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Steady Steelers continuing upward trend in wide-open AFC

Ben Roethlisberger talks constantly about the weapons at his disposal.

Mike Wallace. Antonio Brown. Heath Miller. Jerricho Cotchery. Whatever running back happens to be healthy during a given week.

So of course the first touchdown pass the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback threw during Sunday's 27-12 win over the Washington Redskins went to little-used tight end Leonard Pope. And the third went to fullback Will Johnson, a little 1-yard flip in which Johnson seemed to be surprised the ball was heading in his general direction.

"I was kind of yelling, 'turn around, you're open,'" Roethlisberger said.

Johnson's score capped a surprisingly easy victory for the Steelers (4-3), who looked very much like a team starting to round into form midway through the season. The defense suffocated Washington's vibrant offense while the offense continued to work with its typical efficiency.

Pittsburgh held the ball for more than 33 minutes for the sixth time in seven games on a day Jonathan Dwyer became the first Steelers running back since Willie Parker in 2008 to top 100 yards in consecutive games.

This is the same team that struggled to put away underachieving Philadelphia at home and lost on the road to the likes of Oakland and Tennessee?

"We're going in the right direction," offensive tackle Max Starks said. "We stopped digging a hole for ourselves. Now we can start laying a foundation."

It's one that starts where it always seems to start in Pittsburgh, with the defense. The Steelers endured stinging criticism after letting three second-half leads evaporate. They defended coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme and insisted the problem wasn't the calls but the execution.

After convincing victories over two explosive teams in Cincinnati and Washington, it looks like they were right. The Bengals managed just 185 yards of total offense while Washington had a season-low 255. For all the concern bubbling three weeks ago, the Steelers are second in the NFL in yards allowed as the season nears its midway point.

"We still got that '3' in the column there, but we're improving," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We know it's a long season. It's always long for us. We ain't saying we're there yet."

Not with the defending Super Bowl champions looming.

Pittsburgh travels to New York next week to face the Giants (6-2), though it suddenly doesn't look as daunting a task as it did earlier this month after the Steelers pushed around Washington. The Redskins dropped 10 passes, many of the drops coming as a Pittsburgh defender closed in.

"The Steelers, we're going to run and hit," Foote said. "Our safeties are going to hit. Our (defensive backs) are going to hit. You don't see that in a lot of places with the corners coming up and hitting. That's what makes this a special place."

One that prides itself on maintaining a certain standard regardless of who is on the field. When starting running back Rashard Mendenhall and top backup Isaac Redman went out with injuries while losing to the Titans on Oct. 12, Pittsburgh turned to third-stringer Dwyer.

He's hardly played like a benchwarmer. Legs churning constantly, Dwyer has run for 229 yards over the last two weeks and is averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per carry, seventh-best in the league and ahead of guys like Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Chris Johnson.

"He's answered the call and taken advantage of the opportunity and that's what we expect from all our young people," coach Mike Tomlin said of Dwyer. "This guy went over 1,500 yards in his last two years at Georgia Tech. He was ACC Player of the Year. He's not foreign to running the football."

Dwyer isn't quite ready to plead for more playing time, simply entrench himself as an NFL player. He's done that with ease, giving the Steelers some needed balance to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger.

The offensive line has done its part too. The quarterback has been sacked just 13 times this season despite playing behind a shuffled unit that includes rookie right tackle Mike Adams. Throw in a passing scheme that has limited the number of hits Roethlisberger takes and the Steelers are building at the right time.

"This is the part of the season where you want to be consistent and get better and start to stack wins," wide receiver Antonio Brown said. "This is where it all that starts."

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NOTES: The Steelers re-instated rookie NT Alameda Ta'amu on Monday. The team suspended him without pay two weeks ago following an incident with police on the city's South Side neighborhood in the early hours of Oct. 14. Ta'amu still faces three felony counts — fleeing police, aggravated assault and aggravated assault by vehicle — among a dozen other charges.

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