The Original Script:
It was supposed to be the offense that was to carry the Steelers until the the young defense began to gel as a unit. DeAngelo Williams was going to hold things down until LeVeon Bell returned, while Derrius Heyward-Bey would stretch defenses until Martavis Bryant finished his suspension. Williams led the league in rushing during his starting role, while Bey seems to have developed a reliable pair of hands. Antonio Brown was once again shredding defenses as he extended his 5 catch-50 yard per game streak to 34 games. What wasn’t supposed to happen, was the MCL Sprain/Bone bruise that has kept Ben Roethlisberger out since the early part of the win over the St. Louis Rams, just as the offense was starting to roll.
Life without Big Ben:
Due to a season ending injury to backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the Steelers brought in 14 year veteran Michael Vick. Bringing the first pick of the 2001 NFL Draft was a sound decision, although nobody anticipated the need to use him this much, so quickly. With Vick under center, the Steelers held on to beat the Rams and have split the two games he has started. Although he played well enough for the Steelers to win both of his starts, the offense is clearly not as efficient or effective without Roethlisberger. This really isn’t a knock against Vick, due to the fact that he is new to the system and simply hasn’t had the time to develop the chemistry with the receivers. At this point, Vick’s role is to protect the football and manage the game, and to not be the one to lose it.
The one thing that Vick needs to do however, is to get Antonio Brown involved more. He’ll need to use Brown’s playmaking abilities against Arizona, to help loosen up the running lanes for Bell. It also wouldn’t hurt Vick to move out of the pocket more so he can see his receivers better, and to create more plays with his legs. Still, Ben’s absence shows just how valuable he truly is. With Ben, this is about the most explosive offense in the league. Without Ben, it’s a unit that has some very talented individuals that struggles to consistently move the ball and put points on the board.
The Steelers revised script:
Initially, the idea was that the offense would have to carry this team until the young defense started to come together. Almost from the start of the season though, these young guys have been carrying their own weight, making plays, getting after the quarterback, and creating turnovers. Led by Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, Keith Butler’s unit has been much better than was anticipated early on, especially in the secondary. Early in camp when Senquez Golson was lost for the season, the Steelers traded a conditional draft pick to the Eagles for CB Brandon Boykin.
Having recently come off a 6 interception season, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Boykin would be seeing alot of playing time. The fact that he hasn’t is not an indictment of Boykin, but rather a testament to the performances of Antwon Blake, Willie Gay and Ross Cockrell. The secondary has done a most commendable job in coverage this season, allowing more pressure to get to the quarterback. After five games, the members of the secondary have recorded one sack and three interceptions, with Antwon Blake returning one for a touchdown.
Not to be outdone, the linebackers have done their share to help the defense keep the Steelers in games during Ben’s absence. As a unit they have registered 9.5 sacks, with rookie Bud Dupree recording nearly a third of them, with 3. He seems to be asserting himself more and more with each game. Jarvis Jones has been pretty solid himself, in part time duty, collecting 14 tackles and sack. He is getting to the point where he needs to be on the field more than James Harrison does. Dupree and Jones stepping up as they have, has been a key to the defense developing alot quicker than was expected. This has taken some pressure off of Vick and the offense, of the need to win games through a shootout.
Keith Butler deserves alot of credit for what is happening with the defense. He has tweaked the scheme and tailored the system to the talent he has on the roster. He simplified things as well, so that it would allow the young players to contribute sooner, and eliminate the thinking that previously slowed them down. The one issue that has plagued them this season has been maintaining gap discipline on blitzes, but they seemed to clean that up nicely against San Diego. Butler, who is my MVP to this point in the season, has done a tremendous job putting his players in a position to succeed ahead of schedule, allowing the Steelers to remain in contention while Ben is out.
The Road Ahead:
With the return of Ben Roethlisberger most likely occurring on October 25th against Kansas City, the worst the Steelers will be is 3-3 and trailing Cincinnati by three games. With the defense playing the way they have been and the return of an explosive offense under Big Ben, the Steelers will still have a very realistic chance of winning their second consecutive AFC North title. The fact that Ben and the offense will be backed up by a solid and improving defense, makes the Steelers the most dangerous team in the AFC. While it’s never good to lose your franchise quarterback, in this case, it might just turn out to be a blessing in disguise.