It's been five weeks on the calendar since we delivered our Quarterly Report. Back then, the Steelers sat at 2-2 and were coming off a big win over the Chargers. There were question marks on the offensive line, and the defense wasn't creating turnovers. At that point, we had only 3 turnovers through 4 games. We were 0-2 on the road. We were giving up points in the 4th quarter like Canada gives away healthcare.
My how times have changed. The Steelers picked their way through Detroit and Cleveland, ramping themselves up to two big wins over Minnesota and Denver. Not only are they on a 5-game winning streak, the defense also has 10 turnovers in the last 4 games. Since the insertion of Rashard Mendenhall into the starting lineup, the Steelers have scored 27 or more points in all 5 games. Things are starting to click, and the second-half schedule features only one team with a winning record (Cincinnati).
Stats (League Rank)
Total Offense: 3,056 yards (5th)
Passing Offense: 2,134 yards (5th)
Rushing Offense: 922 yards (15th)
Scoring Offense: 195 (13th)
Could we have asked for anything more out of Ben Roethlisberger this year? Not only is he having a career year, he is also completing 70.6% of his passes at an average of 8.8 yards per attempt. Those are almost identical numbers to those Peyton Manning has put up. However, since Peyton is a) Peyton b) undefeated and c) has 50 more pass attempts than Ben (hence 250 more yards), he is in the MVP discussion and Ben is not. No matter, Ben is our MVP.
Running Backs: B
Rashard Mendenhall looks worthy of the first round pick that we spent on him last year. We hope all the bandwagon fans who called him a bust after Week 3 this year are enjoying their crow sandwiches. Mendenhall is a player, plain and simple. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and has done a great job not being tentative and hitting the holes at full speed. He's also shown better receiving and pass-blocking skills than Willie Parker had. Not to bash on FWP, but it's hard to imagine the Steelers keeping him beyond this year (the last year of his contract) with the way Mendenhall is playing. RAISE SOME.
Wide Receivers: B+
Last season, everyone was astounded that the Arizona Cardinals had 3 receivers over 1000 yards. Is that out of the question for the Steelers this year? Not by a long shot. Hines Ward is well on his way with a team-leading 646 yards. Even though he's not scoring touchdowns, Santonio Holmes has quietly put up some great numbers. More importantly, almost all of his catches have gone for first downs (many of them coming on 3rd down conversions). While these aren't scoring plays, they are vitally important to keep the offense going. Holmes has 590 yards and can easily reach 1000 if he continues at his current pace. And then we have our Rookie of the Year, Mike Wallace. Wallace has emerged as a legitimate deep threat for the Steelers. He has 437 yards so far, and if Ben keeps hooking up with him over the top, there isn't a reason why he can't reach 1000 for the year. What we love most about Wallace is his tenacity and willingness to go over the middle to make tough catches.
Tight Ends: A-
Heath Miller should go to the Pro Bowl. He is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with 4 (Hines Ward also has 4). Heath might not have the most yards in the league, but Owen Daniels is out for the year. He might not also have the name-power of Antonio Gates, or the receptions of Dallas Clark. However, Heath is the best all-around tight end in the league. Gates and Clark are glorified wide receivers. Heath is a monster in both run-blocking, pass-blocking, and receiving. Doesn't get much better than that. Matt Spaeth is doing a much better job in the blocking game, and it would be nice to see the Steelers target him a little more in the passing game. The run game has been solid when David Johnson has come in in the H-back role.
Offensive Line: B-
After being heavily scrutinized earlier in the year, the group has really come together. Max Starks is having a Pro Bowl-worthy year at left tackle after shutting down Jared Allen and Elvis Dumervil in consecutive games. They are still giving up sacks, but less of them are blown assignments and more are coverage sacks (which aren't the line's fault). It's also not the line's fault when the defense brings 7 and there's only 5 or 6 blockers. Willie Colon hasn't taken a penalty in weeks and has become a mauler in run-blocking. Trai Essex, who struggled in his career at tackle, now looks like a monster guard. Chris Kemoeatu, who we have had our reservations about, is re-growing his neck-beard and turning into Sampson.
