The Steelers battle with health
The Steelers overcame the injuries sustained by their veteran team for much of the season and prevailed, earning a 6–3 record and placing themselves in the middle of the playoff hunt.
Defensive starters James Harrison and Troy Polamalu missed significant time, all three running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, Issac Redman, and Jonathon Dwyer) have been fighting nagging injuries, and play-making wide receiver Antonio Brown is still out with an ankle injury. All of these setbacks, as well as the loss of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a sprained throwing shoulder and damaged ribs, may be too much to overcome.
Since Roethlisberger’s debut in 2004, he has only missed 13 games, with four of those coming from his suspension during the 2010 season. In these games, the Steelers played well, going 8–5, but four of the five losses came against the division rival Baltimore Ravens, which the Steelers are set to play against in upcoming games.
Roethlisberger is known for his toughness and ability to play well through pain and injury. Unfortunately, his toughness doesn’t matter here, since his rib injury threatens to cut his aorta and kill him if he gets hit before being fully healed. Because of the risks involved, Roethlisberger is sidelined indefinitely until the doctors can confirm he is no longer at risk.
Stepping in for Roethlisberger will be journeyman backup Byron Leftwich, who last started a game in 2009 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leftwich has been criticized for his slow release and limited mobility, both of which will be amplified by offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s new offensive scheme, as well as the injured and porous offensive line.
Thankfully for the Steelers, Roethlisberger’s injury comes at a time when the rest of the team is getting healthier. All three running backs are finally healthy, and the athletes on the Steelers’ defense are getting healthier and playing more like they have in the past. The play-making abilities of wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders, along with the consistency of tight end Heath Miller, complete this improvement.
The Pittsburgh season rests in the hands of Leftwich and his ability to protect the football, as well as in the defense, which will need to clamp down and make up for the significantly less potent Steeler offense. In his games as a starter with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Buccaneers, Leftwich went a mediocre 24–25. If the Steelers only win half their games the rest of the season, the team is looking at a 10–6 or 9–7 record, which places them on the wild card bubble.
With five of their last seven games coming up against division rivals, the Steelers will need to play well to win the division and guarantee themselves a playoff spot. Right now, the Steelers sit two games behind the Ravens in the division, after a loss to the Ravens on Sunday. If the Steelers lose to the Ravens again in two weeks, a playoff appearance might be lost.
The Steelers will need to revert back to the “ground and pound” team they once were, relying on their running games to move the ball down the field and control the time of possession while the defense forces turnovers to create short fields, holding the other team in check.
Roethlisberger’s injury exemplifies the Steelers’ season of injuries, as they field the oldest starting defense in the NFL. The Steelers needs to stay healthy to still have a shot at the playoffs. They will have to hope that Roethlisberger is healthy by January in order to have any chance at making noise in the postseason, but if the first half of the season is any indicator, the odds of the Steelers keeping the injury report clean for the rest of the season is slim.