At this juncture, trying to attach an asterisk to the Steelers’ undefeated record based on strength of schedule is more of a “hot take” than it is insightful or accurate analysis.
Five-and-oh is 5-0.
There are two other teams in the NFL who have gone 5-for-5 through the season’s first month-plus.
It’s just the second time the Steelers have been 5-0 in franchise history.
It’s a big deal, even if they beat the Giants, Broncos, Texans, Eagles and Browns to get there.
Unfortunately, 5-0 isn’t going to mean a great deal this Sunday at Tennessee.
The game has changed in the wake of Devin Bush’s knee injury.
Although this isn’t as potentially devastating as losing Ben Roethlisberger turned out to be a season ago, Bush, by nature of the position he plays and the physical skill set he brings to the table, was on the very short list of players whose loss would be perceived as a season-altering development.
You don’t replace Bush.
We’re about to find out if the Steelers can navigate their way around not having him.
But first we’re gonna find out how serious they really are about playing run defense.
They can play that without Bush against Tennessee; the question is, will they?
Titans running back Derrick Henry will test their resolve, it’s what he does.
His 212-yard explosion on the ground in last Sunday’s overtime victory over Houston and Henry’s 53-yard catch-and-run reception in overtime included too many “business decisions” on the part of the Texans. Too many times defensive backs were taking an angle or otherwise making an effort that made it look as if they wanted to appear on tape as if they’d just missed out on an opportunity to make a tackle, when the goal all along was actually to make certain they’d avoid bodily harm.
“There are people that are intimidated by him, and there are tangible things to be intimidated by,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged. “This is like Bud Dupree running the football. This guy gets into your secondary, it’s like trying to tackle a guy like Bud, except he’s faster, obviously, than Bud.
“You can see DBs having issues with that. Hopefully, we minimize the amount of times that our guys are in those circumstances and, hopefully, when our guys are in those circumstances they do what they have to do, they do what the job requires them to do.”
The Texans did not and Henry made them pay all the way through a 5-yard touchdown run from the Wildcat formation that ended the game in the Titans’ favor.
“I definitely saw it, too,” defensive tackle Cam Heyward confirmed on his visit with the DVE Morning Show this week. “I was shocked. I will address that. You can’t turn anything down with him. The second you start turning anything down, you’ve already lost the game.
“We play a violent sport and he’s a heck of a dude, but we gang-tackle around here. We don’t like to leave guys on an island and we need to understand that. If we’re gonna tackle this big sucker, we’re gonna have to have one, two, three, four guys (around the ball). I’m all game for it.”
Traditionally, the Steelers have been that first and foremost, whether they’ve succeeded or failed in defending the run.
And Henry only rushed for 57 yards against Buffalo and 84 against Jacksonville, so clearly somebody has been tackling him.
So far this season the Steelers’ run defense has been much improved (ask Saquon Barkley).
But it’s the stuffing of Cleveland’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack last Sunday that deserves as asterisk in Tomlin’s estimation.
“We answered that challenge, but at the same time as you look at the tape, because we were able to get out in front of those guys, it kind of changed the trajectory of the game,” Tomlin noted. “We didn’t get an opportunity to see if we are capable of standing up versus their type of a running game over the course of four quarters just because of game circumstance.”
They will this Sunday … unless they get ahead 24-0 again.
Accomplish that and they’ll have a great chance of ending up with a 6-0 record, one to which qualifiers regarding what it took to get there need not be applied.
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