It's difficult to exaggerate the precarious position of the Pittsburgh Steelers as they prepare to face the 7-1 Dallas Cowboys at Heinz Field (4:25pm ET). Of course, though, I'm always willing to give it the old college try. First, consider the fact that, in their four losses so far this season, the Black and Gold have been beaten by an average margin of 16 points. Then consider that three of the four teams defeating the Steelers during the first half of the season have a combined record of 13-12. For good measure, let's see how many members of the Steelers' roster you can name who were drafted during the past six years and who have developed into true impact players (e.g. akin to Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, James Harrison and Heath Miller in the prime of their careers).
Particularly in the wake of the team's three consecutive losses, it's easy but not necessarily accurate to slam Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff for failing in their pre-game preparation. But what about all of these high draft picks who still are struggling to make their marks in the NFL?
Ryan Shazier currently is in his third year since the Steelers drafted him with the expectation of having landed a true game-changer. But so far, Shazier has spent too much time on the sidelines nursing various injuries. With the exception of a handful of games in which he's shown flashes of brilliance, Steelers Nation is still waiting for #50 to have a breakout season. Second-year linebacker Bud Dupree also was expected to make a big and early impact. But like Shazier, Dupree has had lots of trouble staying on the field. Drafted in 2011, Cameron Heyward is the only top draft pick since that time who has developed into both a steady and stellar performer.
On offense, you've got to say that Le'Veon Bell gives every indication of becoming one of the league's greatest running backs, provided that he also can stay on the field. Beyond Heyward and Bell, though, where do we find the younger players on this roster who have shown the ability to turn games around with splash plays and sheer individual effort?
The truly troubling thing about the Steelers' dismal defeats in Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore is the glaring, fundamental weaknesses these games have revealed. Despite all of the dollars spent on high-round draft picks since 2011, the Steelers' defense remains highly suspect at best. And the inability of the offense to score points against mediocre defenses such as the Eagles, Dolphins and Ravens, even with Ben in the lineup, raises a huge red flag, particularly given the lofty expectations we've had for this unit.
So here comes the Dallas Cowboys, historical arch-rivals of the Steelers, riding into town with only a single loss in eight attempts and sporting one of the NFL's marquee running backs in the person of Ezekiel Elliott. Barring a true standup performance by the Black and Gold on both sides of the ball, Dallas is fully capable of embarrassing Pittsburgh before its home crowd. Should they succeed in doing so, this game will confirm the impressions of many Steelers fans that the team has slipped into a funk of mediocrity which might take a period of years to reverse.
What's on the line at Heinz Field this Sunday afternoon isn't merely the difference between 5-4 and 4-5. This game will make a strong statement about exactly what kind of team the Steelers have become since the time when most of their former Super Bowl veterans departed the scene. In this age of raging parity, this matchup will distinguish between the coherent team with true leadership and merely another pretender.
While it's been quite a difficult spectacle for Steelers Nation to witness in recent weeks, there's been precious little evidence to distinguish the Black and Gold from any other perennial NFL doormat. We'll be finding out soon whether that's the kind of reputation which Tomlin and Company are prepared to own.