Like many people, I felt the Steelers realistically needed to come out of their first four games with a 2-2 record. Do that and they have the potential to compete for the division and another Super Bowl.
Fall into a 1-3 hole and the Steelers may as well call it a year. That was the cold hard truth on the start of this season.
It is hard to believe one game makes such a big difference.
Their defense had other plans. Mission accomplished.
A few quick thoughts on what we have seen so far:
The Steelers have beaten two very good teams with next to no offense; these were not a couple of NFL cupcakes.
Look at what the Falcons and Titans did when against teams not wearing black and gold: The Titans demolished what was supposed to be an improved Oakland Raiders squad, 38-13. The Falcons fared even better, hammering the Arizona Cardinals 41-7.
The defense is a completely different animal when Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith are healthy.
These are the two guys on the defense the Steelers have the hardest time replacing when they are out. They make everyone around them better. They are the difference makers.
They lose one of their marquee linebackers and the drop-off is much less profound, although certainly still present. They lose Casey Hampton for the game, and the drop-off wasn't noticeable, at least on this Sunday. Chris Hoke is a vastly underappreciated backup at one of the toughest defensive positions in football.
If Polamalu and Smith stay healthy, it is back to the future time as we turn back the clock to 2008.
The play near the end of the game when Troy Polamalu hurdled the line to tackle Kerry Collins as he took the snap was one of those rare awe inspiring moments that football fans live to see.
We’ll still be seeing it at the end of this season on NFL highlights.
You see stuff like that in college, where it is facilitated by monumental talent mismatches, but almost never in the pros. And the play was somewhat important, forcing Tennessee to take another timeout, one they certainly would have liked to have back after recovering an onside kick.
Speaking of onside kicks, is there a worse responsibility in all of football then trying to field one? To have a swarm of defenders bearing down on you like locomotives just can't be fun.
You know you are going to get absolutely creamed and, while trying to secure a bouncing ball, can barely prepare for what is coming other than to hope you survive.
It is one of the most underappreciated responsibilities in football: make the recovery and everyone shrugs; flub it, which is all too easy to do, and become an instant goat.
The return of Bryant McFadden has also been a major factor in the defense returning to all-world form.
That may have been the most important move the Steelers made in the offseason, other than drafting Maurkice Pouncey, who has been rock solid in the middle of the line. The secondary is much better with McFadden.
Up until this season, I have been mildly disappointed with Lawrence Timmons, meaning that he had not yet lived up to the sky high expectations that I had for him when he was drafted. This year looks to be the year where that changes.
He has looked superb against both the pass and run in the early going.
That defensive effort against Tennessee may be the best defensive game I have ever seen by a Steelers’ team, even topping their best games from 2008.
That is a bold statement but wow.
Almost every defender came up big early and often and Vince Young, Kerry Collins, and even Chris Borwn looked like they wanted to find some place to hide.
Watching that defense band together to torment a potent offense was a real joy.
Talk about a perfect Sunday. The Steelers win while the Ravens and Patriots lose. It does not get much better than that.
Speaking of carrion eating black birds, the Steelers-Ravens slugfest in a couple weeks should be a very interesting game, featuring two great defenses and no offense.
Maybe the Steelers should just punt on first downs. Just kidding....sort of.
There really is not much good that can be honestly said of the offense at the moment.
But offenses that are down to their third and fourth string quarterbacks are not supposed to do much.
Still, to produce 127 yards and walk away with the win is fairly remarkable, even with a defense as good as the Steelers. That is not something that will happen on a consistent basis.
I remember when the Steelers were on the other side of that equation once in a Tommy Maddox turnover fest against Houston.
The defense was impenetrable that day, giving up a handful of yards all game. That was a tough loss to swallow.
The defense has essentially been the offense, setting up a more than healthy share of the Steelers' scoring.
It cannot be overstated how hard it is to win in this league when the starting quarterback goes down.
The drop-off is almost always precipitous. Lose the backup as well and most teams are in a whole world of hurt.
To have that happen and respond by beating two excellent teams is a major achievement.
A lot of people are expecting the offense to essentially flip a switch when Ben Roethlisberger returns. While it will immediately improve since it can not get much worse, I expect it will take a few weeks before it is hitting on all cylinders.
Remember that he is essentially cut off from the team until after the fourth week.
But, with the defense playing lights out, the Steelers will be in every game and will afford the offense the luxury to get back in rhythm.
This week’s game features an early season battle of unbeatens in Tampa Bay. Who would have seen that coming?
Tampa Bay has not played an elite opponent yet, but they have won two games, which is more than most teams at this point. Still, Tampa Bay is not the caliber of the Steelers’ last two opponents and should afford them another win.
Prediction for the Steelers for Sunday:
Pittsburgh 20, Tampa Bay 13