After five games, it is easy to determine that nothing is going to come easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not wins at home, and especially not wins on the road. After Thursday night's 26-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers are 0-3 on the road this season. And as I have written many times before, evaluating a team on the road always provides the most accurate evaluation.
The Steelers went to Nashville hoping to find their first win on the road. Instead, they found more problems and concerns about their team. The defense appears to be much slower and unable to control the line of scrimmage. And the offensive line continues to have problems keeping everyone healthy.
The biggest issue that jumps out when evaluating the Steelers is their lack of speed on defense. Against the Titans, they missed LaMarr Woodley coming off the edge. They also missed Troy Polamalu; more specifically, they missed the Polamalu from two years ago. Polamalu is not the same player he once was, and it is clear he cannot impact the game in the same manner.
The Steelers also badly miss defensive lineman Aaron Smith, the dominating run stopper who allowed Pittsburgh to control the line of scrimmage for years. Without him, this team cannot shut down the run, as evidenced by allowing Chris Johnson (19 carries, 91 yards) to look like his old self.
For the Steelers' defense to maximize their scheme, they must dominate the run game. Their scheme requires the run to be handled by the front seven, and then their pass rushers have to take over the game. If the Steelers have to rely on their secondary for pure coverage, they are in deep trouble. Right now, they are not explosive in their pass rush, which reveals their vulnerability in the coverage units.
Where do the Steelers go from here? Their first challenge is to get healthy. They also need improved play from some of their players, specifically left guard Willie Colon, who seems unable to block anyone without holding. On defense, they have to get a handle on stopping the run game and must apply more pressure on the quarterback via outside rushers.
Getting these problems fixed is a start, but they also need to figure out how their offense can complement their defense, slowing the game down and becoming more effective in the red zone. With Ben Roethlisberger leading the team, it is possible. But he must have an MVP-type run over the next 11 games if the Steelers are going to be viewed as a potential Super Bowl team.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1. I don't want to take anything away from New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie's coverage last week of Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson, but Johnson does not look like the same player this season. During the preseason, I did not make Johnson a blue-chip player, downgrading him to red, but I'm not even sure he's that anymore. Johnson cannot run, burst or make sharp cuts, which has been the case since his hamstring injury.
2. Speaking of Cromartie, he might have been right when he said he was the second-best wideout on the Jets. His out-of-bounds grab on the deep pass against Houston was sensational. Despite the fact it didn't count for anything, not many receivers in the league could make that catch.
3. Tony Romo was being the ultimate team player when he said this week that wide receiver Dez Bryant is making progress and maturing. These remarks are amazing, considering Bryant's inability to handle audibles or adjust quickly on the fly during the game (which then limits the Cowboys' passing attack). Bryant runs most of his routes at the same depth and never has the entire passing tree at his disposal because the Cowboys' offensive staff is concerned he will make a mistake. For all of his talent, Bryant's lack of offensive comprehension makes it hard for Dallas to utilize his talents.
4. Andrew Luck has been as good as advertised. The Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback's ability to handle the nuances of Bruce Arians' offense is astonishing. Luck never seems to be hindered by the volume of offense that he has to process.
5. If the Denver Broncos expect to make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need Elvis Dumervil to play much better than he did last week against the New England Patriots -- against both the run and pass.
6. Last season, Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden was injured and missed substantial time. This season, he is healthy but does not look like the same back. He is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry and does not appear to have the same explosive skills. Oakland's offensive line is not the best, but McFadden needs to take over games if the Raiders are going to be a factor in the AFC West.
7. When Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn came into last week's game after Matt Cassel's injury, there appeared to be a sense of urgency from the offense. Quinn will get the start in Week 6 and a chance to revitalize his career if he is able to revitalize a Chiefs passing game that needs some help.
8. The Detroit Lions are hopeful that safety Louis Delmas will be back this week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Delmas is a huge part of the Lions' defense, and his physical play is needed to help this struggling unit. This is a huge game, with a trip to Chicago on deck; a two-week road trip that will determine Detroit's season. The Lions need Delmas and running back Mikel Leshoure to have big games this week.
9. The Cleveland Browns have a good chance to get a win this week and end their 11-game losing streak dating back to last season. Pat Shurmur is 4-17 as a head coach. His teams have only reached 20 points in four games -- twice this season and twice in 2011. The battle of Ohio is always close and this will be a tough game for the Bengals to win on the road.
10. The Baltimore Ravens are really hopeful that Terrell Suggs can come back this season, and all indications are that he will be able to make an appearance. How much of an impact he has remains to be seen, but Suggs will be back sooner rather than later. The Ravens really need him.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.