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Five Questions - Pittsburgh Steelers - Week Two Edition

I sat down and talked to Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain, SB Nation's Pittsburgh Steelers site, a little about the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers. Week two of the NFL season is upon us and it's a Thursday game to boot.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

I sat down and talked to Neal Coolong from Behind the Steel Curtain, SB Nation's Pittsburgh Steelers site, a little about the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers. Week two of the NFL season is upon us and it's a Thursday game to boot.

Q1: Ben Roethlisberger is getting older and he’s taken a lot of hard hits over the years. We’ve seen him take fewer risks with his body over the last few seasons, but how has that affected the offense’s ability to sustain drives and to make big plays?

A: They had five scoring drives of 50 yards or more against Cleveland, and I think a big part of that is, like you said, a more sparing use of Ben the Gunslinger, and an offense that isn’t solely reliant on his ability to make chicken salad out of know… In that, he’s come around to making much better decisions with the ball (minus an interception he clearly was upset with against Cleveland). What also helps is the Steelers have clearly built a team with the idea in mind of playing fast in space. They don’t utilize spread offensive formations, but the routes they’re running are designed to stretch the middle of the field, and create what’s essentially a runway for a few very talented open field runners (Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell displayed that concept very well in Week 1). It’s not as if it won’t ever break down and Ben won’t go off schedule. He did an excellent job against the Browns on a shorter pass that broke down. Ben made a few moves and slithered his way to his right. Antonio Brown broke off his route and out-ran Joe Haden to the front right pylon, made a great catch and scored. That danger will always be there for opposing defenses, and in that, the danger of Roethlisberger getting hit will be there as well. He was sacked three times against the Browns, and protection struggled a bit in the second half.

Q2: What weakness in the Steelers’ defense should the Ravens offense focus?

A: Why would I want the Ravens offense to focus on any Steelers weakness? If they were paying me, which they absolutely should not (but I would gladly accept the position), I thought Cleveland did a great job isolating a confused Steelers’ front seven in the running game. It seemed they targeted rookie ILB Ryan Shazier in the ground game, and did a great job as an offensive line getting their guards to the second level to make blocks. Baltimore also has an athletic and talented interior offensive line, and I would expect much of the same Thursday. It doesn’t take Bill Walsh to see the issues the Steelers’ entire defense had against the no huddle, so I would expect Baltimore to employ that as well. I wonder if they’ll follow Cleveland’s lead and use in the second half. It was a well-placed strategy, not giving the defense a halftime period to make adjustments. They laid it on thick in that second half, and made an excellent comeback. Baltimore has the weapons to do something similar, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they used it.

Q3: What is the weapon on the Steelers’ offense that the Ravens need to pay extra attention to?

A: The underneath stuff set up for Brown is particularly dangerous. They use legal (and probably illegal) moving screens to get him in space, and he’s as talented with the ball in his hands as any player in the league. It’s truly a team defensive effort to contain him and with Bell on the field - often on the other side, as we saw in Week 1, it’ll be difficult to contain the spontaneity of the Steelers’ passing game. Along with that, one thing I was really impressed with regarding the Steelers was how well the offensive linemen moved on screen passes. That’s been a point of frustration for the Steelers for several years now, and what they may lack in terms of pass protection on deeper drops they make up for with athleticism on quick screens. I would expect the Steelers to use those as well to set up more aggressive moves down the field. I would think the passing game in general will be the Steelers’ weapon of choice, considering it’s more difficult to throw a basketball into a shopping cart from 300 yards than it is to run on the Ravens. They’re going to have to find a way to open that middle up, and they’re going to have to out-muscle what is traditionally one of the strongest and most disciplined defensive lines in the NFL. Translation: The Steelers won’t gain a huge amount on the ground, but they’re going to have to run to try to soften it up.

Q4: Who is the player Ravens fans haven't heard about that we should watch out for?

