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2016 Pittsburgh Steelers remain a work-in-progress

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Against Dallas and Cleveland, the Steelers gave strong efforts despite not yet hitting on all cylinders.

Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

While their 1-1 record for the past two games might not suggest it, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be slowly shaking off the malaise that hounded them throughout a majority of their recently snapped four-game losing streak. Despite allowing the Cowboys to come back and beat them at Heinz Field late in the fourth quarter, there was no shame in losing to a team currently performing at the top of its game. And the improved effort we saw against Dallas carried through last weekend in Cleveland, although the winless Browns certainly lack anything approaching the Cowboys' level of offensive prowess. But in both cases, the effort definitely was there, regardless of the outcomes.

If the Steelers truly are intent on reversing their inconsistency during the season's first half, tonight's game in Indy will be Step 2 in what Steelers Nation hopes is a 7-step program to drive into the playoffs. With Andrew Luck having been officially ruled out of the game, this appears to present a golden opportunity for the Steelers to grab a win which otherwise might have been a much more challenging proposition. The duel in Indy also gives the Black and Gold another week to work out the ongoing transition in personnel which it will need to carry it into the postseason and, hopefully, beyond.

We've seen some positive signs lately in terms of young talent developing in the secondary and a sudden, surprising uptick in defensive pressure on the quarterback. Considering the huge and unexpected absence of Cameron Heyward for the remainder of the 2016 campaign, extensive platooning of several defensive players in recent games appears to be creating some opportunities for Mike Tomlin and Company to better evaluate the talent they've got. Odd though it might seem, the Steelers' defense seems to finally be undergoing a transition which many expected would take place in the preseason rather than during the second half of the regular season.

In particular, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt appear to be coming into their own as NFL defensive stars. Meanwhile, Jarvis Jones is playing better football than many thought he could, while Sean Davis and Artie Burns are shoring up a much-maligned Steelers secondary, even as they continue to learn the NFL ropes under fire. Even Daniel McCullers made more than his usual cameo appearance in Cleveland. If McCullers can elevate his "nasty" to a level matching his size, Pittsburgh might have found the run stopper they formerly had in the legendary Big Snack. But regardless of how it all pans out, it's obvious there's currently some serious competition under way within this unit for the top of the depth chart. By the end of this season, we'll have a much better idea of where the Steelers' defense stands, which players have earned the right to hang around and what additional needs must be addressed in the 2017 NFL Draft.

That being stated, nobody watching the Steelers this season truly expects defense to carry this team to the postseason. As usual, Pittsburgh's ultimate fate will be carried on the broad shoulders of Ben Roethlisberger. For the most part, Ben still hasn't played the kind of football that many anticipated back in early September. And considering the nature of issues this team has had defensively, No. 7 needs to string together several solid performances between Thanksgiving and the end of the season. Obviously, Ben also needs to stay healthy (knock on wood). Otherwise, any opportunity the Steelers might have in the postseason goes up in smoke.

So the test resumes tonight against an Indianapolis Colts team minus its offensive leader. Like the must-win game in Cleveland last Sunday, this is another opportunity which the Steelers must seize to continue building toward a postseason berth. This is especially true in anticipation of their Week 13 matchup against the improved New York Giants at Heinz Field. What Steelers Nation truly hopes to witness tonight beneath the dome at Lucas Oil Stadium is another inspired performance on both sides of the ball, regardless of who suits up for Indy.