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Does the Steelers' season ride on Sunday's game in Cincinnati?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The danger of attachment

Mathematically speaking, Pittsburgh can continue to have hope for a possible playoff run if they don't win Sunday against the Bengals. But the issue here is more psycho-emotional. Would you want to risk more of your emotional and spiritual capital on a team that, week to week, seems capable of just about anything? You can accept a good team that might stumble at a critical moment. It's frustrating as hell to be sure, but those are the breaks of life. You deal with it. You can also accept a bad team. You might not like it, but that's another matter. You can even find some level of amusement and entertainment in the ineptitude. But, speaking honestly now, does anyone have any earthly idea what's going to happen in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday? Great? Terrible? More likely great for awhile and terrible for awhile. We've been talking about inconsistency all season, but we're talking about inconsistency on steroids here. Well, it's December now (and Pearl Harbor day at that). I care less what this team decides it wants to be as long as they just decide.

The luck runs out, or does it?

I'm not talking about the outcome of the Saints game, which reflects one area of relative consistency in that this team has a knack for losing when you least expect it. No, I'm speaking of the sweet run that the Steelers enjoyed where they avoided suffering any catastrophic injuries. The impact was brutal, not just because it occurred to one of the team's top performers, not just because it was both season- and, likely, career-ending, but also because it marked the end of the line for one of the more popular players to wear a Steeler uniform in recent years.

Brett Keisel

The bet is that we saw the last of Da Beard this past Sunday. The short-term implications are pretty bad. Arguably the best defensive lineman on the field this season, a respected and inspirational leader (he, as much as anyone, was pivotal in persuading James Harrison to return). But even more importantly he was one of a handful of personalities whose impact upon Steelers Nation extends beyond just that of his performance 'on the grass'. You can't replace a Hines Ward or a Jerome Bettis. You can find performers, like Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell who may match and even exceed their output, but the relationships with their teammates and the larger community will be irreplaceable. The warriors with whom Keisel battled in three Super Bowls understood that immediately, as do those fans whose perspective isn't completely blinded by the needs of the moment. The loss of Keisel may or may not correlate with whether this season will eventually be lost, but regardless, an important component of the Steelers' mystique has passed from active duty in the wink of an eye. Thankfully, the Nation is at war now and has little time to reflect and mourn. Maybe later.

Geathers and Tuitt

Keisel's place on the roster was taken by veteran Clifton Geathers, who managed to more-or-less endear himself to the offensive line almost immediately. Whether that's a good thing remains to be seen, however, Keisel's replacement on the field will be rookie Stephon Tuitt. More was expected of the first-year player from Notre Dame this season. But it's unclear why he hasn't had as much playing time. Certainly, the unexpected, consistently high level of play from Keisel, as well as that of Cameron Heyward, may have blocked both the necessity and opportunity for more game reps. It's also possible that his learning curve has been longer than some had hoped. No matter. He's in it now. He will make his first NFL start in what is easily the most important game of the season thus far.

Here is where it may still be said that the team continues to enjoy good fortune in relation to injuries. There was concern from the outset as to how long Keisel and the other older players might hold up until their bodies gave way in one respect or another. It would have been nice if he came through the entire season clean, but the fact that he fell later rather than sooner has bought valuable time for defensive line coach John Mitchell, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Tuitt. The rookie has had time to more thoroughly acclimate to the system and the demands of the pro game. There are some who may even insinuate that Keisel's presence and performance has obstructed Tuitt's emergence. We'll see about that of course. What's becoming clearer is that the fate of this team is likely to be more in the hands of its younger players than the elders. This is probably for the best in the long term.

D Line

There is another big-picture aspect to this story as well. With the ongoing injury concerns of Steve McLendon, the inconsistent play of Cam Thomas and the recent raids on the practice squad that deprived the team of defensive ends Nick Williams and Josh Mauro, the situation with this position group is in a state of flux. Hombre de Acero puts a nice historical perspective to the defensive line issues here.

The Saints

At the time, the loss of Keisel was just another manifestation of the gloom associated with another below-the-line performance against a previously underperforming opponent. As hinted earlier, the damage to the collective psyche of Steelers Nation was probably much greater than to that of the team's playoff chances. The Steelers can still claim the division and a playoff spot based solely upon their own efforts, though it goes without saying that the margin of error narrows. The Browns and Ravens also helpfully kept pace. Baltimore losing in the final seconds to a San Diego Chargers team that traditionally doesn't do so well when it has to come across the country to play early. Cleveland fell to Buffalo and added a quarterback controversy to its concerns. And Cincinnati came perilously close to falling victim to our good friends from Tampa. So, in spite of the impressive records, no one from the AFC North is exactly tearing it up at the moment. Amazingly, the Steelers' defense is the highest ranked in the division

A significant part of the team's failure came from the maligned Steelers defensive secondary. But the greater portion came from what we might say is an unexpected source. Usually when the passing game fails, the blame can be placed on Ben Roethlisberger's supporting cast. Not this time.


