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Pittsburgh Steelers midseason report card: Steelers sitting pretty in AFC North race

PITTSBURGH The Pittsburgh Steelers were sitting pretty as they entered their bye week. They're sitting even prettier as they return to work and prepare for the second half of the season. The Steelers without so much as moving from their couches saw their position in the AFC improve. Everything that could go right for the Steelers on their bye week did. The Steelers already had a healthy lead over the Ravens and Bengals in the race for the AFC North division title, but they're in great position after the Ravens and Bengals lost. Pittsburgh leads the Ravens by 2 1 2 games and the Bengals by 3 1 2 games. Plus, they lead the season series against both teams, 1-0. In addition, Kansas City lost to Dallas to fall a half-game behind the Steelers in the race for the top seed in the AFC. The Steelers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Chiefs. The Steelers and Patriots are tied atop the AFC as they open the second half of the season this week. The Steelers return Sunday at Indianapolis. After the Colts, they play five of their seven games at home, including a date with the Patriots at Heinz Field. "Our team did what they were supposed to do," defensive end Stephon Tuitt said after practice Monday. "To be in the position we're in, we just have to finish strong, and we have to do that a week at a time." It would be a major upset if anyone but the Steelers wins the AFC North, but the Steelers know first-hand anything is possible. Last season, they were in the exact same position as the Ravens. They were 4-5 after nine games and won their final seven to win the AFC North. The Ravens likely would have to do the same thing and hope for the Steelers to falter in the second half of the season. That seems unlikely for a team that won three consecutive games entering their bye week.The Steelers also have the advantage of playing five of their final seven games at home after playing in Indianapolis this week. The Colts, Packers and Texans all will play backup quarterbacks against the Steelers. Colts starter Andrew Luck was placed on injured reserve last week, and the Steelers will face Jacoby Brissett instead. They'll also get Brett Hundley instead of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Savage instead of DeShaun Watson. The Steelers are 10-point road favorites, but they haven't always performed well when they're favored on the road. One of their two losses this season came against the Bears in a game in which they were expected to win. "This is a trap game for us," right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. "There will be a lot of noise out there, people expecting us to win. We can't hear all that noise. We have to execute the game plan and not shoot ourselves in the foot Antonio Brown Jersey. That's been our issue this year - not playing up to the level in games we're supposed to win. This is a really good team, but we can't go out there and lay an egg." Wide receiver Martavis Bryant has not received any indication what his role might be this week against the Colts, but he does believe he will play. Bryant was benched for the Lions game because head coach Mike Tomlin did not like that he requested a trade via his social media accounts. He spent the entire week of the Lions game as a scout-team receiver. Bryant took some reps with the first-team offense Monday. "I've been running with the ones today, so I assume I am," Bryant said of playing Sunday "But I haven't been told anything. I'm just going to see what happens, come here on Wednesday and go from there." After the Steelers beat the Lions, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked if he was confident Bryant would help the Steelers in the second half of the season. Tomlin's response "I'm not." Bryant said he was not bothered by the comment. "It's not my business to worry about what someone else says," Bryant said. "Even though he's the coach, I still have to go out and prepare and show what I'm capable of Jordan Dangerfield Jersey. You have to prove yourself to him. I wasn't down on myself about what he said." Running back Le'Veon Bell is one of the most effective players in the NFL when it comes to scoring in goal-line situations. Bell has five carries from the 5-yard line or closer, and he has scored on four of them. One of the reasons for the goal-line success has been the ability of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get the Steelers into the right plays. "We have the types of backs and Ben where we have a lot of options," offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. "We can go to the line of scrimmage and go to a run-pass option. It's something we'll continue to get good at. You have to find ways to stay on the field, you have to convert and finish those drives when you get near the goal line." NOTES T Marcus Gilbert, who missed five games in the first half of the season with a nagging hamstring injury, returned to practice Monday and is hopeful he can play against the Colts. Gilbert injured the hamstring in the second game of the season against the