A different 5-2 record
Friday, October 30, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Steelers linebacker James Harrison was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October.

Chuck Noll had a saying, "How do you prefer to die?" He used it on occasion when asked about the particulars of a loss.

Close loss, blowout loss, a loss from a fluke play or a spectacular one, it did not much matter to Noll. It was a loss, which is all that mattered.

The Steelers are 5-2, and all five victories had their anxious moments in the fourth quarter. They were 5-2 last season as well, and three of those victories came by four points against Cleveland, three against Baltimore and five against Jacksonville.

This team goes about it differently, however, and it is a case of "how do you prefer to live?"

The Steelers had the most dominant defense in the NFL last season, No. 1 nearly across the board. They won four games in which their offense scored one touchdown in each. They seem intent on trading that for a dominant offense this season.

While their defense has allowed an average of 291 yards per game this season compared with 237.2 last season, they have outgained opponents by many more yards this season than they did on their way to Super Bowl XLIII. They average 92 yards more per game this season vs. their opponents, compared with 74.7 last season.

The pendulum, for the Steelers, might be swinging more from defense to offense, but it is not as if their defense has turned into cheesecake. It remains dominant against the run (second in the league), allowing 76.6 yards per game, down from 80.3 last season.

The Steelers have not done so well against the pass, allowing 214.4 per game, 15th in the league. Yet, they have shown they can rise up and make those willing to pass against them pay for it, whether it's Detroit's Daunte Culpepper, sacked four times in a failed final drive in the fourth quarter, or Brett Favre, who gave up two touchdowns to the Steelers' defense in the fourth quarter.

"We're getting out there and getting to the point where we're playing to the level we're capable of and making plays when we need them," said linebacker James Harrison.

Yesterday, Harrison was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October, when he had seven of his eight sacks, second in the NFL and halfway to his team-record 16 last season. As a team, the Steelers have 21, tied for second in the NFL.

All things considered, the Steelers have played pretty good defense to go with their fifth-ranked offense. Although they lost end Aaron Smith for the season, Troy Polamalu is rounding back into shape after returning to play the past two games. Those two defensive touchdowns against Favre and the Vikings, combined with their ability to slow down Adrian Peterson (18 carries, 69 yards) might have been their most impressive game despite all those yards Favre put up.

"It was a big momentum booster," linebacker James Farrior said of their game against the Vikings, particularly how it ended. "I think it's going to help our defense build a lot more confidence and, hopefully, we can get back to how we used to play."

[HIGH-LIGHT]Not running often[/HIGH-LIGHT]

The Steelers' running game has reached a low in franchise history, at least pertaining to how often they run the ball as opposed to how often they pass it. Of 439 plays on offense, they have run 186 times (42.4 percent). If that continues, it would represent at least a 40-year low since the Steelers first kept track, starting in 1969.

Their previous low came in Noll's last season, 1991, when they ran 43.1 percent of their plays. They ran 45.3 percent of the time in 2008.

Despite running less often, they have averaged 106.9 yards on the ground per game. They averaged 105.6 for the 2008 season. Running way more often in their Super Bowl XL season, they averaged 135.5 yards per game. They rank 17th in both average yards per game and average per carry (4.0).

Yet it would be no surprise if, after this off week when the Steelers' coaches do a lot of self-scouting, they call more running plays than they have through the first seven games. Rashard Mendenhall, who played little in the first two games and was benched in the third game, has 418 yards and a 5.4-yard average after he ran 373 yards in the past four games as their starting halfback.

Mendenhall ranks seventh in the AFC in rushing and, of the 15 leading rushers in the league, his 5.4-yard average ranks third.

Although often near the top, the Steelers still rank in the top third in rushing attempts in the league (10th).