Pittsburgh Steelers: Players Who Need to Step Up in Ben Roethlisberger's Absence
It was indeed a cold night in the Steel City.
On just the third play of the third quarter, the thermometer reading in Heinz Field may have gone below zero as the collective heart of Steeler Nation sunk into the pits of their stomachs when they watched their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger jog to the sideline, grabbing his right shoulder in visible pain.
The Steelers were able to emerge a winner in overtime, but a loser on an injury list that continues to get longer with names such as Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown and Rashard Mendenhall already on it.
Roethlisberger's injury at this point has been determined to be a sprain of the sternoclavicular joint, a rare injury that ended Brett Favre's ironman streak in 2011.
If it is determined that Ben Roethlisberger can't play, it will take a complete and near-flawless effort in all phases of the game for the Steelers to emerge victorious.
James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley
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The 2012 season has been a rather disappointing one for the Steelers' two bookend pass-rushers, who have combined for just four sacks this year.
James Harrison underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in training camp, causing him to miss the first three games of the season.
Since then, Harrison appears to have become a shell of his former self, unable to gain leverage and use his height to slip under offensive tackles, a move that made him so deadly since he replaced Joey Porter in 2007. Even Harrison has admitted to not being 100 percent.
Woodley has been notorious in recent years as a slow-starter, gradually catching steam as the season progresses. Many Steeler fans are still waiting for the moment where they can consistently see Woodley's trademark "karate kick" as he celebrates a sack.
The Steelers' defense has elevated its play drastically since climbing out of a 2-3 hole, but are on their way to unprecedented lows in sacks and turnovers. Harrison and Woodley must shoulder the load and change that, as the Steelers now more than ever need every opportunity they can get.
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Mike Wallace is in what may very well be his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though Wallace is an excellent deep threat, possibly the best in the league, his hands can be suspect at times.
With star receiver Antonio Brown expected to be sidelined for a few games, it is even more critical that Wallace steps up and catches the balls he should, as he can also exploit Byron Leftwich's big arm with his breakneck speed.
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A back injury to incumbent punter Jeremy Kapinos allowed Drew Butler to snatch the job from him in 2012.
The game of field position will be as critical as ever in Big Ben's absence.
Currently, punter Drew Butler ranks 27th in the league in yards per punt (43.3) and 22nd in net yards per punt (38.8).
Butler's punts are going to have to improve sooner rather than later, as with the Pittsburgh offense unlikely to score many points without their star field general, it is on the leg of Drew Butler to give the defense long fields to work with.
The Entire Offensive Line
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The Steelers' offensive line has already drastically improved under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, keeping Ben Roethlisberger as clean in the pocket as he's ever been, as well as opening holes for a resurgent run game, save for Monday night's game against Kansas City.
Max Starks has been more than adequate at holding down the quarterback's blind side, Willie Colon plays like a man possessed when run blocking, Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster continue to play at a high level and Mike Adams has stepped in so well in Marcus Gilbert's absence that many wonder if Gilbert should even get his job back when he becomes healthy.
Protecting Byron Leftwich, an immobile pocket passer with an extremely slow release, instead of Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback who earns his check by extending plays with his strength and footwork, is a whole different story, one that is going to require the offensive line to perform at an ever higher level.
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Eventually, the success of the Steelers will lie on how well backup quarterback Byron Leftwich can manage a game, or take it into his hands if the time comes.
When Byron Leftwich replaced Roethlisberger against the Chiefs, he looked exactly like a quarterback who has only played 18 snaps in 45 games since returning to the Steelers in 2010. Rusty.
With a full week of practice and time to build chemistry with his receivers, Leftwich will have every opportunity to prepare and have a decent game against a struggling Baltimore defense.
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Losing Ben Roethlisberger, who was playing his way into league MVP consideration, is unquestionably a devastating blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, with a top-flight defense and a solid veteran backup at the quarterback position, the Steelers are more than ready to step up and play winning football until the return of their franchise quarterback.
Remember, nobody thought that the Steelers would finish better than 2-2 after Ben Roethlisberger was suspended in the 2010 season. Pittsburgh ended up with a 3-1 record thanks to inspired play by the defense and a running game—all of which have been the mantra of Pittsburgh Steelers football since the Steel-Curtain era of the 1970s.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have thrived when adversity stared them straight in the eyes, proving all the critics wrong when they were counted out, showing that they're not "old, slow, and over", but "experienced, tough, and still very much in it."
This time will be no different.