Coming off back to back wins, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin feels the Steelers are a team on the upswing. “Our most complete performance to this year, ” Tomlin said today of Sunday’s 27-12 win over Washington. “We played sixty minutes {football} in all three phases. Lot of positives, great overall team effort.”
“Challenges await us this week,” Tomlin added.
The challenges do await the Steelers this week.
After struggling to beat teams they should in the first five weeks of the season, the Steelers have reversed that trend with back to back wins against the Bengals and Redskins.
Before the schedule becomes very favorable in the coming weeks, we find out this week whether the defending Super Bowl Champs put the Steelers back into their place or if the Steelers are truly a team on the upswing and potentially ready to emerge as a true contender in the AFC.
“We need this challenge,” Tomlin said of his football club.
“Playing defending World Champs in their place. They do things that winning teams do. Outscored their opponents by more than forty points in the 4th quarter. They do what’s required.”
The two biggest challenges for the Steelers Sunday will be on defense and Pittsburgh’s offensive line going up against one of the NFL’s best front-four. They are both units for the Steelers whose play has been on the upswing, after struggles earlier in the season.
For the last seven quarters, the Steelers defensively have looked like a different team than they did the first five games of the season, despite getting no impact in the pass rushing department from their two premier outside rushers, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, who have combined for no sacks in the last two games.
Personnel wise the Steelers have had a number of players step up their play in the past two games with cornerback Keenan Lewis being the main headliner, in addition to Casey Hampton and Ziggy Hood on the defensive line.
The Steelers on Sunday face the best offense they have seen since their week 1 loss to the Denver Broncos where Peyton Manning picked them apart.
“Eli Manning, he is a winner,” Tomlin said of the two-time Super Bowl winning QB. Manning hasn’t put up MVP numbers this season, throwing 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions but he continues to be the most clutch quarterback in football. “Delivers in critical moments,”Tomlin said. “Good above the neck, can make any throw on the field. He’s got savvy that comes with experience he has.”
While Manning has been susceptible to throwing INT’s at times, he’s a hard QB to get do as Manning has a strong offensive line in front of him and has only been sacked six times this season.
That could be trouble for the Steelers and in defending the pass, Sunday could be the game that Troy Polamalu’s absence shows as the Giants have the ability to give the Steelers a number of matchup problems.
It all starts with wide receiver Victor Cruz who is one of the NFL’s most complete receivers with 52 receptions for 650 yards and 7 touchdowns. The Giants do a great job of using Cruz inside and on the outside.
“No. 1 target is Victor Cruz, plays outside and inside,” Tomlin said of Cruz. “Great hands, just a complete, complete player.”
The Steelers secondary will also be tested with Hakeem Nicks on the outside, who’s numbers have been down this season due to a knee injury. Nicks has 26 receptions for 380 yards and 1 touchdown. “Hakeem Nicks, like to match him up with a single corner. Good strong hands, tough guy who challenges corners with weak side of formations, slants and posts,” Tomlin said.
Domenik Hixon rounds out the top-3 and has 25 receptions and 370 receiving yards on the season. “Hixon does nice job, big play ability,” Tomlin said.
The Giants receiving group is five deep with big play ability.
Ramses Barden, a big target at 6-foot-6, has been bumped to No. 4/No.5 receiver with Nicks return but is second on the team with 6 catches of 20+ yards and had a 9 reception, 138 yard receiving game against the Panthers on 9/20. Even rookie Rueben Randle is a threat when he gets on the field. Randle is averaging 16.5 yards per catch and had a long catch of 56 yards against the Cowboys on Sunday.
The Giants weapons don’t end at the receiver position and Tomlin seems concerned about tight end Martellus Bennett giving the Steelers matchup problems on Sunday. Tomlin praised Bennett’s size and elusiveness as a route runner, leading to his ability to creating matchup problems for not only linebackers but also safeties.
Matellus Bennett, great route runner, causes problems for safeties with size and linebackers with his quickness,” Tomlin said of the 6-foot-6, 270-pound tight end.
What makes the Giants so hard to defend is not just their big play ability in the passing game but when they want to run, they can.
Ahmad Bradshaw leads the Giants with 570 rushing yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, and No. 2 back Andre Brown is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and has a team-high 5 rushing touchdowns. Bradshaw and Brown have combined for 9 touchdowns.
“Bradshaw is their lead dog,” Tomlin said.
The Steelers offensive line of Max Starks – Willie Colon – Maurkice Pouncey – Ramon Foster – Mike Adams is taking off as a group and for the first time in the Tomlin era, the O-line looks like an area of strength.
This group is starting to come together for a number of reasons. Max Starks continues to be a solid left tackle in this game and where would the Steelers be the last two years without him, Willie Colon is starting to find his comfort zone at left guard, emerging as a dominant run blocker the past two games, Maurkice Pouncey has emerged as the games best center but the key to this group has been the play on the right side of the offensive line.
Ramon Foster is playing very well as his play continues to be under-appreciated and Mike Adams has been a big surprise and the tape doesn’t lie, he’s been an upgrade for now over Marcus Gilbert.
This group faces the toughest challenge they will face all season going up against the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and we’re going to find out if the Steelers O-line is for real like they’ve shown the past two weeks.
“Boy they create havoc in opponents backfield,” Tomlin said of the Giants front-four. “Jason Pierre-Paul leads the charge in that group.”
Pierre-Paul is one of football’s elite defensive ends and he’s a mismatch for nearly every tackle in the NFL and Max Starks is going to have his hands full. Coming off a 16.5 sack season in 2011, the third year pro has 5.5 sacks on the season, 4 tackles for loss and 5 passes defended and 1 interception.
What makes this group so dangerous is that Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Umenyiora and Chris Canty are extremely versatile and the Giants coaching staff can give opponents so many different looks by moving them inside and outside.
“They have a four man rush crew where they have Tuck inside, Usi outside, Pierre-Paul outside, Canty inside,” Tomlin said. “Great individual rushers.”
Troy Polamalu and Marcus Gilbert all been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Stevenson Sylvester is unlikely to play……The Steelers are expecting Ryan Clark (concussion) to play and the Steelers are likely to get Isaac Redman back into the fold. Whether Rashard Mendenhall joins the mix this week remains to be seen but Mendenhall has been cleared for individual workouts. Mendenhall though is likely a longshot at this point.
Here’s what Tomlin had to say today: “Nothing has changed with the status of Ryan Clark. He sustained a concussion in the game last Sunday, and we’ll continue to monitor him throughout the week. There is a battery of processes he has to go through in order to get clearance and rightfully so. We’ll proceed with that protocol tomorrow.
Rashard Mendenhall will be cleared to start individual work tomorrow, and that will be a step in the right direction for him.
Jonathan Dwyer, right quad strain, is tentatively scheduled not to practice tomorrow. He’s being evaluated today, and hopefully Thursday is a practice day for him.”
Stevenson Sylvester is very questionable with a hamstring.
LaMarr Woodley’s hamstring looks more promising than Sly’s. He might be limited here in the early portion of the week.”
Isaac Redman is scheduled to practice (Wednesday) and so is Brandon Johnson.”