Justin K. Aller
Where do the Steelers stand heading into the last lap of the regular season?
If you were told four weeks ago that the Steelers would go 2-2 during this stretch of the season could you have imagined that it would have unfolded in this manner? It would have had to have meant that they had lost both games to the Ravens, right? Certainly if couldn't be that they beat the Ravens twice and lose to the Chiefs and Browns. That might even be more depressing. So if you had to go 2-2 this would be the best way for that to turn out.
Yes, 3-1 should not have been out of the question; even 4-0, but let's be realistic. Tomlin & Co. can't talk about this because of 'The Standard' and such, but I am under no such covenant. You simply cannot understand the nature and challenges of this season without the subject of injuries being front and center of any conversation. So, going back to four weeks ago, if you were told then that the Steelers would be playing this segment of the season with the following players being unavailable due to injury (number of games missed in parenthesis): Ben Roethlisberger (3+), Byron Leftwich (2), Antonio Brown (3), Mike Adams (1+), Jerricho Cotchery (2), Willie Colon (2), LaMarr Woodley (2), Ike Taylor (1), Troy Polamalu (3), Rashard Mendenhall (2), Marcus Gilbert (4 IR), David DeCastro (4). Add Baron Batch to that list due to roster moves and let it all sink in for a moment.
And no, I am not excusing some of the poor performance such as the turnover fest in Cleveland to injuries, but conversely, you cannot lose up to eight starters for varying periods without having some sort of disruptive effect on your team. With that in mind, 2-2 does not look quite as bad.
Like they did at the end of the second quarter of the season, the Steelers posted an impressive win against a quality opponent on the road. What was so impressive and remarkably inspirational about the win in Baltimore is that it was one of those rare occasions, particularly in the regular season when Pittsburgh was viewed as a clear and overwhelming underdog. When it was said that no one outside of the Steelers' locker room thought they would win in Baltimore with Charlie Batch at quarterback I don't think that qualifies as hyperbole. I'm sure many reading this were hopeful, so was I. But what did you believe? It remains to be seen how this will translate moving forward, if for no other reason we don't know whom else may be carried off on their shield in the coming weeks. But you have to be encouraged by this win and the possibility of it serving as a catalyst for the team to believe and get hot at just the right time. While the playoff picture isn't ideal, it's not terrible either. All options are still on the table and the schedule is, in theory at least, quite favorable.
Mike Tomlin, I think rightly, has gotten a great deal of credit for doing what was necessary to transition the team from the demoralizing disaster in Cleveland to defeating the Ravens while seriously undermanned in many key positions. As the season has matured many of the personnel decisions that had some fans scratching their heads earlier in the year (such as retaining Kelvin Beachum) don't seem so boneheaded now. Doubts were raised about Tomlin and his methods during this four game stretch, and I can guarantee you that they will be raised again. We tend to sanitize our memories at times, forgetting that the best quarterbacks throw interceptions, the best backs fumble, the best corners give up touchdown passes and the best coaches make tactical and occasionally even strategic errors. The position that the Steelers find themselves in is not just a friendly accident. And things could still go south. But for the moment at least Tomlin has seemed to avoid a repeat of the 2009 season, a sure sign of growth as a coach.
Since the last report Todd Haley's stature has taken some hits in Steeler Nation. I haven't been crazy about some of the decisions made over past few games. However, I felt that he gets a lot of credit for the play selection of the final drive of the Ravens game. And, like Tomlin, he probably had to absorb more ill will concerning the performance of the offense than he could realistically control. All things considered, if enough guys get and stay healthy the best days for this offense is still likely to be ahead of it in the coming weeks and, hopefully, the playoffs.
Dick LeBeau's reputation was already well in the process of rehabilitation at the halfway mark of the season. Things have only gotten better as the Steeler defense once again finds itself sitting atop of the league rankings. I also think that defensive secondary coach Carnell Lake and offensive line coach Sean Kugler have earned credit at this stage of the season. Both units are performing well, especially considering how they were viewed by fans just a few short months ago.
The offense has taken its share of criticism lately, but to be fair it has shouldered the brunt of the injury bug as well. That the offensive line has these concerns is, unfortunately, not unusual. The running backs are just returning to health as a group over these last few weeks. But four weeks ago, the quarterback and receiving groups were healthy and deep. In the interim the team has had to pick people up from off the street to keep these groups sufficiently populated. If the worst is over we may witness an offensive resurgence in the coming weeks.
