This was about more than winning a game, or about getting to .500 after playing four of them. Indeed, it's still true to refer to 2012 as a young NFL season, but these Steelers already were at a fork in the road. This was the week, the game actually, where they were going to have a real chance to reveal what they are not.
These days, four weeks in is way too early for labels in the NFL, because this is a league where the hierarchy can be expected to change a couple-three times between now and the end of the regular season. But so often in the NFL, as in life, what we are is revealed only at the end of a process that always begins by establishing what we are not.
That's where the Steelers were in the minutes before last Sunday's rare 1 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field. The opponent was the Philadelphia Eagles – a quality group in their own right, for sure – but in terms of the game offering some early insight into this jigsaw puzzle of a season, the exercise was going to be primarily about the 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Viewed through the prism of a by-the-skin-of-their-teeth win over the Eagles, these Steelers are an outfit so far able to maintain the basic characteristics of all of the other outfits in franchise history that actually turned out to be Super Bowl contenders.
They have avoided even a two-game losing streak, and after each of their losses they have bounced back with a performance obviously better in some critical areas over the one preceding it. They have done this by staying true to who they are as professionals, by paying the proper respect to preparation, by trusting one another in the heat of the competition.
Against the Eagles, a Steelers defense that barely qualified as a speed bump during the second half in Oakland was again an aggressive, swarming, physical unit. They did a fine job in containing a running back much better than the ones who had been successful against them to date. They pressured the passer and were more than spectators when the ball was in the air.
All of this represents progress, but for it to matter, the Steelers had to remain relevant, because 1-3 on Oct. 7 is definitely in irrelevant's ZIP code. Falling too far behind the arithmetic early in a season can render a sprint down the homestretch too-little, too-late, as happened to last year's Eagles when they finished the regular season as one of the league's hottest teams but outside looking in at the playoffs because their 8-8 total wasn't good enough.
It's the second week in October, and the Steelers are not a team questioning who they are and how they're doing things. They're still not a team prone to losing streaks. They're not incapable of being presented with adversity in a game and finding a way to win it.
What the 2012 Steelers are to become may not be revealed for months, but by defeating the Eagles they showed enough of what they aren't to make it worth the wait.
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