So, what did we learn today? Let's go over a few items one by one.
Can we take the idea of a team 'in decline' off the table? They certainly are not as good at present as they were a few years ago, but that is, as the saying goes, relative. But more importantly, everything about their performance is trending in the wrong direction for 'decline' to be an accurate assessment. This team is not just more fortunate in its play, it is clearly getting better in just about all phases. They go into the Thanksgiving weekend as relevant as they have been at any point in the 2013 season, with the possibility of a playoff berth and even a division title being discussed, not just as mathematical options, but as serious and sober outcomes. I doubt if any of their remaining opponents are licking their chops at the prospect of having to face and take down this team.
Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line
You really have to discuss them in tandem. The great heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali once said upon being asked after a fight in his prime, how often he had been hit, "He didn't hit me, but he touched me twice." That came to mind in watching Ben today. He got touched once. He's been sacked once in two games, going against two well thought of defensive units. Some credit can be given to the no huddle, but the maturation of the offensive line has to be a consideration as well. What Ben has demonstrated these past two weeks is when given a reasonable amount of time he can be lethal. Right now the Steelers passing game is essentially unstoppable by the opposition. They can only hope for misfires and drops. If you want to get nitpicky, the running game failed to produce a 100 yard rusher. But the generation of rushing yards is a league wide problem. And besides, more often than not they were able to move the ball on the ground when they needed to. I was impressed by Bell. Weren't you?
The fact that this guy was sitting in church and not on a football field the first week of the season tells you a lot about what ails the NFL in terms of how its economic structure serves to drive a lot of quality players to the margins. During today's broadcast Velasco was mentioned as being thought of as the MVP of the offensive line by his teammates. That sounds about right to me. All things considered his story is rather remarkable.
These are tough times for Gay bashers. Only Troy is playing better than he is among the defensive backs. Carnell Lake clearly brings out the best in this kid, who is playing as well or better than he did in 2011. Fourteen of the twenty seven points scored today are his either directly or indirectly. Combined with Will Allen's efforts this is a very good year for prodigal children. Can't wait to see what we might be able to get out of Matt Spaeth.
Still think he's a bust? One week might be an anomaly, two weeks could be a trend. The idea of a three man rotation at outside linebacker was viewed as a temporary tactic to help Jarvis Jones' acclimation to what appeared to be his anointing as the next great Steeler linebacker. Now it may become a dilemma. How do you justify keeping any of these three (with Woodley) off the field? And if economics dictates Worilds departure as so many of us have assumed, do you feel good about this occurring just as it seems that he is hitting his stride? And while we're on the subject, how you feeling about Ziggy Hood about now?
Antonio, Emmanuel and Heath
Was talking earlier about the passing game being unstoppable. Cotchery, who was tearing it up the last three weeks was an absolute non factor today. I don't recall Wheaton being targeted. Didn't matter. Miller had a day that would be described as more Heath-like. Brown stepped up against who many view as one of the best corners in the league. Sanders may have been the best receiver on the field for the Steelers. The bubble screens actually looked good today.
Troy Polamalu and Heyward
Demonstrated his unique brand of leadership with his wildly disruptive play, resulting in two turnovers. Cam Heyward is showing that he could be the heir to, dare I say it, Aaron Smith.
After a first quarter of sparring with the Browns, the offense and defense put together a strong mutually supportive effort for the first time in a long time. There is still a long way to go. In fact, the celebration of this victory should be coming to an end just about now as the Ravens await, and you know what that means. But with strong performances in all three phases and a turnover ratio of 4-0, we start the holiday week with a strong, comfortable win and can look forward to future challenges with more anticipation than dread.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
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