It's the halfway point for the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers' season, and the Black and Gold sit atop the AFC North.
The season has gone better than most anticipated, as the Steel City boys have tackled the league's toughest schedule aggressively. The first half of the season has been dominated by defense and injuries.
The Blitzburgh defense has been unbelievable, ranking No. 1 in the NFL. The Steelers sit near or atop every defensive statistical category. Coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme has been a wrecking ball for opposing offenses, returning to the top of the charts in sacks.
The have the league's two most athletic outside linebackers in James Harrison and LaMar Woodley. Harrison is tied for second in the league in sacks with 10, while Woodley is fifth with 9.5. A year ago, three Steelers were not 100 percent - Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Aaron Smith. All have returned to bolster the defensive unit.
Polamalu has been all over the field, terrorizing and confusing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators. Smith has been rock solid at his defensive end position, showing those calling for a youth movement up front were incorrect. Clark was sorely missed after his season ending injury in '07. Tyrone Carter and Anthony Smith struck out in their attempt to fill his shoes. Clark should return today from an injured shoulder, just in time to face the pass-happy Indianapolis Colts today at Heinz Field. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has also been a bright spot, showing the switch to inside was the correct one.
Injuries have played a huge role so far. Pro Bowlers Willie Parker and Casey Hampton have sat out portions of the season. Bryant McFadden broke a forearm against the Giants and will miss today's game.
The Steelers may be the only team in league history to go through two punters by the season's halfway mark. They have lost a long snapper. Kicker Jeff Reed has limped through some games.
Most notably, quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger suffered a shoulder separation in the opener and has been working through the pain ever since. He further aggravated the injury Monday night in the win over the Redskins. Chances are he may not be in uniform today, leaving the offensive controls to Byron Leftwich, who stepped in against the Redskins and showed he still has what it takes to win in this league.
The Steelers face another tough test against the Colts. No matter if Big Ben or Leftwich is in the lineup, fans should see plenty of handoffs as the Colts are 25th in the league in rush defense. Teams average 34 runs a game, leading to Tony Dungy's boys giving up 143 yards a game. On the offensive side of the ball, the Colts are dead last in the league in rushing. They can't stop the run, and they can't run the ball.
That's a bad combination.
Sure, Peyton Manning is the Colts' quarterback, and he still has receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. But this NFL season seems to be leaning towards toughness, and the Colts are sorely lacking in that category.
The Steelers get off running in the second half of the season.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Colts 13.
Andros is a frequent contributor to Voice of the Fan.