Ben Roethlisberger’s Career Year, James Harrison’s Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFCBen Roethlisberger‘s first game of the 2012 regular season was also his worst. He completed just 22 of 40 passes against the Broncos and threw an interception late in the fourth that cornerback Tracy Porter returned for what would be the game-clinching touchdown.

After entering the season with high hopes to improve on last year’s wild card playoff exit, and a need to counter Rashard Mendenhall‘s absence for the first few games, the Steelers were hoping to lean on Reothlisberger’s experience and leadership to guide them through. This was not the type of start Mike Tomlin and company were expecting. Since that dreadful start, though, Roethlisberger has been nothing short of sensational, even if the Steelers’ record doesn’t exactly show it.

A few late-game letdowns as the has season dragged on, including a pair of fourth-quarter comeback wins by the Raiders and Titans, saw the Steelers drop to a very un-Steelers-like 2-3 on the season.

The rumors almost immediately began swirling about a meltdown in Pittsburgh. And the speculation pointed toward the Steelers’ steep fall from grace. But as it turns out, everything you read isn’t exactly scripture — unless you read it here, of course.

Roethlisberger’s reemergence among the elite quarterbacks in football, paired with the return of defensive captain James Harrison, has found a way to spur the Steelers back into old habits. And the results have been resoundingly positive.

Roethlisberger has been consistent and cautious with the football through the Steelers’ first seven games, and with the improved decision-making he’s even on track for his best all-around season as a professional. He’s completing nearly 67 percent of his passes, is on pace to throw for more than 4,500 yards — both of which would be new career bests — and has tossed 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions on the year.

Outside of Roethlisberger’s success, the Steelers’ offense has also seen the emergence of a few unexpected players have a considerable impact early this season.

With both Mendenhall and primary backup Isaac Redman ailing, the rushing load has fallen to third-year back Jonathan Dwyer in recent weeks. The pressure hasn’t bothered him one iota, though. Dwyer has run for over 100 yards in consecutive games now and is averaging better than six yards a carry during his stretch as starter.

Third-year wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has also joined in as a reliable option on offense. After two seasons of limited use, Sanders has joined Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace as Roethlisberger’s primary targets in the passing game. Sanders has already hauled in 22 catches (just as many as he did all of last season) through seven games and only appears to be getting stronger as the season wears on.

While Roethlisberger’s devotion and leadership on offense has allowed guys like Dwyer and Sanders to feel comfortable and contribute on offense, the same has been true of Harrison on defense.

Harrison has helped to develop a somewhat middling Steelers defense at the season’s start into one of those classic tough, scrappy, fear-inducing Steel Curtain-esque units. His performance hasn’t necessarily been justly quantified on the stat sheet, but his presence on the field has prompted other players into more prominent roles.

Linebackers Larry Foote, who leads the team with 50 tackles, as well as LaMarr Woodley and even backup Jason Worilds have found more freedom to roam and more free space to attack with so much attention being paid to Harrison.

Heck, even veteran safety Will Allen has played an important role in the absence of All-Pro Troy Polamalu. Allen has been more than serviceable over the top of the defense, even leading the Steelers with seven tackles and three passes defended during Sunday’s 27-12 romping of the Redskins.

With so much improvement seen on both sides of the ball and consecutive demolitions of Andy Dalton‘s Bengals and Robert Griffin III’s Redskins, the two of whom were under constant pressure and combined to throw for just 282 yards, the Steelers are finally starting to live up to expectations.

Roethlisberger’s continued ability to control and guide the offense, which included a three-touchdown performance on Sunday, as well a Harrison’s impact on the defense have been vital. Now, with so many unexpected players contributing in big ways, the Steelers are beginning to look like a legitimate championship contender.

Or as Dennis Green would say, “they are who we thought they were.” Only this time, other teams better beware.

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NFL Trendsetters
1 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots

Gronk spikes have become something of an epidemic around the country, but Sunday’s end zone show was one of the most memorable of the Gronker’s young career. An ode to the “little nutcracker dude,” better known as the Buckingham palace guards, as well as his hula hoop shake were awe inspiring — although to who I’m still not sure — and pure golden entertainment. With eight catches for 146 yards and a pair of scores, Gronk wasn’t just celebrating the Patriots’ 45-7 win overseas in London, but also his return to health — which can only be bad news for opposing defenses.

2 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

Do you remember that five-interception performance Romo had against the Bears a few weeks back? Well, this wasn’t quite as bad as that, but it wasn’t far from it. Romo essentially handed the Giants a 23-0 lead in the first half, and forced he and the ‘Boys to make a second-half comeback of epic proportions. Too bad Dez Bryant just couldn’t keep his hand out of the cookie jar, err, off the boundary line, and Romo’s four picks will continue to overshadow the impressive charge he led late in the game. One or two passes are bound to find trouble when you’re heaving 62 in a single game, but Romo’s 13 interceptions lead the NFL and have cost Dallas some close games. I’m not sure how much is too much in Big D before a change might be in order.

3 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons

This is Ryan’s breakout season, and I don’t know if there’s a more accurate passer or better decision-maker in the NFL right now. Ryan was deathly precise once again on Sunday, hitting 22 of 29 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in Philly. He also led the Falcons to six straight scoring drives to start the game, more than enough of a cushion to drop the Eagles and continue Atlanta’s undefeated season. If MVP voting were held today, Ryan would be the choice, undoubtedly. He’s been that good.

4 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

As good a week as Ryan had, it looks like Vick’s might be headed in the opposite direction. Vick has seen his stock fall faster than Apple over the past few weeks, and it looks like Andy Reid might be ready to make a switch at quarterback. Leading the NFL in turnovers under his watch, Vick has the Eagles at just 3-4 on the season and desperately looking for something to motivate their efforts. Vick actually had a good week under center, completing 21 of 35 and throwing a touchdown — even if it was in garbage time. Even if Nick Foles gets a chance to start, the Eagles’ best option will remain Vick.

5 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers

From one guy about to lose his job, to one who firmly solidified his. Martin, whose starting job was questioned by Buccaneer fans after a stinker a few weeks ago, pounded the Vikings defense on the ground and through the air on Thursday. Martin ran for 135 yards and caught three balls for 79 yards, and he scored a pair of touchdowns in the Bucs’ 36-17 rout up in Minnesota. If there were any clamoring for LeGarrette Blount to claim some carries out of the backfield, Martin all but squashed that with his monster performance. We’ll be hearing that name a lot more as the years go on.

6 Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC
    Ben Roethlisberger's Career Year, James Harrison's Return Have Steelers Emerging as Sleeping Giant in Wide-Open AFC

New Orleans Saints

The Saints haven’t been very good this year, but Joe Vitt‘s first game as head coach couldn’t have gone much worse. With the Saints at just 2-4 on the season, Drew Brees and the offense managed just 14 points and fell to the Broncos in a 34-14 dismantling. Vitt had to endure New Orleans’ worst loss since opening weekend in 2007, a 41-10 loss to none other than Peyton Manning‘s Colts. Apparently Manning has something of a vendetta out against the Saints. Archie can’t be happy about that.

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