It's an exciting time for Steelers football after what we've witnessed the last couple of weeks. And the first player who comes to mind is Martavis Bryant. It's appropriate that he wears number 10, because his mid-season impact has reminded me of the impact Kordell Stewart made in his slash role for a 1995 team that started off 4-4, only to reel off seven in a row on its way to a Super Bowl XXX appearance.
Bryant's first touchdown showed off his speed and fluidity. The second TD featured his size. Bryant's body provided a target that shielded the defender from being able to make a play on the ball. Bryant's big-play and red-zone ability seem to have provided a domino effect to the rest of the offense.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, since Bryant has entered the lineup, but Todd Haley is attacking down the field with the pass game more often. While the Steelers have always taken their shots under Haley, the offense was far too reliant on the short passing game. The Steelers are now striking a good balance between the intermediate and deep throws and short passes. Mike Tomlin commands his defense to cover every blade of grass. Now he has an offense that seems to attack every blade of grass.
Fans shouldn't sleep on Markus Wheaton. It hasn't given me any regrets seeing Emmanuel Sanders play well and put up big numbers in Peyton Manning's offense. Wes Welker and Jacob Tamme have had their moments in the sun with Manning, too. But I never saw Sanders just flat run by a corner as Wheaton did Sunday night. By all accounts, Wheaton is a good/humble guy who works hard. Young players will have their growing pains. With the emergence of Bryant, the Steelers are going to have a dynamic three-headed monster at wide receiver.
Of course, all of this is being orchestrated by Ben Roethlisberger, who is playing the position at a ridiculously high level. Ben is finally receiving his long-deserved recognition from the statistically starved national media. His arm appears stronger than it ever has this year, and he's throwing the deep ball better than ever. He's obviously made great decisions throwing the ball. He's thrown only three interceptions and there haven't been a lot of other close calls.
Haley deserves a lot of the credit as well. Besides adjusting the offensive philosophy of short/quick passes to a more vertical attacking unit, the Steelers have also started games with a balanced approach. From there, they've leaned a little more heavily on what's working. The Steelers haven't run the no-huddle much, if at all, the last couple of weeks. That means the play-calling has been Haley's. More balance and extra protection from either tight ends or running backs also seem to have resulted from Haley calling the plays.
The greatest area of concern after Sunday night is the Steelers' run game. It seems to be the one part of the offense that hasn't improved. Ramon Foster struggled Sunday. And Haloti Ngata will do that to a player. But the run game seemed to be at its best when Cody Wallace was in the lineup. Then again, offense has also run the ball more from under center than from the spread. Yards therefore seem harder to come by, but big plays in the passing game have resulted. Regardless, one more significant piece on the offensive line could make this offense exceptional.
Defensively, what's not to like? The last three wins have been jump-started by the defense forcing a turnover. The front seven is relentlessly attacking and pressuring opposing QBs. It's a shame Troy Polamalu was injured. I loved how LeBeau was using Troy as a blitzer and run defender up near the line of scrimmage in the nickel. He was starting to look like the playmaking Troy of old.
It was still the old guard showing the young guys how it gets done in a Steelers-Ravens battle. Both Polamalu and James Harrison battled back onto the field after injuries. When Terrell Suggs was busy taking his cheap shots and running his mouth, NBC showed Brett Keisel on the sideline telling a players on the field to "be smart". It was at that moment I had a brief moment of reflection and just an extra appreciation for the players and unique characters that Keisel, Harrison, and Polamalu have been. Unique characters. Special people. Special players. Winners. They will always be appreciated by Steelers Nation well after they do retire.
It's great to see Harrison finish his career where he's always supposed to have been. Lebeau's 3-4 defense is tailor-made for his skills. It felt like those three great veterans truly passed to the young players the legacy and intensity that comes with playing the Baltimore Ravens. If the young players on the roster didn't understand what the rivalry means before Sunday night, they do now.
The game hasn't passed LeBeau by. The players don't need a new voice (as I had once openly questioned). LeBeau just needed talent. He has it now. Fans should be just as excited about Stephon Tuitt on defense as they are about Bryant on offense. The talent Tuitt flashes in his limited snaps shows that he's going to be a stud on the defensive line.
I thought Steve McLendon consistently drove the center back. The nose tackle is where I focus at the start of a play. Time and again, he seemed to win the initial push and he got to where he needed to. He's having a very good year.
Arthur Moats has been a solid addition. When I think back to when Harrison had only one sack through several starts after a Joey Porter injury in 2004, I think Moats could be another guy that grows into a very good player in this system. Moats has been doing a good job pressuring the quarterback. His forced fumble was the turning point of the game on Sunday. Should Jarvis Jones capably return, the Steelers would have the ability to go four deep at outside linebacker.
Ike Taylor's return could allow the Steelers to go four deep at corner. The organization deserves credit for finding the low cost talent of Antwon Blake and Brice McCain. They can play. LeBeau's trust level in his corners has to be one of the reasons why he's been so aggressive creating pressure again with his front seven. McCain was beat on the long TD pass to Torrey Smith. Other then that, the longest reception given up to a receiver was 12 yards. Most of the damage inflicted by the Ravens' passing game was done with their tight ends and running backs.
While I'm giving credit to the coordinators and the organization, I can't forget the captain of the ship. One thing fans should never question is whether or not players will play for Tomlin. They play hard for him. His players respect him. He's a leader of men. And his men have improved on the amount of penalties and mistakes they were making early in the season. The head coach certainly deserves credit for those improvements. Tomlin also called for a very important booth review on a Harrison sack. Good job all around by the head coach.
For once, I'd like to see the Steelers be able to beat the Ravens on special teams. Offense, defense, special teams have all had their issues in putting teams away. There's still plenty of room in learning how to put the final nail in the coffin much earlier. There's no need to play with fire as this team has had a tendency to do for several years.
I would think it's strike three and you're out for Brad Wing. I don't see how he can be trusted if he drops another hold. It's not a mistake the team can risk come playoff time.
Based on the growth we've season the last few weeks, the playoffs are the least of my expectations for this team. These next two road games are critical in determining just how far they're capable of going in the playoffs. The three most recent Super Bowl teams didn't lose to below .500 teams. The formula was to beat all the mediocre teams, win six or seven home games, and add it up to about 12 wins. How much better they are in comparison to the team that played Tampa Bay in Week 4 is something we'll find out over the next two weeks. They can't afford anymore slip-ups. Trying to make it through the playoffs by winning consecutive road games against Manning and Brady might not be an impossible task, but it would be pretty close.