6 Keys for Pittsburgh Steelers' Path to the Super Bowl in the Second Half

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst INovember 2, 2011

6 Keys for Pittsburgh Steelers' Path to the Super Bowl in the Second Half

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally ascended to pole position in the AFC after a rough start that saw them get blown away by this week's opponent (Baltimore) and later struggle against the Houston Texans.

    The Steelers have now won four straight after that 2-2 start and, last Sunday, finally solved their biggest Achilles Heal: The New England Patriots.

    With the Steelers primed for a run toward a seventh title (and a potential Super Bowl XLV rematch), here's a look at how they can get there in the second half of the 2011 season.

1. Get Healthy

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    Right Now

    Aaron Smith is gone for the season. Hines Ward, James Farrior, James Harrison and now Lamarr Woodley are banged up and in various stages of returning to action. Ben Roethlisberger has taken a lot of punishment but hasn't shown any ill effects yet.

    What Needs to Happen

    Don't rush. I hear that James Harrison wants to play Sunday and so does Lamarr Woodley. I'm sure they do. This is Ravens Week, a fact popularized locally by a rap remix of Mike Tomlin's press conferences on the Ravens.

    They need these guys, to be sure, but they also need remain healthy for any drive their going to make down the stretch. Rushing back from injuries won't help that.

    I get the feeling that Harrison won't play this week and that Woodley probably will. The important thing, no matter who plays, is that no more injuries occur between now and the bye week, when the team will finally have time to catch their breath.

2. Keep Their Foot on the Gas

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    Right Now

    The Steelers have gone from turnover-prone offensive struggles to juggernauts that can outscore you, out-possess you and out coach you on both sides of the ball. They've become a force to be reckoned with now that they've realized their best identity is a team that throws the ball to win.

    What Needs to Happen

    Don't let up. Throw everything (pun intended) at the Ravens including the kitchen sink. The Steelers have a great rhythm going on offense and defense right now. They just shut down the reigning NFL MVP in quarterback Tom Brady.

    They need to keep throwing the ball around with reckless abandon. They need to keep using the pass to set up the running game, which looked good in limited work against the Patriots.

    Defensively, they need to keep putting pressure on opposing passers. Joe Flacco, like most quarterbacks, is junk when you get pressure on him and force him into quick decisions or run for his life. That's how the Steelers finally rattled Tom Brady. That's what they need to do every week.

3. Avoid the Traps

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    Right Now

    The Steelers have done a decent job avoiding losses against opponents who won't sniff the edge of playoff contention this season (Jacksonville, Arizona, Seattle). They've won the games they should've won and even a game nobody thought they could win.

    What Needs to Happen

    The Steelers' second-half schedule reads like a laundry list of bad teams. After the Ravens, the only credible opponents on the schedule are Cincinnati twice, San Francisco and Kansas City.

    The Steelers have two games against Cleveland and a game with St. Louis as well.

    Call me crazy, but they should get to the end of the season with only another loss on their record (assuming they beat Baltimore). 13-3 should be the expectation and 14-2 should be the goal. I'll give them a single hiccup against San Francisco given the 49ers defense, but even that game is winnable.

    The Steelers cannot get trapped in the second half. The margin for error is nonexistent with Baltimore and even the Bengals breathing down their necks. A loss against Cincinnati or Cleveland could completely alter the division race. A loss against anyone is a setback at this point.

4. Figure out the Run Defense

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    Right Now

    The Steelers showed up big against the Patriots, but otherwise have been decidedly mediocre against opposing running backs. That's something that hasn't happened in over a decade.

    What Needs to Happen

    This has to stop. The Steelers are the premier run defenders in the NFL. They always have been in this century. They can't keep letting runners, mostly mediocre ones, gain so many yards. It ruins their game plans.

    This has become less of an issue lately, but it's sure to come up this week against Baltimore's Ray Rice and further down against guys like Jackie Battle and Steven Jackson, not to mention the 49ers Frank Gore.

    The Steelers had a great blueprint last week. They controlled the ball offensively with short passes and long counts. They stopped the Patriots by making them one-dimensional. Once they knew Tom Brady was throwing every down, they simply played man coverage to keep the receivers from finding space.

    If they shut down the run, they win. It's that simple. The secondary (surprisingly) has been way too good to assume anything else.

5. Remember the Motivation

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    Right Now

    There's no Super Bowl loss curse or Super Bowl hangover plaguing this team. They are playing this year for a chance to claim another title and also as a way to redeem themselves for losing last year's Super Bowl.

    What Needs to Happen

    They need to remember two things:

    1. They need to remember what got them to the Super Bowl last year: Smart offense and disruptive shutdown defense.

    2. They need to remember that, beyond adding another trophy, this year is about reminding people who the best team in the NFL is and who has the most Lombardi trophies. It's personal. Don't let anyone tell you different.

    As long as the Steelers remember those things, they should be just fine.