The question of Ben's return has gone from if to when. It is unclear as I write this whether he'll be available for the game against the Chargers. As of now the declaration of the Raven's game being Charlie Batch's last hurrah was likely a bit premature. The events of the past few weeks from Leftwich's injury to Batch's poor performance in Cleveland has rekindled conversation as to how to staff this position. Batch, in particular, has been a polarizing figure to some in the fan base. He has been popular and well liked among many, while others seem almost offended by the fact that he has continued to occupy a roster spot over the years. This latter group were emboldened by the Cleveland game and probably gained some converts, but Batch won the argument this week in Baltimore. But a consensus has now seemed to have formed that this be the proper end of the road. But what next? Some have lobbied that a younger player be 'groomed' to serve as Ben's 'heir'. This strikes me as a rather quaint idea, representing developmental assumptions that are no longer grounded in reality. Currently, rookie quarterbacks Luck, Griffin and Wilson are leading their teams on playoff runs, in two of these cases teams not deemed to be playoff caliber this year, without the benefit of much in the way of grooming. Of the top third of the league's quarterbacks only Aaron Rodgers served any sort of lengthy apprenticeship, and that because of the presence of Brett Favre. It could be argued that Dennis Dixon would have been the sort of player being sought, but waiting behind Ben he developed just as thick a coat of rust as has been evident with Batch and Leftwich, which could be considered a more devastating development for a young player trying to get the opportunities to evolve into a top tier quarterback. Injuries aside, with Ben showing no signs of slowing down, indeed as he continues to get serious consideration as an MVP candidate, the Steelers would be best served to focus on the football equivalent of a relief pitcher. And make no mistake, franchise quarterbacks don't grow on trees and Ben is as close to inexpendable as anyone on this and most rosters. In the meantime here is hoping that the reps and confidence gained in Baltimore serve Batch well if he is called upon to continue to lead the team until Ben is safely able to return to the helm.
Manny Sanders was in the running to be labeled the goat on Sunday as the receivers seemed to try to prove that the running backs had nothing on them in terms playing giveaway with the ball. But in actuality Sanders has been the star of the receiving corps lately, and as the status of a group that appeared to represent an embarrassment of riches early becomes more precarious, his role is growing more critical. Let's peek ahead a bit, looking beyond the current season. Mike Wallace's future here is uncertain. Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress are under one year contracts that given team needs and cap concerns could not be resigned. Promising young prospects Tony Clemons and David Galreath were both signed during this period by the Jaguars and Buccaneers respectively. That leaves Antonio Brown and Sanders as the foundation of the receiving corps. The good news is, if you recall, that despite being nicked a bit during this game the durability issue has not really been a concern this year and he has generally played well. Though I do not count myself among those who have been unrelentingly critical of Wallace, his play has to be acknowledged as being somewhat uneven of late. But he came through big at the end in Baltimore. With Brown returning and Plax presumably becoming more familiar with the system the potential to place overwhelming stress on defensive secondaries is present throughout December and beyond.
Heath Miller continues to enjoy a Pro Bowl, if not an All Pro season. His effort on a national stage will help to support that. Perhaps the greatest complement that can be paid rookie David Paulson is that on occasion he is the victim of mistaken identity. Fans think he's Heath.
I feel safe in saying that if a group that consists of Starks, Pouncey, Legursky, Foster and Beachum can hold their own against the Ravens defense then the situation with the O line is in pretty good shape. Perfect? No. But consider that Batch had the luxury of holding onto the ball too long on occasion. Nobody should expect to get five or six seconds to throw a pass on a regular basis in this league, so those issues are on the quarterback. With Colon expected to return this week and DeCastro likely to be available down the line there may be a comfort level with this group that we haven't seen since the days of Faneca, Hartings and Smith. And they're not just competent, their nasty as well. That bodes well for both the short and long term.
Obviously not the best four weeks for this group, but a trial that is likely to be beneficial for them and the team. The steady emergence of Jonathan Dwyer has been one of the better stories of this year. Isaac Redman is continuing to impress in the number two role. Chris Rainey contributed this past weekend as an effective decoy. With winter weather approaching the importance of their roles will grow. Tomlin has not written off Mendenhall, and neither have I. He may have a statement or two left to make before its all said and done.
