If the Pittsburgh Steelers are to make their seventh run to glory in Super Bowl 52, they’ll need to improvise substantially on the principal theme of their first 12 games of the regular season. The loss of star linebacker Ryan Shazier to a serious spinal injury and subsequent surgery is incalculable in much the same way that Cameron Heyward’s season-ending injury was in 2016. What’s different, though, is that, while we knew it was only a matter of time before Heyward returned to the field, the ramifications of Shazier’s injury are iffy enough at this point that they might spell the premature end of a stellar NFL career.
While it’s been speculated that Shazier’s recovery period might put him on track to be back on the field for training camp next summer, it’s also possible he might decide not to risk his long-term health. That’s a weighty decision to face for a young man at the tender age of 25, and Steelers Nation likely won’t know the outcome for several months. But one thing we do know is that the absence of No. 50 from the Black-and-gold defense is definitely going to hurt. You simply do not take a player of Shazier’s ability and sheer athleticism out of your defense without feeling the impact.
For the remaining four games of the 2017 regular season, as well as through the playoffs, Pittsburgh’s defense is going to have considerably more trouble stopping opponents, particularly those having strong running and short-range passing attacks. While Arthur Moats certainly is a capable substitute at inside linebacker, he’s played so sporadically this season that his conditioning might be suspect if called on to play anywhere near the number of snaps that Shazier had been playing.
Similar question marks arise with regard to the Steelers’ other backup linebackers including the newly-acquired Sean Spence. The expectation is that we’ll be seeing continued platooning of linebackers during the final four games of the season. With luck, one player among this group will entrench himself as the starter by the time the playoffs begin.
Because it’s unrealistic under the circumstances to expect the Steelers’ defense not to miss a beat, this places more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to produce. The Steelers’ gritty come-from-behind win at Cincinnati last Monday night was impressive because it demonstrated the resilience you’d expect from a championship contender. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s offense accomplished practically nothing throughout nearly the entire first half against the Bengals, despite the fact that Cincy was playing with a depleted linebacker unit.
The elephant in the room is that—in most cases—if you fell behind Tom Brady and the Patriots by 14 points at halftime, your chances of catching up to an offense like that would be exceedingly small within the final 30 minutes. As for the Baltimore Ravens, while you might very well hold their pop-gun offense scoreless, coming back from a two-touchdown deficit against their defense would be a tall order.
That’s why, despite the Steelers’ 10-2 record and virtual lock on the AFC North title, their postseason fortunes will be determined largely by whether a star-studded offense can finally shake off its nagging inconsistency and demonstrate the ability to match even the league’s top offensive teams score for score.
This brings us to the Three Keys for Sunday night’s matchup with the arch-rival Ravens:
Key No. 1: Big plays on offense
It’s up to Ben and his fellow Killer B’s to prove they can exploit a stout defense like Baltimore’s. The Steelers’ offense can’t afford another game where they only play one half of football. If they expect to compete in the upcoming, postseason games, they’ve got to start as strong as they finish.
In addition to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell turning in big games, the Steelers will also need Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and their platooning tight ends to step up and play larger roles than they’ve done previously this season. As for No. 7, he needs to continue showing the kind of leadership he did in victories over the Bengals, Packers, Titans and Colts. But Ben still hasn’t turned in the complete, dominant performance this season that we’ve seen in the past. The time seems right for him to serve notice that he’s nearing the top of his game just in time for the Steelers’ home stretch.
Key No. 2: On defense, a star is born.
One of the most exciting aspects of NFL football is watching what happens when a youngster or veteran backup player gets his big shot to start in a meaningful game. For Tyler Matakevich in Cincinnati last Monday night, the challenge of stepping in for Shazier unfortunately proved overwhelming. By the time he left the game with a shoulder injury, Matakevich had been badly abused by the Bengals’ offensive line.
But on Sunday night at Heinz Field, Steelers Nation hopes to see the emergence of a defensive player who can help this team win a championship. While the top-2 candidates for this honor probably are Moats and Cameron Sutton, we might also find ourselves hailing the work of Anthony Chickillo or perhaps even the triumphant return of James Harrison as the villain in yet another prime-time, Joe Flacco nightmare. In this case, he would be a star reborn.
Key No. 3: Special teams and the Wizard of Boz
The Steelers came close to scoring on a kickoff return by Bryant in Cincinnati. Chris Boswell, as usual, was money in the bank when the chips were down. Seeing Eli Rogers fielding punts was a bit creepy, but he handled the duties pretty well, especially considering the weather conditions. Pittsburgh has a lot of talent on special teams. If they can translate this talent into scoring plays, forcing Baltimore turnovers, or both, it’ll give the Steelers a better shot at sweeping the Ravens and running their record to 11-2.