This was not how the script was supposed to read for the defending Super Bowl champions. With one of the NFL's easiest (at least on paper) schedules, the Steelers seemed a sure bet to steamroll their way to the playoffs.
Not so on the field.
Pittsburgh has faltered to 1-2 and has seen their season defined by an injury to star safety Troy Polamalu and sloppy second-half play by both offense and defense.
Pittsburgh has played well enough to be 3-0, they just have not finished games.
It would be easy to try to pin their latest loss on Limas Sweed, or just the defense, but football is a team sport. Everyone contributes both positively and negatively.
Next Sunday, the Steelers draw the San Diego Chargers. What originally seemed like the first potential test now looms as an almost must-win contest.
Here is the Week Three Report Card:
Passing Game: B-
Ben Roethlisberger is quietly putting together a solid season. I've said a lot about Ben's play the last few weeks, but he's evened out the mistakes and even showed a quick, accurate delivery against the Bengals. No one is better than Roethlisberger with the game on the line. Don't be fooled by his negative TD-INT ratio.
One interception was on a hail mary pass against Tennessee. Another was due to Ben's arm being hit during the release.
The receiving corps has been inconsistent. Hines Ward and surprising rookie Mike Wallace, as well as steady tight end Heath Miller, give the Steelers three excellent options when passing. Willie Parker showed some hands against the Bengals, although historically he has not been a good receiver.
Santonio Holmes disappeared after a good showing against Tennessee and was absent again against the Bengals, dropping a couple of key passes and contributing to the interception.
Limas Sweed continues to struggle. Twice in five games (including the playoffs), Sweed has dropped a sure touchdown pass. This time, it helped cost the Steelers a victory. Sweed seems to do everything well except catch the ball. I suspect this is a concentration problem.
One look at Mike Tomlin during the postgame press conference will tell you that Sweed is on extremely thin ice after yesterday's drop.
Overall, the passing game has carried the offense, so it's hard to give them a grade lower than B-. Individually, Roethlisberger, Ward, Wallace, and Miller would earn A's, Holmes a C-, and Sweed an F.
Running Game: C
Three weeks into the season, we finally saw a glimpse of the Steelers' ground game. The problem was that the glimpse was only thirty minutes in length. The Steelers have not put together a consistent ground game, which only serves to limit the effectiveness of the passing attack.
Willie Parker looked good against Cincinnati, but he also showed flashes of inconsistent play. Parker doesn't always run hard when he's trying to get to the edge, where he is most dangerous. He slows down too often behind the line and waits for a big hole instead of taking what he can.
Rashard Mendenhall did not take part in the Cincinnati game due to a lack of preparedness. Mendenhall, like Sweed, is on thin ice. He has proven effective when inserted, but does not consistently produce results.
Ben Roethlisberger continues to be effective scrambling and on designed runs.
Mewelde Moore is effective when utilized, but seems to be more useful as a passing option.
Individual Grades: Parker (B-), Mendenhall (C-), Moore (B), Roethlisberger (B+)
Offensive Line: B
Talk about a turnaround. The most criticized part of the team going into the season and after their week one victory over the Titans, the Pittsburgh offensive line has silenced some critics with excellent play in Weeks Two and Three.
Against the early league leader in sacks, Antwaan Odom, the Steelers allowed only one sack by the Bengals.
The Steelers also limited the Bengals' blitz schemes, giving Roethlisberger plenty of time to read the defense and find targets downfield.
Max Starks still plays a bit inconsistently at the left tackle spot, but his play against Odom was mostly excellent.
Chris Kemoeatu played his first passable game of the season, although he seemed to wear down in the fourth quarter.
Justin Hartwig continues to be a steady influence at the center of the line. He will play better if the guards do and will struggle if the guards fail.
Trai Essex is quietly filling in and doing a good job of it. The golden rule for guards is that the less your name is mentioned during a game, the better off you are.
Willie Colon is also quietly having a steady season. He needs to do a better job with run blocking, but has been decent on passing downs.
Since the offensive line operates as a single unit, I will not give them individual grades except to say that all five have improved markedly since their poor showing in the opener.
The Steelers continue to be a force against the run, having not allowed a 100 yard rusher in over 20 games.
A big part of that is the defensive line, which is the oldest unit on the team.
While the Steelers have struggled with their usual blitz packages and with creating pressure, the fault is not with the defensive line.
Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel continue to be strong on the corners. They won't generate many sacks, but they have been pushing opposing linemen backward.
Casey Hampton looks exactly like what he is: a guy playing in a contract year. Hampton has seemed motivated since showing up to camp last year out of shape and behind in his conditioning program.
So far, this unit has been strong and healthy.
