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Bills vs. Steelers 2013: five questions with the enemy

To prepare for the Buffalo Bills' Week 10 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, we spoke with Neal Coolong at SB Nation's Steelers site, Behind the Steel Curtain. Read on for his take on key Steelers players and themes.

Jim Rogash

Pittsburgh's embattled offensive line has been beat up. Mike Tomlin is talking about making personnel changes this week, and David DeCastro has been cleared to practice. What do you think the starting five up front will be this weekend, and how much could DeCastro's return help the unit?

Coolong: Beaten up and down is probably more appropriate. The "personnel change" thing didn't really work when Guy Whimper replaced the injured DeCastro, and it's not like Kelvin Beachum is shining in replacement of Mike Adams at left tackle (actually he replaced Levi Brown, who lasted three practices and one pregame warmup before going on injured reserve - sort of like a christening on the Steelers offensive line). There really aren't any changes left to make. If I was to venture a guess, left to right, I'd say Beachum, Ramon Foster, Fernando Velasco, DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert. Publish this quickly, though, they still have two more practices (and a pregame warmup) to get through.

After a slow start to the season, Pittsburgh's running game has rebounded nicely over the last several weeks. Talk about the importance of Le'Veon Bell to what the Steelers do offensively - he's been a standout on the screen pass, as well.

Coolong: There wasn't really anywhere for it to go but up after the first three games. Over the last five, the Steelers are averaging just under 87 yards a game. Bell has been a big part of the offense in general, averaging over 20 touches a game and accounting for pretty much all of those 87 yards per contest. He runs well in space, although he could be a tad more aggressive in moving up field. He has light feet, and can make guys miss in space, but he leans on that a bit too much. It results in a few more one-yard and zero gain carries than he should be having. But he's a dynamic player, and poised to have a breakout game in the near future.

Uncharacteristically, the Steelers have struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. They rank 29th with 13 sacks. They've also struggle against the run, ranking 31st surrendering 131.2 yards per game this season. What has gone wrong for the Steelers in those two categories, specifically?

Coolong: I'm not sure the lack of sacks is all that uncharacteristic anymore. They had 72 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012 (the Chiefs have 36 sacks through nine games this year). Offenses have gotten to the point around the league where they have capable quarterbacks and much deeper receiving groups than they did even just five years ago. The Steelers' pass defense in the past has been predicated on disguising where blitzers are coming from, and creating sacks from that confusion, and interceptions based on misreads by the quarterback in presnap. Teams are recognizing those blitzes much more effectively now, and game plans have been for quarterbacks to take what the defense is giving them - shorter routes, multiple option routes and quick throws from the quarterback.

That's limited sack opportunities quite a bit. The amount of pressure the Steelers have been getting isn't quite as bad as their sack numbers suggest, but they simply aren't making as many plays on the ball as they have in the past.

Against the run, I'd say it's just really a lack of dominant run defenders as they've had in the past. Neither Jason Worilds nor Jarvis Jones can hold the athletic supporter of former James Harrison against the run. I don't feel any outside linebacker in his generation played the run better than Harrison did. He's gone. Casey Hampton is one of the best - if not the best - zero-technique nose tackle of his generation against the run. Steve McLendon is a good player, but he's not Hampton against the run.

Rookie Vince Williams shouldn't be out there in a perfect world - he replaced Larry Foote, who's been on injured reserve since Week 2. Free safety Ryan Clark is not the sure-tackling player he's been in the past. Their stats reflect a very poor run defense, and it's hard to argue with it. Specifically, those stats are being caused more by big plays than thorough beatings on the ground. I suspect we'll see much of the same in Week 10.

Sunday's game in New England saw franchise lows for the Steelers in yards (610) and points (55) surrendered. Even still, it seems like more of an aberration game than anything. What do you expect Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and the Steelers to do to quickly turn around the fortunes of the defense? (Playing a rookie quarterback will almost certainly help, right?)

Coolong: The game against the Patriots was tied at 24 with the Steelers kicking off midway through the third quarter. It got out of hand at the end with New England hitting on a few big plays late. They gave the Steelers as savage of a fourth quarter beating as you'll ever see in this league. Clearly, though, the Patriots made their mark by using big plays and attacking the vertical stem of the Steelers' defense.

I'd say it's fair to call that game an aberration - most games with one team putting up those kinds of numbers in the NFL are. But it's not like the Steelers would win six of the next nine those teams played. I think Buffalo is a better top-to-bottom running team than the Patriots are, but, like most teams in the NFL, they don't have that freakishly explosive receiver, like New England has with Rob Gronkowski.

LeBeau's defense is very rough on rookie quarterbacks - he's 16-2 all-time since taking over the defensive coordinator position in Pittsburgh in 2004. My guess is the Steelers will challenge Buffalo at the line of scrimmage, clogging up as much running room as possible (run blitzes constantly) and force Buffalo to put the ball in the air. I used to feel confident in that strategy, and I like to think the Steelers' secondary can't play any worse than it did last week, but who knows now? I like the Steelers' chances to force Buffalo to be one-dimensional, but I'm not top-to-bottom confident they can prevent big plays.

Not that you haven't seen this before with defected Steelers front office executives, but the Bills have Doug Whaley at GM, and feature two starters that are ex-Steelers (guards Kraig Urbik and Doug Legursky) and two more role players that fit the same description (fullback Frank Summers and defensive lineman Corbin Bryant). Bills fans haven't witnessed something like that in ages, so: how weird, gratifying, and at times frustrating (i.e. Urbik) is it to see another team built in the same image as your own, with many former players doing some of the heavy lifting?

Coolong: Steelers fans have a running joke of calling the Arizona Cardinals "Steelers West" due to the large amount of coaching and player defections to that franchise. Buffalo became "Steelers Northeast." Since both of those teams are currently having better seasons than Pittsburgh, maybe we should just feel happy our team was able, in some small way, to assist.


What's interesting with Buffalo is they took players who didn't make the Steelers' roster, while Arizona took the veterans on the downward cycle of their careers. Urbik, a third-round pick, was cut after training camp his second season (still discussed extensively within SteelerNation), a move that, in many ways, is the clearest example of failure among a team that's drafted very poorly in the middle rounds over the last few years. Maybe the team can blame the absence of Whaley for that.

Something similar can be said for Bryant, although the Steelers have drafted two first-round picks in the last five years at that spot, and have veteran utility guys like him on the roster already. Summers was cut at a time the team didn't use a fullback - but they do now. Legursky was fairly viewed as an expensive backup this offseason when the decision was made to not re-sign him. As it turns out, keeping him may have been a good idea, considering Maurkice Pouncey went down eight plays into the season, and won't return until training camp.

I still don't get the Urbik decision. He basically redshirted in 2009, and apparently the overabundance of talent the Steelers had at guard in 2010 (ahem) compelled them to cut him in favor of... Legursky. Why do I get the feeling much of this rests on the keen eye and proven track record of former Bills and Steelers' offensive line coach Sean Kugler? We should have gotten together to watch that UTEP vs. A&M game. Therapy for both of us.