It has gotten lost in the shuffle of a tight divisional race and a bad loss to the Jets, but the Steelers' defense has been significantly sharpened during its past few games.
Another part of that narrative has been the transformation from old to young and from experienced to new. With the slew of players set to return from injury in the Steelers' Week 13 game against the New Orleans Saints, it would appear this transition is reaching the point where it was expected to be late in the season - approaching its apex.
Rookie Ryan Shazier is expected to be ready to play. Elder statesman/cornerback Ike Taylor has been cleared to play. Nose tackle Steve McLendon may be back as well. During the time when these players have been out, other players, both relatively old and young, have stepped onto the field to gain the experience they were lacking at the start of the season.
Rookies Stephon Tuitt and Dan McCullers have, at different times, filled in and around the absence of McLendon, and both now have the experience of starting an NFL game. Cornerback Brice McCain was picked up from the free-agency pile and has performed reasonably well amid the shuffling of cornerbacks due toTaylor's injury and Cortez Allen's ineffectiveness.
Why Stephon Tuitt earned a starting role on the Steelers' defense.
The absence of Jarvis Jones, who practiced Monday for the first time since before the team's Week 3 game, forced the return of James Harrison, who has been arguably the team's best front-seven player during the middle of the season.
With five games to go, the Steelers' defense will have some depth options heading into their next two games. While Jones won't play in Week 13, he could be back in Week 14 against Cincinnati, a team that may have lost right tackle Andre Smith for the season. With Jones going at Andrew Whitworth and Jason Worilds going after a backup, it would seem the Steelers' front-three combination of a healthy McLendon and the continued improvement of Tuitt and McCullers might give veterans Cam Heyward and Brett Keisel a big boost.
Shazier's athleticism and familiarity with the defense will be challenged on Sunday when Saints tight end Jimmy Graham gets on the field, but a healthy Ike Taylor on the outside could move William Gay back to his best spot, inside, to help with high-low coverage on Graham.
The matchups start to get a bit more favorable - or at least less one-sided - with the return of all these players. It's no longer about age or experience. The mix of various career stages will come together during the team's final five games. They'll likely need to win three of the five, if not more, to qualify for the postseason.
Iron is sharpening the proverbial iron in Pittsburgh, and if the defense can support the team's eighth-ranked scoring offense - incidentally, tied with the Saints at 26.2 points per game - this team can rattle off a late-season winning streak.