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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Steelers' strength is now their speed

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They used to line up and run it down your throat.

That's who the Pittsburgh Steelers used to be.

Not anymore.

The Steelers have morphed into a passing team, and have done so for several reasons, mostly because they now have explosive speed on offense.

The Steelers used to be a run-heavy team on first down. Against Arizona last week, they ran it 17 times on first-down plays and threw it 15 times -- not counting kneel downs at the end of the game.

Two of their longest plays came on first-down passes. One was a 95-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace and the other was a 20-yard throw from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.

The Steelers rushed for 91 yards, but had two 100-yard receivers in both Brown and Wallace.

Pittsburgh is ninth in passing yards per game and 15th in rushing yards per game

Who are these Steelers?

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has come under a lot of criticism in his time with the team, is wisely playing to the strong points of the offense, which is outside speed. Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can fly. Hines Ward, the veteran of the group, is now the possession receiver.

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Wallace is averaging 20.3 yards per catch, followed by Brown (14.6), Sanders (13.3) and Ward (9.9).

The Steelers can still be a physical offense with Rashard Mendenhall if they need to be, but they are now clearly willing to throw it a lot more than they used to in years past -- especially on early downs.

Film Study (10 things I saw from the tape that you didn't)

1. Earlier this year, I evaluated what was wrong with Chris Johnson. At the time, it showed the Titans line was allowing too much penetration. Now I think a lot of the blame has to go to Johnson. He is running tentatively, and he's missing holes. Take the Titans' second play from scrimmage against Houston last week. Johnson took a handoff against a seven-man front. The play saw Johnson start to the right and cut it back to the left. The Titans had it well blocked with Texans right outside linebacker Connor Barwin up the field and Antonio Smith being handled by left guard LeRoy Harris. But instead of cutting it back between their blocks, where there was a huge hole, Johnson ran inside the right shoulder of Harris where there was traffic. He gained 1 yard. Johnson is missing holes when they are there and he just doesn't seem to have the same feel he had during his first three seasons in the league.

2. The Jaguars have been a zone-heavy team on defense for much of the season. But against the Ravens, they played a lot more man. That put corners Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox and nickel corner Drew Coleman in a lot of man-cover situations -- and they handled it well. Mathis, who is the team's best cover player, had several breakups and locked on in man coverage. Cox did the same. That led to more blitzing by the Jaguars' front. The Ravens' receivers couldn't win, which is why the offense struggled. Baltimore didn't get a first down until there was 5:29 left in the third quarter. The Ravens had 46 yards passing until their late scoring drive. Coleman had the game-icing pick in man coverage. Look for more blitzing from this defense in coming weeks.

3. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford spent the Falcons game throwing off his back foot. When he does that, he is inaccurate. On the game's third play, with a pressure in his face, he threw off his back foot and the ball sailed five yards over the head of Calvin Johnson. It was the first of many. The Falcons did a good job on Johnson by doubling him a bunch. But they also did a nice job taking away tight end Brandon Pettigrew. They used linebacker Stephen Nicholas to beat him up before Nicholas rushed on some blitzes. By doing that, it kept Pettigrew from getting free releases. With Johnson and Pettigrew the focus, Stafford had trouble finding open receivers and the pressure seemed to make him jumpy at times. This was not the Stafford we saw early in the season.

4. After an impressive game against the Saints two weeks ago, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had a four-interception game against the Bears in London. The problem was Freeman threw off his back foot a lot early in the game. He wasn't setting his feet in the face of pressure. On the game's third play, he overthrew Kellen Winslow by five yards. On one of his four interceptions, he threw off his back foot with Julius Peppers bearing down on him and Lance Briggs picked it off. It was the same on a pick by Brian Urlacher. To Freeman's credit, he bounced back with two fourth-quarter touchdown throws and seemed to settle down some. But he has to get away from throwing off his back foot in the face of pressure. His passes tend to float.

5. It's not often that I give credit to special-teams players here. But Shane Lechler deserves it. He is averaging 52.4 yards per punt, which is ahead of the all-time record held by Sammy Baugh, which he set back in 1940. Some people say former Raiders punter Ray Guy should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he isn't even the best Raiders punter. Lechler is. He averaged 48.2 on his six punts against the Chiefs last week, with two inside the 20. Scary thing: He wasn't the best punter on the field that day. Dustin Colquitt averaged 52.6 and had three inside the 20. NFL punters are as good as they've ever been.

6. How was Christian Ponder's first NFL start for the Minnesota Vikings? He did some good, and he did some bad. But it shows the kid has potential. Ponder was picked off twice by Green Bay's Charles Woodson, but for the most part he made some good decisions and good reads. He showed a lot of mobility, which might surprise some but he was fast and ran well at Florida State. The best part of his first start was that he kept his head up looking to make throws when he scrambled. Ponder doesn't have an arm like Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, two other rookie passers, but he showed against the Packers his arm is good enough. His shot to Michael Jenkins for a touchdown was a perfect illustration of that. As he gains more confidence, I look for Ponder to stay in the pocket longer and get more passes down the field. The Vikings will probably roll him out less as well. One word of advice for the next time he plays the Packers: Stay away from Mr. Woodson.

