- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- There's no 4-0 team in the NFL for the first time since 1970, so the consensus is there is no dominant team.
But I disagree. Football pundits aren't looking hard enough, because the league's lone dominant franchise resides in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers (3-1) have been winning quietly and playing at less than 100-percent capacity without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is returning this week from a four-game suspension. Still, they are 32 seconds away from being 4-0, which virtually throws out the aforementioned stat everyone wants to talk about.
Here is why the Steelers are the NFL's most dominant team:
Roethlisberger is back: This has been a huge story this week, but it cannot be overstated. Roethlisberger is a top-five quarterback and a two-time Super Bowl champion. It's like acquiring a $100 million free agent in Week 6 to boost an already strong team. The Steelers' passing game is last in the NFL (136 ypg.), but it will improve dramatically with Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh won with defense and special teams, and now the team can beat opponents with all three phases.
"We're truly a 53-man roster, instead of a 52-man roster," Steelers left tackle Max Starks said. "It makes things more comfortable. It allows us the opportunity to do whatever, because we have [Roethlisberger] ... Now we have that full family."
The Steelers have the best opponent winning percentage: The Steelers didn't pad their record against creampuffs. In fact, Pittsburgh's first four opponents have a combined record of 14-5, tops in the NFL entering Week 6. The Steelers played three one-loss teams (Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and the Tennessee Titans (3-2). Every team Pittsburgh faced this season without Roethlisberger has a winning record, and the Steelers are the only team to beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay this year. Pittsburgh's one loss without its franchise quarterback came against Baltimore, which scored the winning TD with 32 seconds left.
Rashard Mendenhall has emerged: As one Pittsburgh star was suspended, another star for the Steelers emerged in Mendenhall. The third-year tailback recorded his first 1,000-yard season in 2009, but is on pace to shatter career highs in yards, attempts and touchdowns. Mendenhall is playing at a Pro Bowl level. He averages 103 rushing yards per game and carried the offense early. With Roethlisberger back, Pittsburgh will have one of the NFL's most complete offenses.
"I think we will be very balanced, and we're going to take what they give us," Roethlisberger explained. "If they're loading up the box, we will try to throw it. If they're sitting back, we will run the ball."
Pittsburgh has the NFL's best defense: Statistically, the Steelers are ranked No. 4, but they're really the league's most dynamic defense. Pittsburgh has the NFL's best collection of defensive players (Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, etc.) and the best defensive coordinator (Dick LeBeau). Pittsburgh's run defense has been impenetrable, ranking No. 1 (62.2 ypg). Pittsburgh also is forcing turnovers (three per game) and making big plays. Pittsburgh had to play near-perfect defense in the first four games. But with Roethlisberger back, pressure is taken off LeBeau's unit.
The Steelers are not close to reaching their ceiling: What would the Indianapolis Colts' record be without Peyton Manning this season? How about the New Orleans Saints' record without Drew Brees or the Green Bay Packers' record without Aaron Rodgers? None of those teams would be 3-1 without their franchise quarterback. The scary part is Pittsburgh is just scratching the surface of its potential. The Steelers won ugly during their first four games, because it was the only way to win consistently without Roethlisberger. According to head coach Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh is still working to improve different elements of the team.
"We're still very much in the early stages of this season," said Tomlin. "We're very much a developing football team individually and collectively."
The Steelers have championship experience: The Saints are the reigning Super Bowl champions, but the Steelers are not far removed from their title following the 2008 season. With a majority of players returning from that group, Pittsburgh is the only team playing with that championship swagger. The Steelers have the character and toughness to withstand the ups and downs of a 16-game season. This year's fast start without Roethlisberger was another example when no one expected it.
"We've always had that confidence," Starks said. "Some may call it cockiness on our part, but I think it's confidence that we're a great team and there’s 53 guys in this locker room and we all play for one another."
Don't be surprised when pundits flip the script two or three weeks from now. The AFC North blog just wants to keep everyone ahead of the curve.
The Ravens (4-1), New York Jets (4-1) and Atlanta Falcons (4-1) are Super Bowl contenders. But after five weeks, the Steelers stand alone as the NFL's most dominant team.