Pittsburgh Steelers: 6 Concerns Steelers Must Address Heading into Playoffs
Unlike 2008 and 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers don't have a playoff E-ZPass this season.
They have to take the less convenient AFC wild-card lane, which goes through Denver before meeting up again with AFC heavyweights like the Patriots and Ravens.
Sure, I wish the Steelers would have won the AFC North and earned a first-round bye in the playoffs.
But there's a hidden blessing, so to speak, about the Steelers' matchup Sunday at 4:30 p.m. against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
It allows me the platform to say that Tebow did not invent "Tebowing."
NFL players have been kneeling down in prayer on the field since Tebow was being home-schooled by his mother.
Now that I have that off my chest, the Steelers have a chance to school Tebow like a ruler-wielding nun on Sunday.
The Broncos have lost three straight, and Tebow was an anemic 6-for-22 in Sunday's 7-3 loss at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. His quarterback rating for the game was a laughable 20.6.
Remember what happened last year, however, to the defending-champion Saints on the road against the 7-9 Seahawks.
Such are the hazards of navigating the wild-card lane in the playoffs, and I have a few concerns about the Steelers that could steer them to an early exit.
No. 6: Stopping the Run
Maybe Steelers fans are spoiled. Every time an opposing player runs the ball on the Steelers, we expect him to be swallowed up by the pile of bodies a yard or two beyond the line of scrimmage and never be seen again (at least not until the next play).
The Steelers didn't do a bad job stopping the run this season, but it just wasn't up to the standard of the 2008 and 2010 Super Bowl teams. The 2010 Steelers were a tough run-stopping act to follow, leading the NFL by allowing just 62.8 rushing yards per game, a franchise record.
This year's team barely cracked the 100-yard-per-game barrier, allowing 99.8 rushing yards per game, eighth in the NFL. Opposing running backs used to run for 100 yards on the Steelers about as often as the Pirates sweep a three-game series. This season, three running backs gained 100 yards or more on the Steelers, including the Ravens' Ray Rice.
The only way the Steelers can stop Rice, if they even get that far, is to win the time of possession battle and keep the ball out of his hands.
First. they have to deal with the Broncos' Willis McGahee. The former Raven ran for 1,199 yards this season, 4.8 yards per carry.
That makes me nervous.
No. 5: Running Back Situation
It seems every time Rashard Mendenhall is on the cusp of breaking the shackles of mediocrity, something bad happens.
In Super Bowl XLV, after rushing for 184 yards in seven quarters of football, Mendenhall infamously fumbled with the Steelers poised to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
On Sunday, coming off just his second 100-yard rushing game of the season, Mendenhall was on pace for another one and was steaming toward the 1,000-yard milestone for the season and perhaps some momentum heading into the playoffs. He had 38 yards in the first quarter. Then, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Not that anyone wanted to see Mendenhall get hurt, but with Isaac Redman now the Steelers starting running back, a lot of Steelers fans are getting their wish. I certainly feel better about Redman spelling Mendenhall than I did about Najeh Davenport spelling Willie Parker when Parker broke his leg before the 2007 playoffs.
Redman is better than Mendenhall in one category. He's harder to tackle. That's kind of important for a running back.
Redman rushed for a career-high 92 yards on 19 carries Sunday against the Browns, but his two fumbles are unsettling.
Before Sunday's game, he fumbled just once as a Steeler. But his 19 carries also were a career-high, and both of his fumbles came in the fourth quarter. Does a full workload fatigue Redman and compromise his ball security?
Let's hope not.
Let's also hope that we don't end up appreciating Mendenhall more now that he's out.
No. 4: Shaun Suisham
The Steelers need to avoid a situation in which they're down by three points or less at the end of the game and need a field goal, because I don't trust Shaun Suisham.
Among NFL kickers with at least 20 field-goal attempts this season, Suisham is last at 74 percent (23-of-31). Suisham has made only seven of his 13 attempts beyond 40 yards.
To be fair, two of his made fields goals from beyond 40 yards, plus a 38-yarder with four seconds left, spared the Steelers a humiliating defeat at Indianapolis.
Perhaps Suisham's weak leg is why the Steelers went for it twice on fourth down twice on Sunday instead of kicking a field goal.
