Pretend, for just a second, that the Pittsburgh Steelers are 6-2 and leading the AFC North at the midway point in the 2011 NFL season. "But they are," you might say, "I don't need to pretend." Bear with me.
In this fictional scenario, the Steelers defense has shown very few signs of rust, and the talk of a Super Bowl hangover appears to be premature. Aaron Smith, James Farrior and James Harrison are all healthy and performing at a level close to last year's Super Bowl run despite the machinations of Father Time. Pretend, also, that the Steelers once again dominate statistically in many of their traditional areas of strength: rushing defense (giving up, say, 70 yards per game on the ground), takeaways (let's say 17, with 10 forced fumbles and 7 interceptions) and sacks (taking opposing quarterbacks down, oh, maybe 20 times).
Imagine these familiar defensive displays led the Steelers to a hard-fought, 17-13 victory over Baltimore in the season opener. In this scenario, the game fulfilled pre-season expectations and trends to a T: Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata were relentless and harried Ben Roethlisberger all day, Joe Flacco was stymied by the Steelers' pass rush, Ben led the team down the field for some last-second heroics and a controversial call in the 4th quarter left fans of both teams arguing for weeks.
Imagine, if you will, the Steelers having beaten Seattle, Jacksonville and Arizona in underwhelming fashion. Pretend the Steelers offense has shown a concerning tendency to play down to the level of competition; in all three games, the opposing team, despite a clear talent deficiency, has hung around until the fourth quarter thanks to scrappy play and opportunism. In these three games, we might pretend, the Steelers offense has looked explosive at times, but it has looked downright lost in others as Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown continue to make the transition into more prominent roles. Imagine that Rashard Mendenhall has performed well when given the opportunity, but that Ben Roethlisberger has continued to struggle against the blitz. In this scenario, the Steelers have shown a disturbing tendency to put themselves in third-and-long situations through sacks, incomplete passes and negative-yardage runs on first- and second-downs, leading to a plethora of stalled drives. Games that should have been blowouts have turned into nail-biters.
Pretend that these these factors all came to a head in Pittsburgh's first loss of the year, a 27-17 defeat at the hands of the Houston Texans. Pretend that a healthy Mario Williams and a resurgent Texans defense forced Ben Roethlisberger into some bad decisions and more than a few stalled drives. Imagine a healthy Andre Johnson made the most of a few mismatches on the outside against Bryant McFadden (yes, in this scenario he has retained his starting job with Keenan Lewis riding the pine). Pretend that although the Steelers linebackers succeeded in stuffing a gimpy Arian Foster on the ground, they gave up more than a few big plays to Owen Daniels and the aforementioned Foster over the middle.
Finally, imagine the Steelers lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots last weekend, stumbling into the halfway mark of the season via a 38-27 defeat that wasn't even as close as the score might indicate. Let's say Brady had no trouble finding holes in the Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme, dinking-and-dunking around pressure on his way to 337 yards and 3 touchdowns. Let's say William Gay and James Farrior found themselves out of position on big plays to Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. Let's imagine Ben Roethlisberger struggling to manage pressure, find the open man or sustain drives. Let's say he pushed himself too often to make the big play by himself, throwing two crushing interceptions in critical moments.
Now imagine the the headlines that follow the Patriots game from our fantasy-land: "Steelers continue to struggle against elite passers," "Tom Brady extends streak against LeBeau and the Steelers defense," "Same old problems for Steelers," "Are the Steelers an elite AFC playoff team?"
OK! Wasn't that fun?
Now, for those of you who traveled along with me this far down the rabbit-hole of what-ifs and how-about-this-isms, answer me this question: would you take the scenario I've just described over what's happened in the Steelers' real-life 2011 season? Would you trade a developing secondary, a revamped defensive scheme, a rapidly progressing wide receiving corps and a quarterback's new-found predilection for short passes and quick decisions in exchange for a healthy defense more reminiscent of the dominance of years past? Would you trade this weekend's win over the Patriots for a gritty week one victory over the Ravens and some more breathing room in the AFC North?
I don't really like to put "here's the point" statements at the end of things I write, but if I had to do so, it would be this: this scenario is, pretty much word-for-word, win-for-win, a description of my expectations going into the first half of this season. Admittedly optimistic expectations, given the volatile nature of the NFL, but my expectations nonetheless as a fan of a team that has enjoyed more than its fair share of success in the past decade. So far this year, the Steelers have disappointed me more often than not in their quest to meet those expectations: they were blown out by their rivals on opening day, they've given up a ton of yards on the ground to teams they've shut down previously and they suffered a string of injuries to critical starters without whom many teams couldn't expect to succeed.
And yet, here they are. 6-2. Leading the AFC North (hell, leading the whole AFC). And perhaps more importantly, this team has show real, tangible growth in places few expected when making their own preseason predictions. Adversity breeds that growth. Struggle and strife stimulates change. As Mike Tomlin might say, "iron sharpens iron." And though the Steelers face a second-half schedule that is far more treacherous than it first appeared, I have more confidence in this team's ability to navigate that path to its ultimate goal than I did when I made these preseason picks.