Things are looking quite good for the Pittsburgh Steelers as they head into the decisive second-half of the season.
With their win over the New York Giants in Week 9, the Steelers are on a three-game streak of victories and are just one game back from first place in the AFC North. The contests that will ultimately decide the division are still a few weeks off—there are the two contests against each the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, as well as one more meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals—but every win is necessary if Pittsburgh wants to improve its postseason positioning.
Defeating the Giants was a big deal—it went into the defending Super Bowl champions' house and simply out-played them, something that hasn't happened all that often this season. That provides the Steelers with a great deal of momentum heading into Monday night's meeting with the troubled Kansas City Chiefs.
Let's take a look at where things stand for the Steelers as they get ready for Monday.
The Good: Practically Everything
The numerous issues that had plagued the Steelers in previous weeks seem to be melting away a little bit more every time they take the field, and their strengths appear to only be getting stronger.
From their run game getting back on track—for three straight weeks, they've had a running back with 100-plus rushing yards—to their prowess on third downs, from Ben Roethlisberger's continued success in Todd Haley's conservative passing offense to Will Allen (and even Ryan Mundy) stepping up in place of Troy Polamalu, the Steelers seemed to have fixed their problem areas without sacrificing where they're strongest.
The thing about the Steelers being a so-called "old" team is that they are experienced. They've been through season after season, some disappointing, some resulting in winning the Lombardi Trophy, but every single one of them fraught with changes both big and small and the need to adjust to them. Polamalu's injury, the struggles to run the ball in the first part of the season, worries about the offensive line? It's all old hat—there's no reason for this team to panic because they've been there before.
The Steelers' tandem of cornerbacks, Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, seem also to get stronger every week. Neither gave up a touchdown against the Giants, and Taylor notched his first interception of the year on a pass intended for Victor Cruz.
In all, Giants quarterback Eli Manning completed only 10 of his 24 attempted passes, for a mere 125 yards. The Steelers succeeded in cutting off deep passing even without a strong pass rush while simultaneously not allowing Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown any running room. It was the perfect defensive game plan to take on the Giants.
Isaac Redman, in his first game back after missing two weeks with an ankle injury, took over the reins of the run game and had 147 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Roethlisberger threw two touchdowns (and an interception), connecting with nine different receiving targets, including Mike Wallace, who had a 51-yard score.
The Steelers we saw in Week 9 may not be their baseline for the remainder of the season, but if they don't stray far from it, they are in very good position to get the necessary wins and hold the top spot in the division.
The Bad: More Key Injuries
Last year, it was the offensive line. This year, the injury bug for the Steelers has bitten myriad players and positions, and now it's wide receiver Antonio Brown and receiver/running back/returner Chris Rainey who are hurt.
Both Brown and Rainey were injured against the Giants—Brown his ankle and Rainey, his ribs. Brown has already been ruled out, as have safety Troy Polamalu and offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert, while Rainey is in considerable pain but still may play. Without the two offensive weapons, the Steelers will be a bit shorthanded against the Chiefs, but it shouldn't be so bad as to cost them a chance to win.
Brown's absence means that Emmanuel Sanders will be moved to No. 2 receiver and Jerricho Cotchery to No. 3. If Rainey is also out, Sanders will be returning punts and kicks, something that he's done in the past.
Though Mike Wallace is the Steelers' leading receiver in terms of yards (525) and touchdowns (five), Brown is Roethlisberger's most-targeted player, with 65 passes thrown his way. He also leads in receptions, with 42, and though he has fewer yards than Wallace, at 499, he leads him in yards after the catch, with 246.
Both Sanders and Cotchery have been strong this year, however, though in more limited roles than Wallace and Brown. Sanders has caught 24 of 39 passes for 302 yards and a touchdown, and Cotchery has eight catches for 92 yards and pulled down all four thrown to him against the Giants.
Expect not just Sanders and Cotchery to pick up the slack for Brown and Rainey—tight ends Heath Miller and David Paulson and fullback Will Johnson, who are always good for a few targets every week, should see an uptick in production this week.
Luckily for the Steelers, they aren't lacking for potential targets for Roethlisberger's passes. It's not the deep-passing-reliant offense as it was last year, which means more opportunities for shorter-yardage receivers like the aforementioned tight ends and fullback.
However, they may miss some speed. Brown and Rainey are incredibly fast, and without them, the Steelers may have to further slow down their passing game. That's not a major problem, however; it should only help them maintain one of the best times of possession in the league.
What's Next: The Kansas City Chiefs
The Steelers host the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, and though the Chiefs are basically the worst team in the NFL at the moment, it doesn't mean Pittsburgh should at all keep its guards down. The Steelers have had issues over the years with playing down to seemingly inferior opponents and losing—think back to the Oakland Raiders game earlier this season—so the Steelers mustn't go into this game thinking it will be an easy win.
This is an important game for offensive coordinator Todd Haley. He was the Chiefs head coach last year before being canned during the season in favor of current head coach Romeo Crennel and likely has a bit of a chip on his shoulder because of it.
Haley's offense is doing way better than what the Chiefs have put forward this season—though the Chiefs have the third-best rushing offense in terms of yardage, they still rank 20th in rushing touchdowns per game and are 25th in passing yards per game. They're 30th in points per game despite ranking eighth in average time of possession—which is likely due to their heavy reliance on the run.
The Steelers are tops in the league in total defense and rank first in passing yardage allowed and seventh against the run, which seems to indicate a very low chance for Kansas City's offense getting anything of significance done, especially on the road in Pittsburgh. However, their defense cannot be caught off-guard by the Chiefs, who are on a five-game slide and could use a statement win over the Steelers to help turn their season as around as they can.
As long as the Steelers keep playing as they did last week against the Giants and do not underestimate the Chiefs, they should have no problem. But the minute they think the Chiefs will be an easy out, they could find themselves in trouble.