7. If a team runs well, it usually means they handle the middle linebacker. That's what happened in the Texans-Titans game. The Texans ran well because their offensive linemen got out on Titans middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. He spent the day getting blocked, at times engulfed by Texans linemen. It didn't help that the Tennessee down linemen allowed the Texans' offensive linemen to get out on him. Ruud was blocked five yards down the field on some plays. He has to be better, but he also needs help from the guys up front.

8. The Washington Redskins had some early-season success on defense for their ability to get after the quarterback. With Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan coming off the edge, the Redskins have two quality edge rushers. But against the Carolina Panthers, those two were handled. Jordan Gross did a nice job on Orakpo and the surprise was rookie tackle Byron Bell playing as well as he did on the right side. Bell, who was not drafted and was put into the lineup when Jeff Otah was lost for the season, showed some pretty good feet in pass protection and did a good job in the run game. Orakpo had a sack, but it was when he was unblocked. Kerrigan didn't get a sack.

9. Anybody who thinks Broncos corner Champ Bailey is slowing down needs to watch last week's game against Miami. Bailey did a nice job in man coverage on Brandon Marshall. Two weeks ago, he did a nice job on Vincent Jackson. Bailey might not run as well as he once did, but he knows how to stick with top receivers in his 13th season. Next up: Calvin Johnson.

10. Is there a better team than Houston at throwing back across the formation for big plays? In the second quarter against the Titans, the Texans used a rollout pass back to Arian Foster for a big play. On the play, quarterback Matt Schaub play-faked to Foster in the I-formation. Schaub rolled right after the fake and Foster acted like he was blocking and snuck out on the left side, and Schaub threw back to him wide open. He made safety Michael Griffin miss and turned it into a 78-yard touchdown catch. Misdirection passing is a big part of the Texans' offense against teams that over-pursue.

Hot Tub

1. Panthers receiver Steve Smith: Does he love having Cam Newton around or what? He leads the NFL with 818 receiving yards.

2. Vikings defensive end Jared Allen: After a so-so 2010 season, especially at the start, Allen is playing at a high level again. He is a relentless player who is leading the league in sacks, including two last week against the Packers.

3. Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton: He was the best tackle on the field Monday night, not Baltimore's Haloti Ngata. Knighton made a really nice play chasing down a screen pass.

4. Texans linebacker Brian Cushing: He was very active against the Titans. On consecutive plays in the third quarter, he almost picked off a pass in man coverage and then came back and tackled Chris Johnson one-on-one in the open field for a short gain. Cushing had one of his best games against the Titans.

5. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers: He spent the day in the Bucs backfield and played the run well last week.

Cold Tub

1. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco: He was terrible against the Jaguars. He was jumpy, and his accuracy was bad. It didn't help that his receivers didn't win.

2. Falcons right guard Garrett Reynolds: He continues to be a problem for the Falcons. He was handled all day against the Lions.

3. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber: He struggled in coverage and he had a pass-interference penalty early. He did get a sack on a blitz in the "A" gap.

4. Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji: I've been saying all season long. He is getting blocked a lot.

5. Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis: He caught 10 touchdown passes last season but has none this season after signing a big contract extension. He dropped one against the Ravens on Monday night.

Ranking the top rookie QBs

1. Cam Newton, Panthers: He is on pace to shatter the rookie passing numbers. The scary thing is how good he can be when he actually understands it all.

2. Andy Dalton, Bengals: Smart, heady, accurate. He sees the field and knows where to go with the football.

3. Christian Ponder, Vikings: His first start included a lot of good things, but he did throw two picks. I love the way he anticipates guys coming open. He will be near the top of this list by the end of the year.

4. Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars: He has a big arm, but he needs to work on his fundamentals. He throws too much off his back foot and he needs better pocket presence. But he does make some "wow" throws.

5. Jake Locker, Titans: He's sitting behind Matt Hasselbeck. But it's only a matter of time before he plays.

Three and outs

Three eye-opening stats

1. Giants quarterback Eli Manning is completing 70 percent of his passes in the fourth quarter. Bet you could win a bet with that information.

2. Flacco is 30th in the NFL in third-down passer rating with at 51.9 rating. Yecch.

3. The Colts are 29th in sacks per pass play. Peyton Manning means a ton to the pass rush as well. It's easier to rush the passer with a lead, right?

Three assistants doing good jobs

1. Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker: The Jaguars were 28th in the league last year in total defense and now they are sixth. Tucker is calling all the defenses this season and he's doing a nice job.

2. Bills offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris: The Bills have the best sack-per-pass ratio in the NFL. For a unit that came in with a lot of questions, they've been much better than expected. D'Alessandris deserves a lot of the credit.

3. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden: He has done a nice job getting Andy Dalton ready to run his offense. Dalton was Gruden's top choice, and now we know why.

Tweets at me

1. From: @myFFguru: @PriscoCBS @CBSSports dare to be hated

2. From: @dancingsousa: #SJSU! RT @PriscoCBS Dwight Lowery should be starting at safety for the Jets.

3. From: @newjakecity1: I wonder why anybody would listen to the opinions of @PriscoCBS or @realskipbayless when they're opinions are as idiotic as Lindsay Lohan.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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