Two games with wildly divergent outcomes against opponents of wildly uneven quality. That's what we have to base our current expectations of the 2011 Steelers. I hoped to learn something about the Steelers through Sunday's performance, and I did, though not quite enough to get a firm idea of where exactly they stand. It was a heartingly display, if not a very instructive one.
If anything is certain, however, it's that the Seahawks are, if not the worst, then combing somewhere at or near the bottom of the league. That is plainly an atrociously bad football team. When the Steelers failed on the 4th and goal on their first scoring chance, I cringed for the worst. But the worst never came. Even through what was still a mostly shaky outing by the Steelers, there was never even the meekest of threats posed by Seattle. It was as though the game was being played on Madden rookie mode.
Ben Roethlisberger, injured or not, has looked about as bad as he has since the '08 season when he played the entire year through a shoulder injury. He's missing open targets and making poor reads. It was one thing last week when making desperation throws down multiple scores in the second half. Though the stat sheet reflects a solid outing, Ben probably should have been picked at least twice. Granted, Polamalu should have had a pick-six himself, but I'm less concerned about wasted opportunities in a blowout than the fact that the starting quarterback, who came into week 1 off a near flawless preseason, has suddenly regressed. I'm confident that Ben is merely going through a bad stretch. Getting to play a devastated Colts team next week should give him another chance for easy sledding, but at some point he's going to have to regain his touch. If the defense isn't quite as dominant as its been (yes, yes, yesterday was a shutout, but the Steelers left enough open receivers for a competent team to exploit for at least some points) and the offensive line is going to be dreadful even b its recent standards, the team can't afford Ben to be anything less than very good to great.
Marcus Gilbert has a long way to go. He got beat terribly on a red zone sack and nearly cost the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger for the season when he leg whipped Raheem Brock into Roethlisberger's knee when Brock blew by him on an inside rush. It's a lot to expect a rookie to be fantastic in his first career start, but Gilbert is going against much better opposition very soon (expect Mathis and Freeney to have a field day with Gilbert and Scott next week).
The defense played better, but not to the level that a shutout would suggest. The Seahawks had open looks that they simply could seldom exploit. Not that some Steelers defenders who struggled mightily in Week 1 didn't fare better at all. It was a much improved performance by Aaron Smith. James Harrison looked just a little bit better and nearly came away with an interception in coverage. And the decision to bench Bryant McFadden already looks like a sound one, though I would prefer Keenan Lewis getting a shot and keeping William Gay in the nickel packages.
Going into Indy next week will be more of a test than yesterday, from which I'm not sure we can glean much beyond that at least the Steelers are far better than the worst the NFL has to offer. That the Ravens suffered an embarrassing letdown game shows how much mental and emotional that team invested in going all out against Pittsburgh in Week 1. So it's possible to still entertain the best case scenario that the Steelers got the absolute best the Ravens had to offer - an ideal, possible perfect showing by a Baltimore team playing over their heads - while the Steelers are foundering a little at the beginning of the year.
That's a hopeful scenario, but it might also be reality. There's just no way of knowing yet. The Steelers meanwhile, will get to face a Colts team that's suffered more than a little embarrassment of its own the last two weeks. That it will be in Indy and in primetime means the Steelers will likely get all Indy can muster. If you think about, if the Colts win, the team can still entertain the possibility of regrouping and making a run to respectability sans Peyton happen. Fall to 0-3 and you might as well pack it in and commence the Suck for Luck campaign.