The distractions proved – as is often the case – to have a galvanising effect, and any doubts about the Steelers’ ability to replace Bell were quickly dispelled with the rise of dual-threat James Conner – someone who can run the ball and play a role as a receiver in the passing game.
Through the opening three weeks, Pittsburgh found their feet despite a high scoring loss to Kansas – which would prove to be something most teams have on their schedule. Even then James Conner seemed to be the man to step up and save Pittsburgh’s season.
By week five the second year running back was the second coming, he posted 110 yards rushing and 75 yards in the passing game as the Steelers started a streak of six straight wins –and in four of those Conner had over a 100 yards rushing and at least one touchdown in each.
Then Le’Veon Bell didn’t show up at a deadline that would have entitled him to get paid and walk away at the end of the season.
A video circulated of some of the team raiding his locker and sharing out what was left.
The video seemed to coincide with a turn back to a passing game, and last week Pittsburgh struggled to a 20-16 win over Jacksonville in a game where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions, only handing the ball off to the run nine times. Follow that up with a costly loss to Denver Broncos on Sunday, where once again they failed to run the ball, and it signifies an unexplained shift.
Teams often move away from the running game when losing, but the effectiveness of a dual-threat running back should allow the Steelers to move the ball using an RPO – where the quarterback chooses whether to hand off for a run or make a pass at the snap.
That’s something being used to significant effect by Kansas and both LA teams.
The Steelers have always had questions about their ability to win away from home in the play-offs, and without a run game to control the ball, they will struggle again.
Head coach Mike Tomlin knows the importance of bringing teams to Heinz Field. It’s not a place people want to play in January where the temperatures dip well below freezing, and the crowd can get rowdy, but if the Steelers don’t get back to a run game, then they won’t be playing in January at all.
The weekend’s action got under way early with the traditional three-game Thanksgiving line-up, which had the Chicago Bears reaffirm their play-off credentials with a win over Detroit Lions in a game that showed the Lions may have traded Golden Tate a little early.
The Dallas Cowboys beat Washington in a game that opened up the play-off race – with Philadelphia picking up a win later in the weekend the three teams are now all within a game of taking the division title.
New Orleans picked up a tenth straight win, all but ending the Atlanta Falcons chances of post-season football and all but guaranteeing the Saints home field advantage for the play-offs.
Seattle Seahawks managed to hang on to any chance of winning the NFC West with the last minute field goal win over Carolina Panthers, although Panthers kicker – the usually so reliable Graham Gano – will be kicking himself after missing the chance to win the game for the Charlotte, based team.
The Cleveland Browns ended a streak that took in 25 away losses with a win over division rival Cincinnati Bengals, who happened to have former Browns head coach Hue Jackson on their sideline as a special assistant coach. The Bills also achieved their first back to back wins in four years as they controlled the game from early on.
Oakland Raiders returned to form with another subpar performance as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens 34-17. The Ravens started rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson for the second week in a row, and after some teething problems last week Jackson made a leap forward offering some intriguing run options for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.