State of the Union: Steelers 5-2 at the Break

One game short of the mid-season mark, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves with a 5-2 record and tied for the lead in the AFC North Division with Cincinnati.  Stopping to reflect during the bye week, the glass is definitely more full than empty.  Steeler Nation yearns so much for perfection, sometimes it harpoons whatever shortcomings the latest game delivers.  Utopia would have the Steelers passing for 375 yards, rushing for 175, shutting down opponents defensively and not committing turnovers every single game. 

The NFL is not Utopia.  Last I checked, those other guys get paid handsomely, have full coaching staffs, high-tech facilities and don't buy into the Steelers having their way all the time.  We've lost fourth-quarter leads, given up kickoff returns, missed field goals, dropped passes and at times not blocked or tackled very well.  These maladies are a part of life in the NFL.  While we cannot insist on avoiding them, we can hope that shortcomings can be corrected as opposed to having insufficient personnel.  I believe the former as opposed to the latter and thus, hope springs eternal.

The Steelers have had several pleasant surprises through the first seven games.  At the top of the list is Rashard Mendenhall.  The guy is becoming more entrenched each week into the present and future of the Steelers.  Not notoriously big or fast or quick, Mendenhall somehow blends all three together.  He catches passes out of the backfield and can block the blitz.  Statistically, Mendenhall has rushed for 418 yards in just 78 carries for a 5.4 average, ranking him third in the NFL in yards per carry among runnings backs with at least 75 carries.  This coming from a man who missed virtually all of last season with an injury and up until Game 4 this season, was in Mike Tomlin's nonexistent doghouse.  If this momentum continues, and Mendenhall keeps his head on straight and stays healthy, he will be the long-term answer.  He shows instincts of busting outside and picking up huge chunks of yardage.  Yes, he has fumbled, but they seem to be correctible.  The last two were the result of fluke strip when he thought he was down and then not knowing where the goal line was.  Yes, they are frustrating but yes, they are correctible with maturity (I hope).

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Another surprise is the improved play of the Steelers' offensive line.  By no means a finished product, each man on the line has stepped up a little which means collectively they have stepped up a lot.  Max Starks is earning every penny of his new contract and is getting more comfortable with each game at left tackle.  He is taking on the best NFL pass rushers and holding (don't take that literally) his own quite well.  Kemo, Hartwig and veteran Trai Essex are getting along great in chemistry class holding down the middle of the fort.  The right side, Essex and Colon, is the area where Mendenhall is gaining most of his yards, sometimes impressivlely.  Like Mendenhall, the O-line is far from a polished product, but it is no longer the liability it has been in recent times.  At least at the moment, the arrow is pointing up.

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Mike Wallace is another surprise and is playing like we all hoped Limas Sweed he would.  Rookies need to be awfully special to have impact with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Wallace is having impact.  Already with 368 receiving yards and a pair of scores, Wallace is eighth in the NFL with a 17.5 reception average and tied for 10th with eight catches for plus-20 yards.  Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are not surprises, but make up the best trio of receivers in the NFL this season.  Ward is fourth in the league with 42 receptions, second with 602 yards and tied for the lead with 10 catches of plus-20 yards.  Holmes has 30 receptions for 497 yards (10th), carries a 16.6 average (11th) and has eight grabs of more than 20 yards (tied at 10 with Wallace).  Maximizing production and opportunity, 28 of Holmes' 30 receptions have moved the chains.  There are not enough footballs to statistically do all three wideouts justice, but consider this: combined they have 1,467 yards (210 per game), a staggering 26 catches of 20-plus yards and almost 16 yards per catch.

Heath Miller has certainly not missed the party.  His 40 receptions are 6th in the league and first among tight ends.  With a solid 50 yards per game, Miller is tied for 10th in the league with four touchdowns and is 5th among tight ends with 17 first-down catches.  It is hard to imagine anyone more consistent than Heath Miller.

Offensively, of course, the center of attention is Ben Roethlisberger, who is having a Pro Bowl season.  He is second in the NFL with 2,062 passing yards, second in completion percentage (70.4), second in yards per attempt (9.25) and fifth with a 102.6 quarterback rating.  Perhaps just as important as the statistics show, Big Ben seems to have a better feel for what the offensive line can do.  He seems prepared to fire quickly if needed, but also has the instinct to wait for something longer if the line gives him time.  This quarterback/O-line chemistry has not always existed.

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Lastly on offense, in addition to all that we've seen, it is worth noting an element that we haven't seen.  That is, the perpetual bashing of Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians.  I have been in the minority as a member of the Arians Fan Club, perhaps as a high-ranking officer, because I've maintained that the offensive line was the problem with the offense and Arians was the fall guy.  Arians biggest problem of late is to call more plays for Mendenhall and Holmes, while maintaining the touch levels for Hines Ward and Heath Miller.  His only hope for that is to lobby the NFL for 20-minute quarters.  Steeler Nation is clamouring for more Mendenhall, while Tone is quietly hoping for more on his plate.  The pie is only so big.  If everyone deserves a bigger piece, then it must be a damn good pie.

The bottom line is that the Steelers are fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game, seventh in total yards per game and 13th in points per game.  Moreover, Arians and Roethlisberger have put the offense in position to win every game this season.  Were it not for two missed field goals in Chicago, and a dropped perfect touchdown pass in Cincinnati, the Steelers would be undefeated.  The Steelers have played 424 minutes of football this season.  Incredibly, they have only trailed in 15 of those minutes.

