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Pittsburgh Steelers face big questions as November beckons

Smarting from a depressing defeat in Kansas City, Steelers Nation anxiously awaits the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Other key questions about the team remain unanswered, but the next four games will determine whether fans’ preseason expectations will be fulfilled in 2015.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On an otherwise ideal Sunday for football in Kansas City, the Steelers' final game of October turned out to be anything but ideal. Facing what had been a 1-5 Chiefs team, whose offense was nearly as inept as the Steelers group led by Landry Jones, the Black-and-Gold squandered ample opportunities, turned over the ball three times and missed tackles or coverage assignments leading to key offensive plays by the Chiefs. Coaching decisions during the game weren't much better than the play on the field, with Mike Tomlin electing to go for two consecutive fourth-down-and-short plays when the score still was tight enough for a field goal to be significant. Later on in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers really could have used them, they once again found themselves short of timeouts.

Even though we had a few winners on the Pittsburgh side, the overall grade for players and coaches must be a solid "F." In fact, few of those watching the game could detect anything resembling a consistent offensive game plan by Todd Haley, as backup quarterback Jones struggled in vain throughout the afternoon searching for some kind of groove.

Actually, the fact that Pittsburgh returned from Kansas City with its third loss of the season isn't the most depressing aspect of what we witnessed at Arrowhead. More troubling by far was the strong impression that two key areas of the Steelers' defense appear not to be even close to the point where they'll need to be if this team is to make a credible bid for a post-season appearance. Those two areas, of course, are the defensive line and secondary.

Besides the inspiring play of safety Mike Mitchell, a guy who, with each passing week, looks like he was born to wear a Black-and-Gold uniform, the Steelers' secondary is essentially a ragtag bunch of NFL misfits. Any starting NFL quarterback worth his salt, including the remarkably underachieving Alex Smith, can rack up huge chunks of yardage through the air against this group. And in this era of pro football, when offense is king and protecting the QB is paramount, your defensive line and linebackers can't always be counted on to make life easy for the secondary. When pondering a remaining schedule that includes two games against the Bengals and two more games against the Seahawks and Broncos, it's evident that the Steelers' organization is going to need to act fairly soon to put better talent in its defensive backfield.

Likewise, the Steelers' defensive line appears to still be in a preseason mode, where some players are still jockeying for starting jobs. Will Daniel McCullers blossom into the massive, nasty and dominant nose tackle that this team has lacked ever since the departure of Big Snack? If that happens, then Pittsburgh will have the option of moving Steve McLendon to defensive end as a solid backup for Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Despite giving mostly commendable efforts, McLendon has never been a natural for the NT position. The problem is that Steelers opponents have identified the middle of Pittsburgh's line as a definite weak spot, and various running backs have broken off big chunks of yardage right up the middle in recent weeks. Cam Thomas is strictly a backup guy used during injury periods. The Steelers need to get their defensive line personnel firmly set to avoid the platooning which has prevented this unit from developing a cohesive character.

The expected return of Big Ben to action this week against the Bengals obviously is a huge plus for the team, but it's probably wishful thinking to anticipate that the Steelers' offensive woes suddenly will vanish at the very moment when Ben steps back onto the field. The losses of Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum have turned a very solid OL unit into one that's currently a bit suspect. This hardly can be a positive development considering that, next Sunday at Heinz Field, the same group will be protecting No. 7 and his still-tender MCL. The Bengals have considerable offensive firepower this year and it'll be no small task for Ben to keep pace with Dalton and company on the scoreboard, particularly given the aforementioned issues on the Steelers' defense.

It seems likely that the next four games coming up in November against Cincinnati, Oakland, Cleveland and Seattle will tell the tale about where the Steelers are heading this season. Assuming that Ben stays healthy, of course, the Steelers will need at least three wins in the next four games. Not that they necessarily would be eliminated with a 6-5 record at that point, but the time has come for this team to assert its true identity. We saw some of this emerge in Pittsburgh, when the Black-and-Gold gutted out a tough win against the highly-regarded Arizona Cardinals. We'll need to see this again in the coming weeks, not only against the potent Bengals and Seahawks, but also against the lesser Browns and Raiders. Oakland and Cleveland might be two matchups (like the Chiefs) that you'd mentally mark down as wins as soon you receive your regular-season schedule. But in recent years, Steelers Nation has seen too many examples of how this way of thinking fares in practice.

Given their attitudes of perennial entitlement, Steelers fans have never been particularly realistic when it comes to evaluating the home team. Thus, when things go south, as they clearly did on Sunday in KC, there's an inevitable tendency to want to toss out the baby with the bath water. Nothing left to do now but fire Tomlin and put half of the roster on waivers, right?

On the other hand, some fans refuse even to acknowledge the obvious fact that Ben Roethlisberger's absence from the gridiron is only the largest and most discussed of several significant problems that the team faces in its quest for a post-season berth. Thus, if we've drunk the Kool-Aid and accepted the notion that all will be well in Camelot once Ben returns, then we also must accept the fantasy that all was well prior to Ben's injury, when the Steelers stood at 1-1 and were struggling mightily to move the ball against the St. Louis Rams.

It's probably a wiser course to eschew either of those extremes and recognize that the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers remain a team in the process of growing into its vast potential in terms of sheer talent. This task has become more difficult in 2015 because of the total or extended absences of certain key players from the lineup. And when considering the musical-chairs scenario currently prevailing in the Steelers' secondary, it's hardly inappropriate to ask whether we honestly believe they've got enough bricks on the truck to make a full load. But fortunately it won't take too long until we get the answer. Come the end of November, we'll either be looking ahead to Draft Day 2016 or passionately opining about the Steelers' chances to grab another Lombardi for "our stash."