This 2015 NFL regular season is half over for these Pittsburgh Steelers, and who they are right now and what they might become in another couple of months is as unclear as it was when they reported to Saint Vincent College back on July 25.
Back then their path from training camp to contender's status seemed to hinge on whether a powerhouse offense-in-waiting could actually dominate games against NFL competition on a consistent basis. Lots of fireworks, lots of points, lots of opportunities to go for those two-point conversions the team began practicing daily from the first session of OTAs – all of that looked to be their modus operandi. If the defense could find a way to be something less than a liability and then maybe become even just a bit player in this ongoing drama, well then maybe football season might extend well into January for all of them.
Eight weekends into it, and the Steelers are 4-4 following Sunday's 16-10 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field, and while things rarely are clinched in the NFL before Christmas, here it was one day after Halloween and the AFC North Division race certainly felt like it was over. That's because their victory over the Steelers made the 7-0 Bengals one of three undefeated teams remaining, with the 6-0 Carolina Panthers able to make it four with a victory on Monday night against the 3-4 Indianapolis Colts. But more significant than being one of maybe four undefeateds left, the Bengals' victory over the Steelers gave them a four-game lead in the loss column with only half-a-season left to play, and this team from Cincinnati doesn't look like the type to Scobee-away that size of a lead in the standings.
The Steelers are where they are today – which is a team left to fight for one of two Wild Card spots available in the AFC – because their offense has been too inconsistent and undependable in combination with a defense that has played valiantly while developing at a rate beyond what would have been realistic to expect back at the end of the summer.
The inadequacies of the offense can be traced primarily to missing key components because of suspensions and injuries – Maurkice Pouncey, Shaun Suisham, Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Kelvin Beachum, and now Bell again for a prolonged period if not the rest of the season – but there is no sympathy because similar tales of woe can be told in every other NFL city. And at the same time the offense has been the subject of a lot of waiting and hoping, the Steelers defense has played well enough to win six times in the eight outings, with No. 6 coming against the Bengals.
The statistical resume the Bengals offense brought to Pittsburgh was an impressive one, both in terms of what some individuals have been doing as well as what the unit itself has accomplished. The offensive line is considered one of the league's best, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are among the statistical leaders among all individual quarterbacks and wide receivers, and the unit showed up here ranked third in scoring, second in third-down conversion percentage, tied-for-first in red zone efficiency, and tied-for-third in turnovers.
The Steelers defense stomped all over all of that on Sunday. The Bengals didn't convert a third down until late in the third quarter, and then they finished at 27 percent; their red zone efficiency was 33 percent; they turned it over twice; they managed just one touchdown; and Dalton finished with a Mallett-esque passer rating of 64.7. Green caught 11 passes off 17 targets for 118 yards, but nobody else among the Bengals' array of offensive weapons had as many as 40 yards receiving.
And this is the way it's been through the first eight games of this season, with the defense playing well enough to win six times, while the offense and special teams have done enough to whittle that six down to four. As the second half is about to begin, the question is not so much whether this Steelers offense will be able to carry the defense into a playoff spot, but whether the offense can stop sabotaging the defense as it efforts to do the heavy lifting itself.
As this was written, the belief all over Twitter was that Bell was done for the year with a torn MCL, even as there was every reason to believe Roethlisberger would climb back among the best quarterbacks in the league because he happens to be among the best quarterbacks in the league. Beachum is done for the year and getting Pouncey back at any point in 2015 seems like nothing but a pipe dream. Also as this was written, the Steelers have constructed a defense that for all of the bending it sometimes does can still point to a bottom line showing it held the quartet of Joe Flacco, Phillip Rivers, Carson Palmer, and Andy Dalton to six total touchdowns.
Can an offense that's paper-thin along the line plug in a reliable veteran for its injured All-Pro running back and simultaneously resurrect its once fearsome passing attack to the level that's going to be required to compete for a playoff spot? Can this defense, which has come pretty far pretty fast, continue to find ways to put together performances where the total always seems to be greater than the sum of the individual parts?
It's most likely going to take 10-6, which means 6-2 from here on out. Which is what this defense deserved in the first place.