By Jeremy Hritz
The Pittsburgh Steelers got a win, and did so in a somewhat convincing way against Buffalo. At least defensively.
After last week’s showing, the Steelers aren’t make a great deal of sense, are they?
The defensive performance was somewhat dominant, but that should be expected when playing against a rookie quarterback that has missed a significant stretch of games. Yet despite not having any elements of a blowout, the Steelers still played light years better than they did against New England, a team that barely beat Buffalo earlier in the season, and it does give some hope that this Steelers team does have the potential to win games if it can ever establish some consistency of identity.
The offensive line, despite allowing four sacks, appeared to get a decent push against the Bills defensive line in the running game as the Steelers ran for 136 clock-controlling yards. Hopefully that is something that can be built on moving forward into the second half of the season. But based on what we have seen so far this year, is there any reason to believe that the Steelers can extend their momentum?
If there has been a commonality in the 2013 Steelers season, it is that of inconsistency.
From one week to the next, it is difficult to forecast what type of performance the Steelers will put on display. One week they are turning over the football in bunches, the next they are controlling the tempo of the game with their rushing attack, the next the secondary is getting smoked like Chad Scott was still playing, and then the next they are smothering the Bills offense.
Not at one point this year, even in their victories, have the Steelers played a complete game where they have measured out above the line in all three phases of the game. In fact, the last time that the Steelers played such a game was in 2011 when they blasted the Bengals 35-7 at Heinz Field and made explosive plays in all three phases of the game. In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes, Antonio Brown returned a punt for a touchdown, James Harrison recorded three sacks, and even Ike Taylor made an interception.
With all things considered over the last two seasons, the Steelers are due for a game like this. But the date for when it is schedule to arrive may still be a long ways away.
Now at 3-6, the Steelers are still mathematically alive though barely, in the race for a wildcard spot and even the division title, but in order to do so, they will have to win at least six of their last seven games, and based on how they have played overall this season, there is not enough evidence to feel confident about that happening.
To make the kind of run that the Steelers will need to get into the tournament, they are going to need some otherworldly performances from the players that are viewed to be the leaders of this team.
And the first place that this has to start is with Roethlisberger, who has been very vocal in his anger and frustration about the recent reports about his future with the Steelers. While Big Ben has played OK this year behind a below average offensive line, he has not played at a level expected from a franchise quarterback. Too many misfires, picks, fumbles, and sacks have all been contributing factors in the six losses of the Steelers this year. If he can clean up his game and elevate his play, he can give his team a great chance at turning the season around.
There is no questioning that Roethlisberger is capable of carrying this team, and if he can get locked into a rhythm, he will make his team difficult to beat. And while not too much can be read into the recent media reports, Roethlisberger has always played with a chip on his shoulder, and you have to wonder if the recent speculation will intensify his motivation for the rest of this season.
Defensively, despite his poor game in New England, Troy Polamalu needs to take his game to another level and lead his younger teammates to improvement.
While we can be grateful for Polamalu’s health this year, he has yet to deliver a game-changing play. Sure, Polamalu is not the player he once was, but he still brings a level of explosiveness to the safety position that is unmatched by any other defensive player on the roster. His experience and veteran leadership are undoubtedly invaluable, and what he provides to the defense is immeasurable. As he approaches the twilight of his career, Polamalu has an opportunity to help resurrect this defense to take one last final shot at getting this barely breathing team into the playoffs. A line-jumping sack or a thrilling throwback pick-six could help build the type of momentum that the Steelers are in need of to save the season.
But even with Roethlisberger and Polamalu stepping up their game, would it be enough to get a win against the explosive Detroit Lions?
Matthew Stafford leads a Lions offense that is ranked 6th overall in the NFL and that averages 410 yards per game. At Stafford’s disposal are two of the league’s most explosive weapons in Calvin Johnson who is averaging 17.1 yards per catch and can’t be covered, and Reggie Bush, who has nearly 1000 combined yards rushing and receiving.
Throw in a fierce and violent defensive line commanded by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and it is easy to see why the Steelers should have great concern about this matchup.
The biggest weakness of the Lions is its secondary, which if the Steelers can protect Big Ben, he could have a big day. But that’s a big if.
The Lions don’t have a penchant for blowing teams out, as the majority of their six victories this season have been close, and if the Steelers can keep this contest tight at Heinz Field, they will have an opportunity to win.
Historically, the Lions don’t play well in Pittsburgh, and when factoring in the rain that is supposed to be failing during the game, it may help to neutralize the powerful Detroit offense.
With all that in mind however, this game has blowout potential all over it for the Lions, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Stafford and Johnson have a record setting day at Heinz Field in a pasting of the Steelers, making for a brutal Monday for Steelers Nation and an even clamorous call for heads to roll within the coaching staff.
But this game also has the potential for the Steelers to drive the ball down the field in the passing game with a quarterback that I am expecting to be even more motivated than normal. The Steelers are searching for a quality win against a good team and beating Detroit would make that a reality.
Is this a Steelers team that is on the upswing? Or is it a team that will once again be exposed by a formidable offense?
The evidence says expect more of the same inconsistency, and despite the win against the Bills last week, the Steelers did not show enough that they can save the 2013 season. Barring Superman performances from Roethlisberger, Polamalu, or a dark horse, the contest against the Lions promises to be more of the same.
Lions 33 Steelers 22