Are the Steelers Legitimate Contenders in the AFC North?
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It marked their first win streak of the year, now at two, after starting the season 0-4. It was the Steelers' first game with over 100 rushing yards since Week 11 of the 2012 season. It featured the Steelers' best individual rushing performance in nearly as long, with 93 yards on 19 carries for rookie running back Le'Veon Bell.
Is this the beginning of the Steelers' push to reach first place in the AFC North?
The AFC North is in many ways up for grabs. Unfortunately for the Steelers, the spots most in flux are in the middle. With losses by the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, both teams are 3-4 on the year. The Steelers are a still-in-it 2-4 when it comes to those two teams, but they remain far behind the 5-2 Bengals, who improved their record with a defeat of the Detroit Lions.
Further complicating matters for the Steelers is their remaining schedule compared to Cincinnati's. The Bengals have already played two of their toughest opponents, the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, and defeated them. The Steelers don't see the Patriots until Week 9 and the Packers until Week 16.
The Steelers have already lost one game against the Bengals, falling 20-10 in Week 2. Unless the Bengals have an epic collapse in the coming weeks against such opponents as the New York Jets, Ravens and Browns, the Steelers won't have a chance to take the division unless they defeat the Bengals in Week 15.
And that's assuming they can take down the Packers and Patriots, just as the Bengals did.
(Steelers bye in Week 5)
What is clear, however, is that the Steelers have improved since their Week 5 bye.
They've found ways to run the ball despite the constant shuffling of their offensive tackles. This week, it was right tackle Marcus Gilbert who forced the reorganization of the line, leaving the game with a quadriceps injury according to Bob Labriola of Steelers Digest.
The result was snaps at both right and left tackles for Mike Adams, Guy Whimper and Kelvin Beachum—and Pittsburgh's best run-game performance of the season.
Though Pittsburgh's defense didn't have any takeaways after forcing the first two of the season last week against the Jets, and though the pass rush doesn't appear to exist—the Steelers have just eight sacks on the year—Pittsburgh also didn't give up many big gains to the Ravens this week.
Baltimore's longest play was a 41-yard grab by receiver Torrey Smith, but he was held to no scores and just 61 yards. Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons had 17 combined tackles against Baltimore. He was instrumental in holding the Ravens to a mere 3.2 yards per rush.
While aided by a Ravens offense that would have struggled to move the ball against almost any defense, Pittsburgh only allowed seven third-down conversions on the Ravens' 14 attempts and held Baltimore to under 300 total yards.
There are deficiencies on both offense and defense for the Steelers, but in the past two weeks they've manage to mask them better.
They have to do two things, however, to be contenders in the AFC North: sustain this success and hope for the Bengals to falter. Only one of these is in Pittsburgh's control until the two teams meet near the end of the season, and it should be the only thing they focus on moving forward.
Do the Steelers have a shot at winning the AFC North?
Only once has a team started the season 0-4 and gone on to the playoffs—the 1992 San Diego Chargers, who ultimately won their division with an 11-5 record. Should the Steelers enter 2014 as AFC North champions, it wouldn't be unprecedented, but the fact that it's been done only once highlights what a task the Steelers have ahead of them.
Were the Bengals mired in the mediocrity presently befalling the Ravens and Browns, the Steelers would be in a far better position to capitalize. It's possible the best they can hope for is a second-place finish in the division and a shot at a Wild Card playoff berth.
At least hope is alive yet again for the Steelers after posting their franchise's worst start since 1968. The Steelers have something to build on with their two-game win streak. It's yet to be seen if they are legitimate AFC North contenders.
However, they cannot be taken lightly, which is a far cry from where they stood just two weeks ago.
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