After a slow start, the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting hot with three straight victories to close out the first half of the 2012 season.
Last week’s victory over the New York Giants not only moved the Steelers to 5-3 for the year, it also established them as a legitimate contender at the midway point of the season.
Clearly, the Most Valuable Player has been Ben Roethlisberger, who is having one of the best seasons of his career.
He has taken to Todd Haley’s offense and has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season.
Roethlisberger continues to extend plays, but has been able to get the ball out quickly and has easily been the best third down quarterback in the league.
But besides team MVP, there are a number of other players who deserve a lot of credit for the Steelers’ success this year. Here is a look at some of the other Steelers’ midseason award winners.
David DeCastro and Sean Spence were two rookies who were supposed to contribute this season, but both suffered major injuries in the preseason.
Mike Adams is showing signs of becoming a quality right tackle while Chris Rainey has provided a spark in the return game, but neither has done enough yet to earn rookie of the year.
Instead, that award goes to undrafted free agent punter Drew Butler.
Butler won the punting job over Jeremy Kapinos and has been very solid this season.
While Butler ranks in the bottom third of the league in punting average at 43.5 yards per punt, he does rank 19th in net yardage with an average of 39.3 yards.
What has been more impressive is his 13 punts downed inside of the 20—which ranks 15th in the league—and only has one touchback. He also has forced eight fair catches.
Chances are Butler won’t be the Steelers’ rookie of the year when all is said and done, but through eight games he has been the best of the bunch.
In his eighth season, Heath Miller has finally entered the upper-tier of tight ends when it comes to production.
After just eight games, Miller has 39 receptions and 384 yards. Even more importantly, he has been an excellent threat in the red zone with six touchdown receptions, which is only one short of his career-high.
Miller has been an outlet for Roethlisberger and has been a key target on third downs. With the short passing game that the Steelers have implemented this season, Miller has provided a big, physical target who gives Ben Roethlisberger a threat over the middle of the field.
Besides his receiving numbers, Miller has done a fine job in pass protection, especially when he has been asked to help the rookie Adams.
Now that the Steelers’ offense is beginning to become more balanced, Miller could put up even bigger numbers as they will be able to take more shots down field.
Without much production from defensive stars such as LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu for one reason or another, the Steelers do not have a big-time playmaker on defense.
Without anyone constantly pressuring the quarterback or forcing turnovers, the Steelers needed someone to hold the defense together—Ryan Clark was that player.
Clark has been excellent this season, playing back to prevent the big play. as well as near the line against the run.
He currently ranks second on the team with 52 tackles—40 of them solo—and has made some solid plays behind the line of scrimmage with three tackles for a loss and has a forced fumble
Clark has been good against the pass as well with four passes defended and an interception.
There has been no more consistent player than Clark on the Steelers’ defense and while he is not the big-time playmaker of some of the other defenders on the team, he gets the job done.
Free agency is where most teams make their move, or even the draft.
As always, the draft is where the Steelers made their moves, but the biggest move came with a coaching change.
Hiring Todd Haley to replace Bruce Arians has transformed the Steelers’ offense and it has certainly transformed.
After eight weeks, the offense is getting better as it has become a balanced attack that can effectively move the ball through the air or on the ground.
Roethlisberger has bought into the quick, short passing game and the offensive line has jelled and is much improved over last season.
The team is scoring more points this year and Roethlisberger is getting hit less.
Right now, the Steelers’ offense is trending up and it should get even better as the season progresses.
There have been few players to show the improvement that Keenan Lewis has and he is easily the Steelers’ surprise player of the first half of the season.
During training camp, Lewis battled with Cortez Allen for the starting job at cornerback and he would come out on top.
After a slow start to the season, Lewis has been excellent in recent weeks, virtually shutting down his side of the field.
Besides one pass interference call against the Giants—well, two including the terrible call by the officials—Lewis helped shut down one of the better passing games in the league.
He had three passes defended and a fourth disallowed due to a pass interference call, which gives him 15 for the season.
Lewis has continued to be a solid physical presence as well with 31 tackles.
Though he does not have an interception yet, Lewis does have one forced fumble.
Lewis has gotten better each week and is showing that he has a bright future if his development continues.
While Lewis may be the surprise player of the first half of the season, nothing has been more surprising than the emergence of the ground game.
Pittsburgh’s offense seemed as though it would be one-dimensional this season after running game failures early in the season.
This was a disappointment considering the emphasis that Todd Haley put on the ground attack during training camp. But to Haley’s credit, he never waivered and continued to try to establish the run and it has paid off.
Over the past three weeks, the Steelers have had three 100-yard rushers in a row and they are quickly moving up the NFL rushing ranks.
What is even more impressive is that the Steelers have done this with injuries to Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer.
Right now it seems as though no matter which of those running backs is in the lineup, they will have a shot at being successful.
As a team, the Steelers now have 839 yards rushing with an average of 3.9 yards per carry. Dwyer leads the way with 299 yards and an average of 5.2 yards per carry.
Down 20-10, despite dominating the game, the Steelers had the ball 51 yards away from closing the gap to the defending Super Bowl Champions.
Even though they had been playing well, two turnovers and poor officiating seemed to have doomed the Steelers against the Giants, but then they got the big play.
After being plagued with a number of drops in recent weeks, Mike Wallace finally showed why he is such a dangerous weapon.
Wallace took a short slant and broke open a 51-yard touchdown reception to close the gap to 20-17.
The touchdown reception demonstrated Wallace’s elite speed and playmaking ability that has been missing this season.
This touchdown gave the Steelers enough momentum to eventually complete the comeback and get a huge win over the Giants.
While it was an out-of-conference game, the win kept the Steelers above .500 and in contention to win the AFC North.
Any time a team can go on the road and defeat the defending Super Bowl champions, it is impressive.
Not only did the Steelers beat the Giants, but they did so in their most complete game of the season.
First, the Steelers overcame poor officiating which basically helped the Giants to 14 points. As Mike Tomlin would say, the team “did not blink.”
But beyond this, the Steelers were dominant.
They had more first downs (22-13), better on third downs (6-for-13 compared to 2-for-10), more total yards (349 to 182) and dominated the clock (35:15 to 24:45).
Roethlisberger outplayed Eli Manning and Redman was outstanding on the ground behind a dominating effort from the offensive line.
The defense held the Giants’ offense in check and prevented them from picking up a first down on three fourth quarter drives.
Even the special teams joined the party with big returns from Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Sanders.
The coaching was excellent as well—besides the fake field goal call—as the Steelers had a terrific game plan and made the necessary in-game adjustments to earn the victory.