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Old 10-11-2010, 12:37 AM   #1
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Default Starkey: What a quarter for Steelers

Starkey: What a quarter for Steelers

By Joe Starkey
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hard to believe the NFL season is a quarter gone. Harder still, I would imagine, for many to believe the Steelers are 3-1 -- though some of us (not saying who) predicted as much.

The feeling here was that a dominant defense and improved special teams would carry the day until Ben Roethlisberger returned to face the Cleveland Brownies.

The running game was a surprise, as was the appearance of one Charlie Batch, who climbed out of a bucket of mothballs and delivered commendable performances. Maybe better than that, considering much of Batch's training camp had been spent watching the Steelers practice.

So before Big Ben mania reaches hysterical proportions this week, how about one more look at a remarkable four-game stretch that not only has the team in excellent position for another title run but was a testament to the organization's stability and superior management?

MVP: Troy Polamalu.

Yes, Lawrence Timmons was magnificent. James Harrison was quite good, as well, along with several other members of the defense and running back Rashard Mendenhall. But Polamalu's performance was positively sublime, reminding everyone that when he is in the lineup, the Steelers are a different team.

You don't need Dick LeBeau to explain why this defense already has six interceptions, half its 2009 total. The unit goes from good to great in the time it takes Polamalu to close on a receiver.

Defensive backs coach Ray Horton senses a new Polamalu, one who savors football more than ever and has begun to assert himself in different ways.

"He's really mentally sharp, and one thing you'd never know is he's more vocal," Horton said. "In the past, Troy didn't talk to anybody. But he's really become a vocal leader, which is bizarre to say."

Horton said a player approached him recently and relayed the following: "Troy came up to me on the sideline and said, 'Hey, this is an important drive.' I looked at him like, 'I didn't know you could speak.' "

Best play: Mendenhall's 50-yard run to beat Atlanta in overtime. It was hard to overlook Polamalu leaping over the Titans' line to sack Kerry Collins, and Brett Keisel's 79-yard interception return against Tampa Bay, but the Mendenhall play was executed with such beautiful precision, at such a critical time, that it must take the prize.

Biggest surprise: Flozell Adams adjusting nicely to right tackle, after spending his entire 13-year career on the left side. Disaster seemed imminent when Detroit's Cliff Avril raided "The Hotel" in that first exhibition game. Turned out, Adams just needed some time. "I'm still learning," he says.

Best hit: Harrison, Keisel and Aaron Smith met up in the Tennessee backfield, and Harrison planted Vince Young like a poinsettia. OK, maybe the pile drive should have been penalized, but it was a classic Steelers search-and-destroy mission -- one Jack Lambert would have been proud to call his own.

Best coaching decision: As he stood on the sidelines before the Tennessee game, Mike Tomlin asked new special teams coach Al Everest when he wanted to try the reverse kick return they had worked on during the week. "How about right now?" Everest said. Bingo. Brown took the opening kick 89 yards for a touchdown.

A decision sure to have more long-range impact was moving rookie Maurkice Pouncey from his projected spot at right guard to his natural position of center. Credit Tomlin with being open-minded enough to let a player's performance alter the plan and force a major change along the offensive line.

Finally, could we dish out a little credit to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians?

Just a little?

The team's dedication to the running game, as ordered from on high, has produced positive results, if not always instantaneous ones. It's instructive to remember that even when there is no immediate gratification in running the ball, a bona fide commitment can net dividends later on -- see Mendenhall's run against the Falcons -- and keep the defense rested and ready.

And let's remember, even when Big Ben is on the field, the defense is this team's meal ticket.

Joe Starkey can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com or .
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