|Catching up with … the Steelers||10.13.12 at 2:40 pm ET|
It’s been some time since the Steelers weren’t players in the AFC playoff picture — with their track record, they should be considered contenders until decisively proven otherwise. That said, the Steelers have some issues, as evidenced by their 26-23 loss to the Titans on Thursday night.
The Titans, as Patriots fans can recall from Week 1, are not a good team and currently have 37-year-old Matt Hasselbeck as their quarterback. Yet, a last second Rib Bironas field goal knocked the Steelers down to 2-3 on the year with losses to the Raiders and Titans … who have collectively beaten one team that is not the Steelers so far this season.
Pittsburgh still has Ben Roethilsberger under center and Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin running that defense, which should make up for many of the personnel issues they have. That said, the defense is not getting any younger and they can’t seem to keep a running back on the field, leaving their playoff chances in a state of flux. Here’s what we know about the Steelers:
1. Injuries, lots of injuries:
There’s an argument to be made that complaining about injuries is just making excuses for why a team isn’t winning. That is certainly not the case for the Steelers, who have been dealt big-time injuries at some of their most important positions. Here’s a rundown of who’s hurt:
Running back Rashard Mendenhall, who spent the early goings of this season recovering from knee surgery, suffered an Achilles injury Thursday night while his backup Isaac Redman also went down with injury in that game. On the offensive line, the Steelers lost highly-touted rookie guard David DeCastro for the year during a preseason game, and then proceeded to lose tackle Marcus Gilbert and center Maurkice Pouncey (their best lineman) Thursday night as well. On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu never saw the field Thursday night while linebacker James Harrison is on his way back from a knee injury.
While an injury to Polamalu is pretty much an annual tradition at this point, the rest of the injuries will take their toll on the Steelers, who were the first not to put up at least 30 points against the Titans this season. It should also be of note that Roethlisberger, who has taken a beating in recent years, is no guarantee to remain healthy for the whole season if his offensive line continues to deteriorate.
2. The Iron Curtain is showing some rust:
Ask anyone who currently owns Chris Johnson on his or her fantasy team — he’s not very good. So it should come as a surprise that the same running back that ran for four yards against the Patriots in Week 1 and 24 yards last week against the Vikings took off for 91 yards on 19 carries against the defense that, in the past, would’ve eaten that running game for breakfast.
Meanwhile, in the passing game, Hasselbeck threw for 25-of-44 for 290 yards for a touchdown and a pick and managed to knife through the defense with less than a minute remaining to put the Titans in position for the game-winning field goal. Harrison has been exposed in pass coverage and Ike Taylor doesn’t appear to be the same player out there at cornerback and may still be haunted by images of Demaryius Thomas streaking down the field from last year’s playoff loss.
The Steelers are an old team, particularly on defense, and haven’t had the same type of turnover that a team like the Patriots have to make up for it. Making matters worse, the younger studs the Steelers do have — namely Woodley, Mendenhall and the 31-year-old Polamalu — can’t stay on the field.
Through five games this year, the Steelers have given up 23 points per game, up from 17.8 points per game at the same point last season. And that’s with the benefit of facing the anemic Jets’ offense as well as an Eagles team that had five fumbles.
3. Ben Roethlisberger is their entire offense:
The days of Jerome Bettis pounding the ball in Pittsburgh are long gone – the Steelers are a passing team. Roethlisberger, who passed Terry Bradshaw to become the Steelers’ all-time leading passer Thursday night, has looked good so far this year as the focal point of that offense, averaging 297.4 passing yards per game, completing 64.6 percent of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Meanwhile, the ground game is averaging just 74.8 yards per game and a miserable 3.0 yards per carry.
Now that their top two running backs have gone down with injuries, the Steelers will likely have to rely even more on Roethlisberger getting the ball out to his talented corps of receivers as well as a revitalized Heath Miller at tight end. Byron Batch handled the bulk of the carries late in the Titans game and racked up 22 yards on 10 carries, creating more cause for concern for the floundering running game.
If nothing else, the Steelers have one thing going for them — they still have two games left against the Browns. On the other hand, they still have to face the 4-1 Ravens twice and the 3-2 Bengals twice, as well as the Giants and Chargers.
Keep in mind — it’s a weak AFC this year. At the moment, there are only five AFC teams with winning records and six playoffs spots to fill, so the Steelers still have plenty of room to bounce back if they end up turning it around. While the Ravens are likely candidates to run away with the division, the Steelers have as good a shot as any at grabbing a wild card spot, especially if they’re healthy.
Steelers remaining schedule:
Week 7 @ Bengals (3-2)
Week 8 vs Washington (2-3)
Week 9 @ Giants (3-2)
Week 10 vs Chiefs (1-4)
Week 11 vs Ravens (4-1)
Week 12 @ Browns (0-5)
Week 13 @ Ravens (4-1)
Week 14 vs Chargers (3-2)
Week 15 @ Cowboys (2-2)
Week 16 vs Bengals (3-2)
Week 17 vs Browns (0-5)
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