The Pittsburgh Steelers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning their last five games and coming off a 52-21 Thursday Night Football stomping of the Carolina Panthers last week. Thanks to their recent play, head coach Mike Tomlin’s squad is back to being mentioned as a possible Super Bowl contender.
However, it was not so long ago that the Steelers were 1-2-1, with a defense that was struggling to stop opponents and an offense seemingly mired in quicksand. So, what’s been the difference? Well, we posed that question and a few others to Inside the NFL and NFL on CBS analyst Boomer Esiason to get his thoughts. You can catch Boomer, along with fellow analysts Ray Lewis and Phil Simms and host James Brown, on Inside the NFL every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. on Showtime.
CBS Local Sports: Since starting 1-2-1, the Steelers defense has really come alive, allowing opponents an average of just 18 points during their five-game winning streak. What’s been the biggest difference on that side of the ball?
Boomer Esiason: First of all, their pass rush is getting a lot better. T.J. Watt is getting after the opposing quarterback. When you have that sort of pass rush and you’re playing lesser quarterbacks, you’re going to have more success.
You also have to take into account who they are playing. How are the teams that they are playing doing at the moment that they are playing them. I would just say that they have basically run roughshod over the Bengals and the Ravens, and neither one of their offenses were playing all that great.
I would say they are catching teams at the right time. They are making the most of every single one of their opportunities against these lesser teams, and they have found their rhythm now.
When you couple that with their offense that’s putting up a lot of points, with Ben Roethlisberger coming off one of the greatest games of his career in the regular season, you can understand why everybody is excited about them.
CBS Local Sports: Meanwhile, on offense, James Conner has really come into his own, ranking third in the league in rushing yards. He’s the not same as Le’Veon Bell, obviously, but what are his biggest strengths?
Boomer Esiason: He is the heartbeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I don’t care what anybody says. He is now everything that is Steelers. He’s low-paid, working hard; he reflects the Steelers’ fan base. This is why he is becoming a legend as we are sitting here watching him. What you have to hope if you are a Steelers fan is that he doesn’t get hurt, because it does not look like Le’Veon Bell is coming back.
It’s always a luxury having two terrific running backs. The Steelers right now have one and they have one sitting out. I hope this story continues, because it is one of the best stories in the NFL this year.
CBS Local Sports: Looking more league-wide now, Roethlisberger is one of 16 starting quarterbacks completing 66 percent of their passes or more this season. What do you think is the biggest reason we’re seeing such high completion rates from many of the QBs in the League?
Boomer Esiason: First and foremost, it is the NFL rule changes and emphasis on defensive holding, illegal contact and pass interference. The other aspect is that defensive players are not allowed to do what they used to do in the secondary or to the quarterback from a physical standpoint.
Those players aren’t likely to levy those intimidating hits that would resonate throughout a game. I think that has had an impact. I do also believe that the wide receiver position is stocked and loaded with so many great athletes. When you combine with some of the young and really up-and-coming quarterbacks, like the return of Andrew Luck, emergence of Jared Goff and, of course, Patrick Mahomes; you have the makings for an offensive league overall.
CBS Local Sports: One other thing that has been growing over the past couple years is teams going for it on fourth down. As a former player, what do you think of the more aggressive approach that many coaches take on fourth down in today’s game?
Boomer Esiason: I like aggressive, I don’t like reckless. Every situation is different, not every situation is the same. I don’t necessarily know that all of the analytics behind some of the decision-making really makes a lot of sense, because every game and every situation is always different, depending on how you are playing and how the opponent is playing. There are other factors too, like who is the quarterback on the other team? What is the score in the game? Where are you in the game?
There are a lot of variables and factors that go into this. But, the one thing that cannot be denied is that coaches are definitely being more aggressive. As a former player, given the state of the rules now in the NFL, going for it seems to me to be the right thing to do.