Creating turnovers, getting consistently solid play from the quarterback and winning on the road. Not things we saw a lot from the Steelers early in the season, but it finally manifested itself Sunday in the desert. And none too soon. With the two-week gauntlet of AFC heavyweights staring them down, Pittsburgh could ill afford to drop one to Whisenhunt's Pittsburgh West.
Granted, this wasn't an ideal performance. The running game didn't have much to show, but when you're completing 95-yard bombs to Mike Wallace, that's probably not the hugest concern. Whisenhunt and Grimm also have a bit of insight into the Steelers run blocking strategies. The team never seems to be able to move on the ground well whenever they play the Cards the last few years. Ike Taylor was pretty badly abused by Larry Fitzgerald, as well, but not too many corners aren't. Ike had to get chippy and got flagged a few times, but he managed to avoid killing up the killer big play, so let's consider it, if not a victory on his part, a passable performance against one of the league's best.
Of course, the Steelers escaped with their first convincing road win of the year, but they couldn't do so without an increased injury toll. Hines Ward has already been listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Patriots. Farrior looks gimpy, which could figure immensely against a Patriots attack that relies heavily on their standout tandem of pass catching tight ends. And it appears James Harrison, Chris Hoke, Jason Worilds and Doug Legursky have already been ruled out for this week.
Still having Harrison out is gonna be rough against Brady. Last year, the Steelers barely managed any pressure on Brady at all even with Deebo playing, so there has to be some concern about how the defense is going to try to rattle him. Honestly, I'm not sure how they're gonna go about doing it. LaMarr Woodley has done extremely well taking over as the prime pass rusher, but the Pats can easily double team him. Plus, with the offense likely spreading itself out, Woodley might not have a lot of time to get to Brady unless LeBeau has finally come up with some creative coverage schemes to counteract the Patriots usual scheme of attack against Pittsburgh.
The Patriots only loss this season came against Buffalo when Brady threw four picks. The Steelers can boast the best defense in terms of yardage allowed (though some of that likely has to do with only having to defend short fields with the offense turning the ball over so much early in the season) but they aren't proving very adept at getting takeaways. Part of that is just an inability to catch the ball. Polamalu has dropped multiple INTs this season. It's not exactly a sight we've never seen before, but Troy showing off the Ike Taylor stone hands isn't going to fly if he gets a shot to make a play against the Pats.
New England's defense is seemingly regressing from year to year and teams this season - at least, so far - don't appear to be doing so well coming off the bye week (3-9 through Week 7) so that goes in the Steelers' favor. Rob Ryan had Dallas stymieing Brady for much of the Cowboys late loss in Gillette. While the Steelers may not be necessarily able to replicate that plan, their best chance is likely to play possession ball and limit what damage the Pats offense can do.
That would require a departure from Arians' M.O. this season, which has mostly been going for the kill early with big pass plays. Not that I'll ever mind a 95-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Wallace, but the Steelers can't try to get in a shootout with New England. Unless Ben's deep pass is more accurate than at any point in his life, that's not a battle they're likely to win. Teams can grind out the clock and dictate the terms with the Pats defense. The Chargers would have been able to do it if they weren't content to kill themselves with turnovers all game.
Even in the best of seasons, the Steelers have been bedeviled by the Patriots. At 5-2 with the top-ranked defense, the Steelers are looking a lot like paper tigers that have feasted on lesser competition. They can change that perception in a huge way over the next two weeks. They can also secure the top seed in the conference going into a stretch run that looks mighty accommodating. Failure to do so won't torpedo their season, but it will make it easy for folks not to take them seriously.