About two weeks ago, I wrote here on SB Nation Pittsburgh about the brutal four-game stretch awaiting the Pittsburgh Steelers. After defeating the Cleveland Browns fairly convincingly in Ben Roethlsiberger's return from suspension, the Steelers embarked on a three-game road stretch, the first time since the mid-1990s that the Steelers have played three consecutive away games. All three opponents - Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati - looked like playoff contenders (or at worst, fringe playoff contenders) in the AFC at the outset of this year.
The Steelers are two-thirds of the way through the trio of road games after losing last Sunday night to a desperate New Orleans Saints squad on Halloween. Before returning to the friendly confines of Heinz Field, the Steelers travel to the Queen City to play the reeling Cincinnati Bengals. Don't let Cincinnati's 2-5 record fool you into thinking that Pittsburgh will walk all over a divisional rival on Monday Night Football. That's just it - the Bengals are playing at home, anxious to get back in the win column before their 2010 season gets further out of hand. And the fact that the whole country will be watching them on Monday night surely adds extra pep to their step this week and on Monday. We'll see what happens Monday night.
Regardless of what unfolds, I've kept thinking about how this season has, in some respects, been similar to the start of the 2008 season. It's a ridiculous notion, I know. Heck, coach Mike Tomlin said immediately after the Super Bowl win that the Steelers wouldn't be defending anything for the simple fact that it would be a different set of men on the 2009 roster. But we're not in the business of preparing for the games each week, just analyzing and enjoying the game however we see fit. So let's get to some of those similarities ...
Something to prove: In 2008 and 2010, the Steelers were coming off disappointing seasons that left bitter tastes in their mouths. How could 2007 be a disappointment - the Steelers made the playoffs, didn't they? Yes, but they limped to the finish line and got dusted by a more physical Jacksonville Jaguars team twice in the final month of the year. Making the Wild Card round is an accomplishment, no doubt, but the Steelers' expectations are higher than most. And really, it was the way in which they lost that put chips on their shoulders heading into that offseason, giving them an us-against-the-world mentality that stuck with them throughout 2008.
The defense: After Week 2, I decided to do a weekly comparison of the 1976, 2008 and 2010 Steelers' defenses. You can see the most current tracking here. There will never be a unit quite like the '76 defense, a group chock full of Hall of Famers that pitched four straight shutouts in the middle of the season after starting the year horribly. But back to '08 and '10 - through seven games, the '10 defense leads the league in points allowed, and is fifth in yards. This year's defense has given up one fewer point per game (14.7 vs. 15.7), but the '08 group was historically stingy allowing yards. Through seven games, opponents averaged under 240 yards per contest against Dick LeBeau's defense. That number is up more than 60 yards per game this year at just over 300 yards. It would be nice to see the defense stuff the Bengals next Monday night after four games of solid but unspectacular performances.
The schedule: As I mentioned previously, the Steelers haven't had three straight road games in over 15 years, but nevertheless, five of the 2008 team's first eight games were away from Heinz Field. That's the same as this year after next Monday night. For the non-math majors, that means just three road games in the second half of the season.
- The opposition: I'll refrain from stretching too far, but I could argue that the quality of opposition is very similar. In '08 we faced a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco) and another that might as well have been a rookie (Ryan Fitzpatrick). In '10 the Steelers have faced two rookies as well (Josh Freeman and Colt McCoy). In '08 the Steelers faced one of the league's best rushing attacks in the New York Giants; in '10 it was the Titans. I liken this year's Falcons to the '08 Texans in terms of versatility, though Atlanta this year seems unlikely to crash and burn at any point like the Texans did to start the year in '08 before getting hot later in the year. And finally, a dangerous offense awaits in Week 10 this season, just like in '08. It was the Colts two years ago; this year it's the Patriots, thankfully at home.
- Inconsequential but interesting fact: The Steelers were 5-1 to start the '08 season before losing to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in Week 8. In 2010, the Steelers also started 5-1 before losing to the defending champs. Can the Steelers bounce back and win a road game against the Bengals, much like the '08 team did against the Washington Redskins? I sure hope so, because just like in '08 (Colts), there's a scary opponent on the horizon in Week 10 (Patriots).
- Offensive struggles: Here we have a different set of circumstances between the two years. Obviously when you're playing with your fourth-string quarterback for the better part of three games, you're going to struggle. Yet interestingly, the statistical outputs mirror each other closely as well. The points per game totals are very similar through seven games (22.1 in '08; 21 in '10), as are yards (291.8 in '08; 297.6 in '10), and turnovers (ten in both years). The primary difference, however, is the dramatic decrease in sacks. Remarkably, Roethlisberger was sacked 24 times in seven games in '08. This year, the three Steelers' quarterbacks who have taken snaps have been sacked just 15 times. The ground game, meanwhile, hasn't been exceptional or all that consistent, but it appears as if it will be more utilized as well as more reliable by season's end than it was two years ago.
- Solid special teams play: Jeff Reed has been less dependable this year than he was in '08, but his misses have been less consequential than has the vastly improved play of the kickoff coverage unit compared to last season. The Steelers were historically bad covering kickoffs a year ago, whereas this year they're better than average and more than holding their own. In 2008, the Steelers got zero help from Gary Russell returning kicks, and only two big punt returns from Santonio Holmes (two VERY big punt returns, mind you, against Dallas in the regular season, and Baltimore in the playoffs). But they were outstanding covering kickoffs, which undeniably helped the defense all season long.
More on the Week 9 matchup between the Steelers and Bengals this weekend and on Monday in anticipation of their Monday Night Football encounter. Even if the Steelers were to lose to Cincinnati and fall to 5-3 (1-2), they'd still be in plenty good shape to make a run towards the playoffs with five of their final eight at home. But if my comparison to the 2008 season holds true, the Steelers will capture a tough road win much like they did against the 'Skins in '08 before facing an even tougher test in Week 10 against the Patriots.