The Pittsburgh Steelers have dealt with a lot of changes in a very short amount of time—nothing new in the NFL, to be sure. With Week 12 of the season upon us, it's important that their responses to them are the right ones.
From starting their third quarterback in as many weeks, to signing Plaxico Burress off of the free-agent market to make up for injuries to Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery, it's been a strange turn of events for a team that's quite familiar with the unexpected: It's not a Steelers season, after all, if Ben Roethlisberger isn't dealing with some physical ailment.
On one hand, that makes this team far better equipped to deal with their current rash of bad luck; on the other hand, however, it puts them in a nearly desperate situation. At 6-4, the Steelers are in second place in the AFC North and are two games back of the division-leading Baltimore Ravens. Hot on their heels are the 5-5 Cincinnati Bengals, who have won their last two games.
The Steelers, therefore, have a seemingly tenuous grasp on a wild-card berth in this season's playoffs.
So much depends on how long Roethlisberger is sidelined. There are four games yet to play within the division, and the odds of the Steelers winning them is increased exponentially with their starting quarterback back on the field. Clearly, he won't be playing this week against the Cleveland Browns—the start belongs to Charlie Batch, who has a 5-2 all-time record when starting for the Steelers.
For all of my criticism of the Burress pickup, he does have some value this week—he'll present matchup problems for Cleveland's cornerbacks, which can help Pittsburgh in the red zone and mitigate some of Batch's likely rustiness. But Burress isn't back in Pittsburgh to be a playmaker, really, he's just there for added depth, to serve as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver while Brown and Cotchery heal.
Ultimately, this win will have to depend on the players the Steelers have relied on in the past: Mike Wallace, Rashard Mendenhall (as well as fellow RBs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer), Heath Miller and their defense (especially the secondary, considering Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden is a picks-prone rookie).
If the Steelers cannot get out of Cleveland with a win, it will be a tough road ahead to remain in the playoff picture. The Ravens follow in Week 13, and the Steelers close out their season in Weeks 16 and 17 with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Browns. They'll need a full sweep in those three games should they lose to the Browns this Sunday in order to save their season—even though the AFC as a conference has been particularly weak this year.
A saving grace this week with Batch under center is that offensive coordinator Todd Haley's conservative game plan is better suited to Batch's particular skill set than to Byron Leftwich's, who started last week. Short, accurate, high-percentage throws are his strength, and that's what Haley has been calling all season long. If he can connect with Miller early and often, the Steelers shouldn't struggle moving the ball down the field.
The Steelers have no choice but to work with what they have and use their considerable experience in situations such as this to turn this season's fortunes around. It's far too soon to think the Steelers season is over, but to keep that from happening, they must defeat Cleveland this Sunday and begin preparations for a bounce-back showing against the Ravens.
If they can nab those two wins, even without Roethlisberger, this will have just been a rough patch and not the turning point of their season.
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