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Steelers talk: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Steelers writer Ed Bouchette

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) plays in an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) plays in an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2018 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette on the Steelers as they enter Sunday's game against the Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville …

Question: The Steelers are 6-2-1 and leading the AFC North with five consecutive victories. It appears the defense has improved since early in the season. What has changed?

A:There's a lot. They were in disarray. They never replaced (injured linebacker) Ryan Shazier last year, and they signed Jon Bostic – a veteran inside linebacker – to put him in there. It took a while. He's not Ryan Shazier, but he has been good enough – better than they had last year when Shazier went out. They also signed Morgan Burnett to play strong safety. Last year's strong safety, Sean Davis, they moved to free safety. It was an adjustment for him and Burnett has been hurt. Burnett has returned and has started the last three games. There were a lot of moving parts and they flip-flopped their outside linebackers: T.J. Watt was right side last year and they moved him to the left; Bud Dupree was left side and they moved him to the right. That took some time. Their defense had a lot of communication problems early on, tackling problems … it was in somewhat disarray. Artie Burns, their first-round pick from two years ago, has been benched in favor or Coty Sensabaugh. He has been much more solid than Burns.

Q: Offensively, it feels like the same old, same old except with James Conner at running back instead of Le'Veon Bell.

A: Yes, except they're scoring a lot more and they're scoring a lot more in the red zone. [Quarterback] Ben Roethlisberger is spreading the ball around a lot more. Early on, he was forcing it to [wide receiver] Antonio Brown. Brown was upset he wasn't getting his catches and Roethlisberger was forcing the ball to Brown in double- and triple-coverage; there were some bad passes and interceptions. Things just weren't looking real good and they went in spurts. Now, he's just spreading the ball around. Antonio's not getting as many catches, but he's scoring a lot of touchdowns and he seems to be relatively happy. He (Roethlisberger) had five touchdown passes against Carolina (in a 52-21 Week 10 victory) to five different players.

Q: And Roethlisberger looks like he's playing as well as he ever has.

A: Right now, he is. His passer rating (98.1 for the season) is right around where his career passer rating is (94.4) – but on this roll, he has been right on.

Q:Bell held out and reportedly won't report to the team by the deadline this week. How much effect as the Bell situation had on the season?

A: So far, it has been a blessing for them. Conner has picked it up and they'll get Bell's cap room next year. The only thing is if he stays away, there goes their insurance policy at running back because they have nothing behind Conner.

Q:Conner, a second-year veteran, has 771 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing this season.  Is it a surprise that they weathered the Bell situation so well?

A: They had a great offensive line and they felt great about Conner, but they didn't know. He only carried 32 times last year and didn't catch a pass. But from the start of the spring they thought he could pick up the slack. They were planning on Bell coming in, but they weathered the storm because of Conner. If Conner wasn't doing what he's doing they would be terrible, because they wouldn't have a running game. As much of a passing league as this has become, I don't know that you can make it without a running game. The Steelers certainly have shown they can't in the past.

Q:The Jaguars beat the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh last season – once in the regular season and once in the AFC Divisional Playoff. Do you get a sense that this is a big game for the Steelers in that sense?

A: I asked [veteran defensive end] Cam Heyward about this; he's kind of a spokesperson. I grabbed him after the Carolina game and he said, "We can't look back to last year …." They learned their lesson last year when they looked ahead. They're not talking about anything but the next game anymore.

Q:You've been around this team as long as anyone. Is this a Steelers team that can win the Super Bowl?

A: Oh, yeah. They've had teams that could go all the way for a while now; they just didn't go all the way for whatever reasons: injuries, poor performances, what have you … I thought last year they could have done it, but Shazier got hurt. I'm not putting the whole thing on him, but that blew a hole right in the middle of their defense.

Q:What does this team need to do for this team win the whole thing?

A:Conner has to stay healthy. Like I said, he has no backups – none proven. It sounds so simple, but they have to keep playing the way they've been playing: defense tackling, not giving up big plays … On offense, they just have to keep mixing it up the way they're doing it. Ben's sharp, they have a great line … they have great talent on offense. That shouldn't be a problem. It's just keeping everything together on defense, basically.

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