The first time, they were at the Browns 32, which would have been a 49-yard field goal. The second time, they were at the Browns 22, which would have been a 39-yarder.
There might have been some wind that affected the Steelers' decision in those situations.
Still, it's hard to forget Suisham's missed 52-yard attempt in Super Bowl XLV. That's not an easy make for any kicker, but it was indoors and Suisham missed so badly in Dallas the ball almost ended up in New Mexico.
Suisham's best performance in black and gold came in his debut. Last season in Buffalo, he made all four of his field-goal attempts, all of them longer than 40 yards, including the game winner in overtime.
That's the Shaun Suisham the Steelers need in the playoffs.
No. 3: Injuries on Defense
Ryan Clark not playing in Denver is the least of the Steelers' health concerns on defense.
Who knows if linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury, will be back for the playoffs?
If Woodley returns, the Steelers pass rush will get a needed boost. If I'm the Steelers, however, I don't anticipate Woodley returning for any part of the postseason. That means Jason Worilds needs to improve fast.
I wonder sometimes if Worilds isn't wearing a Steelers uniform on the field, but rather grass-like camouflage, because he seems invisible.
Pressuring the quarterback in the playoffs suddenly has taken on more importance because injuries have left the Steelers thin in their pass coverage.
Curtis Brown went on injured reserve before the game against the Rams. Cortez Allen separated his shoulder, and Keenan Lewis went down with a hamstring injury Sunday.
That trio is a big reason why the Steelers have been able to turn their secondary from a glaring weakness last season into a strength this season.
Now, that depth is gone.
It's not a good feeling seeing Bryant McFadden in the game, unless it's a punt or kickoff. But McFadden, who was burned in the Steelers' season-opening loss to the Ravens, was pressed into duty at cornerback Sunday.
It looked like cornerback Anthony Madison was going to rejoin the Steelers, but he's more of a special teams guy.
Steelers fans don't need to worry about Ike Taylor, but William Gay needs to maintain his improved play. If Gay relapses into his 2010 form and the Steelers don't put more heat on the quarterback, they can forget about the Super Bowl.
No. 2: Lack of Turnovers
Every week during the first half of the season, the Steelers sent us scurrying to the record books to see where their turnover futility stood on a historical scale.
After forcing just three takeaways in the first half of the season, an all-time NFL low, the Steelers forced 11 turnovers in the next five games. That made the first half of the season seem like some inexplicable fluke that we'd never see again.
Then, the Steelers forced just one turnover in the last three games, and now we're back to number crunching.
The 2011 Steelers are one of just eight teams in the history of the NFL with 15 takeaways or less. Of those teams, only the 2004 Packers had a winning record (10-6).
Sure, the Steelers finished with the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and they allowed just 48 points in the six games since their bye week.
I fear, however, that the Steelers' inability to force turnovers is symptomatic of their advancing age on defense. Perhaps this year's defensive performance and 12-4 record is a product of muscle memory. Maybe the Steelers are just running on fumes and age will cause them to run out of gas next season.
The Steelers went 12-4 despite a minus-13 giveaway-takeaway ratio. The only other team to go 12-4 with a minus-13 turnover differential is the 1983 Raiders. That team won the Super Bowl, but only because it forced 10 turnovers in the playoffs and committed just six.
The lesson there is that the Steelers need to win the turnover battle in the playoffs if they want to get back to the Super Bowl.
No. 1: Ben Roethlisberger's Health
Ben Roethlisberger looked more mobile Sunday than he did against the 49ers, but that doesn't say much. He looked like Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford that night in San Francisco.
No way is that ankle 100 percent less than a month after a high-ankle sprain.
Roethlisberger completed a so-so 23 of 40 passes Sunday, and a couple of his incompletions could have been intercepted, including a badly under-thrown ball to Mike Wallace near the goal line.
The whipping Lake Erie winds could have played a role in Roethlisberger's wayward passes, but according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Roethlisberger limped out of the locker room after the game.
He should have rested another week.
Charlie Batch could have beaten the Browns Sunday. Mark Malone probably could have come out of the radio booth and beaten the Browns Sunday.
If all the Steelers needed Sunday was a win over the Browns to get a first-round bye, I would have been fine playing Roethlisberger. But they ultimately had no control over their playoff seeding, so putting Roethlisberger out there and possibly slowing his recovery did them no good.