Pittsburgh Steelers' Season Reaches Critical Mass

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Pittsburgh Steelers' Season Reaches Critical Mass
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The 2009 season has reached critical mass for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It's make or break time.

The next few weeks will determine if the Steelers will be legitimate playoff contenders—with hopes of defending their world title—or outside looking in with a severe case of Super Bowl hangover, wondering what went wrong.

Many factors have contributed to the 6-4 record, the low point of the season being Sunday's stunning loss to the Chiefs.

Horrible special teams, injuries, inconsistent play-calling, and an overall lack of focus and intensity late in games have damaged the Steelers' psyche.

Only the Raiders' defeat of the Bengals saved Pittsburgh from being kicked out of the AFC North race.

The locker room is not in harmony. The players are not on the same page. You can see it on their faces. The tension is as thick as pea soup.

Even media-shy James Harrison publicly voiced his concerns.

"I just think we need to start playing team ball, whatever needs to be done for the team," the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year said after the game. "I don't think we have done that yet. We just have to play better as a whole team."

Just when the Steelers thought it couldn't get any worse...it did.

Backup QB Charlie Batch, who came in when Ben Roethlisberger was kneed in the head in overtime against Kansas City, broke his wrist and is lost for the remainder of the season. He'll have surgery today or tomorrow.

The loss is a huge one for Pittsburgh. Batch is an experienced veteran who knows the offense inside out. He was the insurance policy Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had in case Big Ben went down.

Even though Roethlisberger appears to have recovered quickly from his concussion-like symptoms and is expected to play against Baltimore on Sunday, the Steelers should be concerned.

Big Ben has been sacked three or more times in eight straight games. No matter how big or mobile he is, you can only withstand so much punishment before the body gives out.

Couple that with the loss of guard Chris Kemoeatu to an MCL sprain and the situation looks even more grim. Kemoeatu was playing the best football of his career and was probably the most consistent lineman on the team. Rookie Ramon Foster, a converted tackle, will take his place in the starting lineup.

The Steelers can't win without Roethlisberger at quarterback and Batch as his backup. That's the reality of the situation.

Tomlin and his staff must find a way to keep Big Ben from being punished on a regular basis if they want to see the playoffs this season. If he gets dinged in the head again or worse, kiss Pittsburgh goodbye.

Who do they have behind him if he goes down?

Dennis Dixon has moved up to the No. 2 spot in place of Batch.

Dixon is a tremendous athlete, but he was a spread-option quarterback from high school on through his college days at Oregon. He never took a snap from under center until he got to the NFL.

The Steelers do run a lot of shotgun, but Dixon, even after two years, has not grasped the complicated system offensive coordinator Bruce Arians runs. Now he's one heartbeat away from being the starting quarterback. Not so comforting for Tomlin and company to think about.

The front office is going to sign Tyler Palko, the former Pitt QB who was with Arizona during preseason, and make him the No. 3. Palko won't be able to come in and pick up this offense in just six weeks. That's asking too much.

The rumor mill is churning that the Steelers will try to sign Jeff Garcia for a worst-case scenario.

Would his signing make a huge difference?

Not much.

Garcia is a capable veteran, but he is a product of the West Coast system. Just like leopards can't change their spots, it's very hard to ask a quarterback to learn a new system when he's run something else for a decade or more.

Look at Brett Favre with the Jets last year as an example. Favre struggled to learn a new offensive system, and New York faltered.

Fast forward to 2009.

Favre goes to Minnesota, where coach Brad Childress runs the same type of West Coast scheme Brett did in Green Bay for 16 years. The results: Favre is playing like he did at 30, and the Vikings are 9-1 atop the NFC North.

Garcia has never played in the type of scheme Arians runs. If he came to Pittsburgh, the offense would have to be reduced to something beyond vanilla. He's also pushing 40, and the mobility he once had is gone. Not good news with the amount of sacks this line gives up.

The Steelers are riding a seesaw, teetering between prosperity and disaster.

If they can tighten up the secondary minus Troy Polamalu, protect Roethlisberger better, improve the special team's play, and regain their focus and chemistry, success is assured.

If they fail to shore up those weaknesses in the final six games, a long, cold winter awaits the Steeler Nation.

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