In the first 15 weeks of the regular season, the jury is still out as to whether the Pittsburgh Steelers should consider the 2012 season a complete failure, or an unfortunate series of events.
The credibility of the players, coaches, and executives have been put on the stand on multiple occasions, as the Steelers have struggled at times with seemingly inferior opponents. The prosecutors point to individual statistics, quotes, and plays as physical evidence enough to forgo the formalities, and skip straight to sentencing. Even though this trial was set to run for 17 weeks, with the possibility of an extension; the defendants' rights to a fair trial have been compromised.
Despite beating the Cincinnati Bengals in their own house in Week 7, the Steelers defense will be forced to rest their case after they give their testimony on Heinz Field in Week 16.
Should the Steelers lose on Sunday, their performance will be seen as a microcosm of their entire season. They simply couldn't beat the teams they needed to beat, when they needed to beat them. While that statement would be literally accurate, it would generate negative latent meanings in more curious, speculative minds.
The first person lined up for sentencing would be head coach Mike Tomlin. The accusations against him will be the same as the rumors swirling through the media and the fanbase, that he is incapable of motivating his players to their full potential. The prosecution makes this statement intentionally omitting such performances as the Steelers defeat of the Baltimore Ravens in week 14, just 3 weeks ago. The Steelers won against a division rival, with a better record and leading said division, and without their franchise quarterback.
The second man indicted would be Todd Haley. Even though his offense had produced points, yardage, and other positive statistics while keeping Ben Roethlisberger on his feet and on the field; his playbook will be burned for failing to obliterate visibly weaker opponents and thrive without its intended starting personnel. Fumbles and poor field position will be entered into evidence against the scheme, instead of the personal execution failures. Although, no one can physically link the playcalling to the 5 fumbles by Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and Chris Rainey; but they will be held against Haley regardless. No one will credit his gameplans for keeping the Steelers within one possession of 5 of the Steelers 7 losses, that can easily be attributed to other perpetrators.
The running backs will not circumvent their own charges. Even though their futility will be held against the coaches one second, those fingers will be pointed at the players themselves, the next. Little consideration will be given to the injury situations of their own position group, or the offensive line. Players like Dwyer will be blamed for their lack of vision, even though he has run behind a conference's worth of line combinations. What positive performances the backs have been able to produce, will be quickly credited to other players like Willie Colon or Mike Adams.
While their effect on the running game can be visually quantified, the games that they participated in that failed to yield running success are omitted out of convenience. These omits are common along the offensive line. Players like David DeCastro are seen as improvements, even though he has less practice time than fellow starting rookie Kelvin Beachum. The expectations of the standard have been highly blown out of proportion, blaming rookies for pass protection blunders requiring help. Second stringers are damned for being consistently solid, but not spectacular.
Few charges are being brought against the defense as a collective group, but there are plenty of counts against the individuals. First round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward will be deemed busts, because they haven't filled the cleats of Aaron Smith, even though those cleats took a career to be appreciated and the accused haven't even been on the roster for a fourth of that time. Casey Hampton will be accused of clogging the roster, and not rushing gaps. Steve McLendon will be determined as a victim of neglect.
The bust label will not be reserved for first round picks, they will be handed out indiscriminately. Chris Carter will be seen as a failed experiment for not being James Harrison. Jason Worilds will be dismissed as a product of circumstance, negating his resilience recovering from an injury that forced him to miss the preseason, but now leads the team in sacks, as a backup. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons will be judged as overrated, simply because they are among the highest paid players on the roster. Pick-sixes and run defense will be forgotten, blindly profiling the player by their team's record. Larry Foote will be seen as a weak link, instead of the voice of wisdom he has been all season long, while not missing a single game to injury.
The secondary will be scrutinized the hardest, with no inclusion of injury improbabilities. Having depth like Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen will be remembered for the poor performances of Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian in their first defensive NFL action. The jury is likely to find itself hung over Ike Taylor, who has been both a goat and a hero for the league's top ranked defense. However, the verdict will come swift for Troy Polamalu, who has returned to the field battling the same injury that forced him to miss most of the season. The fact that he's even playing will get lost in the deliberations, despite the fact that most players would have been quickly shuttled to injured reserve.