Individual Grades: Smith (A), Hampton (A), Keisel (A)
This unit has also played the run well but has failed to get the kind of pressure it did last year on opposing quarterbacks.
James Harrison is getting consistent double teams from opposing linemen, backs, and tight ends. This should, in theory, open up the field for James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, and Lamarr Woodley. Instead, nothing has happened.
Timmons has been hampered by an ankle injury, but looked effective against the Bengals. He helped provide more pressure, particularly when shading toward Harrison's side of the play.
Farrior has been solid if unspectacular in the middle of the field. He looked like a liability on passing downs at the end of the game. The Steelers have to hope that this is not a trend. Farrior still plays the run extremely tough and gets some pressure in the middle, although not nearly as much as last year.
Woodley has been largely a non-factor so far this season, notching only one tackle Sunday against the Bengals. He has not been able to duplicate his sophomore campaign. With Harrison drawing constant double teams, it is up to Woodley to capitalize on the open space.
Individual Grades: Harrison (B-), Timmons (Incomplete), Farrior (B-), Woodley (C+)
The missing man. With him, they are a different team. Without him, they are pedestrian.
Troy Polamalu does so many things for the Steelers defense that go unseen. Once he's out of the lineup, however, gaping holes become visible.
Ike Taylor has still provided excellent coverage and matches up well against the league's top receivers. He hasn't yet made the penalties that he is infamous for, but he also hasn't displayed any big play ability. His hands are, as always, suspect, but his overall play has been steady.
William Gay has been good in his first full season as a starter. He makes an occasional big play, but mostly plays steady. He plays the run very well and has good instincts. What's missing is some of the skill with blitzes that Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden ran so well last season. If he puts that together, he will become the team's best corner.
Ryan Clark has been a non-factor. So good last season, especially over the middle, Clark has been quiet through three games. He has not covered the middle particularly well, although he looked better against the Bengals. Part of this is the change in the rules governing hits on receivers who are considered (defenseless), but part of it seems to be a lack of concentration.
Tyrone Carter has done an admirable job filling in for Polamalu, but he is nowhere near the talent. Carter plays well on passing downs and rarely gets burned, but he lacks the ability to blitz and also lacks closing speed.
The team has missed Polamalu's open field tackles and disruptive blitz packages. Carter has been steady, but he is basically a bandage on a gaping wound.
Individual Grades: Taylor (B-), Gay (B+), Clark (C-), Carter (B-)
Stefan Logan makes the Steelers dangerous. He also tips the field position battle in their favor anytime he touches the ball.
The same could be said of punter Daniel Sepulveda, who has given the Steelers a strong, accurate leg. Sepulveda is a huge upgrade over the substitute punters from 2008 and routinely gives opponents a long field.
Jeff Reed had an off week against the Bears in a stadium that is almost as unforgiving as Heinz Field. Reed was back on track against the Bengals, missing only from 52 yards. He continues to be someone the Steelers don't have to worry about.
Coverage Teams (A)
The coverage units have been solid, just as they were in 2008. Opponents no longer get many free yards from the Steelers, who used to have some of the worst coverage schemes in the game.
Mike Tomlin is the embodiment of everything Steelers fans expect their coach to be. But on Sunday, I noticed something a bit disheartening.
When the game was still tipped in their favor by a wide margin, I noticed Tomlin paying less attention to the game and more attention to a few side conversations he was having with some of the inactive players.
While team spirit is important, during a game, Tomlin needs to be focused on the action. For someone who preaches focus and preparation and details, this seemed to be uncharacteristic of him.
For Tomlin, it is all about keeping the Steelers on track. He has to get this team back on course after a 1-2 start. He seemed focused and driven in his postgame press conference, but it needs to translate to results on the field.
Bruce Arians is gradually allowing Ben Roethlisberger to do it all. Ben now determines when to run the no-huddle schemes and also has free reign to call his own plays at the line.
Arians still shows a lack of trick plays, but this is not concerning. He has balanced the attack for the most part, although the team tends to get pass happy.
The Steelers have been using screen passes to offset the lack of a running game and Arians seems to have this system down.
Dick LeBeau is still calling most of the same plays that were so effective last year for the league's top defense. What has changed, at least so far, is that he has been unable to make the proper adjustments at halftime.
The defense has played three great halves of football. Unfortunately, all of them have been first halves. In the second half, the Steelers defense has looked anywhere from slow to worn out.
Losing one player cannot be an excuse for the whole unit to struggle, so LeBeau needs to figure out which combinations of players will put the Steelers defense back on track.
Individual Grades: Tomlin (B+), Arians (A-), LeBeau (C+)
That's the report card. Check back next week for updates!