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Steelers talk: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette


JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2017 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 Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Question: The Steelers are 3-1 and leading the AFC North. How do the Steelers see themselves? Where is this team entering Sunday?

A: After Sunday in Baltimore they feel better because it was a disaster in Chicago [in Week 3} all the way around – from the [National] Anthem stuff to the way they played and losing to a team they were favored by seven-and-a-half points to beat. They hadn't won in Baltimore in five years and they broke a four-game losing streak down there [with Sunday's 26-9 victory] against what has been their traditional, bitter rival. They're back tied for the second-best record in football.

Q: What struck you about the victory over Baltimore?

A: The big thing was their running game came around. [Running back] Le'Veon Bell did not look good at all in three games. You had to wonder, "Is it the layoff? Was it the surgery to his groin in the offseason?" But he looked like the old Bell Sunday, and that to me was the biggest take besides getting a win.

Q: How much is Bell key to this offense?

A: Other than [quarterback] Ben [Roethlisberger] he's the key. He's so important both on the run and as a receiver. Before Bell, the Steelers receiving record by a back was 51 or 52 catches. He caught 83 one year [in 2014] and last year he caught 75. They do so much with him – and when they go to the no-huddle they can split him out, they can move him around. You don't have to switch personnel. He's just really versatile. As a runner, he's one of the better ones in the league as well. He allows them to do so much on offense when he's clicking.

Q: You mentioned Roethlisberger. Is he playing OK? Where is he in Year 14?

A: They've always wanted to be balanced. The passing game has not been really in sync yet. I don't know why that is. They made a subtle change on Sunday. Thy made JuJu Smith-Schuster, a rookie, their slot receiver. Well, that looks like it's going to stay. Roethlisberger has not been real sharp. [Wide receiver] Antonio Brown has been everything except they haven't been able to get him the ball sometimes, and that included Sunday in Baltimore. His 34 yards receiving in Baltimore were his lowest with Roethlisberger at quarterback since the last game of the 2012 season – almost five seasons.

Q: Is there a faith that at some point Ben is going to be Ben?

A: The expectations are that there's too much talent in that passing game, including the line – which is a pretty good line – for them not to get better.

Q: The perception in recent seasons is that this is an offense-driven team, but it appears the defense is what Pittsburgh expects.

A: They're Top 5 on defense in a lot of categories. One thing they wanted to do more is put pressure on the quarterback. They're doing that. They're getting sacks [15 this season]. They wanted to come up with more turnovers [seven forced this season]. They're doing that. It's a better secondary with [cornerback Joe] Haden and a couple of young guys who were rookies last season – cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis. They found a better slot corner in Mike Hilton, who came out of nowhere; he was on their practice squad at the end of last season. Their defensive is really rounding into shape. They've gone through a long transition period from the defenses they had with [safety Troy] Polamalu and those guys; a lot of growing pains. They're in a much better spot.

Q: You've covered this team since 1985. Does this feel like a Steelers team that's going somewhere?

A: The expectations have been yes. Chicago raised a lot of doubts. They [the Steelers] have underperformed so far; they really have. They struggled in the opener against Cleveland, but again: the expectations are that it's going to improve; it's going to get better. There are a lot of teams around the NFL with high expectations struggling: New England, Atlanta … The expectations are that this is a possible Super Bowl team. They made the AFC Championship Game last season, so the expectations should be high.

Q:What's the key going forward for this bunch? What does this team have to do to be there at the end?

A: I think the passing game has to improve. Ben's 35-years-old. Nobody's wondering whether he's lost it or not, but he hasn't been sharp. Maybe it's just taking some time. He's got a rookie now at receiver and there's some change there. And [wide receiver] Martavis [Bryant] missed all of last year, but on the other hand he was working with some not-very-good receivers last year and they reached the AFC Championship Game. With Martavis – and they love Smith-Schuster – and Antonio Brown, they should be dynamic.

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