There is no question that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had one of the best seasons in the NFL so far. Their 8–3 record is second only to three teams—the New York Jets, New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons—and puts them on track to be a postseason contender.
However, not everything is ideal for the Steelers, who have had to deal with more than their fair share of antics off the field and still aren’t playing their best football. In recent weeks, the team has had just one solid victory (vs. Oakland) while stealing wins from the 2-9 Bills and the 2-9 Bengals. Part of this can be blamed on injuries, with the offensive line struggling without key disabled players. Another factor may be the off-the-field drama—primariliy, the preseason allegations against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that resulted in a four-game suspension, as well comments that James Harrison and Hines Ward made about the NFL’s new policy on illegal hits.
Regardless of these troubles, the Steelers have found ways to win and keep their playoff hopes alive. With the return of defensive end Brett Keisel, the Steelers have finally completed the reconstruction of their front seven, which is arguably the best in the game right now.
Offensively, first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey has been a perfect fit and is in the running for Rookie of the Year, a rare feat for a center. Running back Rashard Mendenhall will most likely eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this weekend—he needs only 38 more yards. The Steelers were forced to rely heavily on their running game during the first four weeks (when Roethlisberger was suspended), but still posted a 3–1 record largely thanks to Mendelhall’s lightning speed—he once posted a 4.36 40-yard dash time.
This alone would make Mendenhall one of the game’s premier backs, but he also makes this team better in less obvious ways. He has opened the vertical attack by allowing receivers Mike Wallace and Hines Ward to exploit single coverage—other teams often have to crowd the box in order to neutralize the Mendelhall threat.
As we look to the upcoming weeks, this Sunday the Steelers have a crucial rematch against the Baltimore Ravens, who beat them by a field goal earlier in the year. They’ll also take on a very strong Jets team Dec. 19. The other three games—against the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, and Cleveland Browns—won’t be cakewalks, but all three are very winnable.
Look for the Steelers to finish either 13-3 or 12-4 this year, putting them anywhere from 1st to 4th in the final AFC rankings. Skipping further ahead to the playoff run, the Steelers definitely have the talent to pull off their 3rd Super Bowl victory in five years, an accomplishment that would almost certainly evoke the word “dynasty” and the inevitable comparisons to the 2001-2004 Patriots. But in order to do that, Pittsburgh will have to rely on its infamous “Steel Curtain” shutdown defense and pray that its star players remain injury-free. With weak opponents scheduled for their final two games, the Steelers will most likely enter the playoffs with some momentum—and from there, anything is possible.