Having to make adjustments on the fly is nothing new to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it seems like over the past three weeks they've had to cram in a season's worth of changes.
Injuries in two consecutive games have forced them to go from Ben Roethlisberger to Byron Leftwich to Charlie Batch at quarterback. They had to sign wide receiver Plaxico Burress while Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery recovered from ankle and rib ailments, respectively, and eight total turnovers in Week 12's loss to the Cleveland Browns has resulted in a shuffling of the depth chart.
The question is whether all of these changes will make things better for the Steelers.
It's really not that bad, really—the offense has struggled without Roethlisberger, but he's not done for the season, and it's highly doubtful that each and every Steelers running back fumbles the ball away on a weekly basis—but clearly, some moves had to be made.
Jonathan Dwyer is presently the Steelers' No. 1 running back, with Rashard Mendenhall demoted all the way down to No. 3. It makes sense—as head coach Mike Tomlin said himself, Dwyer has "been consistently the most productive guy" while Mendenhall has appeared only four games this year, first because he was still healing from last season's ACL injury and later because of an Achilles' tendon injury.
However, it is more fascinating that Tomlin has chosen to make wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders co-starters at the No. 1 wideout position, saying that the situation will dictate who is on the field for a given play. Wallace has been less-than-impressive this season, with only 49 yards on eight catches in the last three games, but he's still Pittsburgh's receiving yardage leader, with 572 so far, and six touchdowns, tying him with Heath Miller for receiving scores.
Sanders has done quite a bit with his limited snaps this season—559, to be exact, compared to 639 for Wallace. Though he has only 34 receptions on 59 targets, he's put up 489 yards and a touchdown.
Clearly, the hope is that when the Steelers need yards, Sanders will be the most useful (he's averaging 14.4 yards per reception this year to Wallace's 12.2), but if the Steelers need to take a scoring shot, then Wallace will be the ideal target.
The odds are improving that Wallace and Sanders will be joined on the field this week by Antonio Brown, who was a full participant in practice on Wednesday. He should start against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, barring a setback.
In terms of changes, that's one of the most positive the Steelers could have this week. The more playmakers to help out presumed starting quarterback Charlie Batch, the better.
The issue will be whether or not Batch will have a clean pocket out of which to throw on a consistent basis. In a case of everything-old-is-new-again, the Steelers have to shuffle their offensive linemen this week in response to a spate of injuries.
The Steelers placed offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert on injured reserve earlier this week; while he was out, he had been replaced by rookie Mike Adams. However, Adams hurt his ankle against the Browns and is already ruled out against the Ravens this week, meaning that Kelvin Beachum will have to step in at either right tackle or at right guard, should the Steelers move the more-experienced Ramon Foster to tackle.
There is an outside chance that rookie guard David DeCastro could get the start in place of Beachum, but he was only activated from injured reserve on Monday.
Further, left guard Willie Colon, who is recovering from a knee injury, may still not be ready to play this week against Baltimore. That could mean center Maurkice Pouncey gets switched to left guard and Doug Legursky starts at center.
With the Steelers about to see a Ravens defense that has started to get its pass-rushing groove back (it had six sacks on San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers last week), it's not a good time to have so many key injuries on the offensive line.
That, and the wide receiver situation, could make all the difference when it comes to Batch's success passing the ball on Sunday.
No matter what happens on Sunday, the Steelers won't be out of the playoff race. However, their remaining games—especially two in the division to close out their season, against the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns—will ultimately decide their fate, and it's important that the offense is at full strength by that time.
It's admittedly a much better situation if they defeat the Ravens on Sunday, but at this point, the bigger concern is to get their injured players healthy while hopefully avoiding losing more players in this important final stretch.
The Steelers had no choice but to make changes heading into Week 13; however, too many more and it may make the difference between taking the field in January or getting ready for next season. The goal for this week is to simply get through this Ravens game unscathed.
Believe it or not, that matters more than the final score. Hopefully the changes they've made thus far will make that a greater possibility.
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