By Jeremy Hritz
The past two Steelers seasons have been eerily similar, with both teams on the precipice of playing outstanding football, yet being a few breaks short of asserting themselves as elite squads.
Injuries last year to Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, and Rashard Mendenhall, not to mention Willie Colon, made last year’s 12-4 record seem admirable. Yet as the overtime period in Denver concluded with poor tackling and a miracle touchdown, the injuries ultimately proved to be too much.
Again this year, and probably even more so, injuries to seemingly every starter from Woodley, Harrison, Pouncey, Mendenhall, Troy Polamalu, Marcus Gilbert, Isaac Redman, Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Byron Leftwich, and most importantly Roethlisberger, continue to stack the deck against this team to position themselves for a championship run in January.
The breaks are also not on the Steelers side when it comes to turnovers again for the second year in a row. Last year, the Steelers defense only forced 15 turnovers, and this year have only recorded nine. What is hard to process though is that the defense is playing at an exemplary level otherwise, and one needs to look no further than at the defensive performance against the Baltimore Ravens this past Sunday night when they held the Ravens to only 200 yards and two field goals. Remarkable considering that the Ravens were the fourth-ranked scoring offense in the NFL.
With the heart of the divisional schedule now facing the Steelers, the team is now down to its third quarterback in Charlie Batch and is depleted in the wide receiver corps without Brown and Cotchery, putting the Steelers in a precarious situation that will make or break the season. Regardless of how the defense plays, if the offense cannot produce at least 14-20 points, winning any game moving forward will be difficult.
Because of the near-desperation to secure a playoff berth, it could cause the Steelers to rush Roethlisberger back and risk him to even greater injury, and we have seen what has happened in previous seasons when he hasn’t been given the appropriate time to heal (San Francisco 2011). But it is hard to ignore the feeling that if Roethlisberger does not return, even at a diminished effectiveness, it will be difficult for the Steelers to string together victories.
And when Roethlisberger does come back, how likely will it be that he will reinjure the SC joint or the dislocated rib? Or, if he is hit a certain way or lands awkwardly, could it result in the feared punctured aorta? How will that affect his play mentally? Will it force him to rush to get rid of the ball? Will it influence Todd Haley to call even more quick hitters, making the offense dinkier and dunkier? It is no secret that the offensive line, though better, is not a great pass blocking unit, and Roethlisberger’s health when and if he returns, could take a turn for the worse quickly, especially if Mike Adams continues to struggle.
Ultimately, the cumulative success of this season will hinge on the health of Roethlisberger, which is why maybe the best approach moving forward is to rest him until he is fully recovered, or as close to 100% as possible. The Steelers have enough talent to at least earn a Wild Card spot in this year’s playoffs, and the reality is that a healthy Roethlisberger in addition to a healthy Brown and Polamalu will make for a team with greater potential for success, despite playing on the road, than a beat up team without Roethlisberger. If all parts are healthy, this team can go on the road and win in Baltimore, Houston, and Denver; if not, it could be another one and done.
An AFC North Championship is not out of the question yet, but a Wild Card berth seems the most likely of scenarios. In order to win the North Crown, the Steelers will need to solve the two-year old turnover riddle that even defensive-genius Dick LeBeau cannot solve. If they can, this defense will be difficult, if not impossible to beat. As coach LeBeau says, when turnovers come, they come in bunches. If the Steelers can put together a multiple turnover game against the Cleveland Browns, which is possible with rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden at the helm, it could mark the beginning of a turnover snowball that could start a trend converse to the one currently plaguing the Steelers. And this could help compensate for the absence of Roethlisberger.
To everything, there is a season. Tis’ the season for turnovers in Pittsburgh.