The Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 season is at an interesting cross-roads heading into Week 11. At 6-3, they're in nice position to make a run at the AFC North as well as a top seed in the AFC playoffs. But given the rash of injuries the Steelers are dealing with, they may have played their best football of the season. Or, said differently, given all the injuries they've had to adjust to, they may struggle to string together consecutive consistent performances until later in the year when they've had some time to jell. (That's assuming they don't suffer any more injuries.)
We'll see, but a win this Sunday against the Oakland Raiders puts Pittsburgh in very nice shape to at least win a Wild Card berth. They already hold a tie-breaker over the Tennessee Titans. By beating the Raiders, the Steelers would have a huge leg up on two teams that look to be primary contenders for one of the two precious WC spots. A loss and....well, I don't want to think about that possibility just yet. The Steelers would not be behind the eight-ball just yet, but they'd have their work cut out for them heading into the final six weeks of the year.
So, for this installment of 'Who Powered Through', I'm calling out the Steelers collectively to power through the rash of unfortunate breaks they've endured this season injury-wise, and get back in the win coloumn against one of their most historic, hated rivals, the Oakland Raiders.
Here's a few of my keys to the game...
* Strength vs. Strength - Here's what the Patriots did offensively to bamboozle the Steelers' defense: The Patriots came out in two tight end, two wide receiver, and one back sets. Translation: they came out in running formations. Only they spread Pittsburgh out with the passing game, which confused the Steelers. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are suddenly dropping back in coverage rather than disrupting Brady's rhythm. And with Pittsburgh reacting rather than dictating the action, Brady is able easily find what matchups are advantageous.
Oakland is not going to be able to confuse Pittsburgh with their formations. Period. That's not to say they can't have success against the Steelers' defense, but they're either going to have to try to operate from a spread out formation, or they're going to have to stick with their effective rushing sets which Jason Campbell will have a hard time throwing from successfully.
* Special Teams - The Steelers offense should be better with Hines Ward back this week, but the bottom line is that this offense is still going to have problems being consistent with such a depleted offensive line. Other than Mike Wallace, there's just not much speed offensively, either along the line, or amongst the play-makers. The loss of Santonio Holmes is starting to show its ugly head in that regard. Anyway, the Steelers' offense would sure be helped out by a big play or two by the special teams. And I'm not just talking about covering kicks and punts soundly, though that certainly is, like always, still important. It may be time to put either Emmanuel Sanders or Antonio Brown back there on punt returns rather than the more conservative choice, Antwaan Randle El. Behind the efforts of future Hall of Famer Shane Lechler, the Raiders are once again leading the league in gross average punt (49.1), and net average (42.4).
* Rashard and the Running Game - I'm not convinced that Rashard Mendenhall wasn't injured or at least very limited due to injuries last Sunday night against the Patriots. The Raiders are 24th against the run, allowing nearly 125 yards per game on the ground and nearly 4.5 yards per pop. The Steelers meanwhile are still in the top ten in rushing yards (9th), despite going away from the run this past month. Here are Mendenhall's rushing attempts by game this year:
22, 23, 19, 25, 27, 15, 15, 22, 11.
There were concerns about whether Bruce Arians would continue to rush the ball as frequently upon Roethlisberger's return from suspension. Those concerns have turned out to be well-founded. However, it's worth noting that Mendenhall was on pace to finish with over 350 carries, quite the increase over last year's total of 242. No sense in saving him too much though. The Steelers need a win this week, and they need it badly. I sure hope we see #34 finish with 25+ carries against a Raiders defense that struggles to stop the run.