NFL Power Rankings: Steelers might end up being the contender we thought they'd be

Yahoo Sports

Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers are reeling everyone back in again, and we’ll end up with another empty feeling by the end of the season. But it seems like they’re re-emerging as one of the best teams in football.

The Steelers looked like anything but through four games. They had a tie against the Browns, a loss at home to the Chiefs (that loss has aged well), then barely hung on for a win against the Buccaneers and lost to the Ravens at home. It wasn’t just a 1-2-1 start, it was an unimpressive 1-2-1. It was a bad look for a team that came into the season with realistic Super Bowl dreams.

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Since then, the Steelers look like a new team. They blew out the Falcons, had a clutch win over the Bengals and then blasted the same Browns team that almost beat them in Week 1. There’s no true quality win in that trio, but it seems like the Steelers have turned a corner. Every year we see teams struggle in September (sometimes October too) and then find a groove. The Steelers have done that before, and it might be happening again.

The best news for the 4-2-1 Steelers is the rest of the AFC North has pretty much stepped aside and let them have pole position in the division. The Ravens have faltered since a good start and are 4-4. The Bengals are 5-3 but almost choked against the Buccaneers at home and are in a tough tiebreaker spot having lost a home game to the Steelers already. The Browns fired their coach and offensive coordinator Monday, and that says all we need to know about them.

The Steelers’ turnaround seems simple: They’re running the ball effectively and playing better defense. The Steelers’ lack of faith in their running game was glaring in the Ravens loss. They barely ran the ball in that game and were shut out in the second half. From Weeks 2-4 the Steelers averaged 43.3 rushing yards per game. They’ve averaged 137 the past three games. While it’s true that teams run more and usually better when they’re winning, there’s clearly an effort to get James Conner more carries and that gives balance to an offense that needed it. It also helps the defense, which isn’t on the field too much lately.

The Steelers’ three best games this season, in terms of yards allowed, are their past three games. They allowed 420.5 yards through four weeks and 278.7 yards the past three games. Facing the Buccaneers and Chiefs the first four weeks skewed the stats, but the defense looks better. Getting players like cornerback Joe Haden and safety Morgan Burnett back after they were banged up earlier this season helps. They also seemed to have finally adjusted to the loss of linebacker Ryan Shazier from last season, with Jon Bostic looking like a nice offseason pickup for the team.

Of course, there’s the matter of Le’Veon Bell. Assuming Bell doesn’t move before Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Steelers practically will have the best midseason addition of any team (though that could be Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers when he returns from injury). Good teams don’t usually add fresh All-Pro talent to the lineup in the middle of the season. Bell’s holdout has been uncomfortable and there’s a chance his return upsets the chemistry that finally seems to be coming together. It’s also possible that everyone makes the best of the situation and a team getting on a roll simply adds one of the best players in football, who has not been worn down from hundreds of touches in September and October. No other team is going to make an impact addition like that.

What we have with the Steelers is a first-place team with a great passing offense, the third-leading rusher in the NFL (Conner) about to be joined by a two-time All-Pro, and a defense that’s getting better. If the Steelers can go on the road this week and beat the slumping Ravens, it might be a sign that Pittsburgh is going to be one of the NFL’s most dangerous teams in the second half of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner has been a big part of the team’s recent resurgence. (AP)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner has been a big part of the team’s recent resurgence. (AP)

Here are the power rankings after Week 8 of the NFL season:

32. Oakland Raiders (1-6, Last Week: 31)

A couple years ago, the popular thought was that it was fun and good for the Raiders to be back. Well, on the flip side, it stinks that they’re back to the bottom of the league. Their fans are good and deserve better before their team leaves Oakland for Vegas.

31. New York Giants (1-7, LW: 29)

We all know why Pat Shurmur won’t consider benching Eli Manning. We all saw what happened the last time someone tried that.

30. San Francisco 49ers (1-7, LW: 28)

Last year the 49ers lost an amazing five games in a row by three points or less. This season, three of their past five games have been losses by three points or less, including Sunday’s collapse to the Arizona Cardinals. Kyle Shanahan doesn’t have fatal flaws in close games (insert Super Bowl LI jokes here) and it’s hard to be harsh when C.J. Beathard and not Jimmy Garoppolo is the quarterback. But it’s a weird trend.

29. Arizona Cardinals (2-6, LW: 32)

It’s not ideal that the Cardinals looked so bad for three quarters. But seeing rookie quarterback Josh Rosen lead a fourth-quarter comeback, including a last-minute drive for the win, is the kind of thing that can give Rosen a lot of confidence. It also should give the team a lot of confidence that Rosen is developing right on schedule.

