Seven Steelers observations

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers proved that they will be a factor in the title hunt with a 28-10 victory over the Denver Broncos.

Here are seven observations from Monday's big win for Pittsburgh:

Troy is back: When Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu is healthy, Pittsburgh’s defense is dynamic and has the potential to be the best unit in the NFL. With two weeks off to rest his knee, Polamalu was great once again with three tackles, an interception and two passes defensed. He looked as healthy as he has all season. As the game wore on, the Steelers’ defense wore down Denver, which had three turnovers and 242 yards.

Steelers are versatile: Whether it’s a physical defense, a strong running game or the arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers can beat you in so many ways. Pittsburgh had relied on the pass most of the season, but on Monday the Steelers controlled the pace with the running game. Rashard Mendenhall had 155 yards rushing and got stronger as the game progressed. Mendenhall is heating up, averaging at least five yards per carry in four of his past five starts. Pittsburgh’s running game is more consistent than it was last year when the team won a Super Bowl.

O-line playing better: It’s time to give Pittsburgh’s offensive line some credit. The unit is playing better now than it has in the past several years. Roethlisberger is still getting sacked (2 sacks Monday), but the difference is he’s getting five, six and seven seconds to throw. Holes are also being made for the running game. Last year the Steelers’ offensive line was a major weakness. But through eight games, the unit is gradually getting better and no longer is a liability.

No Clark, no problem: After two weeks of back-and-forth deliberation, the Steelers decided not to play veteran safety Ryan Clark, who has a rare blood condition that nearly caused him to die after his last game played in Denver in 2007. It didn’t matter as backup Tyrone Carter played a quality game, recording two interceptions -- including one returned for a touchdown. Carter struggled some earlier in the year to replace Polamalu. But it’s clear Clark’s role was easier to step into as Carter looked more comfortable and stayed around the football. Clark will reclaim his role as the starter against Cincinnati in Week 10, but look for Carter to continue to produce in sub packages.

The Wallace factor: Receiver Mike Wallace does not look like a rookie. Pittsburgh hit another home run in the draft this year as Wallace, a third-round pick, continues to contribute. Wallace recorded four receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown against Denver. He is the team's third option behind veterans Hines Ward (seven catches, 44 yards) and Santonio Holmes (six catches, 93 yards). Wallace has quickly gained the trust of Roethlisberger and the offensive coaches.

AFC North a factor: This is the time of year when the ultra-physical AFC North asserts its will on opponents. The Broncos were considered one of the best teams in the AFC, but back-to-back losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers took the shine off their fast start. Both teams punished the Broncos, winning by a combined score of 58-17. This year, the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) are major forces in the conference. Last year two AFC North teams -- the Steelers and Ravens -- advanced to the conference title game.

Big showdown: Pittsburgh's win sets up a huge matchup for first in the AFC North with the Bengals. Cincinnati proved it's for real by beating every team in the division at least once and sweeping Baltimore on Sunday with a 17-7 victory. Both teams appear to be hitting their stride at the right time, and both should be a factor in the postseason regardless of the outcome.