Not a particularly sexy headline there, but then it's a post with a bit of a spartan purpose. Let's look at how the Steelers are stacking up through eight games in as many phases of the game that I deem worth discussion. Worry not, there'll be plenty of talk to come later in the week on the pivotal game against Cincy.
Quarterback -- Last year, thanks to a Week 1 shoulder injury, coupled with a wholesale lack of blocking or help in the running game, Big Ben had a middling statistical season, which gave cause to his many detractors to dust off the long disproved "game manager" label. Hell, even though he's been playing at a Pro Bowl level all year (and been to a Pro Bowl in the past) Jaws invoked it at the beginning of the Monday Night Football broadcast. Again, it's a sad misnomer that will hopefully fade with time and his ever-mounting lost of accomplishments, but who knows. While some of his turnovers aren't on him (Week 1 Hail Mary interception, pick six caused by a missed hot read by Santonio against the Bengals, fumble against the Broncos after Kemoeatu got beaten badly) he's had the occasional bad misfires, such as the redzone interception in Denver. Still, hard to find much to bicker about here.
Running back -- After he's torched the Chargers, there was skepticism about how Rashard Mendenhall would fare against a respectable run defense. Two solid performances at home against the Vikings and on the road in Denver have quieted those doubts in a hurry. Still, it's his first full season in the NFL, so it's good that the team has Mewelde Moore to grind out yards late in ballgames to ensure Mendenhall doesn't get worn down before the end of the year.
Fullback -- David Johnson appears to have played himself into this role for the forseeable future. He had a few nice blocks to spring long runs this past week. A welcome find in what has been a fruitful '09 Draft for Tomlin and Colbert.
Wide receivers -- The big question coming into the season was if the Steelers could ably replace Nate Washington as the no. 3 receiver and with who? Suffice it to say, Limas Sweed was not up to the task, but Mike Wallace has not only made Steelers fans forget about Nate, he's already appreciably better than Nate ever was at any point in his career in Pittsburgh. Excluding his Week 1 fumble, Hines has been nothing short of great. Santonio endured some mental gaffes earlier in the year, and still is a little up and down in his week-to-week output, but has otherwise steadied.
Tight end -- It's Heath Miller. He's good.
Offensive line -- Like Wallace, another pleasant surprise. Hell, even Willie Colon has gotten the stupid penalties in check, while Max Starks, whose contract extension I bemoaned endlessly during the offseason, has been downright stellar for most of this season. Gotta hand it to the guy keeping in check two elite rushers in Jared Allen and Elvis Dumervil in check the previous two weeks. Granted, Chris Kemoeatu was beaten badly on a play that resulted in a costly turnover, but otherwise Roethlisberger has time to throw and Mendenhall had running lanes against Denver.
Playcalling --Not that I'm turning into a Bruce Arians defender by any means, but he's been easier to take this year. He wisely committed to the run against the Broncos, though I was surprised by the lack of play action until midway through the second quarter. There was a lapse into his usual "let's run on first down to keep the defense honest then go into obvious pass formations on 2nd and 3rd downs" early in the game, which is partly why the Steelers had difficulty early on.
Defensive line -- Denver simply could not run against the Steelers, even when their pass game was working in the first half. Adrian Peterson would solid, if unspectacular coming out of the backfield. Aaron Smith will be missed at times throughout the rest of the season, but nowhere near are sorely as anyone initially expected.
Linebackers -- Surprise! There's still probably among the best units in the league. Keyaron Fox is challenging Lawrence Timmons for playing time the same way Timmons did to Larry Foote. That's not a bad problem for a team to have. LaMarr Woodley sack stats, however, are way down, though he has made his presence felt in pass coverage and run stopping. And lately he's getting a lot of pressure on QBs even if the sacks aren't coming to him. The fumble recovery against the Vikings was also a needed boost for him, though we've still yet to see a monster game out of him this year the way we have with James Harrison.
Corners -- William Gay is getting routinely picked on by quarterbacks. At the moment, it's probably the biggest concern the team has. Again, he's a first-year starter, there are adjustments to make. And I don't think he's played terribly. He should have had an interception against Denver that was jarred away by Polamalu. He'll need to step it up as the season progresses, however. Ike has been routinely solid
Safeties -- The league got a reminder that a healthy Polamalu makes all the difference to this defense. It was good to see Tyrone Carter step up in Ryan Clark's absense. Like I said last week, Tyrone's skill set more closely matches Ryan's than Troy', which is why I think he fared much better against Denver than when he had to play Polamalu's role earlier in the season.
Coaching -- The most frustrating aspect of the defensive playcalling to date in 2009 has been how far corners have played off receivers, which opposing offenses have takens advantage of more than anything else against the Steelers. At first I thought it would disappear with Polamalu's return, but it remains. Might have something to do with a lack of faith in William Gay at this point. It would be nice to see them at least attempt to play some press coverage.
Kicking -- As long as Jeff Reed is quiet and not trying to fight cops, the kicking game is fine. After a disaster in Chicago and another miss in Cincy, Reed has bounced back somewhat. The short kickoff and perfunctory tackle attempt on Percy Harvin's touchdown return two weeks back was another thing that will dog him come contract offer time, but it seems at least he's getting the message to shut up and play.
Punting -- Watching Mitch Berger shank a few for Denver on Monday night was another splendid reminder how much better off the Steelers have been with Sepulveda back.
Coverage -- It was looking shaky for a few weeks, but responded very well against Eddie Royal in Denver. And while they got burnt two weeks in a row, it came against Joshua Cribbs and Percy Harvin, two of the best return guys in the NFL this year. Not to say we should expect them to break down when going against good competition, but these are players capable of hurting anyone.
The team has really been able to congeal within the past month. Whereas last year, the Steelers were a team with very glaring weaknesses and obvious strengths that could compensate for them, this is a more complete team we're seeing this year, which is a startling thing. A lot of credit is due to the coaching staff and scouting for helping to plug those problems, despite a rough start, through adjustments and the draft. Should the upward trend of the past month continue to play out, repeating is a very real possibility.