Stifling defense? Check. Big Ben in big-play form? Check. Title game date in New England? Likely.
All in all, the Steelers have to be thrilled with where they are—division champs at 12--4 and second seed in the AFC playoffs—considering:
• They had to do without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season as he served his league suspension, and he's been beaten up behind a suspect line for the 12 games he did play.
• With two of five starting offensive linemen lost for the year, the Steelers struggled to get rushing yards. Against Carolina in Week 16 they got no yards on successive goal-to-go snaps from the one-yard line. Rashard Mendenhall isn't the home run threat that Willie Parker was.
• For the third time in four years defensive staple Aaron Smith, their vastly underrated run-stuffing end, finished the regular season with a major injury, this time a torn triceps that the Steelers hoped would be healed for the playoffs, a prospect that looks dubious.
• James Harrison, the latest in a long line of fierce Steelers linebackers, had to think twice about every tackle after becoming a focal point of the NFL's new sanctions against violent hits.
• The Steelers lost to New England, Baltimore and the Jets at home. To get to the Super Bowl, they'll likely have to win at New England, a bad matchup for them.
• Troy Polamalu spent the last half of the season limping in and out of the lineup with a bad ankle and calf.
But the reason you can't discount these Steelers was clear in the first minute of the regular-season finale at Cleveland on Sunday. Polamalu picked off quarterback Colt McCoy on the game's second snap, and Roethlisberger, playing bombs-away with his quality receiving corps, hit speedy second-year wideout Mike Wallace on a 56-yard rainbow for a touchdown. Given how stifling the Pittsburgh defense has been this year—11 times the Steelers have held the oppositions to 17 points or fewer—that bomb to Wallace was the ball game. Pittsburgh won 41--9 to lock up the first-round bye.
The story of the Steelers' season has been how they've dealt with Roethlisberger: going 3--1 in his absence, integrating him seamlessly into the offense and making sure he was right, mentally and physically. As the season drew to a close, NFL Films miked the Steelers' quarterback for the Dec. 23 Carolina game, and in one episode Roethlisberger dragged guard Chris Kemoeatu away from a fight and yelled at him, "Don't you throw that punch!" When coach Mike Tomlin told Roethlisberger to make sure he kept the linemen in check, Roethlisberger told him he'd talk to all of them at halftime. "Young man growing up," Tomlin said to himself on the sideline, speaking of Big Ben.
We'll see how that maturity, and another solid season, play out in January.
HOW TO BEAT THE STEELERS
Be physical with the receivers, especially Mike Wallace and rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, in the five-yard bump zone. Ben Roethlisberger will be focused on getting the ball out quickly, and when he can't stretch the D with his speed receivers, he'll be pressed to make plays in traffic over the middle.
Some would say that without Aaron Smith the running game would be the way to attack the Steelers' D. But the addition of 2009 first-rounder Ziggy Hood has bolstered the line. Others will say attack the Steelers' corners, but that's easier said than done when the linebackers can penetrate so quickly. You really need a smart, accurate, quick-thinking quarterback like Tom Brady to make plays fast enough to confound the defense.
How AFC second seeds have fared since 1990
3 Won Super Bowl
3 Lost Super Bowl
8 Lost conference championship game
6 Lost in divisional round
— Lost in wild-card round
IRON MAN Despite the scrutiny, Harrison has been a pillar of an injury-plagued defense.