Vikings. He came back for the Chiefs game, but aggravated the injury and missed the final two games before the Steelers' off week. ... DE Stephon Tuitt, who missed the final two games before the off week with a back injury, returned to practice. Tuitt said he expects to play against the Colts. He said he could have returned to the lineup against the Lions, but the coaches and trainers wanted to make sure he was healthy for the second half of the season. ... TE Vance McDonald, who missed the Lions game with a knee injury, did not practice Monday. MOST VALUABLE ROOKIE WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. In a season in which veterans Martavis Bryant and Eli Rogers have played below expectations, Smith-Schuster has saved the day for the Steelers' passing offense. He is second on the team in receiving after posting 24 receptions for 424 yards and four touchdowns in the first eight games of the season VETERAN SURPRISE LB Vince Williams. A sixth-round pick in 2013, Williams has seized the opportunity to be a full-time starter after veteran Lawrence Timmons signed with Miami over the offseason. Williams is second on the team in tackles and tied for second with four sacks. The Steelers' defense hasn't missed a beat with Williams holding down the spot Timmons had for 10 seasons.MIDSEASON REPORT CARD PASSING OFFENSE B-minus - Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receiving and JuJu Smith-Schuster has emerged as one of the top rookies in the league, but the Steelers are searching for production from their third and fourth receivers. Martavis Bryant returned from a year-long drug suspension, but he hasn't looked like the player he was in 2014 or 2015. Bryant has only 234 receiving yards and one touchdown. Eli Rogers, who had 48 catches last season, has just seven catches so far. Ben Roethlisberger is on pace for his lowest number of touchdown passes in a season since 2010 and his lowest completion percentage since 2008. RUSHING OFFENSE B - After a slow start, the Steelers have embraced a running identity on offense. Le'Veon Bell is third in the NFL with 760 rushing yards and has scored five times. He has rushed for 134 yards or more three times this season, with all three coming in the past five games. The Steelers are averaging 108.9 rushing yards per game as a team, which ranks 16th in the league. Rookie James Conner is second on the team behind Bell with 89 yards, and there is a chance the Steelers could turn to him more in the second half in an effort to keep Bell healthy for the playoffs. Bell has not finished the season healthy the past three seasons. PASS DEFENSE A-minus - The Steelers are second in the NFL in pass defense, allowing just 180 yards per game. The addition of cornerback Joe Haden just before the start of the season has made a world of difference. Second-year corner Artie Burns and second-year safety Sean Davis also have played well, as has first-year slot corner Mike Hilton. There is some reason for concern after Matt Stafford threw for 423 yards against them in their last outing, but even in that game there were positives to note. The Steelers did not allow the Lions to score a touchdown and had three goal-line stands in the second half. On one of them, Stafford tried to pass his way in twice from the 1-yard line, and the Steelers forced an incompletion and then sacked him on fourth down. RUSH DEFENSE B-minus - The Steelers are ranked 16th in the NFL in rush defense at the halfway point, but that's because of two bad outings against the Bears and Jaguars. The Bears rushed for 222 yards in their overtime victory in September and the Jaguars rushed for 231 yards in their victory last month. Those are the only two times the Steelers lost in the first half and the run defense played a big part in both losses. In the other six games, the Steelers have been quite stingy against the run, including a strong performance against the league's leading rusher Kareem Hunt, who could manage just 21 yards on nine carries against them. The Steelers need those types of dominating performances in the second half of the season because they are vulnerable when teams have success in the run game. SPECIAL TEAMS C - The Steelers aren't very dangerous on their return teams. They are dead last in the league in kickoff returns with a paltry 15.0-yard average. Their longest return of the season has been 25 yards. They are 27th in punt returns, averaging just 5.2 yards per return. Kicker Chris Boswell has been solid. He made 18 of his 20 field-goal attempts in the first half of the season. Punter Jordan Berry has been inconsistent at times, but he is adept at pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line. COACHING B - Head coach Mike Tomlin has rebuilt his defense with young playmakers and they're the biggest reason the Steelers are 6-2 midway through the season. They Steelers are second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 16.4 points per game. The offense has struggled to score for most of the season. They have one of the worst red-zone offenses in the league. If offensive coordinator Todd Haley can figure that out, the Steelers have a chance to make a deep playoff run.