 yards per attempt is higher than that posted by Jacoby Brissett, Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Josh Rosen. And his 2.1 interception percentage is lower than that posted by Dak Prescott, Baker Mayfield, Matt Ryan, Lamar Jackson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, and Jared Goff.

Rudolph is, as the NFL scouts like to say, "good enough to win with," and as a veritable rookie with three NFL starts under his belt, he can be expected to continue to improve over the course of his second professional season.

Then it falls to the rest of his offensive teammates to improve as well in their support of him. The offensive line has been sound in pass protection, but it hasn't been up to its 2018 level when it comes to igniting the running game. If Mike Munchak has been missed, it hasn't been in the area of getting the guys ready to play as much as it has been in what was his under-reported job as the run game coordinator.

Knowing what in the running game can work against a given opponent and then devising a way to make it happen was part of Munchak's genius, and that responsibility either has to be absorbed by another member of the coaching staff, or the players – all veterans and three of the starting five being voted to multiple Pro Bowls – have to execute more consistently. There has been too much invested in the offensive line in terms of draft capital and salary cap space, and the players have too much professional experience and too much time together as a unit for Munchak's absence alone being the reason why the Steelers are 28th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 27th in the NFL in average yards per rushing attempt. That's an excuse.

When it comes to the receivers, there have to be fewer mistakes, such as dropped balls and fumbles, and more winning of the matchups vs. the coverage to get open for Rudolph. Part of this also will include Rudolph becoming more at ease with pushing the ball down the field, which should open up other areas of the field.

In the victories over the Bengals and the Chargers, the offense was efficient running the ball and with its short passing game, and for the team to be able to stack wins and get back into the thick of the AFC North race that has to happen more consistently, as well as Rudolph and the receivers finding ways to attack down the field enough to keep defenses honest.

In each of the previous two seasons, the Steelers finished either atop the league in sacks or very close to it, and no one would argue that both of those defenses weren't good enough to help the team reach what is its annual goal. The missing ingredient was the ability to generate takeaways, but that hasn't been a missing ingredient so far in 2019.

After tying a franchise record in 2018 for fewest interceptions in a season (eight), the Steelers already have eight through the first six games of 2018 and their seven fumble recoveries so far also means they have tied last season's takeaway total of 15. And their 20 sacks so far is third-best in the NFL, behind Carolina and New England, but those 20 sacks so far do rank them first in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt.

"We've been talking openly about a desire to be better in that area (of takeaways)," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We haven't been bashful about it. But more than just the words, it has been the actions. The day-to-day habits we're trying to create culturally in terms of ball awareness and ball disruption and the addition of some guys have been central to that. We're just working our tails off, and I know that we need it."

The additions to which Tomlin referred began in the offseason with the signing of unrestricted free agents Mark Barron and Steven Nelson, then came the draft-day trade when the Steelers moved up 10 spots in the first round to select Devin Bush, and it even continued into the regular season when they acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins.

Neither Barron nor Nelson played in the team's most recent game, that 24-17 road victory vs. the Chargers, but all four of the additions to the defense have been upgrades, with the most significant so far being Bush. Drafted to give the defense what the unit lost when Ryan Shazier was injured, Bush has been everything the Steelers hoped and needed.

He leads the team in tackles, he has three tackles for loss, one sack, and three passes defensed. Most significant, however, is that with two interceptions and four fumble recoveries, Bush has been personally involved in six of the team's 15 takeaways (40 percent), and he scored his first defensive touchdown on a return of a fumble recovery against the Chargers.

The defense is not a finished product, because it definitely can improve on third downs and become more consistent in stopping the run, but too many times last season the Steelers went through games in which they were toothless on defense (no takeaways, no passes defensed, few or no sacks), but that has become a rare occurrence so far in 2019.

More significantly, the defense has been able to evolve from being a sometimes liability to being a complementary unit that can contribute to a winning performance to being the reason why the team wins. Now, if the defense can be the reason the Steelers win every week …

For the purposes of this exercise, let's divide special teams into these categories: returns, coverage, and performance of the specialists.

Through six games, the only good thing that can be said about the return aspect is that Ryan Switzer is very consistent when it comes to securing the ball and making good decisions about when to make a fair catch, when to attempt a return, or when to allow the ball to go into the end zone for a touchback. But outside of that, the return game has to be described as below-the-line, with the longest punt return thus far being 13 yards by Switzer and the longest kickoff return being for 26 yards, also by Switzer.

The coverage aspect has been better, with Jordan Berry and the punt team ranked eighth in the NFL with a 41.5 net average; the all-time franchise record for net punting average is 39.8 yards, which was set in 2017. The Steelers have allowed just one punt return of 20-or-more yards, and the longest kickoff return was for 46 yards.

As for the performance of the specialists, the biggest and best news for the team has been the way Chris Boswell rebounded from his only poor season with the team. In 2018, Boswell was 13-for-20 (65 percent) on his field goal attempts, and he also led the NFL with five missed PATs. The seven missed field goals represented 41.2 percent of his total of missed field goal attempts over the course of his 64 regular season games with the Steelers. But so far in 2019, Boswell is perfect – 11-for-11 on field goal attempts, and 12-for-12 on PATs.

When it comes to Berry, his current 47.1 gross average would be a career high if he maintains it, and the 41.5 net average would represent a franchise record. The Steelers never have had a net punting average of as much as 40.0 over the course of any of their previous 86 NFL seasons.

But without Roethlisberger for the rest of the season, with the offense continuing to evolve without its franchise quarterback, and with the defense working to establish an identity as it keeps incorporating its new players, special teams may need to do more than simply avert disaster with the return and coverage units. The one obvious area is blocking kicks, where the Steelers have ranked at or near the top of the NFL in that category in each of the previous couple of seasons.

The Steelers will come out of their bye weekend still in the AFC North race, and they're still in the AFC North race beyond the mathematics. At 2-4, the Steelers are but two games behind Baltimore, and even though they lost the first of the annual home-and-home, 26-23 in overtime, to the Ravens, there was nothing about the Ravens that was particularly intimidating that afternoon.

It's fair to characterize the Steelers still being in the thick of the AFC North race as being more a result of the absence of a dominant team in the division than it's about how well they have played to this point in the season. But why they're still in it is meaningless; it only matters that they're still in it. And that now they get to attempt to take advantage of it.

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