Could have been better. Would have been better if not for those losses to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets, but at their bye week of the 2014 regular season, that's not who these Pittsburgh Steelers are. While their 7-4 record has them relevant at the milepost of the NFL season that is Thanksgiving, these Steelers remain very much a team in development.
This is a team that can be entertaining or exasperating, and sometimes at the same time. An inconsistent team – as shown by decisive wins over Indianapolis and Baltimore and head-scratching losses to the Buccaneers and Jets – but also a team capable of record-setting magnificence. A team occasionally prone to self-destruction.
Yet in spite of it all, a contending team.
Week 12 of the 2014 NFL season got underway last Thursday night, and it couldn't have begun any better for the Steelers. Oakland defeated Kansas City, and while many will mark the occasion as the first victory of the season for the Raiders, to the Steelers the significance was it was the fourth loss for the Chiefs. As of right now, the Steelers and Chiefs, both at 7-4, are two of four AFC teams with seven or more wins. There could be six more once the Monday night game between the Ravens and Saints ends, but 7-4 is a good place for these Steelers to be at this stage.
HOW THEY GOT HERE**
The Steelers arrived at a stretch of three straight games at home – Houston, Indianapolis, Baltimore – with a 3-3 record and looking like a team every bit as mediocre as their win-one, lose-one first month-and-a-half had been. But against the Texans, a 73-second span of the second quarter was packed with the kind of big plays that determine the outcome of NFL games, and the Steelers' season seemed to turn right there.
Following the win over Houston, Ben Roethlisberger set an NFL record with 12 touchdown passes in the victories over the Colts and the Ravens, and it seemed as though the Steelers would get as far as their passing attack could carry them. Then on a Monday night in Nashville, the same Steelers offensive line that was having some issues protecting Roethlisberger from the Titans pass rush combined with Le'Veon Bell to batter the Tennessee defense for 204 yards on the ground.
"We've been very up front that we want to be a very balanced group," said Coach Mike Tomlin after the game against the Titans. "We want to be a group that's capable of stepping in the stadium and throwing with anybody in the NFL. We want to be a group that is capable of stepping in and running with anybody in the NFL. I think we are rounding into form in that regard. And then we can just do what the game presents to us. I think that's a recipe for real long-term success."
WHERE THEY ARE RIGHT NOW**
Winning with offense seems to be the Steelers' path to whatever successes the rest of this season holds for them. With Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Bell, the Steelers have three of the league's premier players at three critical offensive skill positions.
Roethlisberger ranks in the top five in the league in attempts, completions, yards, yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdowns, and passer rating. He has a 111.6 passer rating on third downs, a 108.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter. Brown is leading the league in both catches and receiving yards and is tied-for-second in touchdowns. Bell is second in the NFL in rushing to Dallas' DeMarco Murray, who has carried the ball 49 more times, and among running backs only Chicago's Matt Forte has more receptions than Bell's 57.
What the Steelers running attack did to the Titans – especially in burning the final 6:58 off the clock to protect a three-point lead – will be making the rounds of their upcoming opponents, and the fact coordinator Todd Haley isn't adverse to calling six, seven running plays in a row will prevent defenses from overloading to stop Roethlisberger and Brown.
GENERATING PRESSURE THE KEY
The Steelers have tightened their run defense to some degree, but the best method for eliminating that threat will continue to be their own offense scoring early and often. What has revealed itself as a key for this unit is its ability to pressure the passer.
With time to throw, even Zach Mettenberger is capable of putting up a passer rating of 100-plus vs. the Steelers defense, and yet when the unit applied some pressure in the latter stages of the game against the Titans it allowed only one first down and was able to get off the field twice in the fourth quarter of a three-point game.
Even when it had Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in the lineup, the secondary didn't show it could get the job done with coverage alone, and it would be folly to believe that's going to change over the season's final five games. Exposing the defense to the possibility of big plays by blitzing may not be the optimum scenario, but for this unit at this stage of its development the alternative is no better.
The pass rush that has generated 20 sacks in 11 games isn't going to develop into Blitzburgh over the final five weekends, but some well-timed pressure can get the defense off the field in enough situations where it can be part of a winning formula.
Take a look at some of the best images so far from this season.
The Steelers have been without Taylor since he broke his forearm in Carolina on Sept. 21; without Polamalu since he sprained his knee against the Ravens on Nov. 2; and without Ryan Shazier since he sprained an ankle in that same game against the Ravens. Steve McLendon is going to be dealing with a shoulder injury that will flare up from time-to-time, and Jarvis Jones remains on the IR-designated-to-return list.
Taylor will have another scan done on Monday to see if the bones in his forearm have healed, and once the scan tells that story he should be able to return to the field rather quickly because he has been a non-contact participant in practice for weeks now. But until the scan tells that story, Taylor will remain a non-contact participant in practice.
The plan is to get both Polamalu and Shazier on the practice field some this week, and then see how things stand come next Sunday when the Steelers will be hosting the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees.
Here are the remaining schedules – beginning with today's games – for the other three teams in the AFC North, plus Kansas City, which is the same 7-4 as the Steelers after losing to Oakland on Thursday, with home games in CAPS:
Cincinnati Bengals (6-3-1): at Houston; at Tampa Bay; PITTSBURGH; at Cleveland; DENVER; at Pittsburgh
Baltimore Ravens (6-4-0): at New Orleans; SAN DIEGO; at Miami; JACKSONVILLE; at Houston; CLEVELAND
Cleveland Browns (6-4-0): at Atlanta; at Buffalo; INDIANAPOLIS; CINCINNATI; at Carolina; at Baltimore
Kansas City Chiefs (7-4-0): DENVER; at Arizona; OAKLAND; at Pittsburgh; SAN DIEGO
"Establishing the ability to play good, winning football on a week-to-week basis, regardless of circumstance, game location, opponent. That's what it's about for me – knowing what you're getting regardless of circumstance. When you go to the drive-thru and you order a No. 1, you know what that is regardless of where you are in the country. That's what you look for from your football team."
That's what Mike Tomlin has said he wants from the 2014 Steelers, but what he has gotten more often over the course of the first 11 weeks of this season has been this:
"What I do bring up to the team is that when we play well, we have a chance to beat anybody, and when we play poorly, anybody has a chance to beat us. That's just Football 101 in the NFL."