The Pittsburgh Steelers organization and their fanbase were humbled in a 39-26 beatdown by visiting New England on Sunday that was much more lopsided than the final score indicates, and exposed all of the major weaknesses of a Pittsburgh squad that is now injury laden and showing the negatives of having the oldest starting lineup in the NFL.
That said, while it is highly unlikely, one can still formulate a way and navigate a path that could lead to another Super Bowl title, in large part because there is no great team in the NFL, and only a couple squads present matchup problems that Pittsburgh cannot overcome.
First, the Steelers must win the AFC North and get a first-round bye. There is no way this depleted team can win three games in a loaded AFC playoffs that will likely include the Patriots, Jets, Ravens, Colts and Chargers if Pittsburgh is the sixth team.
Pittsburgh must win at Baltimore in three weeks and finish at least 11-5 to have a chance at that bye. 12-4 would likely guarantee it and the Steelers’ regular-season schedule sets up favorably to still finish with a strong record, although going 6-1 the rest of the way does seem unrealistic at this point.
In the playoffs, Pittsburgh cannot play New England or at Indianapolis. The porous Pittsburgh secondary would be exploited by Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. While the Colts’ offense is less lethal due to injuries, Indianapolis defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis would annihilate the slow-footed, new Steelers offensive tackle duo of ancient Flozell Adams and journeyman Jonathan Scott.
However, a home game in poor weather against Indy is winnable and the Steelers would have a decent shot against any other potential playoff opponent besides New England, although the Jets and Ravens would present major problems for the Pittsburgh offensive line, and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers would dissect the Steelers’ secondary. Fortunately, other teams (the Jets in particular) match up better against the Pats or Colts, and thus both Brady and Manning could be eliminated early from the playoffs.
Ideally, the Steelers could host run-oriented Kansas City or Tennessee in a second-round playoff game, but the Chiefs are unlikely to make the playoffs and the Titans would likely only make it over the Steelers. Even if either did make it, they would be huge underdogs to advance past the wild-card round.
Here are some things that need to happen on the field for Pittsburgh to win the AFC North despite fielding a worse team than a few weeks ago.
1. Emmanuel Sanders must replace Antwaan Randle El in the Steelers’ standard 3-WR set. I like having Randle El on the roster, but he is now a below-average NFL No. 3 WR who is no longer super quick, but is still undersized with questionable hands. Throw in the fact that Hines Ward isn’t exactly known for his speed, and the presence of Randle El causes more traffic in the short field. While still raw and learning how to play, Sanders is bigger and much faster than Randle El. Having Sanders on the field most of the time will keep defenses honest and he will only get better with more reps.
2. Ben Rothlisberger and his receivers must get in sync. (I’ll refrain from going through my “They gave away Santonio Holmes for nothing” rant. You’re familiar with it by now.) Not having Holmes on the field proved disastrous against the Patriots.
Holmes excelled on connecting with Roethlisberger on hot reads and in sandlot football after plays broke down. He also was a major threat in the middle of the field and could go deep, providing a perfect complement to deep-field threat Mike Wallace and short-field targets Ward and TE Heath Miller. No Holmes this year has bottled up the offense.
Still, the lack of symmetry between Roethlisberger and his receivers on Sunday was inexcusable and must improve. Getting Ward back healthy and more involved in the offense would help.
3. Pittsburgh has to re-establish the rushing attack shown early in the season by playing Rashard Mendenhall most of the time at tailback and not being so predictable on when it rushes. This may be the most difficult to imagine, since the Steelers never really tried to run left behind Scott and Ramon Foster on Sunday and quickly gave up on the right side, as they were thoroughly dominated by a New England squad that entered the game ranked 29th in the NFL in total defense.
4. The makeshift Pittsburgh offensive line has to jell and improve each game as a unit. Scott actually was not horrific at left tackle on Sunday but is a step down from long-time starter Max Starks, who was lost for the year due to a neck injury. If there is any glimmer of hope it is that the 2008 Steelers were world champions despite having the worst starting offensive line and rushing attack of any Super Bowl champion. Of course, that team also had Holmes making all the big plays at opportune times in key games.
5. New kicker Shaun Suisham must be clutch on field goals and improve the Steelers’ kickoff distance. Most NFL kickers could sail kickoffs longer than Jeff Reed, but I would not bet on the former. Reed has long been clutch on field goals in Heinz Field and the Steelers may regret giving up on him so quickly.
6. Pittsburgh must get healthy on the defensive line, which was abysmal in Sunday’s loss, getting run on effectively by the Pats and generating no surge on passing downs.
Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is likely to miss another game this Sunday against the run-oriented Raiders. Lose that game, and I’m predicting that Pittsburgh will officially nosedive again over the second half of the season and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive winter.
The Steelers’ other staring end Aaron Smith needs to be back in the lineup by the Jets game after trying to recover from a triceps tear that is usually season-ending. Smith is 34 and possibly in his last season. He should take a lot of Vicodin and get back on the field, because I think Smith at 60 percent is better than journeyman Nick Eason at 100 percent.
All three starters on the Steelers’ defensive line and four of the team’s top five players at the position have missed at least one game with injuries this season. Of course, that is not surprising when you consider that five of their top six defensive linemen are 30 or older and the Steelers have only selected one defensive linemen (Ziggy Hood in 2009) in the first two rounds over their last nine drafts. At some point, age was bound to creep up and that has finally happened to the Pittsburgh defensive line this fall.
7. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau must be more creative and take more risks to generate a pass rush when accurate quarterbacks begin picking apart the Steelers’ woeful pass defense as Brady and Drew Brees have already done this year.
Even though Football Outsiders ranks the Steelers’ pass defense as ninth-best in the league (even after what happened Sunday night), the raw numbers have this D currently rank 27th in the NFL in pass defense and 28th in opponents’ completion percentage. Over its last 16 regular-season games dating back to the end of the 2009 season that I have since tried to expunge from my memory, Pittsburgh has yielded an absurd 4,039 yards passing, even though some of those games have included opposing starting quarterbacks like Matt Cassel, Bruce Gradkowski, Chad Henne (twice), Brady Quinn, Vince Young, Josh Freeman and Colt McCoy, none of whom are viable options as fantasy quarterbacks in just about any week.
In my opinion, the Steelers have the worst No. 2-No. 3 corner combo in the league in Bryant McFadden and William Gay, with McFadden the better of the two. Since they elected to improve their deep depth at linebacker rather than draft a corner for immediate need in the early parts of their 2010 draft, the Steelers have few other alternatives and are probably best served by staying with that duo at this point of the season.
LeBeau is arguably the greatest DC in modern NFL history and still ranks among the best in the league. But he was outcoached badly on Sunday by New Engalnd. Even though the Pats no longer have a vertical threat at receiver, LeBeau was so scared of his piss-poor corners being exposed in man coverage that he mostly played a cover-two zone for nearly all of three quarters against Tom Brady, who has long been the kryptonite to LeBeau’s defense. Giving Brady so much time to look for receivers was a flawed and illogical gameplan.
It was not until late in the game that LeBeau finally started blitzing some out of desperation. He cannot wait so long in the future, because every team will try to emulate the Patriots’ gameplan, although few have the quarteracks to do so.
8. The Steelers’ stars have to start playing up to their reputations. Ike Taylor, James Harrison, James Farrior, Wallace, Casey Hampton and Mendenhall have all played up to expectations this fall, with Taylor and Farrior probably exceeding them.
But a list of Steelers disappointments in 2010 would look a scroll of their best players despite the team’s 6-3 record. Ward has 30 receptions for 375 yards and is currently on pace to finish with 53 receptions, which would mark his worst season since his 1998 rookie campaign when he focused more on special teams.
A year after earning his first Pro Bowl invite due to tallying 13.5 sacks and constantly making his presence felt, LaMarr Woodley has often been a non-factor this fall with just 5.5 sacks through nine games. He registered only one hurry and never even touched Brady despite pass-rushing most of the game on Sunday. Hopefully, he can emulate 2009 when Woodley was pretty much the only Steeler defender who played better toward the end of the season.
Troy Polamalu started off the season playing like the future Hall of Famer is but has not made any big plays since the Steelers’ third game against Tampa. He will get to the Pro Bowl on reputation but has not played at that level over the past six games. Polamalu needs to start making game-altering plays, which has been wont over the years when healthy.
While he is still settling in after serving a four-game suspension to start the season and is no doubt missing Holmes, Roethlisberger has looked average since his return and has rarely resembled the franchise quarterback who passed for 4,328 yards and 26 TDs in 2009.
All of these standouts must play up to their past level if Pittsburgh is to win another Super Bowl title. To be honest, though, I am just now hoping this team makes the playoffs and would be elated to beat the Ravens and win the AFC North. But this team is not a Super Bowl-caliber squad and that was evident to all viewers of Sunday’s debacle. Still, with the right regular-seaosn finish and playoff path, hosting a Lombardi is not as much of a longshot as it would be in other seasons with this current squad.