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The Steelers looked doomed to start 2018. Now they’re back

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Week 10 in a familiar spot: first place in the AFC North. They protected that spot atop the division by dominating the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, 52-21. The blowout win improved the Steelers’ record to 6-2-1 and extended their winning streak to five.

Since Ben Roethlisberger was drafted by the team in 2004, the Steelers haven’t had one losing season. With two more wins in the last seven weeks of the season, Pittsburgh will make it 15 years in a row at .500 or better.

It’s easy to forget that at the end of September, the Steelers looked toast.

When the first month of the season ended, Pittsburgh had a 1-2-1 record. The defense was ripped to shreds by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Flacco, James Conner’s impressive season opener was followed by 97 rushing yards in his next three games combined, and Roethlisberger looked like a quarterback nearing the end.

“I’m not on the same page with anybody right now,” Roethlisberger told reporters after Week 4. “I’m not playing well enough. I need to play better. Today was just a bad day at the office. I promise I’ll be back to play better.”

He was right. Roethlisberger returned to form, Conner caught fire, and the defense shaped up. Here’s why the Steelers are back in business:

The Steelers are a big-play machine again

One of the biggest problems for Pittsburgh early in the year was that Roethlisberger couldn’t connect on deep passes. In the first two games, he completed just two of his 13 passes 20 or more yards downfield.

Antonio Brown’s longest play of September went for 27 yards and the four-time All-Pro receiver had difficulty hiding his frustrations.

Those days are over. Roethlisberger has the Steelers offense back to its explosive self.

After just one touchdown of more than 30 yards in the first four games of the year, Roethlisberger has five in the last five games.

Against the Panthers, Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown down the left sideline on the Steelers’ first play from scrimmage. In the second quarter, he found Brown down the opposite sideline for a 53-touchdown.

Any hints of the deep passing woes from early in the year appear to be long gone.

The scoring avalanche Thursday was the most Pittsburgh has put up in a game since 1984. And it came against a Panthers defense that gave up 22.5 points per game in their first eight games of the year.

Now, the Steelers are up to fourth in both total offense and points per game. The ability to strike with a big play at any moment has helped, but so has a grinding rushing attack that keeps defenses on their heels.

The Steelers are fine, whether Le’Veon Bell comes back or not

Le’Veon Bell will probably show up before his deadline Tuesday. But he’s proven to be a luxury, not a necessity for the Steelers.

With James Conner leading the way, the Steelers are bulldozing over teams. He entered Thursday on a streak of four consecutive games with at least 100 rushing yards. That ended when he finished with 65 yards on 13 carries against the Panthers, but that was mostly because he had a light workload on a night when he wasn’t needed much.

Ultimately, it was another efficient game for the second-year running back.

Since the beginning of October, Conner has 539 yards on 101 carries — a 5.37-yard average — and nine rushing touchdowns. He’s made life without Bell easy, and he’s done it at a much lower price tag.

Late in the game Thursday, Conner suffered a concussion and finished the game in the locker room after inexplicably returning for a few plays.

If Bell opts to sit out the remainder of the year, the Conner show will roll on so long as he’s healthy. If Bell comes back, the team will just have another dynamic weapon to work with, in whatever way they see fit.

A few Steelers offensive linemen had pointed comments about Bell at the beginning of September, so there’s a small chance his return could stir up some drama. But that no longer seems like much of a concern. Other Steelers players — like Brown, Conner, and Smith-Schuster — have been supportive of Bell all along, and even the players who spoke critically earlier in the year sound welcoming:

Conner is a huge reason the Steelers are rolling offensively, and the team only stands to get better if Bell returns. Either way, the Pittsburgh ground attack is in great shape.

The Steelers defense is back

Five weeks after he tore apart the Steelers secondary for 363 yards and two touchdowns, Flacco couldn’t do much against the team last week. He passed for just 206 yards and couldn’t find the end zone at all in a 23-16 loss for the Ravens.

Cam Newton threw two touchdown passes Thursday, but it was far from a good night for the Panthers quarterback. He finished with 193 passing yards and was sacked five times by the Steelers. The pressure also caused Newton to throw a bad pick-six that helped kickoff the Pittsburgh onslaught.

The Panthers finished with a season-low 242 yards of total offense, making them the fourth straight team to fail to crack 300 yards against the Steelers. That’s quite the turnaround for a Pittsburgh defense that allowed an average of 451.7 yards over a three-game span in September.

The Steelers defense appeared to be a disaster early in the year, but now it’s top 10 in yards allowed per game.

There are tough tests ahead for the Steelers — including games against the Chargers, Patriots, Saints, and Bengals in December. But the early season hurdles didn’t do much to keep Pittsburgh from being, like always, a contender.

We shouldn’t have expected anything else.

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