Blogger Q&A: Five questions with Behind the Steel Curtain's Neal Coolong

Larry French

With the Ravens and Steelers set to renew their rivalry, we got an inside look at the opposition.

Two days remain before the NFL's most intense rivalry renews.

With that in mind, it's time to get a good look at what the Steelers look like beyond their 1-4 record. We asked Neal Coolong of Behind the Steel Curtain to answer five questions about this year's team.

Here's what he had to say:

From the outside, it seemed Pittsburgh's offensive line was the biggest worry heading into the season, given that even without Mike Wallace, the receivers are talented and tough to defend. Are you seeing any progress with this unit after opening the season with four consecutive losses?

Progress, yes, if only having to replace two starters so far this year instead of the three or four they usually replace in-season counts as progress. Otherwise, I think the numbers speak more clearly to that. Pittsburgh is 25th in sacks allowed, 31st in rushing yards per game and 30th in yards per carry. That's not all on the offensive line, but several bizarre circumstances will have had to happen to achieve those numbers with the presence of a strong, consistent offensive line.

They seemed to show better continuity in the ground game against Minnesota in Week 4, but were clearly overmatched on the ground against the Jets — one of the best run-stopping defenses in the league. More to the larger picture, though, the problem has existed for much longer than four or five games. This offensive line has struggled since 2011 — and Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster are carry-overs from that time. They drafted David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Kelvin Beachum since then. The needle hasn't moved much, if at all, in that time.

Is Le'Veon Bell as good as advertised, even in the limited action you've seen from him through six weeks?

Bell's done some good things, but he's still got some rough edges. It seemed to me like he missed a few running lanes against the Jets (an opinion Steelers coach Mike Tomlin disputed). He seemed to wear the appropriate sweatsuit on game day for the Steelers' first three, for which he was injured, so he was off to a decent start.

Against Minnesota, he made a few really nice open field cuts to elude defenders, and showed the sense of timing and reaction speed necessary to make guys miss. He didn't do anything of particular value against the Jets, but again, that's an outstanding run defense. He'll continue to build himself up the more carries he gets, but I'm optimistic on his future so far in his career.

Do you sense an internal riff with the organization and Todd Haley or is that an overblown talking point in your opinion?

As soon as someone from within the Steelers organization sues him for something, I'd feel more confident answering that directly. I'm not sure what the league's record for amount of times one coordinator gets slapped with a non-paternity lawsuit in a season, but Haley's gonna be considered in the hunt.

I'm making a few cheap jokes, but in reality, I'm not entirely sure what the organization would feel of him. The Steelers have invested quite a bit in an offensive line that isn't producing, but that line is young. They spent a high pick on a running back, and their quarterback has shown in many games he can thrive in what he's being given.   Haley has the keys, but what kind of car are they asking him to drive?

I'd say, if anything, when the Steelers had continuity along their line and a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, the offense under Haley is doing what the front office has madated he do - control the tempo of the game, lean on the run and keep Roethlisberger to high-percentage throws off play-action. Unfortunately, they haven't had a consistent offensive line and Roethlisberger has missed three of the team's last 11 games. Patience is likely to prevail, and this offense is now picking up a little steam.  

With both teams unable to run the ball much this season, do you get a sense this game could have a different feel than in previous years? Or do you think the Steelers will be able to get the running game on track this week?

I'm not so sure. The feel I have is Pittsburgh can't run the football against anyone over the last season and change, and they've basically never run well against Baltimore, so the feeling is probably the same. I really don't see any specific reason to believe the Steelers will be able to get 120 yards for one back against Baltimore the way Green Bay did with Eddie Lacy last week.

Tough, meaningful yards and a lot of contact are generally the characteristics of these games, and I think that feel will still be there. The Ravens have gotten off to a rough start on the ground, but much of it from what I've seen is an offensive line that was re-build, then changed up last week with the acquisition of Eugene Monroe. With a healthier left tackle in place, that could be enough for them to get their stretch zone going again.

Their offense feeds off the momentum generated from those plays, so the real question in my mind is whether Baltimore can get it on track against Pittsburgh.

Is Ike Taylor the ideal corner to match up against Torrey Smith, in the midst of his best season despite a one-catch, 12-yard performance last week, at this stage of their careers?

I think Taylor is a good match-up for Smith, and could be the most entertaining match-up of the whole game. Smith has made big improvements in his technique from his rookie year and looks much more consistent and smooth in his patterns and breaks. Taylor is a physical, aggressive corner who still has great long speed and has defended well overall.

Even great receivers have one-catch games here and there. Baltimore will look to get the ball to Smith early, the way they have the last two seasons' worth of games. I think Flacco threw deep for Smith within their first possession in both games last year. Taylor made a great play on one of them, but broke his leg in the process.

Win for Baltimore.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do the same thing this year. See what kind of game Taylor is going to play that afternoon. They're going to need to get something rolling down hill, and an early spark like that could be what their line needs to gain some confidence.


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