Did anyone have any doubt the Steelers would rebound against the Titans?
OK fine, I did when I predicted a 27-17 defeat of the black and gold on Saturday. I definitely thought the team would fail to hold Chris Johnson after giving up 150+ yards to Arian Foster the week before. After a 21 yard run on the first play of the game, the Steelers were stout, ending any chance of Chris Johnson reaching 100 yards and my fantasy football team improving to 3-2. The Steelers preached going "back to work" after their loss to the Houston Texans, the previous week. Against the Titans, it appeared Pittsburgh put in enough work to show they still got "it".
This game was a complete 180 degree swing from what we saw out of the Steelers all season. Not only did they win but they won convincingly against a solid Tennessee Titans squad that came into the contest an impressive 3-1. In the end, Pittsburgh came out with a shocking victory -shocking only because of the score- and kept their heads above water for a chance at the division crown. After thinking I knew so much about the Pittsburgh Steelers, I was taken back to school. Here's what I learned from week 5:
Not Too Old or Slow
Turns out, the Steelers of "old" can still stop the run and make teams one dimensional. Brett Keisel's return may have loomed larger than expected, and Larry Foote simpy did his job. Then again, Chris Hoke was a menace at nose tackle filling in for the injured Casey Hampton. The secret to stopping the stretch play may have been Hoke's ability to seal off the hole before the linemen could cut him down. What resulted was zero room for one of the league's premier backs. While the Steelers only managed one turnover, Troy Polamalu seemed to have three opportunities for interceptions that fell just out of reach. Lamarr Woodley came to life with a monster game, posting 1.5 sacks and an interception on a deflected ball from Keisel. With James Harrison out for several more weeks, Woodley has to be THE pass rusher for the Steelers with Timmons continuing to be used in coverage on most occurrences. Simply put, for this game, the defense looked good. The bigger question moving forward is, can they build off of this success?
Shorter is Better
When playing golf, sometimes it is better to hit the four-iron down the middle than to try and crush with a driver. For the first four weeks of the season, the Steelers offense has been trying to use the driver, only to slice the ball 80 yards out of bounds. Last week the Steelers kept it simple with quick passing routes and strong attention to the ground game with Ike Redman. What resulted was a five touchdown performance from Ben Roethlisberger including two touchdowns to Hines Ward who had been invisible up to that point. Ben was sacked once and only touched three times the whole game. That can also be accredited to the return of Max Starks who looked solid at left tackle despite starting for the first time since November 2010. But it could also be from a change in the mindset from the quarterback. The offense ended their obsession with the deep ball early and found success with short passes to move down the field. In the end, the Steelers were able to use the quick passes to open up the bomb to Mike Wallace. (See Ben? It is possible to have your cake and eat it too.) Hopefully, that philosophy will stay when Roethlisberger's foot is no longer injured.
The AFC is Mediocre
As the years go by things change in pro sports. Dominant teams go on the decline as terrible teams climb their way to the top. The once proud AFC Conference, three years removed from seeing the first team in NFL history to go 11-5 and miss the playoffs, is now a cluster of good, decent and bad teams. Every team has a significant weakness and no "top" team is safe. After manhandling the Steelers last week, the Texans lost against the Oakland Raiders on a last second interception. The Bills blew out the Eagles and beat the Patriots this year but also lost to the Cincinatti Bengals. Meanwhile, New England's favorite sitcom "Mr. Perfect and the Hoody" are 4-1 with a last place defense. The AFC North does not have a team under .500 with the last place Browns sitting on an idle 2-2 record. The playoff picture is completely wide open which gives the Steelers more than a fighting chance to make the playoffs after a Super Bowl appearance for the first time since 1996.
Anything can happen from now until week 17 but if the Steelers can go 2-2 in their next four games, they will enjoy a relatively easy track towards the end of the season playing Cleveland (2x), Cincinnati (x2), Kansas City, San Fransisco and St. Louis. Good luck telling that to this veteran group, though. The Steelers will continue to look at the short term which includes a visit from the putrid Jacksonville Jaguars; another opportunity for the defense to show they can still stop the run. Against a team significantly worse than the Titans, Pittsburgh should blow out the Jaguars at home. Could this be a team starting to peak at the right time? Or will this be a sign that the Steelers will remain consistently inconsistent throughout the season? I guess we'll need a lesson from week six.