Why the Steelers look built for the second half

BALTIMORE -- A month ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were mired in mediocrity, standing at 1-2-1 thanks to erratic play on offense and a defense that was unorganized far too often.

Four games later, the Steelers are back to their contending ways and appear built for something bigger than a four-game winning streak. This is far from the perfect team, to be sure. They are still short a top-flight cornerback, a coverage linebacker and a vertical threat to complement Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. But the signs point to a competitive next three months.

Here's why.

Health: The Steelers have avoided the injury pitfalls of the past three years. Le'Veon Bell, Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward are among star Steelers players to miss significant time from 2015-17. The whole roster is healthy for November standards.

That can change at any time, but the law of bone-tearing averages appears to be favoring the Steelers for once.

Endless possibilities at RB: Conner's numbers are not empty calories. He can play. His pass protection and receiving have improved. And teammates are lauding him for a reason -- they see the pounding he inflicts in real time.

"When you're so close to him and he lowers his shoulder, and you see him get a couple yards, it's extremely motivating," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said.

When asked about maintaining this hefty workload -- 27 touches per game from Weeks 5-9 -- Conner said bluntly, "I'm built for this."

There's not much reason to doubt him at this point, barring injury. Because if teams sell out to stop Conner, the passing game has enough options to win that matchup.

And as Roethlisberger said Sunday: The Steelers' passing game can set up the running game.

Bell showing up won't mess with team mojo. It might just re-ignite it. Bell's presence can keep Conner fresh and stave off injury for both players. It's a long season.

A renewed focus on D: The Steelers will face Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees over the final eight weeks. They are about to find out if recent improvements will stick.

But the Steelers did return most of a defense that ranked in the top five for much of 2017. There was reason to think the disastrous first four weeks might be an aberration.

Sunday was a reminder as the defensive front got pressure on Joe Flacco all game, with Stephon Tuitt recording a sack in his third consecutive game. They are a different team when Tuitt and Heyward are punishing guards.

Artie Burns hasn't worked out as a starting cornerback opposite Joe Haden, but the Steelers are piecing together pass coverage with several role players -- linebacker L.J. Fort and safety Morgan Burnett on third downs, an emerging Sean Davis and a star turn for slot corner Mike Hilton, who was the best player on the field for parts of Sunday with a pass breakup and two tackles for loss.

Behind Flacco's 209 yards, Baltimore's best offense was drawing pass interference on balls over the top. The Steelers picked up three of those, but each play featured competitive coverage and a close call. The Steelers can live with that.

"I feel like we're putting together winning performances," Davis said. "Our trajectory is high."

Weapons galore: Asked whether this is the best supporting cast he has had in his 15 seasons as a Steeler, Roethlisberger paused.

"Possibly," said Roethlisberger, stopping short of punctuating the point out of respect to those who played with him over the years.

Roethlisberger then stressed how good his current offensive line has been.

His points were well-taken: He has plenty to work with in 2018.

Pittsburgh is flirting with 30 points per game and can beat teams with several weapons.

Think about it: The Steelers played the league's best defense on the road, with Brown catching five passes for 42 yards, and still moved the ball swiftly for the most part.

A 15-play scoring drive to open the second half was surgical. Smith-Schuster keeps proving his legitimacy with two crucial third downs on the way to 78 yards on seven catches. Vance McDonald and Jesse James comprise a solid 1-2 tight end combo. Brown and Roethlisberger had chances for chunk plays but missed them slightly.

Once James Washington figures things out and Roethlisberger trusts him deep, the playbook only expands.

Roethlisberger is performing better on the road this season, which bodes well for upcoming trips to Denver and Oakland, where Pittsburgh's lost a combined six straight.