Weekend Checkdown: the top stories of the week

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers reach a critical point of leverage that may determine the fate of this season and beyond.

An important pivot point is often difficult to discern prior to the experience. More often we recognize these moments as viewed through the rearview mirror. This week is a little different. We know that by the time we reconvene for the next Checkdown that the Steelers will have another two games, three quarters of the season, under their belts. Depending upon the outcomes their season will be either energized or, as far as the playoffs are concerned, over.

Ahead are matchups against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland and the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. Here are the possibilities. They lose both games and go 4-8. With these losses go any chance of having a winning season, and only the most far fetched possibility of making the playoffs. Negative vibes from 'friends' and foes alike will mobilize and the holiday season will become an ugly, unpleasant thing. They split and go 5-7. Technically speaking they may still be in it, but we're talking purgatory here; unpleasant, anxiety inducing, certainly not the best of times. Win both games and go 6-6. A .500 record is nothing to write home about, but much better than what we've been dealing with. A perfect third quarter would offset a perfectly awful first quarter and put the team in the position to control its own fate, make the playoffs and even have a winning record, things thought to be virtually impossible just a few short weeks ago.

The potential benefit of winning these two games is threefold. First, the two opponents are direct competitors for the Wild Card spot that is up for grabs. Not only does a win help Pittsburgh, it hurts them. Second, as division opponents the possibility of winning the AFC North straight up is still a remote possibility. Third, beating either the Orange or Purple Browns is its own reward. No other incentives are really necessary.

How this team is perceived (in serious decline, on the road to recovery or in need of a few tweaks and additions to restore full competitiveness) could well be determined over the course of just a few days. On the other hand, depending upon the outcome, it could be that we already reached that pivot point sometime in the middle of the afternoon this past Sunday. It may be indicative of how far this team has come that some are openly expressing a level of confidence in the Steelers that would have likely to have been challenged a matter of days ago.

Detroit

This game had the feel of a defining effort. As PaVaSteeler pointed out, it was a tale of two teams really. The first being the talented, but inconsistent and flawed group that played over the course of the first half of the season, while in the second half a steadier, more focused and opportunistic group showed up and was able to put away a talented opponent in the proper manner. If that quality of play is sustained over the next week then half time of the Lions game may well be the demarcation point where this group turned it around.

Roethlisberger

Ben was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts. He shepherded the Steelers offense to its highest point total of the year, with no turnovers and suffering only one sack. This was the kind of thing I'm sure many envisioned to result from the implementation of the Haley offense. It is been alluded to as being tantalizingly close to fulfillment for a few weeks now. Has it arrived? And will it persist?

Despite Ben's success and apparent good cheer, the questions and speculation from the media persist concerning trade rumors and the never ending subject of his relationship with the Steelers offensive coordinator. Whether this stubborn persistence represents information that the general public is not privy to, or if its either an attempt to simply save face over an error or just the unethical perpetuation of a falsehood in order to stir ratings will be sorted out over time. The strident denials of Ben and the Steelers, plus the skepticism of the fans and media closest to the situation don't seem to make much of a difference at this point.

The no huddle

The offensive tactic that many believe creates the best opportunity for Ben's success and have been pining for over the past few years took center stage against the Lions and did not disappoint. Some new perspectives about the dangers of the system being, in essence, hacked due to audio issues might explain some reticence in going all in with the system in the future, but it is also clear that it is an effective method of both moving the ball and keeping Ben relatively clean. I find it difficult to imagine too many scenarios where using it more can be justifiably avoided in the future.

Offensive line

It was feared that this group, depleted (as usual) due to injuries and probably outclassed by the talented and aggressive Detroit defensive front would be mauled and Ben along with them. While they weren't able to manufacture anything satisfactory in terms of the running game, other aspects, especially pass protection was considered by Mike Tomlin to be over the line. Guy Whimper was cited for filling in competently at an unfamiliar position for the injured Ramon Foster. Kelvin Beachum got good ratings from Pro Football Focus. As has been the case in the time that he has been here, Beachum learns his craft and gets better over time. Indications are that he is doing to same with his current assignment at left tackle.

