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Blogger Q&A: Will the Steelers defense struggle against the Buccaneers?

We talked to Neal Coolong of Behind The Steel Curtain ahead of Sunday's game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

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Grant Halverson

1) Your points scored in subsequent games: 30, 6, 37. What's up with that? Why couldn't the Steelers get their offense going against the Ravens in week two? Is this something the Bucs could replicate?

On one hand, the Steelers' offense slumped quite a bit from halftime of Week 1 through kickoff of Week 3. Baltimore did a good job in coverage, managing to stay big up front for the run while using safeties to choke the Steelers in the short passing game. That's really the Steelers' offensive lifeline.

On the other, the Steelers cut that option away from Carolina by establishing the run early, and keeping the safeties in closer, so the Steelers could use their advantage in terms of speed. It's extremely difficult to press the Steelers' receivers at the line of scrimmage, for as small as they are, they're well-coached and are able to break jams consistently well. Since their real threat is making plays after the catch, it's tough for a defense want to gamble by attacking them at the line. Their offense is fluid, and they have options to play off press coverage that allows them to exploit it underneath.

Or, they can just run the ball. Their inside zone game has been dominant this season, and is part of the reason Le'Veon Bell is running for 5.9 yards a carry. The other part of that is Bell is in tune with his game and his blockers. He's running to set up defenders, making them commit, and after that, he's cutting past them and making them miss.

I think teams can replicate what Baltimore did - and Carolina did for a half as well as Cleveland. The key is playing with the risk of the deep pass. Bring safeties up in coverage to bracket underneath passing and be a sound zone coverage team. And watch out for Bell's cut back to the right side.

2) The Steelers defense looks really, really old to me. Is that a fair observation? Has this had an effect on how well they've played? And how do you think this matters going forward for Pittsburgh?

That narrative is kind of tired. Cornerback Ike Taylor is out for eight weeks or so with a broken arm. Troy Polamalu and Brett Keisel are up there in age, but more than anything, the Steelers' defense hasn't gelled together. Cam Thomas is a new starting defensive end. Ryan Shazier (knee, out Sunday) and Mike Mitchell started the first three games, their first with the Steelers. It's taken a bit to get all the pieces melded together, but they got six hits on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton with three sacks. It's been a while since they had that dominant of a defensive performance.

Still, this defense is designed to do that sort of thing to a team that was as one-dimensional as the Panthers were in that game (they had literally no running backs left after Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert were injured during the game). The defense is young and new enough they're probably going to have let-down games like they did against Baltimore and tough stretches of play like the second half against Cleveland in Week 1. But they're going to mix in a few performances like they did against Carolina too. They're still a work-in-progress.

3) How good is Le'Veon Bell? And how has Legarrette Blount looked as his backup?

Bell has been phenomenal, and fully admitting the likelihood of my biased opinion being viewed as such, I think LaDainian Tomlinson's recent comments about Bell being the best running back in the NFL aren't far off from reality. He has 452 yards from scrimmage through three weeks, and he has looked unstoppable in the open field.

The Steelers brought in ex-Vikings running backs coach James Saxon this offseason, and he's gotten Bell to the point he's moving deftly through an inside zone blocking scheme driven by another new position coach, Mike Munchak with the offensive line. Not to make direct comparisons to future first-ballot Hall of Fame RB Adrian Peterson, but it seems through three games, Saxon has gotten Bell to approach the hole in a similar style; jump-cutting and shifting while waiting for a seam to open up. With Peterson, it was simply due to the violent style he has, with Bell, it's by design, with delay traps being set up and always working to give him an option on a right-side cut-back. He's left several defenders sprawling on the ground after a failed tackle attempt.

Le'Veon Bell is a legit high-level running back, and the key to the Steelers' offense.

Blount, in limited duties, has been pretty solid. He's scored twice, both coming from seven yards out, and he has two big runs - both coming in mop-up duty against Carolina. The thing with Bell, and probably the reason the Steelers made a point to bring him in via free agency, is his acceleration. He took a zone left run back to the right in Week 3 and exploded up the back side for a big gain. His strength and anger are useful in goal line situations, and while he's not going to have the 100-plus yard game he had against Carolina often this year, he showed he can be a useful back.

4) Are there any unknown Steelers we should look out for? Undrafted free agents, young breakout players or anything like that?

If I'm Lovie Smith, I'm scheming ways to force the Steelers into their sub packages as quickly as possible in Sunday's game. Cornerback Cortez Allen has been picked on more than any corner in the NFL through three weeks, and with the absence of Ike Taylor, William Gay (probably the team's best cornerback) will move outside in base packages, while staying in the slot in nickel. That brings Antwon Blake to the outside. He's the guy to watch.

Again, just me, but I like Evans or Vincent Jackson on Blake. They're about four feet taller than him, and Mike Glennon has the arm strength to hit that deep out throw. Height wins on that throw, all things being equal and the throw being a good one. I'd want to exploit that match-up. Probably by design, though, the Steelers have largely avoided sub packages so far this season. A big part of that has been due to their expectations for Shazier in coverage. They've felt confident in his ability to defend in zone underneath, negating their need to bring in a defensive back on passing downs. That's given them the ability to stay big up front and try to generate a pass rush. With Shazier out, replaced by third-year LB Sean Spence (Miami product), I'm not entirely sure they won't go to nickel against the Bucs. They may, but I really don't want Blake on the outside covering Jackson or Evans.

5) So by how much are the Steelers going to win on Sunday?

Predicting how this Steelers team will do seems to be like predicting the weather. Like you pointed out, 30 points to six points to 37 points in three games. One thing that's interesting to me is the Steelers got blown out in a Thursday Night game against a division opponent on the road in Week 2. They came out a completely different team in Week 3, and dominated a quality team on the road. Tampa Bay got blown out against a division opponent on the road on Thursday Night in Week 3. Why should we assume they're going to let it happen again?

I have a huge amount of respect for Lovie Smith as a coach and a motivator, and while Tampa Bay obviously hasn't gotten off to a good start, his team isn't going to roll over and die. There's a reason teams don't lose 56-14 in the NFL very often - and many of those kinds of losses come in heavily slanted games like Thursday Night Football.

For whatever reason, and I'm usually wrong about these things, I feel a shootout coming. I think the Steelers have enough offensive firepower, they can move the ball well on Tampa Bay, but I think the return of Doug Martin, and a largely depleted Steelers base defense will struggle in a few areas. I'm thinking 34-24 Pittsburgh.

But remember, 0-4 can turn to 8-8. Just don't rely on Ryan Succop to hit a field goal at the end of regulation to advance to the postseason.

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