In mid-November, after the Dallas Cowboys staged a fourth quarter rally to defeat Pittsburgh in front of their home crowd at Heinz Field and drop them to 4-5, it was quite tempting to write off the Steelers and to begin the annual parlor game of assessing the team's key needs in the 2017 NFL Draft. But one important fact seemed to be lost in the post-game gloom. During the majority of that November 13th matchup, the Steelers had given the Cowboys everything they could handle and, absent a few costly mistakes, Pittsburgh might just as easily have won the game.
So if we're looking for a turning point in the Steelers' 2016 season, that's when the switch seemed to flip and some of Pittsburgh's young talent began to show their mettle. Despite the lesser challenges of subsequent games in Cleveland and Indianapolis, the Steelers stuck to their guns and didn't allow the kind of upset which likely would have destroyed their postseason chances. At the same time, we saw further development of defensive youngsters such as Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Ross Cockrell, Anthony Chickillo and Javon Hargrave.
Offensively, the Steelers still weren't exactly functioning like the well-oiled machine that fans expected at the start of the season. But while we saw some lingering inconsistency in Sunday's matchup with the New York Giants, we also saw some hopeful signs indicating that the Steelers' offense may be starting to blossom into the juggernaut that Pittsburgh fans expect. The key missing piece added just recently to the Black-and-Gold's offensive puzzle is 6-6, 240 pound tight end Ladarius Green, who emerged on Sunday as a potent weapon against the Giants, making clutch receptions and scoring on a 20-yard, third-quarter pass from Ben Roethlisberger. As he has done occasionally in the past, Eli Rogers continued to make cameo appearances, showing flashes of brilliance and stirring hopes that he's on track to become a game-changing bookend to the incomparable Antonio Brown.
During the first half of the 2016 season, the Steelers' offensive woes seemed due largely to their inability either to call or execute plays appropriate for various down-and-distance situations. Unfamiliarity between Roethlisberger and the new faces in his receiver corps often seemed to represent a key factor. During this period, Ben seemed out of synch with receivers like Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton, Xavier Grimble and Jesse James. And when the Steelers reacted by leaning too heavily on Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, opponents' defenses discovered that their standard prescription for stopping the Steelers' attack was fairly straightforward and effective.
But all this changed at Heinz Field on Sunday against the New York Giants.amazing, acrobatic catches, including a highlights-reel TD grab, obscured the fact that, with only 54 receiving yards receiving for the game, Brown was good only for third place among the team's receivers. Clutch offensive plays were delivered by Green, who led the pack with six catches for 110 yards and contributed a nifty catch-and-run good for 18 yards and a key first down. Le'Veon Bell, the true catalyst of this offense, did his usual bang-up job, racking up 118 yards rushing and 64 yards receiving. Put this all together and we're witnessing the emergence of a potent offense with greater diversity, and one that will only improve with the expected return to action of DeAngelo Williams. Most importantly, Roethlisberger's comfort level with his young teammates appears to be growing by the week.
Arguably, the Steelers' 24-14 victory over the Giants was this team's biggest win of the season. Likewise, next Sunday's matchup on the frigid shores of Lake Erie against the Buffalo Bills will provide further evidence of exactly how far the Steelers have progressed during the past month of football. Despite their unimpressive 6-6 record, the Bills certainly are no NFL doormat. In fact, they're precisely the kind of team that, earlier this season, might have set a nasty trap for the Steelers. Without due diligence this week by Mike Tomlin and Company, the Bills are entirely capable of snapping the Steelers' current streak and vastly dimming postseason prospects. But with a dominant win in hand versus a solid Giants team, the Steelers now face the equally difficult test of taking care of business against a team they should widely be favored to beat.
If the Steelers can maintain their focus, while continuing to develop the young talent which represents their future, they've got an excellent chance to build up a head of steam as they drive for the playoffs. Based on the results at Heinz Field on Sunday, the Steelers suddenly have the look of a team hitting its stride at exactly the right time of year. With two road games remaining against Buffalo and the Cincinnati Bengals, in addition to two consecutive home games against the Baltimore Ravens and to conclude the regular season, running the table to reach a season mark of 11-5 and a division title might not be such a pipe dream after all. At the very least, Sunday's dominant win over New York has given Steelers Nation a welcome glimpse of that possibility.