When the NFL schedule was released in April, Steelers fans everywhere probably thought the week 4 bye was too early for this team. Little did they suspect that the bye could actually come at the right time. The Steelers have started the 2012 season 1-2, but are only looking forward in their attempt to right the ship. Key injuries, specifically to the defensive side of the ball, have hampered the early part of the season, and hopefully, the week off will cure what ails the Steelers defense. A quick look back at the first three games: the Steelers lost twice on the road, and won their only home game.
In the season opener, the Steelers visited the Denver Broncos, and were beaten 31-19.
They had a five point lead, but gave up 17 unanswered points in the 4th quarter. In the first home game of the season, Pittsburgh beat the New York Jets 27-10. The Jets failed to score in the second half. And in their last game, the Steelers scored 31 points, but still managed to lose 34-31 at the Oakland Raiders. In the two road losses, the Steelers have been outscored 30-6 in the 4th quarter. In giving up over 30 points to both the Broncos and Raiders, it would be easy to blame the defense for the Steelers woes. The defensive unit hasn’t been able to close out games on the road. Oakland players stated that the Steelers defense has become increasingly predictable. Injuries to two of the best Steeler defenders have also left the unit short-handed. Troy Polamalu has only played in one game, and James Harrison has yet to play this year. Polamalu, bothered by a calf injury will return in week 5 at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. Harrison, who had knee surgery in August, has again returned to practice on Monday, and is questionable to play against the Eagles.
However, the running game (or lack thereof) may be the main culprit for the 1-2 start. The Steelers have been out-gained on the ground in every game (94 yds. vs 75 yds. vs Denver; 90 yds. vs 66 yds. vs the Jets; 119 yds. vs 54 yds vs Oakland). Rashard Mendenhall (knee) has yet to play this season, but is set to return against the Eagles. Hopefully, a healthy Mendenhall will jump-start the run game. Isaac Redman has 72 yards on 32 carries (2.3 yds. per carry) with 1 TD, and Jonathan Dwyer has 70 yards on 24 carries (2.9 yds. per carry) with no TDs in the first three games.
The Steelers 2.6 yards per carry was the worst in the NFL after three games. Offensive Coordinator Jack Haley has employed a new offensive scheme. This new offense relies heavily on the pass. Luckily, the passing game for the Steelers has been efficient. Ben Roethlisberger has been playing at an elite level. Eight Steelers receivers caught a pass in the opener at Denver. In the Jets and Raiders games, ten Pittsburgh receivers caught at least one pass. So far, Roethlisberger is 82-for-120 for 904 yards, 8 TDs and only 1 INT. He has a QB rating of 109.2. If the run game can resemble that of a competent NFL rushing attack, it will only make defenses have to respect the run, leaving the passing game to become an even more potent weapon.
The next three weeks should more accurately resemble the Steelers 2012 season. They resume the schedule with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles. This is a game that the Steelers must win. With Harrison, Polamalu, and Mendenhall returning after the bye week, it is a game the Steelers can, and should win. The next test will be a week 6 trip to visit the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have played poorly this year, their running game is as bad as the Steelers, and their starting quarterback is hurt. If the Steelers can stay healthy, a win at Tennessee isn’t hard to imagine. The biggest test will be the Sunday Night Football game at the Cincinnati Bengals in prime time. Can the Steelers, who are so far 0-2 on the road this season win two in a row on the road (assuming a win against the Titans the week before)? I believe this Steelers team will go into the Bengals game 3-2, and this prime time showdown on the road will be the best indicator of what the 2012 Steelers will become. If they can have a defense that becomes less predictable, and can close out a game on the road, I see no reason they cannot win all three.