In the grand scheme of things, the Pittsburgh Steelers losing to the Baltimore Ravens last Thursday in a heartbreaker wasn't the end of the world. The AFC continues to be a huge jumble of mediocre football teams scrambling for a Wild Card spot like sharks butting heads for chum.
In fact, if the playoffs started today, while the Steelers would be out, they would be the ninth seed and only a game out of the playoffs.
This week, the Steelers host the Miami Dolphins, one of the teams ahead of them in this playoff push, meaning a win would carry tremendous weight.
Here's an early look at what you need to know heading into the week.
It is starting to look like the Cincinnati Bengals are putting away the AFC North title. They continue to find ways to win, even when they don't play great football. If one assumes the North is out of reach, it will take a combination of wins by the Steelers and losses by the Ravens, Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers to make all this work.
In no way is it out of the question for the Steelers to win out and finish the season at 9-7. But historically, the value of that record is questionable. The last time the Steelers finished 9-7 and made the playoffs was 20 years ago.
Nothing is a given, so all the Steelers can do is continue to compete.
More bad news from Thursday's game: The Steelers lost two more offensive linemen, one for the rest of the season.
Center Fernando Velasco had been a delightful surprise after he signed as a free agent earlier in the season. However, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, his season is over.
Steelers placed center Fernando Velasco on IR. Steelers also signed OT Rashad Butler and C Eric Olsen.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) November 30, 2013
Fellow starting offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum was also injured during the game. According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, things aren't going well.
#Steelers OT Kelvin Beachum (knee) limping heavily through the parking lot as teammates practice— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) December 2, 2013
These two injuries will likely push center Cody Wallace into a starting role and either Guy Whimper or Mike Adams in as the starter at tackle. This situation is so far from ideal, it's hard to comprehend any more disruption along the offensive line.
What Must Improve
Against the Dolphins, there are really two areas that must improve.
First, the offensive play-calling has to improve. Starting off games with an ultra-conservative game plan is putting the Steelers behind from the very beginning.
This team is already running on fumes along the offensive line, so bringing in extra linemen and sending their backs into a congested mess is probably a bad idea. The Steelers have too much talent at the skill positions to continue to trot out jumbo sets early in games, leaving those players on the sidelines.
The other area that needs improvement is the defensive secondary. Whether it is simplifying the schemes, offering more help or using pressures to take some heat off them, there has to be some way to mask the problems in the back of the Pittsburgh defense.
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