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Enter the champions

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Neil Reynolds | 14:29 UK time, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Look out, rest of the NFL - here come the defending champions.

Seven months after they beat Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a slow start to the 2009 season, dropping two of their first three against Chicago and Cincinnati. Then they quietly moved back into the playoff picture with wins over San Diego, Detroit and Cleveland.

But what they have done over the past two games - in defeating the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos - means the Steelers are no longer going to sneak up on the rest of the league.

They are rightly back in the mix as genuine Super Bowl contenders.

Tomlin and RoethlisbergerCoach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are aiming for a second successive NFL title

The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints grab most of the headlines due to their 8-0 starts but would you confidently back them to beat Pittsburgh with a title on the line?

This Steelers team is built for the playoffs and have been there and done it before, winning two of the last four championships.

Coach Mike Tomlin's men know how to dig deep and win the big battles and they seem to be getting good performances from all over the field. They remain, as always, one of the most physical outfits in the business.

During Monday's 28-10 defeat of the Broncos, Ben Roethlisberger had another very good game at quarterback, throwing for 233 yards and three touchdowns; wide receiver Hines Ward proved himself as reliable as ever with two scoring grabs and young running back Rashard Mendenhall has added some punch and burst behind an improving offensive line.

He rushed for 155 yards against Denver and has 573 on the season at an average of 5.7 yards per carry (where 4.0 is considered the average).

Roethlisberger has to be considered one of the best quarterbacks playing in the NFL today. He is in total control of Bruce Arians' offence and is a far cry from the youngster who started out in Pittsburgh.

Big Ben was originally asked to take care of the football and let Pittsburgh win through a strong running game and a dominant defence.

Now, Roethlisberger is the team's primary offensive weapon and he works well with a good cast of targets in Ward, Santonio Holmes, unheralded youngster Mike Wallace and tight end Heath Miller.

He may hold onto the ball too long and take a few sacks, but Roethlisberger is a natural playmaker and sometimes his scrambling around opens things up downfield for big plays to unfold.

The growth of Roethlisberger can be measured by taking a quick glance at Pittsburgh's two Super Bowl wins since he took up his position.

In the first victory over Seattle, after the 2005 season, Big Ben was distinctly average and, at times, downright poor, throwing two interceptions.

In last season's thrilling victory over Arizona, Roethlisberger led the Steelers on a magical game-winning drive in the final moments and capped the march with a pin-point touchdown strike to Holmes. It was a wonderful performance under the most intense pressure.

Defensively, the Steelers adopt a bend-but-don't-break approach. It seems they regularly allow opponents to pick up decent chunks of yardage but do not let teams score very many points on them.

We know all about the star performers such as outside linebackers James Harrison (eight sacks this season) and safety Troy Polamalu (three interceptions in 2009) but there is depth on that side of the ball and everyone seems capable of making a big play when one is needed most.

Without defensive end Aaron Smith, who is out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury, the Steelers could have been forgiven for wondering who would make plays at that position. They needn't have worried as somebody always comes up big for this team at the right time - on Monday defensive end Brett Keisel chipped in with a pair of vital sacks.

And the Steelers were playing without hard-hitting safety Ryan Clark, who has a rare sickle-cell trait that gets dangerously aggravated when he plays at altitude - as in Denver in 2007, when he needed emergency surgery - and remained on the sidelines.

Substitute safety Tyrone Carter scored the first touchdown of the game on a 48-yard interception return and added another pick and two tackles in a stellar display.

The big-name stars are holding up their end of the bargain but the lesser-known lights are also making huge plays when they are needed most.

The Steelers are rolling with five wins in a row and the second half of their fixture list features meetings with the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. Those are extremely winnable games and I think it is a safe bet to say the Steelers are playoff-bound.

And when they reach the post-season, it would take a brave man to bet against them given their track record in recent years.

You can catch Neil commentating on an NFL game every Sunday at 2100 GMT on BBC 5 live sports extra throughout the season. (Available on the web to UK users only).

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    One further thing in the Steelers favour I think is that with the Bengals playing tough and the Ravens not yet out of touch, they are going to have to play right through to week 17, keeping up the intensity to ensure they get home-field advantage.

    But I agree that overall, they look a complete and solid unit - I was really not that surprised to see them win in Denver, not after they had kept Minnesota at bay, and not with Polomalu out there to make sure Brandon Marshall could find no space underneath.

