I left today's game with a slightly unsettled feeling. (I'm hoping it's not related to the red beans & rice that I ate this afternoon.) I went into the second half relaxed, confident, and buoyant; our offense had struggled a bit before the half, but I had every reason to believe that the Steelers come out on the first drive of the half and make a statement.
That didn't happen. The offense faltered and sputtered throughout the second half, relying on the defense to maintain the lead. Some people are going to harp on this all week long. They're halfway right; the Steelers do have some things to work on before flying out to Arizona.
However, Steeler nation should be very encouraged by some things we're seeing. As the season continues, the defining trends of the season are starting to become clear. On to the trends.Inconsistent: The Passing Game.
Last week, Big Ben reminded the world of what's he's capable of. He spread the ball around to his playmakers like the champion he is. This week, after a couple of great drives, the offense couldn't pull much together. What happened?
It's hard to fault Mendenhall for a 146 yard performance. There's certainly room for improvement there; if you take away his blistering 68 yard run, he had a 3.5 yard average on the day. Still, today Mendenhall showed why he deserves the starting position.
It's tempting to pick on the offensive line as the culprit for our second-half problems. Turns out that Max Starks isn't Superman. You could also make the argument that the quality of play from our line diminished noticeably after Legursky was sidelined. However, the offensive line put together a winning performance even with Marcus Gilbert sidelined at the start and Legursky sidelined shortly thereafter. Here's a challenge for you: Does any other team in the NFL have an offensive line that's been different every week of the season? Is their record better than 4-2? Rather than blame the offensive line for the problems we saw late in the game, I'd rather give them credit for making things happen in the face of adversity and overwhelming criticism.
We could blame Big Ben himself. He can't be happy with a 52% completion rate. On the other hand, he moved the chains personally late in the game to extend a drive, threw an absolutely perfect TD pass to Mike Wallace, and didn't turn over the ball.
We could blame the receivers. On several occasions, Ben threw a deep ball in front of a receiver who'd found open space behind the Jaguar's secondary. For a receiving crew that prides itself on its speed, it's humbling to reflect that these opportunities didn't lead to receptions.
Alternately, we could simply credit the Jaguars for a great second-half effort. They needed to provide their offense a chance to get back in the game, and they delivered. Their record belies the effort they put out today. Some will dismiss the Steelers' win as being "against a bad opponent." Those who know the history of the Steelers and the Jaguars will know better.
All of this simply goes to say that the Steelers' passing game is a work in progress. One week, they tie franchise records; the next, they squeak by. Still, fans should be encouraged by the way Ben has been finding Heath and Hines again, and they should look for the Young Money Crew to step up their game.
Finding Its Feet: The Offensive Line.
Considering the players currently on the team, the ideal offensive line is becoming clear. Starks-Legursky-Pouncey-Foster-Gilbert looks like a winning combination. Kemoeatu probably deserves an opportunity to fight for his starting position, but unless he starts playing like he's got competition for the starting nod, he's going to take a back seat this season.
The most encouraging thing about this line is that the Steelers have found ways to win even while the line is inconsistent. This flexibility will become more important through the season, since injuries are inevitable.
Proving the Haters Wrong: The Defense.
The backbone of the Steelers as a team is its defense. That's as true this season as it has ever been. This hasn't been the flashiest year for our boys on D, but the pieces are all there, even with injuries that might have been crippling a few years ago.
Consider this: this team went into a game without Hampton, Smith, and Harrison, and yet the team and the fanbase weren't panicking.
Consider this: despite only forcing a paltry number of turnovers, this defense has helped us to a 4-2 record.
Consider this: of the two games the Steelers lost, only the first one got completely out of their hands. The Texans won, but the defense largely did what they set out to do: limit the high-powered Texan offense enough so that Big Ben and company would have a chance to win.
Consider this: with the run defense tightening up in the last few weeks, the Steelers defense no longer has a glaring weakness. Do you run against the Steelers, or do you pass against the Steelers? Last year, there was a clear answer to that question. This year, not so much. That uncertainty can be turned to the Steelers' advantage.
Consider this: the young guys are performing. Heyward, Hood, McLendon, and Lewis are all making plays. Too old? No way.
The scariest weeks of the season are coming up soon, but the team can't focus on the Patriots and the Ravens yet. A blowout win over the Jaguars might have bolstered our confidence, but maybe this more humble win will be better in the short-term. There's some clear things to work on this week, and we can expect Tomlin to use this week's tape to motivate some focused effort in practice. A win in Arizona gives the Steelers a little breathing room. Small improvements every week could lead to great things in the playoffs.