6 Players Who Must Step Up for Pittsburgh Steelers to Earn a Playoff Berth
It might not seem that difficult for the Pittsburgh Steelers to make the playoffs this season.
However, if the conference continues to play out the way it has, there won't be room for all these .500 teams in the playoffs. It would take a calculus degree to figure out tiebreakers if there are a half-dozen 8-8 or 9-7 teams fighting for playoff spots.
The Steelers would give themselves a lot more elbow room in the playoff race if they could rise above the fray of mediocrity in the AFC.
For that to happen, several Steelers need to improve their performance.
There's a strong chance the Steelers can make the playoffs even if Baron Batch doesn't step up his game.
However, the Steelers injuries at running back this season have demonstrated the importance of depth at the position. When Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman do get healthy, Batch might not be dressing for games if he doesn't stop making mistakes.
Batch also was one of four special teamers to commit a holding penalty on a return Sunday. His infraction came after the Steelers had fallen behind 14-3.
The second-year running back also has to learn to find the right running lane. In their loss at Tennessee, the Steelers were trying to get in position for a game-winning field goal, but Batch lost a yard on a run, and Shaun Suisham eventually missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt
Batch has gained just 38 yards on 18 carries this year, an average of 2.1 yards per carry.
Since Troy Polamalu won't be back anytime soon from his calf injury, the Steelers need all the help they can get at safety.
Golden, an undrafted rookie, has suited up for five of the six Steelers games this season and has played special teams. It wouldn't hurt if he could earn a look at safety.
Will Allen is currently plugging the hole for Polamalu at strong safety. He sprained his ankle Sunday in Cincinnati, according to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, but he isn't expected to miss Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.
Allen is starting at strong safety because Ryan Mundy was demoted after the Steelers win over the Eagles on Oct. 7. Golden should try to make a run at Mundy's spot on the depth chart.
Even though Will Allen beat out Ryan Mundy to start at strong safety in Troy Polamalu's absence, Mundy still needs to be ready to step back in because of Allen's suspect health.
Very few players can be expected to do what Polamalu does, but Mundy hasn't even shown that he belongs on an NFL field.
Mundy has yielded three touchdown passes this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
He needs to elevate his game because it can't get much worse.
Lost in all the euphoria surrounding the Steelers win over the Bengals is the fact that the defense still needs to force more turnovers.
Only when they faced butter-fingered Michael Vick have the Steelers produced more than one takeaway in a game this season. They have just seven takeaways. Only four teams have fewer than that, according to Pro Football Reference.
A strong pass rush can disrupt the quarterback and help create turnovers. In three games since coming back from his knee injury, James Harrison has just one sack.
It helps to have LaMarr Woodley on the opposite side dividing the blockers' attention, and Harrison has been on the field with Woodley for only about five quarters. Still, the Harrison-Woodley tandem was intact Sunday in Cincinnati, and Andy Dalton wasn't sacked.
The Steelers are tied for 24th in the NFL with 11 sacks this season, according to NFL.com. That has to improve.
Woodley gets a pass because his interception was the Steelers' only takeaway Sunday, and it led to the game-tying points.
Harrison, however, didn't even register a tackle in the game.
Perhaps, at 34, Harrison is on the decline. Maybe he's not the same after his knee injury. If he can't get in the face of opposing quarterbacks, the Steelers will have a hard time getting into the playoffs.
DeMarcus Van Dyke
What a difference a month makes.
DeMarcus Van Dyke was a special-teams stud in the first two weeks of the season.
He downed a punt at the Broncos 1-yard line in Denver. In the Steelers' Week 2 win over the Jets, Van Dyke pushed Isaiah Trufant into the end zone to prevent him from downing the ball deep in Steelers territory, then he induced a Jeremy Kerley fumble on another punt return.
Since then, however, Van Dyke has committed four special-teams penalties in the last three games, including three holding calls in the last two.
Van Dyke's hold negated Antonio Brown's 33-yard punt return in Cincinnati. The Steelers were forced to start at their own 13, and Ben Roethlisberger lost the ball on a strip-sack to set up the touchdown that put the Bengals up 14-3.
The multiple offenders or egregious offenders are going to be watching instead of playing.
Tomlin could have taken a page from Kevin Nealon's "Saturday Night Live" Mr. Subliminal character and inserted "DeMarcus Van Dyke" in the middle of that sentence.
Mike Wallace was the Steelers' leading receiver with eight catches in Sunday's win over the Bengals.
He could have had more, however, if he didn't drop four passes. That counts the ball that Leon Hall tipped in the end zone. Even though it was re-directed, it still went through Wallace's hands.
Wallace has varied his route tree this season and is no longer the "one-trick pony" (via CBSSports.com) Steelers coach Mike Tomlin suggested he was earlier in his career.
If he keeps dropping passes, however, it's going to cost the Steelers a game sooner or later.