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11-06-2011, 08:40 AM
Midseason retrospective: Ben is the MVP
By Scott Brown
Sunday, November 6, 2011

A record five teams have erased deficits of 20 points or more en route to victory. Five teams have matched or surpassed their win total from a year ago. Rookie Cam Newton has more passing yards than Tom Brady and fewer interceptions than Drew Brees.

The Steelers being 6-2 is one of the few things that seemingly has followed script during the first half of the NFL season. But few could have predicted how they would get to this point.

They lost by four touchdowns in the season opener -- and it wasn't that close. Rashard Mendenhall is on pace for less than 1,000 rushing yards. The defense hasn't forced many turnovers, and James Harrison has only slightly fewer sacks (two) than games played (four).

Yet the Steelers still have managed to climb to the top of the AFC. The next two games, starting tonight against the visiting Baltimore Ravens, will go a long way in shaping the rest of their season.

Before looking ahead, here is a look back at the Steelers' first half:

Offensive MVP: Ben Roethlisberger, QB

Roethlisberger is having a monster season despite a disastrous start in Baltimore when he accounted for five turnovers. He is on pace to establish career highs in just about every major passing category, including yards and completions.

A week after sustaining a mid-foot sprain in Houston, Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes against Tennessee in a game the Steelers had to win. He has never looked more in control than when he led the Steelers to victories over the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots.

The biggest question with Roethlisberger is whether the Steelers can keep him in one piece. He is on pace to get sacked 50 times this season. That would tie a career high.

Defensive MVP: Ike Taylor, CB

No player has been as consistently good as Taylor. The nine-year veteran is a big reason the Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard receiver this season and why they are ranked No. 1 in pass defense (171.9 yards per game).

Taylor is playing as well as any cornerback, Darrelle Revis included. He has allowed only 11 receptions in the 45 times he has been targeted by opposing quarterbacks. The blanket job Taylor has done on receivers should get him to the Pro Bowl for the first time.

Biggest underachiever: Mike Wallace, WR

Well, he did say in late July that his goal was to become the first 2,000-yard receiver in NFL history.

Wallace is at 800 yards, putting him on pace for 1,600. That would smash Yancey Thigpen's single-season franchise record of 1,398 yards. But as coach Mike Tomlin always says, the standard is the standard, and Wallace is the one who set it.

Of course, it's easy to see why third-year veteran aspires to heights not even Jerry Rice scaled.

He has become one of the premier receivers in the game, and his speed has opened up things for the passing game.

Wallace is first in the NFL with six catches of 40 yards or more, fourth with 800 receiving yards and fifth in yards per catch (18.6).

He also is on pace for eight 100-yard receiving games, which would establish a Steelers' single-season record.

Best recovery: LaMarr Woodley, OLB

Four games into the season, Woodley's play had been so pedestrian that questions arose about his weight and whether signing a bloated contract extension had blunted his desire.

Since a 17-10 loss in Houston, Woodley has been as dominant as any player in football.

He has 7 1/2 sacks during that span, one in which the Steelers were without Harrison but won all four of those games anyway.

The only question with Woodley now is how the hamstring he injured during a 25-17 win over New England will hamper him in the second half of the season.

Best play: Roethlisberger's 95-yard touchdown pass to Wallace.

No play better showed how much of a weapon Wallace's speed is than when he and Roethlisberger hooked up against Arizona for the Steelers' longest play from scrimmage since 1949.

Roethlisberger's first option was an underneath pass to tight end David Johnson. But when he saw Wallace streaking down the right sidelines, Roethlisberger let one fly and hit his No. 1 receiver in stride.

Wallace outran two Cardinals to the end zone, including the safety who had arrived late but appeared to have an angle on Wallace.

Worst play: Ray Rice's 36-yard run

The Ravens running back flashed through an opening on the first play from scrimmage, then cast aside Ryan Clark as if the Steelers free safety were a cardboard cutout.

Rice's stiff-arm of Clark and the long run that resulted set the tone in the Sept. 11 game. Two plays later, Joe Flacco threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, and the Ravens never looked back.

Most pivotal sequence: Third quarter in 32-20 win at Arizona

The upset-minded Cardinals pulled within three points after LaRod Stephens-Howlings' 73-yard catch and run. The Steelers' offense responded with its most timely and perhaps impressive drive of the season.

Roethlisberger completed 6 of 8 passes in leading the Steelers on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a 4-yard scoring toss to Emmanuel Sanders.

After a well-covered kickoff and Cardinals penalty, Woodley forced an intentional grounding call on Kevin Kolb in the end zone. The penalty deprived Woodley of a sack but gave the Steelers a safety, and the Cardinals never seriously threatened again.

That kind of synergy among the Steelers' offense, defense and special teams carried over to the team's 25-17 win against the Patriots the following week.

M*A*S*H unit: Steelers offensive line

The linebackers made a late run at this one, but the Steelers' offensive line had to weather an avalanche of injuries through the first eight games.

It started when started right tackle Willie Colon sustained a season-ending triceps injury in the 35-7 loss to the Ravens. His replacement, Marcus Gilbert, left the third game in Indianapolis with a bum shoulder -- and had to go back in after several more in-game injuries left the rookie as the closest thing the Steelers had to a healthy replacement.

Left guard Chris Kemoeatu missed two games and played another one (against the Texans) essentially with one good leg. Doug Legursky started at right guard and left guard before he was sidelined with a dislocated toe.

One positive is the Steelers brought back left tackle Max Starks after the fourth game. Starks, who had been released in late July, has had a stabilizing effect.

Unsung: The reserves

Tomlin calls them "starters in waiting." It may sound trite, but one of the coach's strengths is getting his players to buy into his concepts and wringing everything he can out of the team's 53-man roster.

Twelve players on offense and defense who entered the season as starters have missed at least one game due to injury. The beat-up offensive line started seven different combinations in the first seven games.

Despite the injuries, Tomlin and his staff have been masterful at plugging holes and forging ahead.

During the two seasons the Steelers have gone to the Super Bowl under Tomlin, they have gotten major contributions from their starters in waiting.

Say-what statistic

The Steelers are last in the NFL in turnover differential, as they have 10 more giveaways than takeaways.

That number is somewhat skewed because the Steelers committed seven turnovers at Baltimore and didn't have a takeaway. Still, in the four seasons the Steelers had fewer takeaways than giveaways since 1992, they missed the playoffs. The last time it happened was in 2009.

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

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11-06-2011, 12:49 PM
MVP for sure...I mean who else is better????