We can officially stop calling the Pittsburgh Steelers, “old, slow, and done.” I’m looking at you Warren Sapp. After dominating the New England Patriots for 60 minutes in a game that was not as close as the score indicated, the Steelers are again the favorites to come out of the AFC.
Due to the NFL lockout we saw some teams struggle coming out of the gates that have since turned it around. The Steelers are the epitome of one of those teams. Coming into the season Pittsburgh had two issues that threatened to derail their Super Bowl dreams: the offensive line and the defensive backfield.
The line was so bad in the first four games the team seemed sure to lose Ben Roethlisberger. Mercifully the Steelers brought back former Super Bowl left tackle Max Starks, who has had a huge impact protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side. No one player makes a line, but since then the unit has found stability and built chemistry.
Chris Kemoeatu is back from injury at left guard and Maurkice Pouncey is building on his all pro rookie season. Ramon Foster has picked it up at right guard and rookie Marcus Gilbert is improving with every game. If anyone on the interior goes down again Doug Legursky has filled in admirably at all three spots. The unit has allowed Rashard Mendenhall to again be a downhill runner and Steeler Nation has stopped grumbling about benching the controversial back.
Ben Roethlisberger now has enough time take advantage of his “Young Money” crew of receivers Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. Big Ben has also adjusted his game and is releasing the ball quicker than before. The improved line and technique has Roethlisberger playing the best football of his career, and he has to be taken seriously as an MVP candidate.
Who will win the AFC
The defense underwent a transition that has made the Steelers’ secondary the best in the NFL. Dick LeBeau’s scheme has long been synonymous with the zone. With the Steelers’ fierce blitz, the strategy has been good enough to beat just about every team out there. Quarterbacks with unreal accuracy and a lightning-quick delivery (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers) have proven the exception and have picked the Pittsburgh D apart through the years.
The defense as a whole struggled with an early-season transition period. The proud rush defense allowed two 100-yard rushers in the first four weeks after allowing none since 2008. This new physical man-to-man defense has Ike Taylor receiving recognition as one of the best cover corners in the NFL. Week after week he is following around the team’s top receiver and shutting him down.
Whether it is Wes Welker or Larry Fitzgerald, no one has been able to shake the new and improved Taylor. William Gay has gone from scapegoat to dependable starter and Keenan Lewis looks great as the team’s new nickel back, jumping ahead of Bryant McFadden, a starter for two Super Bowl teams. Troy Polamalu is flying around the field again and playing his best football since he injured his calf late last year.
With any luck, the rash of injuries on defense means the Steelers have gotten the injury bug out of the way early. Three of the four starting linebackers are probably out Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Only defensive end Aaron Smith (placed on injured reserve) will be out past the team’s bye week, and the replacements have played winning football across the board, adding speed and energy to a defense that needed both. Ziggy Hood has built on his impressive playoff run as the team’s new starting defensive end while Steve McClendon and Stevenson Sylvester have played well at linebacker.
The speedy Sylvester has likely earned himself even more playing time when James Farrior returns, adding another weapon to this top-ranked pass defense. The play of the young backups means James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley do not need to be rushed back early. The all-pro duo will be fresh for the stretch run and the playoffs, something no offense wants to hear. As long as Troy Polamalu stays healthy this team should be peaking come December and January.
Pittsburgh was willing to sacrifice some short-term success to fix the issues that cost them their seventh Super Bowl title. By staying patient with the offensive line and unleashing their brand of man-to-man defense, the Steelers have become a more dangerous Super Bowl threat, and are poised to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh.
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