    Genuine Superbowl contenders, especially with the O-line and running game coming along very nicely.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good blog. The Saints look fearsome but you have to question how often they can come back from behind. It's onething coming from 10+ points down in the regular season, but if you're in that hole in the play-offs it's a whole lot harder. The Colts seem to have fairly quietly moved to 8-0 but they are proven at the business end of the season.

    the Steelers however are improving as the weeks go by, which is really where you want to be. You can afford to lose a few games near the start of the season as long as you're in tune come the play-offs, and that's what looks to be happenin.

  • Comment number 3.

    Neil, great blog as always, very much enjoy reading your views on whats going on in the NFL week to week. Pittsburgh do look very strong but they would have to come through a Colts team that looks unplayable when Peyton is on his game!! From one Manning to the other, Eli and the Giants, if they can rid themselves of the fundamental errors they are making, are they still a Superbowl Calibre team? Or have the young receivers been figured out/the Giants easy start being show up as a false pretence now they are playing stronger teams? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  • Comment number 4.

    Good Blog. The Steelers are looking strong especially in their last two games. I believe that the Steelers and the Patriots are the two teams to be really looking at for the super bowl this year. I think the Pats have extended their game this year to further than just giving Brady the ball, they're whole offensive line looks better and I believe they made something like 7 consecutive running plays against the dolphins this weekend, which is unheard of by the Patriots. So i'm definately looking forward to seeing how both the Steelers and Patriots get on in the next month or two.

    I'm also interested in how Dallas get on because they have been showing some good performance and personally shocked me beating the Eagles in Philly on Sunday.

  • Comment number 5.

    Neil, fair comment the Steelers are back and rolling teams over again. No surprise that the resurgence comes with the return of Troy Polamalu, out after game one and now back and fit. He cements this team's defence, in the same way as Big Ben makes them tick going forwards. Can't overemphasise the value of this guy as a defensive weapon of mass destruction. Are they going all the way again? Not sure, but then again this is starting to have a familiar look to it. This year, like last year, they won't have the best regular season record - I guess that'll be the Colts. However, the Steelers are the post season team. I'd love to see the Saints do it and confound everyone, but the reality check is that one of the big three quarterbacks, Brady, Ben or Peyton will take the Superbowl. Which one, too close to call yet - ask again at Christmas!

  • Comment number 6.

    Neil, good blog.
    Whilst you rightly say the limelight has been on the unbeaten teams I think history proves that #1 seed does not guarantee you a ring.
    I think I'm right in saying that only one #1 seed has won superbowl in the last decade.
    What this tells me is you need a team going into post season who is just hitting form, a team who may have had problems earlier in the year but have resolved them.
    Pittsburgh could fall into that catagory and having 'been there, done that' they won't be concerned with tough road trips in January.
    It's half-time in regular season, none of the 4-4 sides are out of it, even the 3-5 teams can mount play off challenges, but I agree that it would be a brave man to bet against the Steelers.
    In fact, I would be backing the likes of Steelers at 6-2 before I back either of the 8-0 sides right now...

  • Comment number 7.

    As a steelers fan i was disappointed with our start being defending champs.
    But the last 5 games things have really started to come together again.
    I agree that there are a with the colts and saints sat on 8-0 they should be kept an eye on but it is only midway through the regular season.
    My main concern this year is if we get an injury to big ben we could fall short of the play offs.
    The team to watch in my opinion is the saints though. They look very difficult to beat at the minute.

  • Comment number 8.

    "My main concern this year is if we get an injury to big ben we could fall short of the play offs."

    With most teams in contention getting an injury to a QB is a major worry. The Colts and Saints would certainly have major issues if Manning or Brees were to get injured and we know what happened with NE when Brady was injured.
    Of all the teams in contention; I think the Vikings and Broncos would most likely be able to maintain their current standards (neither convince me they are ready for the Superbowl) with an injury at QB.

    Good blog as always Neil and it seems the usual suspects are gathering in the AFC and gaining momentum at the right time. San Diego got a huge win at the weekend and with a win at home versus Philli will be right in the play-off hunt.

    I fully expect the AFC play-off line up to be NE, Indy, Pitts, SD with Denver and the Cinci being the other 2. This can only be bad news for Indy as they really dont want SD in the play-offs again.

  • Comment number 9.

    Fair shout Ravens_Defense_DOW_Rex_Comeback_PLEASE.
    but i dont know how reliable our back up QB is as he hasnt been tested for some time.

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice to see Mike Wallace get a lot of praise. And Hines Ward just gets better every year. Also, Big Ben is on for a big season. The road to the AFC championship goes through pittsburgh.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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