The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to the southwest this Sunday for a scheduled 4:05 PM contest with the Arizona Cardinals. The University of Phoenix Stadium is the setting, and the early NFL odds favors the Steelers by 3 1/2 points.
Pittsburgh, after an early-season hiccup or two, appears to be back on track to be among the AFC's elite. The Steelers improved to 4-2 this past Sunday with a 17-13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. RB Rashard Mendenhall was the big producer for the Steelers, running for 146 yards on 23 carries, including a touchdown. QB Ben Roethlisberger connected on 12 of 23 pass attempts for 200 yards, while TE Heath Miller and WRs Mike Wallace and Hines Ward combined for 9 receptions for 150 yards and a TD for Wallace. The Steelers are still working on their offense, trying to achieve a better balance. Too often, they've had to rely on Roethlisberger's amazing late-game heroics and would like to avoid that.
Pittsburgh's defense pretty much locked down the Jaguars completely, although that wasn't unexpected, since Jacksonville struggles to move the chains, much less put points on the board. For the afternoon, the Jaguars actually put together their most balanced attack of the season. But even that was sub-standard by NFL standards. The Steelers sacked rookie QB Blaine Gabbert 5 times and limited him to 109 yards on 12 for 26 passing. About the only Jaguar the Steelers failed to contain was RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who piled up 96 yards on 22 carries. Pittsburgh almost appeared to be toying with their opponent at times, and they have to guard against that in the future, since these things have a way of coming back around.
After winning on opening day, Arizona has now lost 4 straight, and three of the losses were by a total of 8 points. The coaching staff hopes a week off due to a scheduling bye will give their players a chance to rest up and come back ready to turn it around.
QB Kevin Kolb appears to be getting more comfortable each week, and any questions about the move to pick up the former Philadelphia Eagle are a thing of the past. On the season, Kolb has 1,381 yards and 5 TDs. The Cardinals running game seems to flip-flop from week to week, with Beanie Wells the key. As long as Kolb has WR Larry Fitzgerald split out, opposing defenses have to account for him. The All-Pro, now in his 8th season, has 27 catches for 427 yards, but only 2 touchdowns. Expect the offensive coaches to try and find a way to get the ball to #11 more often, since he's one of the league's true scoring threats from any place on the field.
Arizona's defense has performed better than most observers expected so far, and it's difficult to point at exactly why that is. DE Calais Campbell is the defensive edition of Beanie Wells, All-World one week, invisible the next. Second-year NT Dan Williams has surprised with his agility and pass-rushing skills. The linebacking unit seems to be shuffled up each week, and there is no true "leader." Someone needs to step up and lead by example. The secondary is probably the strength of the defense, with rookie CB Patrick Peterson a bonafide star-in-the-making. Strong safety Adrian Wilson is 32, but there are few safeties league-wide who can deliver the bone-crunching hits that he does.
Being off last week may be the best thing for the Cardinals. This team has talent, and with Kolb under center, they have a QB capable of putting up huge numbers. If Beanie Wells ever finds a balance, and if the defense remains strong, this could be a team that no one looks forward to playing during the season's second half. For the Steelers, as long as they avoid any major injuries and the running backs continue to produce, 10 or more wins should be almost automatic. And with Baltimore not expected to ease off any, every win is crucial.
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