Justin K. Aller
Under 'normal' circumstances Baltimore week would easily be the most dramatic and exciting of the regular season. This week isn't normal by any stretch of the imagination and the uncertainty and anticipation is off the charts.
It would seem to make sense to be overwhelmed with a sense of anxiety, dread or resignation at what faces the Steelers going into this big game. Only if it came on the eve of the playoffs could the injury to Ben Roethlisberger be more ill timed. Yet I, and I suspect a great many folks in Steeler Nation are feeling something more akin to exhilaration and defiance. This in spite of the real possibility that with Ben's loss this weekend could mark the beginning of the scuttling of a nice potential playoff run. Even with Ben this team has experienced its ups and downs over the course of the season. They were struggling with the Chiefs before Ben went down on Monday night. On the other hand the potential of this squad is hard to deny. History has shown with this organization and others that a setback of this type is often exactly the catalyst needed for a team to buckle down and pull together. It is a test of character. If you are a fan who can maintain the perspective of the long view you can't help but be excited to see how this team responds to the challenge. Coach Mike Tomlin set the tone for this week and beyond when he stated in his weekly news conference, "Excuses are the tools of the incompetent. I believe we have a competent football team." That's leadership.
last year we struggled against this team in a primetime matchup, and they ambushed the Packers later on in the year. I'm not saying its likely to happen, I'm just doing the necessary due diligence for those of us who like a little heartburn with our football.
A week ago in this space I suggested the possibility of this being a trap game which at the time seemed to be a worrywartish thing to do. The Steelers looked too good coming off of their big win against the Giants and the Chiefs just looked too bad generally. I certainly didn't believe at the time that my mentioning the possibility was anything more than me meticulously covering all the bases as far as possible outcomes. What transpired brought back to mind Chuck Noll's contention that in professional football things are neither as good or as bad as they may appear. While many Steelers fans registered disappointment and disgust with the team's performance (its always all about us), given a national platform and little to lose, the Chief's competed and showed that though they made enough mistakes to justify their losing record, it would be a mistake to assume that this team lacked the potential for greater heights.
Injuries. An influential theme throughout the 2012 season, it has become absolutely dominant now. Ben's situation has sucked all the oxygen out of the room so to speak, but even if his injury had not occurred the subject has been one of great significance going into the Ravens game given the number of key contributors that will either be out or hobbled on both sides for this game.
Ben. It is sobering when the term "life threatening" is used to describe an injury situation. Thankfully that shut down all discussion of any sort of dramatic return for this or any other game in the foreseeable future. Despite the musings of Terrell Suggs and others Ben will be shut down for Sunday and the fate of the team is now in the hands, for better or worse, of Byron Leftwich. The speculation from this point on is not whether Roethlisberger is out, but for how long? One issue that has been resolved without further controversy is that Ben will be attending the birth of his son without it being some sort of national referendum on fatherhood.
Week 11 injury report. In addition to Ben the injury carousel continues to turn. On offense Marcus Gilbert continues to be out and he is likely to be joined by Antonio Brown as of this writing. There is, however, some good news as Rashard Mendenhall is slated to return providing Leftwich with a full complement of running backs. On the defensive side, Ryan Clark will be available, albeit with some new equipment design to provide some extra protection for his head. Unfortunately, Troy Polamalu is likely to still be out of the picture and linebacker Chris Carter has been placed on Injured Reserve. Marshall McFadden was added to the roster to replace Carter.
Alameda Ta'amu. In another roster move the rookie defensive lineman has been signed to the practice squad meaning that last week's release was more along the lines of a calculated risk, allowing the team to add David Galreath to the roster, rather than making a clean break with the troubled youngster.
Byron and Ryan. Both players have been at center of a lot of news stories this week. Leftwich has been in the spotlight concerning whether he is up to the task of serving as an adequate substitute for Ben in what is likely to be the team's biggest game of the season thus far. The advantages and disadvantages are intriguing. The disadvantages are that he, nor anyone else, not even a Brady or a Rodgers, can fully replace the talent and stylistic advantages that Ben brings to the Steelers offense. In particular, Byron is less mobile than Ben and possesses a slower delivery and is likely to be less accurate overall. In addition, Leftwich hasn't played much in the past few years and has never actually started a game for the Steelers. On the other hand he is a savvy veteran, a franchise quarterback himself, having actually been picked higher than Ben when he was drafted by the Jaguars. He has playoff experience so this game will hardly be too big for him. He has the strongest arm on the team and the combination of the lack of recent film on him combined with the relative unknowns of the Haley offense may present preparation problems for the Ravens defensive brain trust. It has been intimated that the package of plays for Sunday's game will be designed to match Leftwich's strengths as opposed to forcing him to play to the template designed for Ben.
In the new, more sensitive environment related to player safety, and in particular to head injuries, Ryan Clark is attracting concerns and criticism for deciding to play after suffering two recent concussions. Even Penguin star Sidney Crosby has chimed in. Clark has been cleared and outfitted with the most effective helmet model to protect him from further injury, but he has clearly become the center of some controversy over his decision to play.
Anniversary celebration. Sunday's game between two of the fiecest rivals in professional sport and played on a national stage needs no addition hype. But is also the game that officially celebrates the 80th Anniversary of the Steelers franchise. So in addition to all the other drama surround the game the weekend will also be a family reunion for Steeler alumni. Recent Hall Of Fame inductees Dermontti Dawson and Jack Butler will be present, as will recently retired linebacker Joey Porter. Lynn Swann and co-owner John Stallworth will lead the Terrible Towel twirl. There will be fireworks and other perks for fans attending the game. And (take a deep breath everyone)the team will once again be wearing the special throwback uniforms, risking to scandalize and offend the entire nation on this occasion. But if the Redskin game was any indication, if the team is playing well and winning those unis will be looking awfully good by the end of the evening.
Media influence. With the proliferation of media outlets and 24-7 coverage given to football including blogs like BTSC, there is evidence that some teams are falling prey to the pressures that such attention generates and that has, in turn, had an impact on team decision making. Pittsburgh is cited as one of the organizations that has effectively insulated itself from this type of influence. To which all I can say in response is Thank God! Because if they took to heart some of the stuff that comes out of this and other sites they'd be screwed.
Cowher and Tomlin. Former Steeler Head Coach Bill Cowher is in the mix for selection to the Pro Football HOF. In the stat of the week section of Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback compares the records of Cowher and Mike Tomlin at the point of their first 60 games.
MVP and the Redzone. Finally Bill Barnwell handicaps the NFL MVP race in Grantland. Ben is not currently part of the discussion, but things can change. Grantland also has a lengthy, but interesting piece on spending a day at NFL's Redzone. If you are a fan of that service, you'll like it.