...besides Troy and Heath, the rookie receiver corps, the Zigmeister, and all the other players that have been discussed ad nauseum this week. (Not that I will ever get tired of reading about them, especially Troy, whose visage is presiding over this story, as his fathead Jr. overlooks my desk.)
The guys I'm talking about won't play on Sunday. None of them have played since November 7th, and one of them has not played at all this season. Only one of them could even theoretically play in any games remaining, say, in Dallas. As I'm sure you all have worked out by now, I'm talking about RT Willie Colon, LT Max Starks, and DE Aaron Smith.
Two of the three are on Injured Reserve, as the Steeler Nation faithful are well aware. I'm not sure I even knew exactly what that was before this season, and I did a bit of looking around about what it entails. I discovered that until the mid-1980s a player on Injured Reserve could return if they were fit to play later in the season, as long as they missed at least 4 games, unless the team had IR'd them during the preseason. This was changed because there was suspicion that some owners were using it as a way to stash players while signing others, thus effectively increasing their roster. Under the current rules, not only can a player not play the rest of the season, whether they heal sufficiently or not, but they cannot practice with the team. (Interestingly, the charge that Bill Belichick was allowing an IR'd player to practice with the team was part of Spygate.) The current rules did not change when a salary cap was instituted in 1993. For a passionate article suggesting that the salary cap makes both a roster limit and IR rules obsolete, check out this link. It all may be moot when there is a new CBA, of course...
Players on IR still have to be paid according to their contract, although they don't receive bonuses for playoff games, pro bowl spots, and suchlike. Although they cannot practice with the team, they have the option to attend practices, team meetings, and games as long as it doesn't interfere with their rehab. And thus I finally come to the unheralded difference-makers for Sunday - the sideline mentors.
Of course, the replacements for the injured players have position coaches. But these coaches have a number of players to focus on. Flozell Adams, Jonathan Scott, and Ziggy Hood and their backups have in effect had private coaches for their position. Does this make a difference? What about, say, Flozell Adams, a very experienced veteran? Did he need help from Willie Colon?
While Flozell came into the team as an accomplished 13-year veteran, RT was a new position for him. Changing from playing LT to RT, especially when you played LT for so many years, has been likened to changing from writing with your right hand to writing with your left hand. I would also think that it is comparable to learning a foreign language. At first you're mentally translating everything. You don't become truly fluent until you begin actually thinking in the new language. Even people with a fair amount of classroom experience in a given new language find that it takes at least three months of "immersion" before you make the switch. Changing long-term muscle memory is a similar process, and one that requires all the help you can get.
Jonathan Scott is another story. Drafted by the Lions in the fifth round in 2006, he started only 6 games with the Lions before being cut at the end of the 2007 season. (He did see playing time in 20 games in all, 13 of those in his first year.) He was signed to the Bills in 2008, and played in 0 games. I thought that was curious, and a little more digging revealed that he was not signed by the Bills until December 18th of 2008, to fill a roster spot left open by an IR'd defensive end. In 2009 he played in 10 games, starting 8 of them. Offensive line coach Sean Kugler obviously saw something that he liked, and he brought Scott with him to Pittsburgh. But although he saw some game time every week this season, it wasn't until Starks went down that he was thrust into a role that many have argued is far too big for him, and he has been the starter at LT every game since. Scott, while still described most glowingly as 'serviceable,' has improved slowly but steadily. In the end, there is no substitute for meaningful game time, and although it isn't Mike Tomlin's MO to trust untested players, clearly the situation wasn't one in which he had a lot of options. I'm quite sure that Maximillian Weisner Starks IV (did you know that was his full name? Great football name!) has been invaluable to Scott during the past 9 games. Scott will have to keep Shaun Ellis off of Ben on Sunday - last week Ellis seemed to be in the Patriot's backfield almost as much as Tom Brady. So I fervently hope that all of Max's experience and savvy has been imparted to Scott, and that he has the game of his life.
Finally, there is Aaron Smith. By now we've all heard numerous times about how Mike Tomlin decided to keep Smith on the roster in the hopes that he would be available later in the season. Given how well Ziggy has progressed, that might be viewed as a mistake, especially considering how thin the team is on the offensive line. But I'm certainly not going to second-guess Mike Tomlin. First of all, he had no way of knowing that Max would go down, and with Max playing there was actually decent depth on the o-line. (Whether the o-line itself, not to mention the 'depth,' was stellar is not at issue at the moment. And it's pretty hard to imagine that there was a fabulous offensive lineman hanging out at home, watching daytime television, eating Doritos and hoping for a call from the Steelers.)
But especially in the case of Aaron Smith, I'm going to argue that he brings a lot to the team, whether he plays or not. Of course, Smith could (and would) have contributed whatever he could to Ziggy's development, whether he was on IR or not. (He's certainly been successful!) But it's hard to put a price on what the fact that the team chose not to IR him meant to Aaron. He has said over and over in interviews how much that means to him. It's also hard to put a value on what he means to his teammates. A large percentage of the players currently on the team saw what he went through when his son was diagnosed with leukemia. They saw how, despite what he was dealing with, he came, he played, he left it all on the field, and was an important part of Superbowl 43. He has been an inspiration to the veterans for two years, and continues to inspire them with his work ethic and his heart. As Rex Ryan commented about his own players, our guys shouldn't require any additional motivation to want to win the AFC Championship. But I suspect that there are plenty of players that also want to win this one for Aaron - and Ziggy is probably the foremost among them. Here's hoping that Ziggy gets several aerial views of Mark Sanchez this weekend. Go Steelers!