I know everybody isn't yet convinced that blowing out a bunch of creampuffs is indicative of anything more than a favorable early-season schedule. But only two words popped into my head as the Pittsburgh Steelers put the finishing touches on their third beatdown in as many weeks: STOMP and DOMINATE. That's right, the Steelers obliterated the Browns and Bills, two teams destined for top-10 picks next April, and then slapped around a 49ers team that has a legit shot at winning the watered down NFC West.
What does it mean other than Pittsburgh is now 3-0? If you're the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Mike Prisuta, you're still skeptical; if you're me, well, you're probably way too excited about the teams' chances for an Arizona vacation in February. It's okay to be excited, though. The Steelers are coming off an 8-8 season when most of the talk -- when not about losing games -- was about either the handicapped quarterback or the lame-duck head coach. Now Pittsburgh is undefeated heading into a Week-4 matchup against Arizona. Even though their opponents' combined record is 3-6, all the Steelers can do is play the schedule.
And unlike some other AFC North teams -- particularly that one in southern Ohio picked to win the division by Bill Cowher -- Pittsburgh has spanked the opposition convincingly. Cincinnati certainly isn't out of things -- it's way too early to start high-fiving each other over their plight -- but losing to the Browns is never good for the ol' self-esteem, and fumbling away the Seahawks game on special teams can have detrimental long-term effects … just ask the '06 Steelers and the resident scapegoat. (That said, I am taking great pleasure in seeing the Bengals in the division cellar all by themselves.)
The other preseason favorite to run the tables, the Ravens, have sputtered out of the gate too. They committed six turnovers in the season-opening loss to the Bengals, and then almost squandered big second-half leads to the Jets and Cardinals in subsequent weeks. Two teams, it's worth pointing out, that started second-year quarterbacks -- New York's Kellen Clemens was making his first NFL start, and Arizona's Matt Leinart played like he was making his first NFL start before giving way to 36-year-old Kurt Warner. And let's be honest: when your starting quarterback is sharing snaps with Kyle Freakin' Boller, well, you're probably not a playoff team.
These are troubled times in the AFC North for every team except the Steelers. I know, I know, we're not even out of September … but, well, what's not to like? This spring, Mike Tomlin promised to shore up the special teams. A Danny Sepulveda draft pick and an Allen Rossum trade later, things look to be going in the right direction (or, relatively speaking, in the exact opposite direction of last year). And Sunday's game was a microcosm of as much: Sepulveda had another punt downed inside the 20 -- his sixth in nine tries -- and he also recovered an onside kick as a member of the "hands" team. Don't remember Chris Gardocki doing that. Yeah, Pete Prisco is right: drafting a punter is dumb. And Rossum, acquired just before the season, returned a first-quarter kickoff to the hizzle. For me, that one play is worth the conditional sixth-rounder. Added bonus: if the Steelers lose that pick to the Falcons, it'll be one fewer opportunity for the team to draft a dud and then have to hear about it for the next five years. I'm all for that -- I mean, the Matt Kranchick talk is just dying down. Which leads me to my next point: How about them tight ends, huh?
Fans have been bellyaching for more Heath Miller, and Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger have obliged. Even if the plays aren't drawn up with Miller/Spaeth/Tuman as the first option -- and that's been the case a good part of the time, according to Arians -- it's encouraging to watch Big Ben go through his progressions and find the open receiver. I could still do with Roethlisberger getting rid of the rock a little faster, but he has finally discovered that throwing the ball away is legal, which is making headway. Additionally, Ben's sheer strength coupled with some "Where in the hell did that come from?!?" pass-blocking, has resulted in only four sacks.
How, exactly, does an offensive line with all kinds of questions heading into training camp suddenly morph into a competent outfit? According to Alan Faneca, who could be on his farewell tour, it's nothing complicated: "A combination of both and being in the right place at the right time, calling plays at the right time. It's nothing special compared to last year."
In July I wrote that maybe Larry Zierlein and his new-fangled approach to coachin' up the o-line might reinvigorate the front five, and so far, it's working. Sure, the Steelers' schedule hasn't been a Murderer's Row of Super Bowl talent, but maybe the soft front-ended schedule is just what these guys needed -- a few confidence-building outings before things get heavy later in the year. (By the way, the 49ers' defense is legit. I love Nate Clements, and Patrick Willis looks to be worth that 11th-overall pick. So for Pittsburgh to control the line of scrimmage for most of Sunday's game is a good sign.)
Pittsburgh's 3/16 the way through the schedule and they have just as many wins as their opponents. Is there reason to worry? I suppose so -- it's football, after all, and fans, particularly Steelers fans, aren't truly happy unless they've got something to complain about. So if you're looking for something to agonize over, how about this: Fast Willie Parker is on pace for almost 400 carries this season. And we all know how that movie ends. But the other stuff -- the schedule, the offense, defense, special teams, coaching, whatever … yeah, don't sweat it. The Steelers are positioning themselves for a nice little stretch run that will almost certainly include a handful of games in early '08. The Ravens and Bengals should only be so lucky.
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