The Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in unfamiliar territory entering Week 9: toiling well under .500 at 2-5. It wasn’t long ago that they boarded a transcontinental flight from London back across the pond at 0-4, going winless in September and sitting in the basement of the AFC North. Despite a pair of wins in the past three weeks, they remain buried in the basement.
A year after posting consecutive 12-4 seasons, the Steelers finished 8-8 last season, leading some to wonder exactly what the direction of the roster should be. The team still has a franchise quarterback playing and some unique skill players on offense, but an aging defense and questions along the offensive line were among the chief concerns entering this season.
After Sunday’s most recent loss (at the hands of the Raiders), there are some who are wondering if it’s too late for the Steelers to turn this season around.
In the thick of it or not, they’d like nothing more than to come into Gillette Stadium and take down a familiar foe in the Patriots.
For more on the Steelers, here’s our weekly introduction.
Head coach: Mike Tomlin (7th season)
Offensive coordinator: Todd Haley (second season)
Defensive coordinator: Dick LeBeau (10th season)
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE
1. QB Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is part of an exclusive club of current NFL quarterbacks with two Super Bowl rings, along with Tom Brady and Eli Manning. Big Ben has been one of the league’s best since his rookie season back in 2004, twice being named to the Pro Bowl. He stands at 6-foot-5 and some 240 pounds, making him at his best when he can move around in the pocket and extend plays. Though not an electric athlete, Roethlisberger is a load to bring down and can make something out of nothing. That, along with a strong arm, make him a tough challenge for any defense.
2. WR Antonio Brown. He doesn’t fit the mold of most of today’s elite receivers, but Brown is a superb talent nonetheless. At just 5-10, 185 pounds -- tiny in comparison to many of the tight end-like wideouts who dominate the league -- Brown is a terrific run-after-catch player with Wes Welker-esque quickness. He’s the NFL’s leader in catches, and the Steelers will find any way under the sun to get him the football. He can catch it deep and also near the line of scrimmage. Once he has the ball in his hands, he’s slippery in the open field.
3. RB Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round with a specific role in mind: to be their starter and the workhorse from the backfield. A foot injury shelved him for the early portion of the regular season, but Bell has been sufficient of late, combining for 117 yards and a touchdown over his past two games. The Michigan State product has helped stabilize the running back position after a roulette of veterans struggled in his absence.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE
1. LB Lawrence Timmons. Facing the Steelers, you can be assured that the defense will be fortified by strong linebacker play. Timmons is no exception, as the team leader in tackles with 59. A terrific athlete who can cover ground in pass defense, Timmons is currently dealing with a broken hand that forced him to wear a cast in Week 8. The injury didn’t appear to bother him too much, as he still racked up eight tackles.
2. LB LaMarr Woodley. After a quiet 2012 campaign, Woodley has bounced back this season to lead the Steelers with five sacks through just seven games. A product of Michigan, Woodley has plenty of in-line power to bull rush through an opposing offensive tackle, and the ability to bend and turn the corner as well. The Steelers love to run LeBeau’s patented fire zones (zone blitzes that confuse a quarterback), and Woodley routinely finds himself causing havoc in an opposing backfield.
3. S Troy Polamalu. Polamalu isn’t the same player he was in seasons past, but he still remains one of the more enjoyable safeties to watch in all of football. He’s impossible to miss as he flies around the field, often creeping right to the line of scrimmage (he loves to time up snap counts) and making an impact as an in-the-box run defender. His production in the passing game has slipped of late, but he has uncommon instincts and the confidence to jump routes that can lead to costly turnovers for an offense.
OTHER NOTES: Perhaps no stat is more startling for the Steelers than the fact that they were the last team to force a turnover this season and that they have forced just five in seven games. ... Offensive line woes have plagued the Steelers, and their best lineman, Maurkice Pouncey, is on injured reserve. ... After testing out a couple of players at left tackle, the Steelers traded for Levi Brown from the Cardinals. In pre-game warmups of his debut, he suffered a triceps injury that landed him on injured reserve. Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round draft pick in 2012, is now the starter. ... They are currently 30th in team rushing yards per game.