If someone would have said on October 1 that on Week 16 of the NFL regular season the Pittsburgh Steelers would still be in the playoff hunt, that person might have been accused of head trauma.
However, that is exactly where the 6-8 Steelers find themselves as they travel to Green Bay to take on the 7-6-1 Green Bay Packers. The Packers themselves are neck deep in a playoff push in the NFC. So this game should be intense with stakes high.
The effort of the Steelers down this stretch has been impressive. Many teams would have folded up the tents and called it a season weeks ago. This continued effort is evidence of the resolution this team and its staff have. All that will be put to the test against the Packers on Sunday.
Here are some highlights of what you need to know about this week's game.
Even in third place, the Steelers are one of the teams still mathematically in the picture for an AFC wild-card spot. Granted, a lot of things have to fall into place for the Steelers not to be eliminated at the end of Week 16; however, as long as there is hope, this team is going to keep fighting.
The Steelers have dealt with injuries for the entirety of the season. So another week of missing starters is nothing new. Looking back on last week, the Steelers were minus three defensive starters in defensive tackle Steve McLendon, defensive end Brett Keisel and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
At this point, news of injuries is something Steelers fans have become numb to. And seeing players down on the field injured during games hardly moves the meter anymore.
On the injury front, looking ahead to Sunday, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sent out this tweet:
Bouchette (@EdBouchette) December 17, 2013
It's easy to infer from this that, other than Woodley, the rest of the roster appears to be on track to play on Sunday. While Woodley has been solid, his inability to stay on the field has forced this team to adapt to life without him. The same will hold true this weekend.
There is a critical note about injuries on the Packers front: quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It isn't clear if Rodgers will play on Sunday, but assuming he does, he is not concerned about rust. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shared this:
Silverstein (@TomSilverstein) December 17, 2013
It's hard to imagine with so much on the line that Rodgers won't play if at all possible. Adding Rodgers to the mix would significantly change the game plan of the Steelers. Rodgers adds not only the element of being one of the best passers in the league, but also the element of motivating the entire team to play a little harder.
There's no reason for the Packers to make any announcements about Rodgers and his status until as late as possible. This will force the Steelers to prepare for both Rodgers and quarterback Matt Flynn. The clear strategy here is to assume Rodgers gets on the field and plan accordingly. Hard to imagine a game plan to stop him won't have success against Flynn.
What Must Improve
Last Sunday, the Steelers played a very good all-around game against the Cincinnati Bengals on the way to a 30-20 win. Looking ahead to the Packers, it has to be more of the same. Balanced offense and stout defense must be on tap for a full 60 minutes. If Rodgers can't go, the Steelers should expect a steady dose of rookie running back Eddie Lacy, so the focus on improvement has to be in the run game.
However, should Rodgers return, the focus must turn to rushing the passer with only four and playing sound coverage behind them. A key to that will be utilizing the speed of cornerback Cortez Allen against wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Smart coverage concepts will be key.
What do you think Aaron Rodgers does on Sunday?
The Steelers have tried multiple coverage schemes, with mixed results. This week, the Steelers need to trust in their talent, instead of trying too much novelty with the coverages. Instead of having a cornerback like Ike Taylor chase a particular wide receiver around, just line up and play. Keep a single deep safety, and play smart assignment football.