DeCastro

Quietly some are beginning to push for DeCastro to be given consideration for the Pro Bowl. He effectively shut down Suh. Some thought was given to naming him player of the game, unprecedented for an offensive lineman.

The running game

This was the skunk at the offensive picnic on Sunday, but add some context and it may not be as bad as some might think. Homer J takes a more detailed look at work of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell and makes the case for a steadily improving ball player who compensated for a lack of impressive rush credentials with quality work in other aspects that helped the offense such as blocking and yards after catch in the passing game. As mentioned earlier, the quality of the Detroit front line also may have had something to do the relative impotence of the run game. Then there are the folks at Grantland who remind us that, like the dearth of quality offensive linemen, the problems with the running game are in no way unique to the Steelers. Running is in decline throughout the league. Maybe not a comfort exactly, but we might be more charitable toward this aspect of the game for the time being.

Antonio Brown

All the attention, rightfully earned, by Calvin Johnson last week had the collateral effect of making Brown look that much better as he was seen as the best receiver on the field on Sunday. The Digest Player of the Week scored two touchdowns and converted a critical third down reception on the drive that would result in the winning points. As he continues to lead the league in receptions he makes the Steeler front office look like geniuses for signing him to his multi-year deal before he blew up on the field, and instead of spending it on the now struggling Mike Wallace. Maybe the best symbol of where Brown is among the elite receivers of the league is Barnburner's post of this exchange of jerseys by Brown and Megatron after the hostilities had concluded on Sunday.

Cotch and Wheaton

Jerricho Cotchery continues to justify the team's investment in him as he contributes yet another touchdown reception providing insurance points in the fourth quarter as the number three receiver. Wheaton showed some flashes as he subbed for the injured Emmanuel Sanders. Remember the predictions in the off season that the Wallace-less receiver corps would be mediocre at best, and how utterly ridiculous that seems today.

Worilds, Heyward and Allen

Moving to the other side of the ball. At least as impressive, perhaps even more so than the offense was a defense that rebounded from giving up nearly 30 points in one quarter to completely shutting out the Lion's offense in the second half. Jason Worilds had one of his better games as a Steeler. So good in fact that there is some discussion about whether to tweak the three man rotation at outside linebacker with Woodley and Jones to accommodate the fact that Worilds is apparently more comfortable and effective working from the left side of the formation, which is where Woodley normally sets up shop.

Cam Heyward continues to impress week after week and like Beachum, received high marks from PFF. While on the subject of defensive lineman, some mention must be made of how well Ziggy Hood played in place of the injured Brett Keisel. Last week I saluted the Steelers management for bringing back safety Will Allen. Allen made me look like a sage by being the key to two second half turnovers.

The film room

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Paper Champion's and Steel34D's in depth evaluations of key plays of the game once again enhances our knowledge of what goes behind some of the team's successes (and failures). Those of us who have been growing frustrated with the seeming over reliance on the short receiver screens saw how the expectation of that play helped to set up the touchdown pass to Cotchery. And those who might have been inclined to look only at Bell's rushing stats and conclude that he didn't do much of anything might come to a different conclusion after seeing him get dozens of yards off a short pass.

Tomlin

Though some will desperately not want to do so, it is hard to not concede some credit to Tomlin for his role in helping this team hold it together and maintain a tight focus in spite of the debacle in New England. The two game winning streak and the nature of the comeback this week has to viewed within the context of the aftermath of that disaster to be fully appreciated. Would anyone have been surprised if things hadn't fallen apart.

Hombre de Acero has pointed out that the head coach may have taken just the right approach to handling the media and their insistence to try to play to soap opera angles in addressing the team's journey. Ben credited Tomlin for his role in supporting the use of the no huddle as well as making it clear that the offense was to stay aggressive in the fourth quarter.

