Pittsburgh Steelers: Considering the Road to a 2012 Playoff Berth

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Pittsburgh Steelers: Considering the Road to a 2012 Playoff Berth
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

For true Pittsburgh Steelers fans, Heinz Field is the football mecca.

Those live onlookers who bleed Black and Gold have the lyrics of a very particular song practically tattooed on their soul. When Tommy Shaw's voice serenades the crowd and the lyrics to "Renegade" blare over the loud speakers, one's hairs stand at attention on the back of their neck, all while their heart beats louder and their roar becomes more boisterous.

The scoreboard goes black... a few moments elapse...  and it happens, all to triumphant cheering.

It's the equivalent of a bell tolling.  Fittingly, for what (or whom) the 2012 Steelers' bell tolls has yet to be determined. Is the current ring a haunting chime signifying a season derailed, or is it the gong of getting going- of overcoming adversity?

That is what the tough do, isn't it?  And, make no mistake about it: to succeed in achieving their season goals, the Men of Steel will have to show some mettle, overcoming adversity.

One particular line at the onset of the song could provide an ironic double meaning in light of recent events:

Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don't have very long! 

With No. 7 out, the noose is certainly tightening around everyone on the Steelers' roster. Every Steeler needs to play their best football to keep the team's current momentum intact and rally to a playoff spot or, dare it be stated, bye week. 

When it was announced that Ben Roethlisberger would be absent for an unstated number of games due to a freak rib injury that threatens his aorta (translation: could pierce his frickin' heart!), it was only natural that even the most ardent Pittsburgh maniacs, or fanatics, took a second to wonder how such an injury could jeopardize the team's goals.

With Byron Leftwich at the helm and Big Ben's return uncertain, are the Steelers still locks to make the playoffs? And, with the Ravens next up on the docket, are the Men of Steel still able to surpass their rivals for a division championship?

Personally, I am a strong advocate for starting Charlie Batch in Ben's absence, at least for the 10 minutes he'll remain healthy. Batch has performed well in Roethlisberger's absence in the past, getting various starts over a steady career as a backup in the Steel City. 

From his opening-night victory against the Dolphins in 2006 to a three-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers two years ago, Charlie has been, at the very least, solvent under center.   He has underrated mobility in the pocket (heck, he's a veritable running quarterback compared to Byron Leftwich), slightly more polished mechanics and a bit more experience at the helm.

Nevertheless, I can just throw that little pipe dream into a mental drawer labelled "waste," because \ Byron Leftwich will be getting the start(s) going forward.  The offensive line will need to rebound from a step backward against the Chiefs, getting the running game back into gear against a surprisingly suspect Ravens front.

Success on the ground would have a two-fold benefit against the Ravens this week.  First, it allows more offensive balance and simply gives Leftwich key support.  Secondly, it keeps the Ravens' pass rush more at bay, which could be vital considering Leftwich's baseball-style windup in the pocket.  Byron's bullet is his lone armament, and his odd throwing motion is engraved in his physical muscle memory. 

Notice to the offensive tackles: clog up the backside.  Please!

Beyond the bad timing of Leftwich having to face the Ravens, minus Ray Lewis or not, is the fact that Leftwich's style doesn't translate very well with Haley's quick-passing offense.  Implemented to keep Big Ben upright, the passing offense has benefited greatly from No. 7's quick deliveries. It operates on a decisiveness combined with a quick release that Leftwich simply lacks.

I'm hoping whatever criticisms I have of Byron are categorically brushed aside with a great performance by the offensive line and a bit more confidence under center.  After all, Leftwich can only benefit from a week full of repetitions with the starting unit, affording him a bit more aplomb than he showcased against the Chiefs.

Beyond putting points on the board and avoiding turnovers, something the offense has done plentifully in 2012, third-down conversions have also been key.  They have kept the offense on the field and allowed an inconsistent defense to boast a top ranking.  Less time exposed to opposing offenses has translated into skewed yardage totals against.

The defense will likely not have this luxury to the degree that it has been established through 10 weeks of play.  Running backs have had surprising success against the defense in the past two seasons, a penchant that continued with Jamaal Charles' 100-yard game on Monday Night.

With seven games to play, two with the Ravens represent the biggest challenges left.  The Steelers will need to win a drag-em-out battle, likely in the area of 13-10.

As suspect as the defensive front and linebackers look against the run, the secondary seems to be adjusting to life without Troy Polamalu.  Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor have demonstrated a recent swagger at corner, while Ryan Clark has made plays all season.  Will Allen's presence has been a vast improvement over Ryan Mundy's constant confusion, and the defensive backfield has graduated from pathetic to pedestrian to polished over the course of a few weeks.

Mere weeks after getting slaughtered by Carson Palmer and Co., the unit shut down Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.  Every quarterback left on the schedule, barring injury, can be (or has been) shut down by the Steelers: Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Phillip Rivers, Brandon Weeden and Tony Romo.

If the defensive front can shore up its shake play against the run, the secondary will be able to further stiffen (and vice versa).  Minus their franchise quarterback and still struggling through the season-long absence of the best defensive player on the roster (Troy Polamalu), the defense's room for error will be razor thin. 

The wide receiving corps is minus Antonio Brown, so Emmanuel Sanders will need to work hard to be on the same page with Leftwich.  Role players will need to become key playmakers in important situations.  Here's looking at you, Jericho!  

Lastly, Leftwich will need to be comfortable enough in the offense to progress though his reads and know when to check down or take advantage of a mismatch (see: Heath Miller).

If the running game can regain its footing, the defense answers the bell and everyone steps up their game, the Steelers will have an outside shot at splitting the series with the Ravens.  Depending on Roethlisberger's return, Pittsburgh may have a 50/50 shot at taking the AFC North, though that would obviously require at least one win over Baltimore in the next three games.   

If No. 7 is out beyond the next few weeks, the Ravens must be considered the odds-on favorite to win the division.  Having to face them minus Ben is stressful enough, but worse when considering games against the Browns could have the potential to become nail-biters in his absence (see: 2011).

The good news regarding the playoffs is the overall mediocrity amidst the AFC.  Aside from the 6-3 Colts, no other team in the hunt for an AFC Wild Card spot is even 5-4, giving the Black and Gold a two-game cushion.  Though that is a wonderful luxury for a team enduring so many key injuries, pyschologically, it is the worst information that the team could know. 

With Roethlisberger's return this regular season, albeit sooner or later, the Steelers will make the playoffs.  Without him, they still should, but the key will be competing as though their two-game edge doesn't actually exist.  In Ben's absence, the last thing the team can afford to do is feel comfortable.  

In fact, it's time for the Men of Steel to honor their blue-collar identity. Indeed, it's time to scratch and claw for every muddy inch.  If the team can properly utilize the disrespect card and rally for each other, they can prove wrong even the toughest pundits, myself included, who are now extremely relunctant to believe they can win the AFC North.

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