The focus of an NFL team must change when they are no longer playing for a playoff spot. The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't been in a spot like this since 2003. That year, the Steelers were also firmly sitting at 2-5 and finished the year at 6-10.
At this point, I would think the Steelers would be happy to rally and get to 6-10 here in 2013. Injuries and mistakes have continued to follow this team like a plague, and the coaching staff has had no luck in rallying the troops.
This week, the Steelers get to travel back to the comfy confines of the Eastern Time Zone, but their prize is they travel to Foxboro and take on a reeling New England Patriots team.
On paper, this game looks to be a lopsided event and not in favor of the Steelers. The Patriots are 6-2, leading the AFC East, and the Steelers are 2-5 in the basement of the AFC North.
However, that is not to say the Steelers cannot win this game. It will take a supreme effort in all phases of the game and quite frankly, some good luck to win this one. But here's how they can make it happen.
When the Steelers are on Offense
According to the analytic gurus at Pro Football Focus, the Steelers have used 11 different offensive line combinations this season. This table below gives you the breakdown of those combos.
|Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line Combinations|
|Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle||Snaps|
|Mike Adams||Ramon Foster||Maurkice Pouncey||David De'Castro||Marcus Gilbert||8|
|Mike Adams||Ramon Foster||Kelvin Beachum||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||45|
|Mike Adams||Ramon Foster||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||135|
|Mike Adams||Ramon Foster||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Kelvin Beachum||13|
|Kelvin Beachum||Ramon Foster||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||96|
|Mike Adams||Kelvin Beachum||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||49|
|Kelvin Beachum||Ramon Foster||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Guy Whimper||48|
|Kelvin Beachum||Ramon Foster||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Mike Adams||3|
|Kelvin Beachum||Guy Whimper||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||19|
|Kelvin Beachum||Cody Wallace||Fernando Velasco||David DeCastro||Marcus Gilbert||10|
|Mike Adams||Kelvin Beachum||Fernando Velasco||Cody Wallace||Marcus Gilbert||28|
|Pro Football Focus|
This sort of turnover on the offensive line has been caustic to the play of the offense. Fans should expect combination Nos. 12 and beyond on Sunday as more injuries struck again last Sunday.
How does a team compensate for this sort of turnover? They do it by executing with pinpoint accuracy. There is some elite talent on this offensive roster, and now they must play like it. That means wide receivers like Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have to have great games. They cannot give up on routes or fight halfway for the football; they must use their speed to dominate the Patriots secondary.
The Steelers must keep it simple, initially—do things to stay on the field and sustain drives. If that means using the passing game as an extension of the run game, so be it. Some fans view the short passing as poor play-calling, but it can be effective in pulling up the safeties and setting up the deep throw.
When the Steelers are on Defense
Even with the struggles of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady this year, you cannot underestimate his talent. A team does not get to 6-2 by accident, regardless of stats.
What I expect the Patriots to do is come out and attempt to establish the run game early. They have averaged just over 120 yards per game this year and the Patriots have used it to set up a more sedate and studious passing attack.
The return of tight end Rob Gronkowski might open the passing game up to a degree, but I do not expect to suddenly see the 2012 incarnation of the offense. But they could be their best they have had all season.
The Steelers struggled mightily with the mobility of Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor. So having a more stationary target in Brady should be welcomed for outside linebackers Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley.
In fact, allowing Woodley and Worilds to focus on the pass rush should be a priority. The defensive line has played the run well this year, and along with inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams, they should be able to keep the run game in check.
On the back end, the Steelers secondary will have to contend with several different matchup scenarios. The return of Gronkowski, along with wide receiver Danny Amendola in addition to receivers Julian Edelman and Aaron Dobson, could create some matchup concerns.
Ideally, cornerback Ike Taylor will play man coverage on Gronkowski. Cornerback William Gay will cover Dobson or Edelman, and safeties Troy Polamalu and Shamarko Thomas will be tasked with chasing around Amendola.
And that's what the Steelers must do. They cannot sit in soft-zone defenses and hope the front four or five rushers will hit Brady. Brady will use his quick-strike skills to pick them apart.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is going to have to trust in his coverage players and with that trust, use some exotic pressures to throw off the timing of the Patriots offense. After a week where individual mistakes cost the Steelers the game, it is going to take very smart football this Sunday to keep up with the Patriots.
Predictions and Implications
After last week's debacle, I can't look at this Steelers team and see a way they can win this week. Individual efforts by many of the players in all three phases were severely lacking. The Patriots are getting healthy are the absolute worst time.
The Patriots had to steal a win last week, but I don't expect that to happen again. The Patriots should be able to come out and dictate tempo on offense, forcing the Steelers out of their game plan, and if they have to play from behind, it won't bode well for the Steelers.
If the Steelers can't pull off the upset on Sunday, the season is essentially over. Fans will begin to call for head coach Mike Tomlin to lose his job, general manager Kevin Colbert to lose his and half the roster to be cut. Nevertheless, the fact is, if the Steelers lose on Sunday, life will go on and they will keep trying to win out, even if it doesn't mean anything.