To read the answers to the five questions Neal had for me, click here.
Baltimore Beatdown: What's been the biggest reason for Pittsburgh's resurgence to get to 5-6?
Neal Coolong: It's been a combination of vastly improved pass protection (which has led to outstanding passing efficiency) and the creation of splash plays on defense. Pittsburgh had four sacks and no takeaways in opening the season 0-4. In the last four games, they've had 13 sacks and nine takeaways. Ben Roethlisberger has only been sacked twice in their last two games, and they scored 37 and 27 points, respectively.
To frame those numbers, the Steelers had 37 sacks and 20 takeaways all last season. all of last season, and the pace they've established over the last four games stretched out over a 16-game season would give them 52 - the same amount Kansas City led the NFL with in 2012.
Those are winning stats. The fact the Steelers haven't had them for two seasons and change explains pretty clearly why they haven't been winning.
BB: Has the running game made any improvements since the first Ravens-Steelers game? Granted, the Steelers are still 30th in that category, is there anything pointing in a positive direction at this time?
NC: Nope. Since rushing for 141 yards against the Ravens in Week 7, Pittsburgh has averaged just north of 80 yards per game on the ground. If their passing game has been "Cats" on Broadway, their running game has been "Red, White and Blaine." The most positive thing to say about it right now is there's always a possibility they just stop trying to run the ball. I don't see that as a realistic option, but for as much as they've improved in pass protection, their run blocking has stayed on par with the dismal levels at which they began the season.
In fact, at their current pace, this will become the worst rushing team in Steelers history, and that includes all the years in which Merril Hoge was their primary running back.
BB: Even with the Steelers ranked 23rd against the run, do you think they'll be able to contain the Ravens' running game as most teams have? The Steelers stifled it earlier in the year as well, so is that something that should happen once again?
NC: I think they can largely stop it, yes. Baltimore doesn't seem to have much going over it in terms of its A gap protection. Struggling through the growing pains of Gino Gradkowski and Kelechi Osemele has stopped Baltimore's run game enough on their own, but as we saw two weeks ago, sometimes things can click despite obvious limitations.
The real issue for the Steelers hasn't been the top-to-bottom freedom of opponents to run at will, but rather, the big plays given up. Take out Terrelle Pryor's 93-yard run, the Steelers held Oakland to 2.8 yards a carry. Take out Adrian Peterson's 60-yard run, they held the Vikings to 3.5 yards a carry.
Take those runs out of their season total, their yards per carry drops from 4.2 to 3.7 (tied for 4th in the NFL), and 105 yards a game (12th in the NFL).
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas. But it's not a terrible run defense overall, they just have given up too many big plays in general (the passing game too).
BB: What's been the Pittsburgh reaction to Joe Flacco voicing his displeasure of the Wildcat formation used last week against the Jets? Or is it anything even on their radar? If anything, what's your take on the situation?
NC: I don't think there has been much of a buzz surrounding it. Roethlisberger said something along those lines (although much much diplomatically), and I think it just makes sense for a starting quarterback to not want to see the back-up taking snaps in the middle of a game - much less for the starting quarterback to be on the field when it happens.
The Steelers have similar struggles rushing the football, so the fact they toed those waters a little bit wasn't all that surprising. They didn't run 12 of those plays in a game, either. That seems excessive.
My take would be simply that Flacco's resentment toward it is very understandable, if not justified, but he probably should have just filed it under "keep it in-house" and dealt with it that way. I'm sure Flacco's own ideas on how to jump-start a beleaguered Ravens running game are taken into consideration, but publicly criticizing what very well could have been a move to make future opponents prepare for Taylor as well as Flacco probably wasn't the best way to go.
BB: Have Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley grown closer to being on the same page or is there still an apparent rift between the two?
NC: As the saying goes, float trade rumors, sit back and reap the success. At least I think that's a saying, I heard Ian Rapoport has a source confirming that it is.
I think they're definitely making things work now. It's hard to say flat-out whether that's due to the two of them signing a peace accord or they've both been in agreement recently on the specific plans going against their recent opponents, but what is clear is Roethlisberger is playing much more decisive football. Some credit should go to the pass protection, but he's not hulking out and going into Big Ben Has No Fear of Pass Rushers mode either. He's getting rid of the ball on time, and with an exception or two here and there, has made outstanding decisions with the football.
This is a team that didn't score on an opening drive until Week 10, but has in their last two. They've scored 64 points in their last two games, which is by far and away the highest two-game total in the Haley Era. If they're finally indulging in their Bromance, that's fine. If they're throwing down Fight Club style the day before each game, that's fine too. Whatever it is, I hope they keep doing it.