THE STEELERS’ STRENGTH ON OFFENSE: The Steelers’ decision to sign wide receiver Antonio Brown to a contract extension in the offseason has paid off, as Brown leads the NFL with 85 receptions. Make no mistake, though, the key to the Pittsburgh offense is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 2004 first-round pick is having another productive season and has been particularly impressive in recent weeks. Over the past three games, he has thrown eight touchdown passes without a single interception. Roethlisberger’s two best attributes are his accuracy with the deep ball and his ability to keep plays alive by shrugging off would-be sacks because of his size — they don’t call him Big Ben for no reason. Another receiver to watch is tight end Heath Miller, particularly in the red zone.
THE STEELERS’ QUESTION MARK ON OFFENSE: Throughout their glory years, the Steelers always were known for their tremendous running game, but they’ve struggled in that area for a few seasons now and it has reached a low point in 2013. Pittsburgh will head into Sunday’s game ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game at only 76.8 — only Jacksonville is worse. And the Steelers’ rushing average of 3.3 yards per carry has them 30th in that category. The big problem with the ground game has been an offensive line that’s battled injuries all season, starting with the loss of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey — the twin brother of Dolphins center
THE STEELERS’ STRENGTH ON DEFENSE: It took a while, but age finally caught up to the Steelers defense and it’s no longer the dominant unit it has been for so many years. That said, it’s not as though the Steelers don’t have the ability to play good defense. Just look back to the second half of the Steelers’ recent victory against Detroit when they shut out the Lions after giving up 27 points by halftime. Pittsburgh ranks in the middle of the pack in most defensive statistical categories despite playing the last three games without star linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who’s a question mark for Sunday’s game because of a calf injury. As usual, the linebackers are the key to the Steelers’ 3-4 defense and Pittsburgh has a good one inside in former Florida State standout Lawrence Timmons. Safety Troy Polamalu no longer is a game-changer in the secondary, but he’s still having a solid season and can produce his share of big plays, such as a forced fumble against Cleveland two Sundays ago.
THE STEELERS’ QUESTION MARK ON DEFENSE: The biggest difference in the Steelers defense this season has been against the run, where massive nose tackle Casey Hampton no longer is around. With Hampton, you could count on Pittsburgh being among the top five in the league in run defense and often at the top. Without Hampton, the Steelers are 18th this season. Further, opponents are averaging 4.1 yards per rushing attempt against Pittsburgh, which would represent the Steelers’ worst showing in that category since 1999. Pittsburgh also is on pace to finish with its fewest sack total since the start of the new millennium, and one of the reasons has been Woodley’s absence. Without the constant pressure the defense usually has applied, the secondary has been exposed, with prime examples being a 55-31 loss against the New England Patriots and the first half against Detroit.
THE STEELERS’ STRENGTH ON SPECIAL TEAMS: It might be considered unusual given his standing as the leading receiver in the NFL, but Antonio Brown serves as the Steelers’ punt returner. Then again, it makes sense given how good he’s been at it. Brown is among the leading punt returners in the NFL thanks to three returns of 40 yards or more — 40 yards against Cincinnati, 44 yards against Oakland and 50 yards against Buffalo. The Steelers also have one of the most accurate kickers in the league this season with Shaun Suisham, who is 24-of-26 on field goal attempts with his only two misses coming in an October game in Oakland. It should be noted, though, that Suisham hasn’t attempted a field goal longer than 48 yards this season.
THE STEELERS’ QUESTION MARK ON SPECIAL TEAMS: While Suisham has provided great stability as the placekicker, it’s been the opposite for the Steelers’ punting situation. Veteran Zoltan Mesko unseated incumbent Drew Butler in training camp, but the former New England punter was inconsistent enough that the Steelers eventually decided to let him go and replace him with former Dallas and Philadelphia punter Mat McBriar. The bottom line is the Steelers rank 30th in the league in both gross and net punting average. The Steelers’ kickoff coverage has been pretty good all season, but there was a breakdown in the Thanksgiving night game that allowed a 73-yard return by Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones on the play that attracted a lot of attention toward Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.