Eight games into their season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have definitely received two very early Christmas presents in rookie receiver Mike Wallace and second-year back Rashard Mendenhall.
Both players were virtually afterthoughts when the roster was finalized in September. Mendenhall was returning from a shoulder injury and had just put in his second lackluster training camp in Pittsburgh. Wallace was a third-round pick not expected to make much of a contribution behind Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and second-year receiver Limas Sweed.
After eight weeks, everything has changed.
Sweed, after dropping a sure touchdown against Cincinnati, was benched in favor of the surprising Wallace.
When the already ineffective Willie Parker went down with an injury, Mendenhall was asked to step in and replace him.
Both players have performed far above expectations.
Wallace possesses a rare combination of speed, savvy, and sure hands. He has become a favorite target of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in game-changing situations and also on third downs. Roethlisberger likes to throw the deep ball and Wallace gives him a target with breakaway speed.
Mendenhall possesses quickness, good speed, and the ability to run through tackles. He's hard to bring down and always keeps his legs churning. He is a complete back, able to run up the middle and gain tough yards while still having the speed and quickness to turn the corner on the outside.
What makes both players more special, however, is how well they have replaced those players for whom they've stepped in.
Mendenhall gives the Steelers the complete back that Willie Parker is not. Parker has seemingly lost a step and has become overly injury prone since a broken fibula ended his 2007 season prematurely. Parker was unable to stay healthy in 2008 and in 2009 was unable to stay healthy or generate a consistent rushing attack.
Parker was also never able to gain yards up the middle, something Mendenhall has proven to excel at doing. While Parker may see the field again this year, it is unlikely he will see it as often as Mendenhall, who has certainly taken over as the Steelers top rusher.
Wallace had already made a few nice plays as the Steelers' fourth receiver, but it was when Limas Sweed was benched that Wallace got a chance to play regularly.
Wallace has since shined, catching 25 balls for 473 yards and three scores. His speed, like Mendenhall's versatility, makes the Steelers a more dynamic offensive unit. While Wallace doesn't have the size of a prototypical receiver, he makes up for it with skill, good hands, and an innate ability to find the open spots in coverage.
Not to be missed among the Steelers' surprises this season is the offensive line. After struggling through the first two games, the unit has improved and gelled into one of the league's best. Some of the success enjoyed by Mendenhall is no doubt due to the great blocking he has received.
Maligned for much of the 2008 season and viewed as a big weakness coming into this year, the line has defied the odds.
Individually, Chris Kemoeatu, Max Starks and injury replacement Trai Essex have been the biggest stars. Kemoeatu, criticized last year for taking penalties and missing blocks, is now counted on the same way Alan Faneca was before him.
Kemoeatu is extremely important to the Steelers' ground attack. The Steelers trend toward running to the right. To accomplish this, the left guard is expected to pull and help the right side of the line in run blocking. Kemoeatu has excelled at this role.
Starks, the team's transition and franchise player in 2008 and 2009, respectively, has also shined in his first full season as the starting left tackle. Replacing the departed Marvel Smith, Starks has been healthy, stable, and effective while protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.
Essex is possibly the most surprising. Never given an opportunity to start regularly, Essex was pressed into service after Darnell Stapleton went down for the season. Replacing Stapleton, arguably the line's weakest link in 2008, Essex proved that he was a capable blocker. While it's too early to tell, it is likely that Essex has secured the spot for the foreseeable future.
At 6-2, the Steelers are pretty much where they expected to be. A win Sunday against the Bengals would put them in the driver's seat in the division. The team seems a lock to make the playoffs either way, with winning a second title wholly possible.