For example, would hard-hitting safety Ryan Clark risk his life to play? (No) Would the Steelers miss the three starters on defense (Clark, Lawrence Timmons, Aaron Smith' s replacement Travis Kirschke) against a 6-1 team that has not lost a game at home this year? (Not really) Would the Steelers fourth-quarter defense, outscored 56-23 thus far this season, toughen up and shut down the cardiac Broncos late in the game? (Yes)
While I do have some concerns with the Steelers after this win (more on that later), this was a statement win. Now going on a short week against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday, the Steelers have a chance to take control of the AFC North and are primed for another postseason run.
Here are the observations and concerns from tonight's game:
1. Bruce Arians finally got it right ... in the second half.
In the first half of this game, the Steelers offense looked lackadaisical, not sharp at all. It could be attributed to the longer than usual bye week (who plays a Monday Night game after a bye week?), it could be attributed to Denver's defense, or it could have been the chronic issue of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians 's average to bad playcalling.
The most telling stat of the game for me was this: Rashard Mendenhall got six carries in the first half. In the second half, he got 16 and went 130 yards just in the second half alone. Mind you the Steelers offense never got going in the first half but Arians finally got it right. A balanced offense leads to Steeler wins. 29 runs and 32 pass plays attest to that.
Ben Roethlisberger was great again tonight but he does not have to do everything by himself. He has a potentially great running back and an offensive line who showed tonight they can run block effectively against a good defense.
Mendenhall has the ability to go to the Pro Bowl this season IF Arians gets him enough carries. Tonight he posted 155 yards in Denver, the fourth highest ever by an opponent in the Mile High City since the 1970 merger.
Mendenhall tonight again showed why he was taken in the first round last season and why Willie Parker's days as a Steeler are numbered. But to make it to the elite status of AFC running backs, Arians needs to get Mendenhall enough carries. Tonight he did and he should be commended.
2. Willie Colon is proving me wrong
I have stated in the past that right tackle Willie Colon , a starter since 2007 season, needed to be benched or be moved to guard where his less than stellar pass blocking ability against speed rushers would not be exposed as much.
Tonight, he set Mendenhall up on most of the big runs in the second half, often just plowing up Denver defenders to the ground. While Colon can improve as a pass blocker at right tackle, there is nothing wrong with his run blocking.
3. Mike Wallace ... Offensive Rookie of the Year??
Don't laugh. It is a distinct possibility. The speedster from Ole Miss could unseat Minnesota's Percy Harvin as the favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year, especially if he keeps getting open deep and catching the ball like he did on the 25-yard TD catch that put the Steelers up 21-10.
Wallace is having the best season by a Steeler rookie wide receiver since Louis Lipps in 1984. Not even Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Lynn Swann, or John Stallworth have had the rookie campaign that Wallace is having.
I really thought that Wallace would have a great impact as a kick returner only, not as the third receiver. But given the trust that Ben Roethlisberger has in Wallace from the first game of the year coupled with Limas Sweed dropping passes and not doing much else, saying that Wallace has been a pleasant surprise is a gross understatement.
4. The defense is getting better and better each week
While the third-down defense in the first half tonight was not good, allowing five conversions in nine attempts, in the second half they locked Denver down. In the second half Denver went 0-for-5 on third downs. The Steelers defense gave up just one field goal and that was it. It was the best defensive effort of the season and a great match before facing the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend.
Tyrone Carter filled in admirably tonight. While it was smart of Ryan Clark to sit out tonight's game, Carter showed that he is good enough to be a starter in this league, getting two interceptions. Same goes for Keyaron Fox filling in for Lawrence Timmons and Nick Eason filling in for Travis Kirschke.
While the defense collected just two sacks (both by the underrated Brett Keisel), they put enough pressure on Kyle Orton to make him feel uncomfortable. The run defense tonight was stellar, allowing just one yard in the second half and 27 overall.
While Denver came out firing on the opening drive, the Steelers defense toughened up and played like the champions they are. And wait until Ryan Clark and Lawrence Timmons come back. It will only get better. Dick LeBeau should be commended, but this is just another day at the office for the soon to be Hall of Famer.
5. OK, enough of Stefan Logan please.
Most of the readers here know I am not a big fan of Stefan Logan, the mighty mite kick returner from the Canadian Football League. I loved his story of coming to the NFL but he should not have made the active roster. Special teams ace and cornerback Anthony Madison deserved that last spot. Alas, Logan made the team and Madison got cut.
While Logan did not fumble the ball on returns like he did against Chicago and San Diego, he did something even worse in my mind. Logan, on three occasions, brought the ball out on kickoffs that sent him back at least five yards deep in the end zone. Only once did he get the ball to the 20 yard line. He did not help with field position at all.
I think Mewelde Moore, given his sure hands and his smarts, should be the full time punt returner and rookie Joe Burnett, activated for the first time this season, should be given another shot at the kick returner job. Logan could have really hurt the Steelers tonight with his decisions to run out of the end zone. The way he is going, it will be a matter of time before one of his mental gaffes or fumbles cost the team a win.
There were so many good stories from this game that I did not even mention Santonio Holmes, who had a great day with nearly 100 yard receiving against Champ Bailey. Or how about Hines Ward with two touchdown catches? But make no bones about it, this was a big win. However, the biggest test of the season is less than six days away.
Cincinnati is for real. Cedric Benson is proving everyone wrong about being finished and is showing why he was a top-five pick just four years ago. Carson Palmer is back to being the Pro Bowl QB. Cincy's defense is stout and fast. It will not be easy but the Steelers are hitting their stride just in the right time. It will be a great game, no doubt.
Until next time.
Next game: Cincinnati Bengals, November 15 @ 1 p.m. Eastern
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