28. Buffalo Bills (2-6, LW: 30)

Derek Anderson was hurt late in the Monday night loss, and if it’s bad that might mean a Nathan Peterman start next week. That’s something.

27. Cleveland Browns (2-5-1, LW: 26)

Firing Hue Jackson was the right move. Here’s a possible problem: A talented team that just dumped a terrible coach has a good second half under Gregg Williams, and the Browns talk themselves into giving Williams another year as head coach. We’ve seen teams do that before. The Browns need a clean start. If Williams is their 2019 head coach, then it will end up being a mistake firing Jackson now.

26. Denver Broncos (3-5, LW: 25)

If trading Demaryius Thomas this week means giving Courtland Sutton more playing time and snaps, then that’s what Denver needs to do. Sutton is going to be really good.

25. Indianapolis Colts (3-5, LW: 27)

That’s 258 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns for Marlon Mack the past two weeks. The Colts have to be happy with some of the young talent that has emerged like Mack, Andrew Luck’s successful return and Frank Reich’s coaching. The Colts could make huge leaps in the next couple seasons.

24. Atlanta Falcons (3-4, LW: 24)

If the Falcons can win the next two games against Washington and Cleveland, they could then activate Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones off injured reserve for their Nov. 18 game against Dallas. Assuming Jones would be healthy enough to return, he could have a huge impact on a defense that needs him. It’s not too late for the Falcons to make a run.

23. Tennessee Titans (3-4, LW: 23)

The Jameis Winston saga is a reminder that Marcus Mariota, who went one draft pick after Winston, is on the clock too. Mariota doesn’t have the off-field issues of Winston, but he has the on-field ups and downs and a $20.9 million non-guaranteed salary in 2019. Mariota hasn’t looked like a $21 million quarterback for at least two seasons.

22. Miami Dolphins (4-4, LW: 17)

There’s not much reason, after 40 games and a 20-20 record, to believe Adam Gase is the answer for the Dolphins. I’d assume the most complimentary thing to say about him would be, “Hey, he has dealt with a lot of quarterback injuries!” Maybe Gase will be a good coach, but where’s the tangible proof that’s coming?

21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-4, LW: 21)

I talked about the Jameis Winston situation in Winners and Losers. Basically, Dirk Koetter had to go to Ryan Fitzpatrick, and by doing so he probably brought himself much closer to losing his job.

20. Dallas Cowboys (3-4, LW: 22)

The Cowboys clearly felt offensive line coach Paul Alexander was a bad fit to fire him now. Jason Garrett has been head coach since 2010 and hadn’t ever fired an assistant during the season. I’m not sure that fixes the Cowboys’ receiving situation, but maybe it’ll help.

19. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-5, LW: 20)

With the Texans heating up, and the Jaguars already having lost a home game to them, it’s not crazy to think they need to go 7-1 in the second half to win the division. Even if Jacksonville went 7-1, the Texans would still win the division by going 5-3 with another win over the Jags. And does this look like a Jaguars team that can go 7-1 the rest of the way?

18. New York Jets (3-5, LW: 18)

Linebacker Avery Williamson has been a very good free-agent addition. He has 55 tackles, two sacks and an interception so far this season. He’s still 26 years old, so he’ll have plenty of prime seasons left as the young Jets continue to build.

17. Detroit Lions (3-4, LW: 15)

Sunday’s game epitomized the Lions. Just when it looked like you could trust them as they were were getting hot and putting something together, they stumbled badly and got dominated by the Seahawks at home. There’s no shame in losing to Seattle, but are you a playoff team in the NFC if you can’t be more competitive against the Seahawks at home?

16. Baltimore Ravens (4-4, LW: 10)

The home game against the Steelers this week seems like a huge turning point in their season. If they lose, a fine start to the season is totally erased. But a win puts them right back in the heart of the AFC North race. It might not be a classic Steelers-Ravens showdown, but there’s a lot at stake.

15. Houston Texans (5-3, LW: 19)

The Will Fuller ACL injury is a concern. Deshaun Watson has shown he’s very, very good at throwing the deep ball. Fuller was a perfect match. If the Texans can’t replace that, it lessens one of Watson’s strengths. The injury was probably a motivator in the Texans making a move Tuesday to trade for the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas.

14. Seattle Seahawks (4-3, LW: 16)

I still dislike the Seahawks’ offseason and not sure their overall approach is the best one. But having a high-end coach and quarterback fixes a lot. Pete Carroll is really good, and Russell Wilson is a magician.

