Baltimore Ravens  

 

Steelers tough to assess despite owning AFC's best record

Nick Wass/AP
Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have bounced back after a 28-point loss to the Ravens in Week 1.


 

If you tie together all the self-deprecating words from Steelers' players and coaches, all of the admissions of struggles and overall domination suffered in a Week 1 loss to their hated rivals in Baltimore, you can come up with a pretty illustrating sentence.

It would go something like this:

"We got handled" and "whipped in every facet" during a "totally uncharacteristic" game against a "more physical" and "more aggressive" Ravens team that was "more technically sound" in a fashion that was "totally embarrassing."

Internally, they were baffled. The Steelers started their season in a fashion nobody could have fathomed -- with a 35-7 thumping from the Ravens. The stunning blowout would cause more than a few to question the speed and age of this crew.

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On the eve of their chance to revisit the Ravens, the Steelers have managed to overcome the original loss by winning four straight games. Yet, even at 6-2 and on top of their division and conference, does anyone feel completely comfortable with assessing this team?

It is still difficult to know what we should expect from this team, based both on where they've been and where they're headed. Of every team in the NFL, you could make a strong case that Pittsburgh's second half to the season might be as interesting as any.

And, appropriately, it all starts Sunday night against the Ravens. There could be no better way for the Steelers to define the first half of their season -- while also setting a tone for the second half -- than winning this game.

All at once, it would prove their Week 1 struggles as an aberration to an otherwise sound start while shifting the attention to a slate of games on the horizon that suddenly look much more difficult than initially expected.

For a moment, though, let's explore the possibilities of a loss, which would swing the story in an entirely different direction.

Suddenly, wins against two struggling teams (the Colts and Jaguars) provide evidence of vulnerability since they were decided by less than a touchdown. Wins against Arizona and Seattle -- which are a combined 3-11 -- aren't exactly statement games, either. And a loss to the Texans, of course, adds to the concerns.

Where would a loss leave the Steelers? Two impressive wins: One against the Titans, one against the Patriots. And four unexpectedly competitive games in the upcoming five on the horizon: Against the Bengals, the Chiefs, another against the Bengals, and two weeks later against the 49ers.

None of this is to suggest the Steelers are in a bad situation. Nor is it to suggest they are a bad team. Instead, it is to wonder how much we really know about Pittsburgh at this point.

There's no question the Steelers possess a solid defense. They've allowed 17.4 points and 270.8 yards per game -- top three in the NFL. And the offense, although slightly vulnerable while scoring 22 points per game, is far from terrible.

Pittsburgh's general unpredictability instead leaves more to be learned about this group of aging veterans.

No doubt, the Steelers have made a lot of people look foolish over the past decade for picking against them, and many of those players remain on this roster. Count them out, and you might as well plan to count them into the Super Bowl within a matter of months.

Nonetheless, in each of those Super Bowl-bound seasons, the Steelers have often reached a turning point. For some, the most recent win against the Patriots could be viewed as that moment.

For me, however, a win against the Ravens will mean much more. It will validate a successful first half and motivate for an opportunistic second half -- while erasing any wonder of whether that Week 1 loss was an indication of the future.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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