After The Black And Gold Rush

The Steelers ripped through the best of the NFC North and appear to have regained their footing as an elite NFL team. But Bill Cowher's teams have been here before. They've looked good running the ball in slop before. They've looked good rushing old quarterbacks before. Are they a legitimate contender? Is this the 15-1 team that would get better since it didn't have a rookie quarterback anymore?

Questions persist in spite of the recent two-game turnaround. The Pittsburgh Steelers held the Minnesota Vikings at arm's length yesterday, 18-3, but how good are those NFC North teams?

The Steelers beat the Bears in the mud at Heinz Field. The Bears turned around and hammered the Falcons last night.

As for the Vikings, they were game, and they had the quarterback to get the job done if they'd had a few more breaks. The Vikings are quality because they're balanced. They're not great in any aspect, but they're not poor. And being balanced gets teams places in the NFL these days.

With that in mind, let's examine the 9-5 Steelers with an eye toward that necessary playoff ingredient called balance.

RUN DEFENSE

The best statistic is average per rush, and the Steelers rank first in the NFL in stopping the run. They allow an average of 3.4 per carry. The Steelers need this to be their defensive strength because they game-plan to take away the run and make offenses one-dimensional, or unbalanced.

Against the Vikings, the Steelers' run defense turned the game. Once the linebackers were allowed to tee off on Brad Johnson, he wilted and the game was over.

Casey Hampton has been sensational this year, and his performance in setting up the 2-point safety epitomized what he means to the team. And falling in step were the linebackers, who played their best game of the season, particularly Larry Foote.

A light run-stuffer who is often blocked, Foote plays a position that was designed for a playmaker. Chad Brown was the prototype for Dick LeBeau's 3-4 mack inside backer. Those designs were put on hold when Earl Holmes assumed the position, but were revived for Kendrell Bell. Up until this point, Foote had been considered a band-aid but he opened some eyes against the Vikings.

Can Foote continue as a playmaker at the position? That's not a guarantee, but he is young and his performance was a good sign. The defensive line is a guarantee, so perhaps Foote can indeed continue to perform at this level.

PASS DEFENSE

The first trick in renovating the secondary was to bring in the athletes, and we could see that happening over the years. The athleticism of this group was obvious early on, but the tough part was teaching it to play, and that seems to be taking hold.

The Steelers' secondary is rising fast. The combination of youth and leaders like Deshea Townsend is melding, perhaps as well as any in the league.

There's also the balance factor subset: When Troy Polamalu isn't the playmaker, Ike Taylor or Townsend is. Bryant McFadden's at least a great tackler who's getting better every week. Ricardo Colclough might be the league's best No. 4 cover man.

Statistically, the Steelers rank 8th in pass-efficiency defense, which is my favorite statistic in this aspect of the game.

RUN OFFENSE

Here again the Steelers have balance acting as a subset. When it's muddy, Jerome Bettis is the man; when it's a fast track, Willie Parker. They also have a solid back-up in Duce Staley and No. 4 back Verron Haynes has his moments. Again, does another team have a No. 4 tailback as solid as Haynes?

Granted, none of these runners has been a consistent thoroughbred, and if a run-minded team doesn't have a thoroughbred, it's eventually rebuffed in the playoffs. The passing game is asked to pick up the slack, and Cowher's passing games haven't been built for that kind of burden. It's been the tragic conclusion to too many of his seasons.

So in effect the running game is the key to the Steelers' chances. Right now, they average 3.9 yards per carry, 16th in the league. It's not good enough, considering this facet is weighted down by the importance placed upon it.

On the upside, Parker is still developing, and Bettis and Staley should be as healthy as they've been in the last few years down the stretch. The problem of undefined roles appears to have been solved. If Parker comes on a little bit, the passing game may not have to take the fall again.

The offensive line is better in the run game, and it should be: that's how the Steelers draft. The fact they missed on Kendall Simmons is a concern, and it doesn't help that he's paired with another smaller inside player in Jeff Hartings. It makes one wonder how man-child Chris Kemoeatu would look at RG, but that complaint has fallen on deaf ears.

The problem inside only hurts them when they're up against massive tackles – like the ones they'll see in the playoffs.

PASS OFFENSE

The Steelers rank eighth in the NFL in pass efficiency, even though Ben Roethlisberger has missed four games and continues to deal with a sore thumb. It was evident Sunday again when Roethlisberger threw deep and could only muster 52 yards in the air, well short of an open Antwaan Randle El.

Still, the Steelers are averaging 13.1 yards per catch, a tenth better than last year when Marvel Smith was healthy and Plaxico Burress forced the free safety to shift his way. Tight end Heath Miller has picked up the slack, as has the underrated Randle El. He and Hines Ward have a habit of turning short passes into big plays. Their blocking was also sensational against the Vikings.

Smith is expected back at left tackle next week, and that'll mean the Steelers can shift their worry to helping right tackle Max Starks instead of worrying about both sides. Rookie Trai Essex, though, has made enough progress to give the team a legitimate back-up tackle.

Will the return of Smith and the continued fine play of Miller and the receivers be enough to help Roethlisberger carry this offense in the playoffs if the running game fails? Perhaps. But Roethlisberger isn't the quick-and-agile quarterback he was as a rookie. His weight's up and his knees are sore. His touchdown run Sunday didn't allay this growing concern.

SUMMARY

The Steelers were poised Sunday, but not as poised as they could've been. They dropped three interceptions (one a certain touchdown), fumbled a snap at the goal line, jumped early on third-and-one from the Minnesota 7, lost three points on a fluky fumbled punt return, and lost a fumble recovery at the Minnesota 2 because of an irrelevant offsides penalty. The score could've been much worse, and perhaps on another day the Steelers would blow them out; at least the potential's there. Is the balance?

Defensively, yes. But the offense will need its running game. The backs are healthy, so it's up to the line. Does Marvel Smith mean that much? Can Max Starks eliminate his two bad plays per game? Can Simmons? It's up to them, because laying it all on Roethlisberger won't work. He's not physically ready for that level yet.

BOTTOM LINE

Add up the rankings of the four facets and the Steelers check in with a 33. The Bengals rankings add up to 37, thanks to a 24th-ranked run defense. The Colts' rankings add up to 59, thanks to a 22nd-ranked run defense, a 19th-ranked run offense and a 17th-ranked pass defense. The Denver Broncos (31) actually are the most balanced team in the AFC. Their weak link is pass defense, 12th.


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