Power Rankings: Preseason: 1. This week: 5.
Where they stand: Despite losing two of the first three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers are about where they expected to be at the midpoint of the season. They are 6-2, tied for first place in the AFC North and getting stronger in the crucial month of November. Defending a Super Bowl title is never easy, but this year’s team is doing it much better than it did in 2006. The Steelers have a great combination of a balanced offense and a physical defense. It has led to the team’s five-game winning streak, which is second-best in the AFC.
Disappointments: The biggest disappointment has been injuries. A season-ending injury to Aaron Smith (shoulder) was a big blow. Other ailments to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankles) and tailback Willie Parker (toe) have kept those veterans rotating in and out of the lineup. The Steelers have depth at most positions and appear to be getting healthier. But with injuries, you never know when it will be too much to overcome. So far Pittsburgh has done a great job of coaching the next player to step in and fill their role.
Surprises: Pittsburgh has a pair of big surprises in rookie receiver Mike Wallace and second-year tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Few people knew what to expect from these two entering the season. Wallace was a third-round pick just trying to fit in with veterans Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, while Mendenhall didn’t show much as a rookie and was coming back from a shoulder injury. But both players have been great. Mendenhall took over for the injured Parker and has 573 yards and four touchdowns. Wallace has 25 receptions for 437 yards and three touchdowns. The play of these two adds new wrinkles to the offense.
Outlook: The Steelers are in a good position to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles for the first time since the New England Patriots accomplished the feat in 2003-04. There are teams -- the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings -- that have better records. But in a one-game scenario, the Steelers would have to like their chances against anyone. Look for Pittsburgh to once again make a lot of noise down the stretch. This team is probably more balanced, particularly on offense, that it was last season.