Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Heading into the season, the AFC North looked like it might be one of the stronger divisions in football. A month in, however, shows how quickly things can change.

What looked like three highly competitive teams in the division now looks like three teams with major flaws.

The Steelers are troubled offensively, and were in that same boat before losing Ben Roethlisberger. The receivers are struggling to get open without Antonio Brown around to take away some of the pressure.

The Baltimore Ravens? They’ve allowed 461 yards per game in their past three after shellacking the Dolphins in Week 1. And anything done against Miami, at this point, should be disregarded.

The Browns, meanwhile, can’t protect quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is playing as if he’s feeling that pressure, even when it’s not coming.

That’s led, thus far, to the division’s only wins outside the AFC North coming against the Dolphins, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals.

That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row.

Will that change? The Steelers showed some signs of life on offense last week against the Cincinnati Bengals. And if that can continue, it will take some pressure off a defense that was pretty good in the first half of losses against the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers before folding down the stretch because it was playing way too many snaps – more than 70 in both games.

The Ravens have so many new players on defense, it’s hard to say if they’ll ever get things together on that side. The offense is good, but when it falters, the defense isn’t good enough to pick up the slack.

And there’s no help coming any time soon for the Browns’ offensive line, unless they pull off a trade for Washington’s Trent Williams, who continues to hold out on the franchise tag.

  • The Steelers’ dominating win over the Bengals changed some perceptions of this team. And it certainly rejuvenated the team’s locker room.

It makes you wonder what would have happened this season had the Steelers opened the season against the Dolphins, Jets and Cardinals – the three teams outside the division the Ravens and Browns have beaten. At worst, the Steelers would be 3-1 and they’d likely be 4-0. They’d have some tough games remaining, but even had they still lost Roethlisberger, they’d be playing with a lot of confidence.

As it is, however, they’ve gotten the toughest part of their schedule over with. They’ve played the two best quarterbacks they’ll face this season – Tom Brady and Russell Wilson – and have the AFC’s second-easiest schedule the rest of the way.

  • • The Eagles released former Steelers linebacker L.J. Fort last week – and he subsequently signed with the Ravens. That move could cost Steelers receiver Donte Moncrief his job.

Though the Eagles signed Fort as a free agent, because he didn’t appear in 10 games for them, it’s like it didn’t happen. And the Steelers were counting on Fort to offset the free-agent signing of Moncrief to help with their picks when the league hands out compensatory selections.

So, if the Steelers still want to get that third-round pick for Le’Veon Bell leaving, they’ll have to release Moncrief.

Given that he was inactive two weeks ago in San Francisco and played just three snaps against the Bengals, that might not seem like much to ask. But all it would take would be one injury for Moncrief to get an opportunity to earn his way back into favor.

This week’s picks

Steelers (plus 3½) over Baltimore: This game comes down to which team’s strength does the best against the other’s, and which team’s weakness can hold its own. And they’ll be matchup against each other. The Ravens have a very good offense but a defense that has allowed more yards in the past three games than anyone but the Dolphins. The Steelers’ offense has struggled with Mason Rudolph at quarterback but found some footing last week. The defense is improving and is starting to look like a strength. The Steelers have limited opponents to five touchdowns in 14 red zone trips this season. And that will be the difference here. Take the Steelers, 24-23.

San Francisco (minus 4) over Cleveland: This is a bad matchup for the Browns, who don’t pass protect very well. The 49ers can get after the quarterback. And with Cleveland’s secondary still banged up, the 49ers should be able to run or throw. They’ve also had two weeks to get ready for this one. Take the 49ers, 27-20

New England (minus 15) at Washington: How is this line just a shade over two touchdowns? Colt McCoy will start against a New England defense that has given up one touchdown in four games. So, if you think the Patriots can score 20 or so points in this game – they will have much more than that – how do the Redskins keep this within 15 points? Take the Patriots, 31-9

Carolina (minus 3) over Jacksonville: The Panthers have a sneaky good defense, especially against the pass, so this game could come down to Christian McCaffrey versus Leonard Fournette. I’ll take McCaffrey in that matchup every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Take the Panthers, 24-13

Arizona (plus 3) at Cincinnati: The Cardinals were competitive in Week 2 against the Ravens, losing 23-17. The Bengals are a team in disarray. And there’s starting to be some questions as to whether first-year head coach Zach Taylor and his young staff might be in over their collective heads. Take the Cardinals, 30-27

Last Week: 1-4. Overall: 11-8 ATS

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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