Stats (League Rank)
Total Defense: 2,279 yards (5th)
Passing Defense: 1,716 (14th)
Rush Defense: 563 (1st)
Scoring Defense: 139 (6th)
Defensive Line: B+
When Aaron Smith went down with an injury, the West End Bridge was packed with people. However, Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, and Ziggy Hood have all stepped up big time and played solid games. Ziggy has shown a great work-ethic and is out to prove himself worthy of the first round pick we spent on him. Brett Keisel is taking his new contract and turning it into the best season of his career.
After a slow start to the season, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has racked up 8 sacks and has made his presence known against some quality players. Over the last two weeks, he has shown up Bryant McKinnie and Ryan Clady. Though he didn't get a sack against Denver, he drew a crucial holding penalty against Clady, who stood no chance. Harrison leads the team with 48 tackles and 4 forced fumbles. Keyaron Fox has been a monster whenever he gets to play. He flies to the ball and is all over the field. It's good to know we have the starter-in-waiting for when Potsie decides to hang it up (which won't be soon because he is having another stellar season). LaMarr Woodley hasn't been putting up big numbers, but he has been getting consistent pressure and forcing quick throws.
Ike Taylor might be the most under-recognized corner in the league. He is a true shut-down corner in that he mans up with the #1 from the other team every game and completely shuts him out. Willie Gay has shown a great propensity for in-game adjustments and becoming a blanket after the first drive of the game.
How good is Troy Polamalu? Two plays from Denver will tell you everything you need to know. He made a tackle in the backfield on run defense, then an interception. Ryan Clark was quietly having a great year as a leader in the secondary and Tyrone Carter has been solid when he has had to step in as a replacement. Ryan Mundy has also seen some time on the field and has gotten beat a couple times but is showing improvement.
Kicking: 9/12 75%
Punting: 31 punts, 13 inside the 20, 10 over 50yds, 44.7 average
Return: 6.8 yds/punt return, 25.0 yds/kick return
Even though he hasn't missed since Cincinnati, Jeff Reed still looks a bit shaky on his kicks. Even his extra points aren't as straight through any more. He is making kicks when we need them to be made, and we can't rail on him for anything he has done, but he looks shakier than he has in years past. His contract is up after this year and it's unclear if he has a vote of confidence from the organization yet.
The game in Denver was a perfect showcase of just how much better Daniel Sepulveda is than Mitch Berger. Superman had punts of 55 and 48, with all 5 of his kicks came down inside the 20. Lob Wedge, on the other hand, had punts of 24 and 26. Sepulveda has also made a few tackles on the punt team, and we all know he's got a linebacker inside of him. What a player.
The return game is much better than it was last year, but Stefan Logan hasn't been getting through the seams or around the outside with any consistency. He has also put the ball on the ground a few times in key situations, which has hurt the Steelers. I have no doubt he can get back on track and make a big splash play for the team.
Return/Coverage Units: C-
They gave up two touchdowns in two weeks to Josh Cribbs and Percy Harvin. With the return of Andre Frazier to the unit, they looked a lot better against Denver. Stefan Logan hasn't been nearly as explosive lately as we had hoped he would be. He made some poor decisions against Denver to bring the ball out of the end zone instead of just taking a knee.
Mid-term Team Awards
Midseason Offensive MVP: Ben Roethlisberger
Midseason Defensive MVP: James Harrison
Most Improved Player: Rashard Mendenhall
Midseason Rookie of the Year: Mike Wallace
In conclusion, the Steelers are in much better position right now than they were 5 weeks ago. Despite some key injuries that would have crippled Steelers teams of the past, this team has utilized its depth and shown that the standard of expectation does not change.
Looking at the rest of the season, the Steelers have 4 home games and 4 road games. Only one of those games is against a team with a winning record (Cincinnati at 6-2) and that game is at home. There are 3 games against 4-4 teams (Baltimore twice and Green Bay). The Steelers also get two of those games at home. That leaves two 1-7 teams (@Cleveland and @Kansas City), a 2-6 team (Oakland), and a 3-5 team (@Miami). If the Steelers beat Cincinnati this weekend, is it out of the question to think that the Steelers could win the rest of their games? Of course.
It's also important to not count our chickens before they hatch. Baltimore always gives us troubles, particularly on the road. While Green Bay has a horrific offensive line, that could be a trap game in mid-December as the Steelers look ahead to the re-match with Baltimore the next week. On the positive side, the Steelers have their hardest games at home, where they have yet to lose this season. If we win out, we would not only win the division, but also get a first round bye in the playoffs.