A: Markus Wheaton is currently the From Nowhere Steelers player. He did an excellent job Sunday, having caught two passes on the game’s final drive, setting up the game-winning field goal, as well as hauling in a 40-yarder down the field in the first quarter. Roethlisberger clearly has a great deal of confidence in Wheaton, and the fact he caught six of the seven passes he got - the seventh being a less-than-stellar throw deep down the field. I want to temper expectations for him, considering he was covered primarily by rookie CB Justin Gilbert (have fun with him, by the way, Cleveland’s already talking about benching him though. He was pretty bad). Baltimore’s secondary is vastly superior due to the talent it has as well as the lack of a player as substandard as Gilbert. It’ll be a much tougher battle Thursday, and I would expect Baltimore to limit him much more than Cleveland did.

Q5: The Steelers have always had an excellent defense. What happened to blow a 24 point lead to the Browns?

A: The "excellent" defense did not play "excellently." I alluded to this earlier, the no-huddle offense Cleveland threw at them in the second half really took them off guard and they just didn’t adjust to what Cleveland was doing. I walked away from that game more impressed with Cleveland’s offense than I was bemoaning the Steelers’ defense. It’s still a young unit, they haven’t had a ton of time together, and I kind of figured the D would let the team down here and there. To be fair, though, Pittsburgh’s offense went ice cold in the second half too, and trotting a no-huddle out there against a tired unit that can’t adjust is certainly a successful way to make a big comeback. Pittsburgh’s defense has work to do, and it’ll take a few more games before they reach their highest potential. I don’t want to suggest Cleveland’s offense was anything less than impressive, though. I don’t care who you’re playing, at the NFL level, if you go three straight drives - and one play from a fourth - without making a mistake, you’re playing at an outstanding level. The Steelers will need to figure out the no-huddle and the variations that come with that, and I expect Baltimore to plan to use it as soon as they see the package they feel gives them an advantage. The Ravens will want to keep Pittsburgh’s offense off the field, and while I say this every year and it never ends up being accurate, they’ll want to limit their deep passing and try to work within a rhythm-passing game off play-action. In my mind, that’s when Joe Flacco is at his best. They’ll need to run well to really set that up.

Q6: What are the keys to a Steelers victory on Thursday?

A: The offense has to be able to establish a running game, both zone and power. They need to move safeties in, and Roethlisberger needs to make good decisions. We’ve seen this series become about as conservative as there is in the NFL, and it’s far more likely we see a field position battle as opposed to a scoring bonanza. I think the field position game favors the Ravens more, and the Steelers will want to try to flip the field with big plays. Tough to come by against that defense though. Defensively, they need to be much tougher up front. Baltimore has not run the ball well in a while, and they’ll need to work to make that streak continue, while remaining tight in coverage.

Q7: What are the keys to a Ravens victory on Thursday?

A: Using the no huddle in the right situations, and not getting off-schedule with neutral and negative runs on early downs, or missed throws or drops. Those seem to have plagued them in their loss to Cincinnati, from what I saw. Flacco’s third down passing seems to be the common trait in most of the Ravens’ wins against the Steelers, so getting him good field to work with on third downs, and treating it more as a marathon than a sprint seems to be the key to their success.

Q8: Where do the Steelers finish in the AFC North in 2014 and how do the Steelers finish the season (miss playoffs, postseason one and done, SuperBowl)?

A: I really just don’t know right now. We’ve seen fantastic things, we’ve seen terrible things. I think the offense will really have to carry them in the early part of the season, the defense is just too new and young. They also aren’t making plays - Brian Hoyer threw 31 passes, no interceptions (although two of them were very close). It seems like an 8-8 or maybe 9-7 team this year. Maybe that’s a playoff berth, maybe they get hot at the end of the year again like they did last year. It’s certainly a more talented offensive team than it was last year. Maybe that’s enough to do some damage come January, but it’s certainly possible the defense doesn’t come together in time, and Week 17 is the end of the road again.