Although not seeking to minimize the importance of just being able to record a win, it is, nonetheless, very important how the team won this game. Neal Coolong mentioned that offensive collaboration played a big role in team success. The story of the defense's second half turnaround seemed to come down to adjustments made by the players themselves who refused to 'blink' and panic over their first half failures. Most of the fans that witnessed the game that I talked to felt better about how the team won than just the fact that they won. Everyone is aware that the way that this season is unfolding that all that good feeling could go up in smoke along Lake Erie this weekend or in Baltimore in front of a national audience. But for now there is encouragement and hope that the light may have come on collectively for the Steelers at just the right time.

Looking forward and back

Its exactly the way things should be but still a little disconcerting that less than seven days before they play that there is no mention at all of Baltimore. They are lurking out there, eclipsed for the time being by the Browns. Both teams (and what do you supposed would have been the chances that all three of these teams would have 4-6 records?) are desperate and are fully aware that a loss to the Steelers could spell the end of their seasons. Unfortunately we understand their predicament perfectly. It matches ours exactly. Given the stakes, the intensity that accompanies that and the elements of rivalry involved, who knows what may happen over these next few days. I would just hope that the younger players have some sort of clue as to what they are in for.

Steelers.com has been doing a series on the Browns/Steelers rivalry in the run up to the game. One piece features what is arguably one of the most memorable game in the history of the franchise. Forty nine years ago, at a time when the fortunes of the two teams were reversed, Pittsburgh traveled to Cleveland for a Saturday night game (in those days the Cleveland home game in the rivalry was played on Saturday nights) and routed a Jim Brown headlined team that would go on to win the NFL Championship (their last). Led by John Henry Johnson who rushed for over two hundred yards, and augmented by backfield mate Clarence Peaks who had similar numbers, the Steelers recorded a convincing victory at a time when the wins were as rare as Browns wins have been over these past several years. Some remember that night with as much clarity as they do any game they have ever seen.

Personnel matters

With two important, physically challenging games coming up in such a small window, issues effecting player availability such as injuries take on heightened importance. As of Friday, Stevenson Sylvester and Shamarko Thomas are out. Ramon Foster and Emmanuel Sanders are definitely expected to return while LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel are listed as 'questionable' for the Browns game. Tight end Matt Spaeth has returned to the practice field. When he'll be available for games is not known. In keeping with common practice by the Rooney family, a player with Pittsburgh ties, running back Ray Graham has been added to the practice squad.

In a 'where are they now' item, running back Chris Rainey signed with the Indianapolis Colts this week.

JFK

The nation is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event at least as jarring for those who lived through it as September 11, 2001 has been for later generations of Americans. The NFL in a decision they later came to regret went ahead with their scheduled games that weekend. Dick LeBeau shares his memories of that weekend and Sports Illustrated provides a broader panorama of how players coped with that tragedy.

Hall Of Fame

We have now moved to the semi finalist level in the selection process for the 2014 class. Those with Steelers ties that made the cut are Jerome Bettis, Kevin Greene and Tony Dungy.

Conflict of Interest

The success of players such as Worilds, Hood and Sanders are a reminder to us that their future with the team is uncertain due to business issues. An article addresses one aspect of conflict of interest that has to be negotiated as players seek new contracts. This involves the sacrifices that one might make in order to best serve the needs of the team but that might have a long term detrimental effect on the individual professionally (say if a player continues to play through an injury that makes him less marketable come contract time).

Pouncey

The Steelers captain has organized a Thanksgiving food drive with the help of some of his offensive line teammates.

A final word

It seems to have sneaked up on me but both the holiday season and the fourth quarter of the 2013 season commence this week. What this means is that we have a lot less football ahead of us now than behind us. It is so easy to get caught up in the anxieties and frustrations of a season that we forget a simple truth; football, any football is usually better than no football. No football (whether it comes in January or February) is just weeks away. One way you can be thankful in this season of gratitude is to take some time and smell the roses. Put aside outcomes for a time and just be happy that you get to see the Steelers play twice, plus the additional cornucopia of professional and college games that will be on display over the next ten days.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Go Steelers!

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