After seven games and a few ups, downs, and injuries, it's finally time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to take a break.
The bye week couldn't really come at a better time for the Steelers, who have several key players banged up and also need some time to iron out a few more wrinkles in their improving game.
Here's a look at what Mike Tomlin and company will be working on as the Steelers begin extended preparation for the currently undefeated Denver Broncos.
Rest and Rehabilitation
He may still be playing at a Pro Bowl level, but make no mistake: Troy Polamalu is not 100 percent just yet. He's probably 70 or 80 percent, actually. Two weeks before the next game should do wonders for his tricky knee. Polamalu could very well be close to full strength by the time the Steelers take the field against Kyle Orton's Bronco offense.
Lawrence Timmons has an ankle sprain, but it doesn't seem to be a serious one. Timmons acknowledged yesterday that he will be ready to play against Denver and there is currently no reason to doubt that statement. Timmons has been key since his return from an early ankle sprain (disturbing trend?) sustained during the preseason.
The Steelers also have several players who are just plain banged up or need a break. The Steelers have played a very physical first seven games, so the bye week will be a good time to get everyone back up to snuff.
If I'm Mike Tomlin, I'm spending the bye week getting Ziggy Hood ready to play more often. Hood, the team's first round draft choice, hasn't made much of an impact this year, but he will be counted on to step in for defensive lineman Aaron Smith as the team proceeds down the stretch.
Hood, Tomlin says, is "not a finished product." That's perfectly fine, but he needs to play more. Good running teams will start exploiting Smith's absence from the defensive front. Hood should have the ability to plug that gap.
Anyone who watched Sunday's game against Minnesota could see that Casey Hampton was trying to do too much, leading to three neutral zone infractions. They've got to get some relief next to him so that he doesn't put himself into those situations.
Rashard Mendenhall has emerged as the back the Steelers envisioned. There's only one problem: He fumbles.
It seemed like a theme during the Vikings game: players carrying the ball carelessly. Mendenhall, however, dove after a long gain with the ball dangling in front of him. Predictably, the ball popped free. That killed a Steelers drive. We didn't see much of Mendenhall after that.
The fumbles have to stop. I'm not sure what the solution should be. My guess would be to either have him wear elbow pads and forearm pads (as Ahman Green did and Willie Parker does) or to have him take extra reps against defenders trying to strip him.
Mendenhall is a great back. He runs with purpose and power. He just has to take care of the football.
Too Many Happy Returns
It's inexcusable. Tomlin knows that. Everyone does.
Last year, the Steelers were one of the league's better and more consistent coverage units on kicks and punts.
This season, they started out strong and have turned into a disaster. In successive weeks, the Steelers have been burned by long returns including Percy Harvin's touchdown on Sunday.
That can't keep happening. The Steelers have tightened up on defense, particularly late in games. They've got the offense moving at a good pace. They can't let special teams coverage units blow up.
For Tomlin, it might mean playing a starter or two on coverage. From what I can see though, it's not a problem with personnel. It's simply sloppy execution.
Even their return units have been sloppy, leaving Stefan Logan hung out to dry. In one instance, Greg Lewis, the Vikings gunner on the punt team, wasn't even covered and streaked down the field at Logan, who had to fair catch Chris Kluwe's punt deep in Steelers territory.
Time to get serious about improving those units. The big leg of Daniel Sepulveda and the steady work of Jeff Reed will mean nothing if the other ten players on the field cannot or will not do their jobs.
It's time to get the ball to Santonio Holmes. He's the reigning Super Bowl MVP and he just hasn't been getting the touches yet.
He's drawing a lot of coverage, but then again, so is Hines Ward. Bruce Arians, with his new balanced approach to offense, needs to devise a few new ways to get the ball into the hands of the team's star receiver.
When Holmes gets the ball, he's been dangerous. His hands seem to have improved in the last few weeks and he looks good on routes.
Okay, Troy Polamalu is back on the field. For those of you opining that the Steelers' defensive issues would be cured by his mammoth presence, I give you Exhibit A:
Brett Favre, 331 passing yards.
Yes, having Polamalu back is great. He changes the way teams approach the Steelers and he makes everyone more dangerous. His return has precipitated some success for the long-missing Lamarr Woodley and has closed down the massive holes Antonio Gates and other tight ends and slot receivers were exploiting in the middle of the field.
That being said, it's not all good. Teams are starting to pick on William Gay and Ike Taylor has appeared out of position several times lately. Ryan Clark may not be able to play in Denver, so the play of Gay and Taylor will be crucial.
The Steelers should, with Polamalu healthy, start mixing up their coverages. Blitzing the corners will also help and will likely assist in creating pressure on the quarterback.
I'd also like the Steelers to play more press coverage and not settle into bubble zones as often. Fast receivers have been exploiting those, particularly in Gay's direction. Those bubble zones are also the kind of plays that seem to get Ike Taylor called for pass interference.
The biggest job for Mike Tomlin is going to be keeping the momentum of a four game winning streak going after having a week off. The Denver Broncos will be another tough test and will likely still be undefeated coming into the game.
The team seems to have shaken the Super Bowl hangover that plagued it the first weeks of the season. Key players are also returning from injury, which makes a huge difference.
Tomlin is all about preparation. The players may have the rest of the week off, but don't think for a minute he will let them forget their purpose and their goals. That's just not the way he operates.