If not for the uproar caused by the $75,000 fine levied against All Pro linebacker James Harrison, Pittsburgh would be consumed by optimism and delight about the 4-1 start by its beloved Steelers. The six-time Super Bowl champions shocked even the most sanguine fans with their 3-1 start while franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger served his four-game suspension. The defense resembled the 2008 unit that suffocated opposing offenses week in and week out, while the offense did just enough, thanks to a renewed commitment to the run. Under the tutelage of Sean Kugler, the offensive line looked more physical, well-prepared, and competent than it had in years. First-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey exceeded expectations from his center position, while fourth-year linebacker Lawrence Timmons emerged as the devastating force that fans and the Steelers' organization hoped he'd be when they drafted him in the first round back in 2007.
Enter Ben Roethlisberger last Sunday. After throwing an early interception that was clearly the product of jitters, Big Ben was outstanding. By game's end he had thrown for over 250 yards and three touchdowns. The three scores were distributed to the Steelers' three primary weapons in the passing game - wide receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, and tight end Heath Miller, whose offense had been quiet while Roethlisberger was out.
Add in vastly improved special teams play - at least on kick and punt coverage, as well as in the punting game - and the Steelers clearly looked like a complete team. Yes, opposing quarterbacks had racked up yards and points late in games, a potentially troubling sign for a team that saw its 2009 season derailed by porous pass defense late in contests. But given how frequently the defense created turnovers, and given how much more committed Bruce Arians and the offense seemed to be to the running game, not too many in Steeler Nation felt the need to panic just yet about the team's pass defense late in games.
So what's in store for the Pittsburgh Steelers moving forward? It's foolish to start talking about playoffs or anything that far down the road. As Tunch Ilkin once said in an interview on Behind the Steel Curtain, "The dynamics of the NFL not only change greatly in between seasons, but the league changes about every four weeks during the season." (Heck, it looks like the rules concerning tackling have changed overnight, but I digress.) From where I'm sitting, we'll learn a whole lot about the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers this next four weeks.
The Steelers will embark on a three-week stretch away from Heinz Field, and not one of the upcoming trio of opponents are 'gimmes,' if there even are such things on the road in the NFL. The Steelers begin the tough stretch with a visit to Miami to take on the Dolphins, a team that hasn't garnered much attention for its 3-2 start. Don't sleep on Miami, though. The Dolphins may not do any one thing exceptionally well (at least not this year, thanks to a rather ho-hum rushing attack compared to recent seasons), but they're well-coached, physical in the trenches and, in my mind at least, entirely capable of beating every last team in the NFL when they're playing well. Save one wacky half of football against the New England Patriots, the Dolphins have looked like a playoff-caliber team.
The Steelers then travel to the Big Easy for a Halloween-night tilt against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The Saints have undeniably looked out of sorts through six weeks, but really, they're just a few plays away from being 6-0 and undefeated. The Saints' rushing attack clearly is the catalyst for their offense, setting the table for the uber-accurate Drew Brees and the passing game. Without a healthy Pierre Thomas or Reggie Bush to shoulder the load, the Saints have had to get creative and look elsewhere for production on the ground. They found their answer, for a week at least, in rookie Chris Ivory, who ran for 158 yards on 15 carries during last Sunday's resounding win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Ivory probably won't have that kind of success against an impregnable Steelers' rush defense. But it's in Week 8 that we'll really see what Dick LeBeau's secondary is made of. There isn't a more accurate quarterback in the league than Brees, and with Lance Moore back healthy and making plays, the Saints' passing attack again appears to be frighteningly multi-dimensional. Oh yeah, and there's that pesky detail about playing in the Superdome on Halloween night. I can't imagine a more hostile, loud and rowdy environment.
In Week 9, the Steelers travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that stymied them in both contests a year ago. The Bengals are a bit of a mystery at this point. They've played well enough to be 4-1, but inexcusable mistakes down the stretch have them sitting at 2-3. Don't discount them just yet. They still sport a secondary that has proven capable of confusing Roethlisberger. Regardless of what you think of the Bengals, divisional games on the road are never easy, especially not for teams coming off consecutive road games against quality opponents.
And finally, after returning to some home cooking and a friendly crowd at Heinz Field, the Steelers will square off against the New England Patriots. Lots can happen between now and Week 10, so no sense in speculating too much just yet about that matchup between perennial AFC contenders. But once again, it's safe to say that the Steelers' secondary will get another big test from Tom Brady and the Pats' quick-hitting passing attack. Pittsburgh shut down the Pats in 2008, but I don't need to remind you what happened the year before in 2007.
After Week 10 is in the books, we'll have a much better idea about the following issues, all of which I would consider to be important factors when assessing just how good this team might be come December and January:
- Can the defense, and the secondary in particular, continue to create turnovers, and bend but not break against two of the top three quarterbacks in the league?
- Will Bruce Arians continue to craft game plans that feature a nice balance of runs and throws? Or will he revert to his previous pass-happy tendencies? Doing so would extend games, put more pressure on the defense, and under-utilize the talents of Rashard Mendenhall, who has emerged into of the league's most consistent ball carriers this season.
- Can the offensive line hold up on the road against quality opponents? The big eaters up front have opened up running lanes and, for the most part, kept the Steelers' quarterbacks off their backs. It's a 'what have you done for me lately' business, though, and memories of the offensive line's struggles in 2008 and 2009 are still fresh in my mind. I'm a big believer in Kugler, but I want to see how they fare this next month.
- Jeff Reed didn't have a chance to attempt any field goals last week. Will he be able to forget about his early-season struggles and deliver clutch kicks in what surely will be close games in the upcoming weeks? Perhaps it's good Reed had a week without any attempts. Out of sight, out of mind, let's hope.
The last time the Steelers hit the road for three straight games away from Heinz Field was ... the 2005 playoffs, actually. Of course, the Steelers ran that gauntlet fearlessly en route to Lombardi No. 5. But don't forget, that run to the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed was a statistical longshot. The last time the Steelers played three straight road games during the regular season? 1994. The Steelers went 2-1, but their opponents finished a combined 17-29 that year. It wasn't easy, either, with the two wins coming by seven points combined
Buckle up! This next month of football should be a blast. Prime-time games, marquee quarterback matchups, hostile environments, and an opportunity to see the black and gold march on with their 'us against the world' mentality that's led them to a promising 4-1 start to the 2010 season.