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Steelers Talk: Ed Bouchette of The Athletic

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) plays in an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) plays in an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Ed Bouchette of The Athletic on the Pittsburgh Steelers as they enter Sunday's game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville …

Question: The Steelers are 9-0, the NFL's lone unbeaten team through mid-November. How surprising is this start?

A: I didn't expect them to be 9-0. I had them at 11-5 for the season. The big difference has been [quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger. They were 8-8 last season and still involved in the playoff hunt until their last game last year without him (because of an elbow injury). Their defense has been really good. They've been opportunistic. They have come back to win a couple of those games in the second half.

Q: The national perception of the Steelers is interesting. They're 9-0, but many people nationally seem to assume they're not as good as the "best" teams in the AFC. How do you see that?

A: I'm not so sure why people think that way. I know Kansas City is "the best team in the history of the NFL" and [Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes is "the best quarterback ever," but they have lost at home and they almost lost at home again last week. The Steelers have a good offense – and a really good passing offense. Their running game has not done well lately, but early in the season they had a good running game. And their defense is one of the best in the NFL. I'm not sure why people aren't buying into them.

Q: Beyond Roethlisberger, what's this team's strength?

A: Their pass rush is excellent, with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Watt got two more sacks [in a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals] Sunday. They force turnovers. They led the NFL last season in forced turnovers and sacks. They're back doing it again, forcing turnovers (a league-high 17) and getting a ton of sacks (a league-high 36). They have given up some big plays on defense. That's the one thing they haven't tightened up. On offense, they need to get their running game going again. But Ben is on pace for 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions, which would be by far more touchdowns than he ever has thrown and by far his best touchdown-interception ratio. He is looking as good as I've ever seen him.

Q: Why? What's the difference?

A: He always has been known as a gunslinger. He's not putting the ball up for grabs like he used to. I really do think a lot of that has to do with [Pro Bowl wide receiver] Antonio Brown not being here anymore. He used to just throw it up for Brown hoping he could make a play – and a lot of times he did. But a lot of times it was intercepted. Brown wasn't the best precision route-runner, so a lot of the interceptions Ben was throwing were maybe not even his fault. He does protect the ball better. He's throwing quicker. He's throwing shorter passes now, too. That may have something to do with it. They don't go deep as much as they used to.

Q: You mentioned the pass rush. But tell me about the defense overall. What makes this unit good?

A: The secondary, which was at times terrible here in past years. They always have had a pretty good pass rush and always have had a pretty good front. They failed many times to find cornerbacks. They've had safeties: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark … They have not had a Pro Bowl cornerback since Rod Woodson in the 1990s until [current Steelers cornerback] Joe Hayden came along and made it. They have Hayden now and Steven Nelson, who they signed as an unrestricted free agent last year; those two guys are really, really good. And then there was the [safety] Minkah Fitzpatrick trade (from the Miami Dolphins midway through last season): It's the first time the Steelers have traded a first-round draft selection for a player in 53 years. This guy turned into an All-Pro safety. It was the last piece of the puzzle. They did lose [linebacker] Devin Bush (to a torn anterior cruciate ligament last month), who made them better. They're not as good without Bush, but they're still a good defense. They have All-Stars everywhere: [defensive tackle] Cam Heyward, [defensive end] Stephon Tuitt, Hayden, Watt, Dupree, Fitzpatrick, Nelson. 

Q: The Steelers are so historically consistent that their teams sometimes run together. You've covered this team since 1985. Does this feel like a great Steelers team? Is this as good a Steelers team through nine games as you've seen?

A: I thought this was going to be a good team to start with. I picked them 11-5 because Baltimore and Cleveland are in the division (the AFC North). Baltimore was 14-2 last season, so you have to figure it's not the kind of division like where New England was picking off everyone [in the AFC East] for a long time. It's solidified, especially with Cleveland coming up and getting stronger. I figured 11-5 might be good enough to win the division – maybe a tiebreaker with Baltimore. But nobody figured 9-0. Is it one of the best teams? (Laughing) I'll let you know after the Super Bowl if it's one of those teams. It's like the Patriots of 2007; they were 16-0, but they won't tell you they were one of the greatest because they lost the Super Bowl.

Q: And I assume that's the only way for this team to feel like it will have succeeded – if it gets to the Super Bowl and wins it.

A: Oh yeah. They're all about winning Super Bowls. Division titles and all that other stuff means nothing to them. Their last Super Bowl was after the 2010 season and they lost to Green Bay. It has been 12 years since they won a Super Bowl. That's an eternity as far as the Steelers go. It's a long time.

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