Turning to the other side of the ball, saying the Steelers' defense has slipped from a year ago, while perhaps true, is as fair as saying Babe Ruth slipped in 1929.  When you establish a standard not seen in recent times, less than standard seems below par.  The Steelers are 10th in the league in points allowed (18.4), and consider that many of those points came on two kick returns, two pick-sixes, a fluke punt-return strip and the aftermath of an on-side kick.  The Steelers are so paranoid about kickoff returns, they settle for pooch kicks that give opponents the ball across the 40-yard line where the defense starts in the hole.  Cleveland's lone scoring drive started close to the 50 after the Steelers refused to kickoff anymore.  All that considered, 10th place in scoring defense is quite acceptable.

The Steelers' defense ranks second in rushing yards per game (76.6), 15th in passing yards (214.4) and eighth overall (291 yards per game).  Those aren't bad at all, but not what the Nation is used to.  The Nation is also not accustomed to the defense giving up back-to-back game winning drives by opponents (Chicago and Cincinnati).  On one hand, you can say that Troy Polamalu's absence was the difference in those two losses.  On the other hand, you can say that a single injury should never make that much of a difference.  We've got to be better than that.

I really believe the Steelers' secondary is playing better that what 214 passing yards per game might indicate.  With Pittsburgh leading early and often in every game, opponents have been forced to fire away.  Quality quarterbacks such as Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Phillip Rivers and Brett Favre have been forced into urgency.  Even Detroit and Cleveland, in catch-up situations, are capable of racking up some yardage.  Considering what has been coming at them, Ike Taylor, William Gay and Ryan Clark have held their own relatively well, especially without Troy.  I've seen a good many deep passes with those guys johnny-on-the-spot.  Troy, of course, is special.  He is like an exotic sports car.  When finely tuned with all the parts working, his performance is a combination of beauty and precision.  When a part or two is not quite up to snuff, he's in the shop.

Not surprising, Brett Kiesel, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons have performed above-the-line against the run.  We almost take that for granted.  Aaron Smith's absence is going to hurt, but that is precisely why the Steelers drafted Ziggy Hood.  A first-round selection, Hood can no longer hide in Mike Tomlin's oven.  He'll rotate with veterans Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke, but if every other NFL team can throw their first rounders into the fray on a regular basis, why can't Pittsburgh?  As they say in Ziggy's college state, Missouri, it's time to "show me" something.

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The most glaring weakness of the Steelers' defense is their inability to get off the field.  They are 24th in the league in allowing first downs (125) and 26th in allowing third-down conversions (43.3%).  If you factor in the opponents cashing in on four of five fourth-down plays, the Steelers are among the bottom of the barrell, 28th, allowing third and fourth down conversions.  Making matters worse, and this is only an empirical observation, it seems to me that many of those third and fourth downs came with long distances.  They don't feel like one-yard cheapshots, but 8-10-12 yarders that make you scream.  The fact that opponents have been in so many third-down situations indicates that the defense has been stingy on first and second downs.  That's the good news.  The conversion rate is the bad news, and clearly the difference between this season and last.  Perhaps other teams have smartened up to the Steelers' mantra of refusing to allow the big play, so they reach success underneath.  Should we tighten the screws a bit and sacrifice a little vulnerability to some splash?  You know Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau is in the lab during this off week with concoctions brewing.

Another hole in the Steelers' defense, at least until the fourth quarter Sunday, was the minimal number of created turnovers and splash plays.  The Steelers are in the middle of the pack with five interceptions and five fumble recoveries.  It was great to see the defense rise up huge against the Vikings, and maybe we'll see more of that ahead.  It was also good to see the sack total continue to climb. The Steelers are now tied for second with 21, mainly because Deebo is heating up.

Special teams took a step forward last season, and have gone two steps backward thus far this season.  The ugly habit of allowing kickoff returns for touchdowns does more than hand over seven points, as if that's not enough.  It also puts the team in a defensive mode, as mentioned earlier.  Instead of aggresively attacking the return team, the Steelers are operating scared with high, short kicks and the result is ridiculous field position.  One of the reasons (though not all) the defense has fallen from its lofty numbers is that special teams is not doing them any favors.  This notion of "kicking scared" must come to an end.

The punting has been better since Daniel Sepulveda's return, but it also would have been better had Bobby Walden returned, and he's 71.  Sepuveda isn't going to the Pro Bowl, but he is solidly in the top half of NFL punters with a 44.8 average and 40.9 net.  He also has 10 punts inside the 20.  That's all we ask.  The return game is both good and poor.  Stefan Logan is 6th in the league with a 25.3 kick-return average.  You get the feeling he is going to pop one soon.  The news is not so good with punt returns, where the Steelers have a milktoast 6.6 average, 22nd in the NFL.  Missing two field goals cost us a ballgame, but I still contend Reed slipped on one of them after the rain destroyed a field that needed repair work.  Then again, what's a guy from Pittsburgh doing talking about field conditions? 

So here we sit at 5-2, equally as close to 7-0 as we could be 3-4.  I like the idea of re-tooling and re-energizing with a bye week while our next opponent, Denver, gets beaten up in Baltimore, win or lose.  Here we go Steelers, here we go.  Keep the faith, brothers and sisters of the Nation.

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