The following is a Q&A I did with Jeff Howe, the New England Patriots beat reporter for NESN.com. Jeff had the following questions for me about the Pittsburgh Steelers in anticipation of Sunday night's game between New England and Pittsburgh. Many thanks to him for reaching out, and cheers to him and the other guys on the beat who allow us to have the fun, informed conversations we do each week.
To the questions...
1. The Steelers are obviously much improved on defense this season, at least relative to last season. Is that as simple as getting a healthy Troy Polamalu back in the mix?
BTSC: The swarming, opportunistic play by the defense is the primary reason why the Steelers are 6-2 and tied for the best record in football at the halfway point of the season. Pittsburgh leads the league in scoring defense (15.3 ppg), turnovers (21), and rushing yards allowed (58.2). The Steelers are perennially tough stopping the run, but this may be their best effort in the past decade. The Steelers became in the first team in NFL history to hold each of their first eight opponents under 75 rushing yards.
The return of Troy Polamalu has definitely made a difference, and it didn't take long for Polamalu to remind us why he's so special. He had two interceptions and several trademark tackles in the first two weeks, both wins. But in my estimation, the emergence of Lawrence Timmons as an All-Pro from his middle-linebacker spot has had an even greater impact. Polamalu has actually been relatively quiet in recent weeks. He even went so far as to blame himself for the Steelers' loss on Halloween night to the New Orleans Saints. There's no denying that Polamalu is an irreplaceable talent, but Timmons' emergence really bolstered the defense's speed and athleticism in the middle of the field. I personally attribute the lack of production to the simple fact that his opportunities have been reduced substantially by Timmons shutting down everything in sight.
2. With the injuries and moving parts at the two tackle spots, is there some concern with the Steelers' offensive line?
BTSC: Yes, there's a huge concern about the state of the offensive line. I don't have the reserach handy, but I don't imagine there's been too many teams in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl without the services of their top two tackles to start the year. Jonathan Scott, a free agent who arrived in Pittsburgh from Buffalo along with offensive line coach Sean Kugler, will likely start in Starks' absence. One possibility that has been discussed by the fans at least is moving Flozell Adams back to his natural left tackle position. If Adams could anchor that critical spot on the line, the Steelers could then tinker with their multitude of options at right tackle - Jonathan Scott, Tony Hills, rookie Chris Scott, or even Ramon Foster. But the short answer is, yes, there is lots of concern about the line. The one silver lining is that Kugler is experienced dealing with these types of situations, having underwent a similar decimation to his line last season in Buffalo.
3. How would you assess Ben Roethlisberger's performance so far?
BTSC: I would say that Ben Roethlisberger has been very solid in his four games since returning from suspension. Roethlisberger's numbers aren't gaudy but they also don't suggest he's been rusty or struggled.
69-of-109 (63.3%), 917 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 96.8 Rating
Roethlisberger has made several mistakes, but only two of his turnovers were really poor decisions. In between the errors have been plenty of great reads and throws. It's also worth noting that three of his first four games came on the road. In his lone home game, Big Ben carved up a Browns defense that in recent weeks has looked outstanding. The mistakes are part of the package with Big Ben. Since returning from suspension, Roethlisberger has been putting more time into his craft, or as Coach Tomlin put it, he's enjoying the 'monotony' of the job more. It's already paying off. Roethlisberger has audibled in and out of plays much more intelligently and consistently in recent weeks. He's going to be just fine.
4. Rashard Mendenhall has had a really good season and showed his closing ability Monday night in Cincinnati. But do you think there are stretches when the offense goes away from Mendenhall a little too much?
BTSC: Last year, the Steelers went away from Rashard Mendenhall and the running game too often. Mendenhall finished with only 242 carries despite playing all 16 games. I believe he carried the ball 25 times or more only once, which not surprisingly, wound up being his best game of the year (29-165-2). I believe the Steelers were being cautious with Mendenhall after losing him to a broken shoulder for almost all of his rookie year.
This season, the Steelers have followed through on their promise to run the ball more. Mendenhall has168 carries at the midway point. Only Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson have more. We'll see if that trend continues though now that Roethlisberger is back. The Steelers predictably ran the ball a lot during the first four games of the season.
5. The Steelers' front-seven and two safeties get a lot of publicity, but their cornerbacks fly under the radar by comparison. What have you seen from Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden?
BTSC: Ike Taylor continues to play Pro Bowl caliber cornerback against No. 1 wide receivers each week. His inability to hold on to interceptions has what's kept him out of the Pro Bowl. He's not the most natural corner in the league, but he's come along way since being drafted as a raw fourth-round prospect in 2003. His most recent lock-down performance came against Ocho Cinco on Monday. Ocho Cinco finished with just one fourth quarter reception, and was nearly in tears in the third quarter. Some are concerned about the play of Bryant McFadden, who's back in Pittsburgh after one year in Arizona. I'm not really one of them. McFadden is a big, physical corner that's really helped out in the running game. He does lack top-shelf speed and was beaten several times by Terrell Owens recently. But even though teams have picked on him early and often, he's continued to be a very sound tackler after the catch. That's really all defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau asks of him in this scheme.