Usually it's about the offensive line not blocking (there was some of that) or the receivers blowing their targets (a little of that too), but this time it was mostly on Ben. A large part of this was due to an injury sustained when Ben's wrist collided with the arm of a pass rusher in the first half. Whatever the cause, it was clear that Ben didn't have it for most of the game. Homer J was calling for Ben's removal in the first half. I was hoping that Homer was wrong (we were watching the game together) but I also knew that a lot more would have to happen to Ben (perhaps getting shot) before there would be any consideration of replacing him with Gradkowski. BTW, does anyone know who the emergency quarterback is? The only reasonable hope was that Ben would right himself and regain form. That really didn't happen.

The true extent of Ben's injury became the big story of the week, with Ben and Pittsburgh management having to push back against reports that Ben has a broken wrist. Since Ben's reputation has been more toward being the hypochondriac in this regard, along with reports of a solid practice on Thursday, leads us to believe that this is a false alarm. However, in addition to the injury, there also have been concerns that some mechanical issues were in play as well.

The underlying assumption about the Steelers' offense and the team's prospects generally is that, with the proper level of support, Ben's performance would pull the team through. But what do you do if the problem is Ben? The fact that he didn't step up in what he himself amped-up to be a 'must win' situation has been concerning for some. If Ben can't come through, then what?


And so now the role of security blanket seems to falling upon the PFF high ranker and Steelers Digest Player of the Week. Le'Veon Bell played solidly but was rendered less relevant to the effort as time and the scoreboard worked against the Steelers. This harkens back to other times when the fate of the offense was thought to be determined more by the likes of a Franco Harris or a Jerome Bettis than by the quarterback. So we have been offered assurances that Bell can handle the load this late in the season with little in the way of support or relief from experienced backups. In any case, they plan on riding him regardless.

Bell was also in the news because of his legal issues, the resolution of which is likely to lead to a suspension, though not this season. This means that, if it weren't already the case, finding a back that can carry the load in Bell's absence will be an off-season priority.

Jones and Shazier

Tuitt will not be the only rookie defender to be tested in the big game against the Bengals. Ryan Shazier is expected to rejoin the rotation with Shaun Spence and Vince Williams at inside linebacker. And former first-rounder Jarvis Jones will also see some limited duty as well, important maybe because James Harrison is reportedly nicked with some knee soreness. If and how these two contribute will help with our judgment of the injury narrative for this season's team. Adding Martavis Bryant Daniel McCullers and Markus Wheaton to the discussion along with Bell, Tuitt, Shazier and Jones, has there ever been a time when the fate of a Steelers team in a playoff run depended more on the contribution of first- and second-year players?

Injury report

As I write this Marcus Gilbert is out for the Bengals game. It doesn't look good for James Harrison or Steve McLendon either.

Antonio Brown

Though Brown's impact was blunted by extension given Ben's problems, his production remains sizzling and on a record-setting pace on all fronts.

The playoff hunt

It's too early and too complicated to go into all the possibilities at this point, but Bob Labriola gives some of the highlights, pointing out the most important and direct consideration. None of this matters if the Steelers just win.

Huber and Garvin

You'll recall one of the highlights of the last meeting between these teams was when Bengals punter Kevin Huber had an unfortunate encounter with Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin. Huber shows he's a good sport by having a little fun with it all.

Haloti Ngata

Though many feel that the Ravens are in a very favorable position because of the ease of their remaining schedule, they will be without their star defensive lineman for a bit due to a suspension for performance enhancing drugs.

Chris Carter

Have to say I'm disappointed in Carter who, in an obvious act of treason, has signed with Cincinnati to provide what assistance he can in undermining Pittsburgh's playoff run. We were all expecting so much more from Carter. Will you be adding tiger-striped borders to your pieces now, Chris?

John Stallworth's next act

You probably know about Stallworth's Hall of Fame career, but how much do you know about what the now-member of the ownership team is up to now?

More flags?

A number of people, myself included, have been complaining about what appears to an uptick in penalty calls. A tricky subject. There are few things that feel more subjective and skewed than complaining about calls from the refs. For some every call against the home team would be cast as a travesty of justice, and just too many of them as well. But then there's Greg Bedard's piece in MMQB where he provides data that shows the numbers of calls have increased significantly this season. And he doesn't give a vanilla or neutral take on what he believes the impact of this is on the game. The nature of the increased calls cited also brings into question whether the points of emphasis harms defensive-oriented teams like the Steelers to a greater extent.


Happenings in the wider world are now beginning to have an impact in the sports world. As you know, I'm stingy about making predictions. I did predict that the head-injury issue would be an ongoing concern for the league. I also said earlier this season that domestic violence and related issues will be around for some time as well. The ramifications of these police shootings will continue to spill into the sports world and will be around for some time as well.

John Phillips

The relationship between the Steelers and the western Pennsylvania area has great depth and can permeate all aspects of the lives of its residents. In a town where it is the policy of some hospitals to wrap all newborn babies in Terrible Towels, that relationship also can affect end-of-life issues as well. Two years ago, I shared how my memories of the Immaculate Reception were linked to the death of my mother which had occurred a few weeks earlier. John's mother is now gravely ill, but the connection to the team continues and, in a fashion, helps to sustain the spirit.