"The Minnesota Vikings ... have proven that they're a world championship-caliber outfit," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They're an undefeated team. They're rock-solid on all levels."
Pittsburgh still is trying to get there. No one's quite sure what the Steelers have just yet. Their defense has allowed fourth-quarter leads to slip away in losses to Chicago and Cleveland, and the offense has completely changed from power to pass.
Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with 1,887 yards passing, Hines Ward leads the league in receptions (41) and yards (599), and even Heath Miller, with 34 catches, is one off the lead for tight ends.
That's unheard of in Pittsburgh. To top it off, their new starting running back, Rashard Mendenhall, has rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns in the past three games since he took over for injured Willie Parker.
The Steelers may have to come out and throw against the Vikings, too, one week after Roethlisberger put up 417 yards on the Cleveland Browns, third-most in franchise history. Minnesota ranks just 18th against the pass and ninth against the run after leading the NFL in stopping the run last season.
"They trample the run on the way to the pass," is how Tomlin put it.
Pittsburgh, tied for the AFC North lead with Cincinnati at 4-3, has won three straight behind its passing offense. It's a far cry from Pittsburgh's trademark smash-mouth offense that goes all the way back to its early years. Rarely have the Steelers leaned so much on the pass.
Roethlisberger is averaging 314.5 yards passing per game, a rate that would give him more than 5,000 yards for the season. The team record is 3,724, set by Terry Bradshaw during their fourth Super Bowl season of 1979.
"Ben's playing as good as anyone right now," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Keep the ball in his hands, we'll be OK."
Pittsburgh long has used the run to wear down teams, enforce its will on defenses and keep its own defense rested. But even with all the passing, they have been able to allow the defense its down time by controlling the clock. The Steelers' average time of possession is 33:53 compared to 26:07 for their opponents.
"It helps a lot," Keisel said. "When we're watching those guys work and resting, we enjoy it. They're playing good ball right now. I think they have a lot of continuity, they trust each other, they know what they're doing and they have playmakers."
BY THE NUMBERS: 74.5 — Number of yards the Steelers are allowing per game on the ground, which would be their lowest average of a decade in which they've led the AFC four times stopping the run.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I went to the hockey game last night and everybody was complimentary and very nice to me." — K Jeff Reed, who attended a Tuesday night Penguins home game, two nights after he was arrested for scuffing with cops.