The Pittsburgh Steelers are resting, healing, and enjoying a well-deserved break after going 5-2 before the bye week.
The Steelers enter this respite with a four-game winning streak and a defense that's beginning to play like the one we've come to know and love.
But not everything is picture-perfect. Like any team, even good ones, there are some weaknesses, chinks in the armor if you will, to go along with their strengths.
Here's an analysis of the good and bad Pittsburgh has displayed so far in 2009.
1. The Defense
Even with all-everything Troy Polamalu missing four games and DE Aaron Smith out for the season, the Steelers defense is playing at a high level.
Pittsburgh is No. 8 in total defense giving up 291 yards per game, down from last season's 237.2 yards and the No. 1 ranking.
The run defense has been excellent, allowing only 76.6 yards a game, second in the league. The passing defense is rated 15th in the NFL, which dropped the overall rating down, due in no small part to Polamalu's absence.
Getting to the quarterback is still a specialty for this unit. The Steelers have 21 sacks, second in the league, with LB James Harrison collecting eight, putting him halfway to his franchise record of 16 sacks.
All in all, the defense is not as dominant as last year, but it's still pretty damn good.
2. The Offensive Line
The line play was a major weakness in 2008, but in 2009, this unit has shown marked improvement.
QB Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 20 times, but not all of that is the line's fault. Big Ben loves to hold onto the football and sometimes he pays the price. Overall, the pass blocking has been much better than last season.
The Steelers running game is improving, moving at 119 yards a game with a 4.4 average over the last four to five weeks.
T Willie Colon and G Chris Kemoeatu are having career seasons. C Justin Hartwig has been a stabilizing force in the middle.
If the Steelers can continue to run the ball effectively, it will make the passing game that much harder to stop.
3. Hello, Rashard Mendenhall
After not playing against Cincinnati because of a lackadaisical attitude in practice, the light bulb finally seems to have gone off in Mendenhall's head.
Mendenhall took advantage of Willie Parker's toe injury to rush for 373 yards and four touchdowns the past four games—averaging 5.4 yards a carry—third best in the league. His 418 yards rushing is seventh in the AFC.
Mendenhall's performance, despite some recent fumbling problems, has put Parker on the bench to stay. His emergence has allowed the Steelers to display more balance on offense than they did to start the season.
4. Big Ben on the Rise
Roethlisberger has risen to elite level status as a quarterback, moving up to the rarefied air occupied by the likes of Manning, Brady and Brees.
Big Ben is thriving with Bruce Arians as his offensive coordinator and Ken Anderson as the quarterback coach.
Want some proof?
Roethlisberger is first in passing yards (2,062), second in completion percentage (70.4), first in completions (164), and fifth in passer rating (102.6). He is seeing the field better than ever and has complete command of this offense.
1. Special Teams
The Steelers kick return unit gave up two touchdowns the past two weeks and has played subpar most of the season.
Stefan Logan has done a decent job as a returner, but decent isn't good enough. He needs to show the explosiveness and be the game changer they thought he was coming out of camp.
Many times the deciding factor in close games is special teams play. You can bet your bottom dollar; Mike Tomlin will be focusing on improving that area next week in practice.
Pittsburgh is a -3 in turnover differential, 24th in the NFL. Not good for a defending Super Bowl champion.
The defense needs to force more turnovers, and the offense has to avoid the late-game mistakes that have been killing them most of the season.
Easier said than done.
This defense is capable of causing turnovers in bunches, so it's up to the offense to protect the ball better.
3. Fourth Quarter Funk
The Steelers have done much better the last two games in this area, but turnovers and mental errors continue to plague them in the final 15.
Pittsburgh has been out-scored 59-30 in the fourth quarter this year with most of that due to the aforementioned mental errors and dumb turnovers.
Two of those meltdowns, against the Bengals and the Bears, resulted in losses. The tide appears to be turning for the Steelers, who owned a 17-7 fourth quarter combined advantage over the Browns and Vikings the past two weeks.
Pittsburgh has a rough patch after the bye with games at Denver and home against Cincinnati the next two weeks. The Bengals are the only home game for the month of November.
It won't be easy, but the bye will get the Steelers healed up and ready for the stretch run. All the ingredients are there to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. They just have to remain focused, execute, and get the job done.
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