PITTSBURGH – At times, they’ve looked like one of the NFL’s worst teams. Other times, they’ve look like a team that could win the Super Bowl.
One constant through the halfway point of the Steelers’ season: No opponent could be taken for granted, and no opponent was too good for Pittsburgh to beat.
Last-second losses at Oakland and Tennessee shook fans’ trust in the team, but much of that was regained with a 24-20 victory against the New York Giants last week in which the Steelers dominated the defending Super Bowl champions.
In between, there have been enough wins and losses for the Steelers to reach the midway point at 5-3, right in the middle of the pack among AFC teams.
If the playoffs were to begin following Week 9, the Steelers would be the final wildcard team from the AFC. But Pittsburgh trails Baltimore (6-2) by one game and faces the Ravens twice in the next three weeks in one of the strangest scheduling quirks in recent memory.
Here’s a look at how the Steelers grade out in the first half:
Ben Roethlisberger, at times, has taken veiled shots at new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offense, which emphasizes more short passes, but that’s just Roethlisberger’s way. In reality, Haley’s offensive game plans are helping Roethlisberger to one of his best seasons.
Roethlisberger is completing a career-best 67 percent of his passes for 2,203 yards, 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His passer rating of 101.1 is among the league leaders.
Because Roethlisberger isn’t taking as many big hits – he’s been sacked just 17 times – he’s also taken every snap from center.
Had this grade been handed out four weeks ago, the Steelers’ running backs would have been failing. After averaging just 3.0 yards per carry in the first four games, the Steelers have averaged 4.6 the last four.
In the past three games, the Steelers have gotten 100-yard rushing performances from Jonathan Dwyer, twice, and Isaac Redman, who also has a 100-yard receiving game, as Haley adjusted the running scheme to a more straight-ahead power style.
This group has been banged up like no other unit on the team. Dwyer, Redman and Rashard Mendehall each have missed multiple games, but the Steelers are averaging just under 105 yards rushing per game and the backs have chipped in with 42 receptions.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown each would have been on pace for 1,000-yard seasons had Brown not gotten injured early last week against the Giants. Wallace has 39 catches for 525 yards and five touchdowns, and Brown has 42-499-1. Add in Heath Miller’s 39 receptions for 384 yards and six scores and Emmanuel Sanders’ 24 for 302 and one TD, and you have one of the best foursomes in the league.
It’s not without issues. Brown has just two touchdowns since the start of 2011, and Wallace has been plagued by drops at times. Wallace’s average yards per catch is down nearly five yards from last season, but that is because Haley isn’t calling as many deep passes.
No. 4 receiver Jerricho Cotchery has done his usual solid job when called upon, and the Steelers like what they’ve seen of rookie tight end David Paulson.
The injury issues that have become the norm for the offensive line over the past few years cropped up again in the first half. Rookie David DeCastro, who was to start at right guard, has missed the first half with a knee injury, and center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert also missed time.
But Roethlisberger has been sacked just 17 times, and the Steelers are averaging 3.9 yards per carry after their slow start.
With left tackle Max Starks (345 pounds), guards Willie Colon (315) and Ramon Foster (325), Pouncey (304) and rookie right tackle Mike Adams (323) starting the past three weeks, the Steelers have become a very physical unit, something that should continue into the second half.
It will be interesting to see where DeCastro and Gilbert fit into the equation when they return.
No unit has shown its age for the Steelers like this one in the first half, particularly as 34-year-old defensive end Brett Keisel and 35-year-old nose tackle Casey Hampton worked their way back into shape after suffering leg injuries in last season’s playoff loss at Denver.
Fourth-year pro Ziggy Hood has been a disappointment after taking on more of a leadership role in the offseason.
He’s started to show flashes in recent weeks but still needs to play better.
The group has produced 31 quarterback pressures – led by Keisel’s team-high 17 – and three sacks, one each by Hood, Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward.
The Steelers are allowing an uncharacteristic 4.0 yards per rush, which isn’t awful, but certainly not what we’re used to seeing out of a Pittsburgh defense.
The Steelers need more production out of this group, which includes three former first-round picks in Hampton, Hood and Heyward.
As the focal point of the defense, this unit makes the Steelers go. As the top-rated defensive unit in the league in terms of yards allowed, you’d have to give the linebackers a passing grade.
But the production hasn’t been up to previous standards, yet. Larry Foote, LaMarr Woodley and backup Jason Worilds lead the Steelers with three sacks each, and James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons have one each. Woodley and Timmons each have an interception.
Foote and Timmons have been solid on the inside, with 56 and 54 tackles, respectively, but injuries have limited Woodley and Harrison.
In the four games Woodley and Harrison have started together, the Steelers are 4-0, but they need more production from their outside pass rushers.
Considering this group has only had All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu for a game and a half, you have to be impressed the Steelers lead the NFL in passing yards allowed at 174 per game.
Opposing quarterbacks have an 81.3 passer rating, but considering the Steelers faced both Manning brothers – on the road – and former Pro Bowl quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Michael Vick, Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck, that’s not bad.
Corner Ike Taylor was victimized early in the season, but seems to have played his way out of his funk. Third-year pro Keenan Lewis has gotten better each week and might be the team’s most sought-after player in free agency. Lewis leads the team with 15 pass breakups.
Nickel corner Cortez Allen has played well, and free safety Ryan Clark has been his usual disruptive self, recording 46 tackles in seven games.
With Polamalu out, the strong safety position has been a question mark at times with Ryan Mundy there. After Mundy started the first three games – one in place of Clark – veteran Will Allen started the last four. The Steelers are 3-1 with Allen at strong safety.
Placekicker Shaun Suisham has made 17 of 18 field goal attempts, with the only miss coming from 54 yards. Rookie Drew Butler has averaged 43.5 yards per punt while placing nearly half of his 27 attempts inside the opponents’ 20.
That’s the good.
The bad has been too many penalties and a blocked punt at Tennessee that, effectively, was the difference in the game.
The coverage units have been just average, and the return game – which has been victimized by penalties – hasn’t been a difference-maker until the win over the Giants.
Haley has been a breath of fresh air on the offense, bringing in a new approach with largely the same group of players who underachieved last year. The Steelers are averaging three more points per game than they did in 2011 and have held a time of possession advantage in seven of eight games. The Steelers also have turned the ball over just eight times.
That time of possession advantage has helped a defense that, again, hasn’t been that opportunistic. After recording just 15 turnovers last season, the Steelers had eight in the first half of this season. The Steelers are on pace for just 28 sacks. Having Woodley and Harrison together for just half the games and no Polamalu affected what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been able to dial up.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has made some questionable calls in the kicking game – attempting a 54-yard field goal late against Tennessee and a fake field goal against the Giants – but has done his usual good job of pushing the right buttons.