After a disappointing 2-3 start to the season, Pittsburgh has won two straight as the offense continues to improve under Todd Haley and the defense is beginning to regain some of its old form.
But the Steelers aren’t out of the woods from their slow start quite yet.
They are sitting at 4-3 with a big game against the New York Giants this weekend and still have five AFC North games remaining on their schedule.
The Steelers must continue to improve if they want to earn a playoff berth in the weak AFC this season. Here are five things they must do to reach the playoffs.
Todd Haley was brought in to help keep Ben Roethlisberger on his feet, to boost the ground game and to improve point production.
After seven games, the offense is right on track, as Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball quickly and rarely getting sacked, the ground game behind Jonathan Dwyer is moving up the charts and the offense is scoring nearly 24 points per game.
Pittsburgh’s offense has scored at least 20 points in five of seven games, including the last three games. More importantly, the offense is looking more cohesive each week.
The offensive line is beginning to jell and the results are showing on the ground, as Jonathan Dwyer produced the team’s first back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances in four years.
As the offense becomes more balanced, the play-action game should open up and the big plays of past seasons should begin to return.
Add one more big play per game and the offense begins to put up 27-30 points per game, which would put them among the league’s elite.
The talent is there to be one of the best offensive units in the league, and the Steelers are on the verge of exploding. At this point it is only a matter of time, and when they do, not only will it help them earn a playoff berth, but it will position them as a true Super Bowl contender.
While the defense has improved in recent weeks, they are still failing to produce turnovers—they’ve only forced seven in seven games—and that will become problematic if they wish to contend late in the year.
Without Troy Polamalu in the secondary, the Steelers have no playmakers to force turnovers when defending the pass.
Ike Taylor has struggled and is just beginning to regain his form, but you cannot expect interceptions to come from him. The same can be said about Keenan Lewis, who in his first year of starting has not established himself as a playmaker.
The biggest play potential in the secondary comes from Ryan Clark, but not for his interception potential but rather his big hit potential. He could force some fumbles, but his role has changed without Polamalu and he cannot be as active near the line of scrimmage.
Another issue when it comes to forcing turnovers is the lack of big plays from James Harrison.
Harrison had been a machine at forcing fumbles, but with age and injuries he has slowed down and the team can no longer count on him to create turnovers.
Barring a major change, the Steelers will continue to be near the bottom of the league in turnovers, and that is something that must change if they want to be a serious contender.
One way to force turnovers is to put pressure on the quarterback, and that is something that the Steelers have not been able to do this season.
The team’s 12 sacks ranks 24th in the league and is one of the major reasons they are one of the worst teams at forcing turnovers this year.
So why so few sacks?
Top pass rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have battled through injuries for most of the season and there are no other viable pass rushing options.
Dick LeBeau does not ask for the defensive linemen to rush the passer, and it may be something that they should consider as the season progresses.
Inserting Steve McLendon into the lineup would not only provide the defense with a strong run stopping nose tackle, but also one that could penetrate the line to put pressure on the passer.
That may be the only hope until the starting outside linebackers are healthy.
Neither Jason Worilds nor Chris Carter are good full-time starters and at this point of their respective careers are only good in spot duty.
The inside linebackers offer some threat, but Larry Foote lacks the strength and speed to be an effective pass rusher and Lawrence Timmons isn’t asked to go after the quarterback all too often.
LeBeau could always risk a big play by sending cornerback or safety blitzes, but this is not something that the Steelers could do on a consistent basis.
It is clear that the Steelers can win games with what they have done so far, but to make a strong playoff push they are going to have to develop a stronger pass rush.
A major reason why the defense has struggled to be dominant this season is injuries to key starters.
Between Polamalu, Woodley and Harrison, the Steelers have missed their three best defensive players this season and as a result have been unable to consistently rush the quarterback, force turnovers and hold fourth quarter leads.
Statistically the unit has been good, ranking second in the league in yards and in the top third in points allowed, but they could be even better.
Once these three players are able to return to the field, the results should show, but the team cannot afford any more major injuries.
Ryan Clark has been one of the best defenders this season but suffered a concussion last week, leaving Will Allen and Ryan Mundy as the starters.
Both players are serviceable backups, but barely. Pittsburgh can’t afford to have either start for long periods of time without risking allowing big plays on defense.
Offensively, the team can only go as far as Roethlisberger carries them, and so far he has remained healthy.
As long as he can stay on the field along with the top receivers and Heath Miller, the offense should continue to be productive.
The offensive line has already suffered through a number of injuries and has been able to improve with backups moving into and out of the lineup.
Injuries to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman could have slowed the ground game, but Jonathan Dwyer has stepped up his game and has even earned a starting job.
But while the Steelers have been able to get by without several starters in the lineup, they are a much better team when all hands are on deck and will welcome each player as they are able to return to the lineup.
When it comes down to making a playoff push, the performance on the field matters, but it is not the most important thing.
The Steelers could go out and play ugly football, slipping by each opponent without dominating, but as long as they win they are moving in the right direction.
Pittsburgh also has a number of very important games down the stretch that will lead the team to a playoff berth.
With five division games remaining on the schedule—including two against the Baltimore Ravens—the Steelers could control their own destiny if they are able to earn a sweep of the AFC North.
The Steelers already have a win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and five more wins against the division foes puts them at nine wins for the season and would all but guarantee the team a playoff spot.
There is not a perfect team in the AFC, but if the Steelers begin to realize their potential down the home stretch they will not only earn a playoff berth but be one of the favorites in the AFC.