There will even be a few demerits handed out to the special teams unit and their coach for poorly timed penalties, poorly pooched punts, and one poorly perceived missed field goal. No one will escape the wrath of the bench.
If the 2012 Steelers are going to change the mind of the court, they will have to do so with an indisputable performance. They will enter the contest as healthy as they've been at any point this season, leaving no room for excuses or convenient alibis.
Of course, the team will definitely miss Adams, Colon, and Marcus Gilbert along the offensive line; DeCastro and Beachum will have to make their presence known like veterans. They must develop the ability to infuse attitude with technique. Ramon Foster must do the same, even though he is starting only his second game at a brand new position. While many believe a guard to be a guard, responsibilities in the offense change from side to side. His seasoned veteran mind must be up to the task, and his body must be ready to match.
The ferocity of the offensive linemen will have a major effect on the outcome. On Tuesday during his weekly press conference, Tomlin expressed confidence and optimism toward the involvement of the running game in the upcoming gameplan for the visiting Bengals. The Steelers enjoyed their first 100 yard game by a single back in the first game against Cincinnati, as Dwyer, Colon, and Adams mowed through the Bengals front seven. With no Colon or Adams for the rematch, the running game must prevail.
The Steelers secondary holds a flicker of hope, as they will have Lewis and Allen to defend against Andy Dalton and A.J. Green; but the Steelers running game will player a much larger role in limiting their success. The best way to keep a prolific QB/WR tandem in check, is to keep them on the sideline. If the Steelers are able to use their own running game to prolong drives and post points, the Bengals will find themselves one-sided. When the Bengals found themselves in similar situations in the first meeting, they turned in multiple 3-and-outs.
Running success will prevent the field position problems from the home loss to the San Diego Chargers. The ability to move the chains will prevent the urge to throw deep on 3rd-and-shorts. Running the ball successfully will silence the dissension surrounding the curious case of Mendenhall. Running the ball will take the pressure off an offensive line to pass protect for 40+ attempts per game. Running the ball will allow them a healthy target to vent their frustrations generated by pass protection problems.
Running the ball will also take the pressure off of a quarterback and offensive coordinator to have perfect answers on every single play. Running the ball kills the need to use predictable passes to shorten distances-to-gain. Running the ball slows an opponents pass rush by lowering their pass expectancy. Running the ball opens holes for receivers to split zones, because safeties are forced into the box. Deep pass opportunities open up as corners cheat the line of scrimmage in run support.
The Steelers best case will be presented through will, not eloquent post-game pressers. Credibility is built in inches, not miles. The Steelers must win in the trenches to win the game. Even though the Bengals strength seems to be their passing game, the Steelers must force them to do just that. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis is held in check, the burden may become too much for Green to carry alone. Even with playmakers in Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins, the Bengals could find themselves overwhelmed if they are unable to balance their attack pattern.
If the Steelers lose this game, they will seal their fate. Blame will be passed around like a cold, eventually reaching every person involved. The fears surrounding their ineptitude and incompetence will appear confirmed. The 2012 campaign will be forever labeled a disappointment, a disaster, or complete and utter failure.
However, if the Steelers win this game, they can regain their honor. They can remind the Bengals why the road to the Super Bowl will literally go through Pittsburgh. Mike Tomlin can prove to his doubters that he can win important football games with rookie linemen, and injured defensive backs. Roethlisberger and Haley can prove that they really are on the same page. Dwyer can prove that he deserves to carry the load when the pressure is on, and that Mendenhall is not as necessary as many have continued to believe.
The Steelers defense can remind the world that they didn't earn their top ranking because of one, or two players. They can confirm that their record is the result of unfortunate circumstances, and not inability. The receivers can prove that they deserve the high reputation they've given themselves, and the trust of their offense. The special teams unit can show that they are capable of learning from their mistakes, as can the younger members of the secondary. The Steelers can put the rest of the conference on notice.
While playoff implications are high enough stakes for most football games, this one will also be equal parts of sibling rivalry and self-justification. If the Steelers are to make a legitimate run on the road at a seventh Lombardi Trophy, they will find no task more daunting than the one that awaits them in week 16.
We will find out whether the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers are up to that task; or not.