13. Chicago Bears (4-3, LW: 14)

It was smart for the Bears to sit Khalil Mack on Sunday. Getting him healthy, and not just having him out there suffering through an ankle injury, will help the Bears. Most teams don’t want to act like there’s any game they “should win,” and they’d never admit it out loud, but it seems the Bears realized they could win the Jets game without Mack and acted in a smart way. You have to wonder if they’ll give Mack another off day next week in a winnable game against the Bills.

12. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3, LW: 13)

It’s hard to get too excited about beating the Buccaneers after blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter and needing a last-second field goal to win despite being plus-4 in turnovers. But a win is a win, especially heading into the bye week.

11. Green Bay Packers (3-3-1, LW: 11)

If what we heard about Ty Montgomery taking the ball out of the end zone after being told not to is true, and that it was tied to a tantrum over him being taken out earlier in the game, I’d be surprised if he’s active Sunday. I’d be surprised if he’s still on the roster, period. How could the Packers coaches trust him anymore?

10. Washington Redskins (5-2, LW: 12)

A lot of people, particularly many in Nevada, thought the Giants-Redskins game was practically a tossup. That says a lot about where we are with Washington. The Redskins have been good, but they still were considered about the same as a Giants team that has been awful most of this season. It might take a long time for folks to respect Washington.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (4-4, LW: 9)

The most interesting team of the trading deadline on Tuesday made a move in dealing for Lions wideout Golden Tate. The Eagles got a nice win Sunday against the Jaguars, they’re right in the NFC East race, yet they still sought a spark.

8. Minnesota Vikings (4-3-1, LW: 5)

I guess there’s a rush to be the first to call Kirk Cousins a bust. I’m not sure how you could watch the first half of the Vikings season and believe he’s the problem. He has been very good. But everyone was excited to give that opinion since the moment he signed, so here we are.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2-1, LW: 8)

It can all turn back around on a dime, but a short winning streak has taken a lot of the heat off Mike Tomlin. However, with a loss Sunday to the Ravens it will surely start up again.

6. Carolina Panthers (5-2, LW: 7)

Over the past five games, Christian McCaffrey missed two offensive snaps against the Giants and one on Sunday against the Ravens. That’s it, over five games. That’s really high and rare usage for a running back. McCaffrey has played 96.3 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps this season. He came into the league and everyone assumed he’d be a committee back because of his size, but he has been a 205-pound workhorse.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (5-2, LW: 6)

The Chargers’ next game at the Seahawks is big, because it is followed by three very winnable games: at Raiders, vs. Broncos, vs. Cardinals. With a win on Sunday, the Chargers probably will be 9-2 heading into December. The AFC West race isn’t over.

4. New England Patriots (6-2, LW: 3)

The Patriots got what ended up being an easy win against an overmatched Bills team. But can we at least talk about the fact that Rob Gronkowski doesn’t look right, and hasn’t most of this season?

3. New Orleans Saints (6-1, LW: 4)

I’ve long said that my main focus in Power Rankings is figuring out, if Team A played Team B on a neutral field, who would win? Even though the Saints aren’t higher on the list, I’m not sure I’d pick anyone over the Saints right now in that scenario. We’ll find out where they stand Sunday, as they take on the Rams in perhaps the best matchup of the NFL regular season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (7-1, LW: 2)

The Chiefs gained 340 yards and scored 30 points Sunday. A good day for most mortal teams, but that was the Chiefs’ lowest yardage total of the season and tied for their second-lowest point total (the Broncos held them to 27 in the first meeting). This offense might be unstoppable.

1. Los Angeles Rams (8-0, LW: 1)

We almost had our first moment to second-guess Sean McVay. Late in the fourth quarter, the Rams trailed 27-26. They ran on second-and-20 and third-and-16, essentially settling for a field goal. Had Ty Montgomery just taken a knee on the ensuing kickoff, like he was reportedly told to do, Aaron Rodgers would have had two minutes to drive for a game-winning field goal. We’ve seen Rodgers pull that off many times before. But Montgomery fumbled and the Rams’ give-up runs didn’t matter. McVay isn’t conservative often, so him going into a shell and opening the door wide open for Rodgers to steal a win was shocking.

More from Yahoo Sports:
Ty Montgomery disobeyed orders and fumbled Packers’ game away
Eric Reid says Malcolm Jenkins asked him to stop protesting
Rangers roast Dodgers and themselves in viral tweet
Seahawks rookie punter ices win in wild end zone play

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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