Not so old, not so slow, not so done; either the leadership or the players. Look at it this way; this week's performance may have been the worst of the past four weeks. Give this group good field position and a decent amount of rest between series and usually the worst case scenario is three points. Teams can still occasionally gash this crew for rushing yards but not enough to make a consistent living at it, and they often come to grief trying. Moving the ball through the air is harder as the backs are athletic enough to challenge receivers all over the field. Increasingly, pass rushing pressure is coming from the linemen and inside linebackers allowing for the outside linebackers and backs to do more in coverage. As the star players are getting healthier, turnovers, the only weak point thus far have been gradually rising. With Troy and Deebo coming back and rounding into shape respectively it is safe to speculate that this group may not have peaked yet. With the bulk of the coming games being played in wintery Pittsburgh further advantages may be realized.
Steady. The player who impresses me in this group is Casey Hampton who is not nearly as washed up as many fans wanted to believe earlier in the year. He is playing with energy and passion, he's fun to watch. Having said that I am still, nonetheless, surprised at how limited the playing time has been for Steve McLendon who has impressed the few moments he has been on the field. Cam Heyward has looked good in limited action as well. Keisel, like Hampton, seems to be more of his old self these days and Ziggy Hood contributed a sack and a fumble recovery in the last game.
First the bad news. Woodley just cannot seem to stay healthy. With this level of fragility going into almost its second full year you can expect some to begin to suggest we would be better off without him. Count me out on that. But the health issues are troubling and frustrating from the perspective of a fan. No telling how good this defense could be if he could be kept on the field at peak effectiveness. The other news here is pretty good. Lawrence Timmons is playing well. Jason Worilds is playing solidly in place of Woodley. Those who have felt that he was or would be a disappointment have to take that back I think. Harrison is clearly not done, making big defensive plays for the second consecutive week, including what was probably the biggest defensive play of the Ravens game.
Again, first the bad news. As Tomlin said in his weekly press conference, we are headed into uncharted territory. Ike Taylor has been the ironman of this team, not even missing a practice, (something I remember noticing when I attended training camp this past summer). It appears he will be available again in a matter of weeks, but not having him will be different. Fortunately it seems to come at a time when the secondary is best equipped to withstand his absence. The trio of young corners, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown are beginning to look like the guys that Steelers fans have been fantasizing about for the last year or so. LeBeau has been high on these guys and we now are beginning to see why. Brown in particular is coming around. With Troy finally making it back into the lineup there is a solid rotation of three safeties given Will Allen's quality performance this season. This is particularly important given the need to not rush Troy back too quickly and Ryan Clark's tendency to beat himself, as well as everyone around him into a pulp.
At the moment Shaun Suisham is playing at a Pro Bowl level. His only miss this season was the 54 yarder at Tennessee that fell short. His kicking was directly responsible for the two wins the team enjoyed during the third quarter. There was a pretty big hiccup that could be considered the factor that cost the first Ravens game, and there is still the problem of penalties, especially on punt returns that is particularly harmful when the offense is struggling without Ben. Butler is punting well for the most part, but I must admit to missing the more precision punting of Jeremy Kapinos. These kinds of things could make a difference in the playoffs.
Normally I would be extremely confident about the hand the Steelers have been dealt for December. Three out of the four games are at home and home cooking has made a positive difference with this particular team. The Chargers don't seem to have a strong finish in them this time as it appears that it may be the end of the line for Norv Turner. But even in the best of times this team does not do well with coming East to play early Sunday games. Add even a hint of cold weather and things should just be worst. The opportunity help stick a dagger into a struggling Dallas team, even on the road, especially on the road, is worth whatever risks accompany it. And then there are the two Ohio teams at home, with Cincinnati being a defacto playoff game.
Here's the problem; nobody has flat out whipped Pittsburgh this year. But the Steelers have shown the troubling capacity of losing to anyone, mostly with the help of self inflicted wounds. We can hope that we have grown beyond that at this point but who knows? We would also hope that the worst of the injury epidemic is behind us, but again who knows? What we do know is that a pretty good opportunity is available at this time. Running the table is not a stretch. A higher playoff seeding or even a division title is not just a mathematical possibility. The Ravens have a difficult ending schedule and their own injury problems. The Colts have two games remaining with Houston. But I have to admit I wouldn't be totally shocked if the Steelers missed the playoffs altogether. So far it has been that kind of year.
Here's hoping that when it's time to wrap up the regular season we will be looking forward to something more than draft picks and free agents.