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The mother of a certain fictional character from an Oscar-winning film once said: “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.”

That same thought could very well apply to the 2011 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers – a team that comes out every week looking like a different entity, and few have any idea which team they’ll see when the Steelers take the field each weekend.

In a season-opening loss to a division rival in the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh looked shell-shocked and unprepared. Baltimore cruised past the team early, and pounded them into the ground late.

Against Seattle, just one week later, Pittsburgh looked like a dominant force. The offense was efficient and the defense stingy in a shutout victory that only partly erased the stench of a season-opening embarrassment.

In two weeks, the Steelers managed to hit two extremes. In the next five contests, they’d play everywhere in between. Dominant in a win over Tennessee, and yet completely lost in a defeat one week earlier in Houston.

Each segment of the team has a hand in the wild, unpredictable play that has been on display in the first half of the season.

In the passing game, Roethlisberger has exhibited the talent that has led him and his franchise to two Super Bowl victories – a five-touchdown performance against Tennessee, for example.

And yet, he’s struggled with his accuracy at times this season, and has missed receiver Mike Wallace and two other speedsters, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, on a number of deep passes.

His play has run hot and cold this season, with the best example coming in a narrow win over Jacksonville. The big quarterback was on fire early as the team stormed to a 17-point lead, but led the offense to just 55 yards in the second half.

NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, who also produces ESPN’s weekly “NFL Matchup,” says that Roethlisberger’s play is inherently random and undisciplined.

“The pass game had a little bit of a random feel to it,” said Cosell. “I think that’s the way [Roethlisberger] has been throughout much of his career. He’s not a precision player. I had a defensive coordinator that has played against him numerous times tell me – and I’m quoting now, ‘Roethlisberger is not attuned to the subtleties of the pass game.’
photo by Charles LeClaire
“That’s the kind of player he is. He’s just so physically gifted, that he can make throws and he can make plays. But because of that, you’ll also have stretches either in the course of games or for full games here and there, where the offense looks out of sync, because he’s not a timing, rhythm, precision player.”

While the passing game has, for the most part, been a positive for the team this season, the Steelers ground attack has been the opposite.

No one personifies the team’s rushing woes better than lead-dog Rashard Mendenhall. The team’s featured back was entirely unproductive in the early going, to the point where fans and critics were calling for Isaac Redman to take over on the ground.

Those cries peaked with Mendenhall on the sidelines against Tennessee, as Redman and fellow platoon-back Jonathan Dwyer revitalized a troublesome ground game. Mendenhall came back one week later and, to his credit, piled up a career-best 146 rushing yards just one week later, before disappearing the following week against Arizona.

Cosell noted that Mendenhall has been running behind a constantly-shuffled offensive line, but did admit that a share of the problem now lies with the runner.

“Well, I think it was the offensive line initially,” Cosell said. “And then I think what happens—and it happened with Mendenhall, in my opinion—is you start to look for big plays because the little plays are not there at all. The 3, 4, 5 yards are not there, so you start to look for the big plays. You can’t do that as a back.”

The talent is there, as Mendenhall displayed in his career-high game in Week 6, but the results are often less than acceptable or “below the line,” to use a familiar Tomlin-ism.

More troubling is the fact that opposing teams are finally finding room with their own rushing attacks, something that only rarely happened in the last half-decade. Both Ray Rice and Arian Foster crossed the century-mark this season, with Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew falling just short.

Some of it is the rash of injuries that hit the front-seven. Stalwart defensive end Aaron Smith failed to make it through October for the third straight season and landed on IR; and James Harrison, Casey Hampton, and Chris Hoke have all missed time.

Harrison’s absence—coupled with an injury to backup Jason Worilds—forced linebacker Lawrence Timmons to move outside from his natural inside position, something that has thrown off his game. Cosell himself noted that Timmons has become a “thinker” on the outside, where he is a “reactor” on the inside.

The other part of it is that the team is simply struggling to stop the run, regardless of who is in there. The Steelers have had issues shedding blocks and are occasionally leaving their gaps in hopes of scoring a splash play.

While Pittsburgh’s pass defense has been stellar, there are still a number of unanswered questions there, too.

Safety Ryan Clark, who has been a key cog in what has proven to be an outstanding secondary in 2011, says the low passing numbers might not tell the whole story.

photo by Bill McBride“Teams have been able to run the ball, so they haven’t had to pass it as much,” explained Clark. “We’ve been behind in some games, so they didn’t get a lot of passing yards in those games. I don’t think that number is a reflection of how we’ve played recently.”

Cosell added that the team’s early schedule has also played a part in the team’s statistical dominance against aerial attacks. Pittsburgh’s slate of opposing quarterbacks, outside of Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco, is a list of has-beens and players who have yet to break out, if they ever do: Tarvaris Jackson, Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, Matt Hasselbeck, Blaine Gabbert and Kevin Kolb.

“You have to look at the nature of the opponents,” said Cosell. “In a couple of those games, the passing offenses were probably bottom-feeder NFL passing offenses. I think if they were playing bigger-time passing offenses, the numbers wouldn’t look as pretty.”

In short, the passing offense is strong, but streaky; the running game is struggling to meet its potential; the run defense is flat-out struggling; and the pass defense has yet to be consistently tested like it will be in the playoffs.

All the same, Pittsburgh remains a Super Bowl contender.

If the 2011 Steelers were a draft prospect, Mel Kiper would describe them as having a high ceiling, but a low floor.

Maybe the passing offense goes cold and the defense is exposed – Pittsburgh could find itself in its third-straight Super Bowl hangover.

But maybe the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback gets hot, the running game gets legs, and the defense does what it has done for the past half-dozen years – well, then now you have a team that could make its second-straight Super Bowl appearance.

At this point, though, who knows what we’re gonna get?

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