It's time to kick the hangover.
Lose to Oakland, however, and the Steelers can start scheduling tee times for January.
The problem is that this team has a healthy supply of problems to fix. Not all of them can likely be fixed on the fly, but some can be fixed with a few simple tweaks.
Let's break it all down.
Cold, Hard Realities
1. If the Steelers want to win another Super Bowl, they'll have to do it the way they did in 2005, when Bill Cowher's team stormed to a strong finish after struggling mid-season and then were the ultimate road warriors in playoffs.
2. Face it, detractors. Bruce Arians isn't going anywhere until season's end, if at all. Despite all his transgressions as a coordinator, he has a good relationship with the players and he has the respect of the organization. Firing him would not be as easy as some might think.
3. Troy Polamalu may not be completely healthy again this season. He is likely to sit out this weekend's game against the Raiders, and the nature of knee injuries makes it likely that this will nag him through the remainder of the season.
4. The coverage units are killing Pittsburgh and nothing the team has done has made an impact. While the Steelers did not give Baltimore a touchdown on a return, they did let punt returners gain far too many yards. I saw Daniel Sepulveda make a tackle. Enough said.
The Good News
Besides the schedule, there is some other good news for the Steelers.
1. Ben Roethlisberger will be back against Oakland, barring a setback. That in itself is good news, but the better news is that he was out for a week. Finally, Steelers fans and coaches know what Dennis Dixon brings. You can bet a lot of teams are kicking themselves for passing on this young man not once, but five times.
The best thing about Dixon's debut is that it gives the Steelers another weapon to use whenever things aren't rolling. Dixon is a runner like Roethlisberger, and he's a speedy guy who can turn the corner.
He also showed enough poise and talent to be the team's top backup from now on.
2. Teams still can't run on Pittsburgh's defense. Ray Rice got some nice yards, but opposing rushing attacks have yet to beat the Steelers. They've corralled the league's best backs.
Save for Miami, the teams they will face the rest of the season either have below average offensive lines or poor rushing attacks, so their streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher appears safe for another season.
3. The Steelers nearly beat Baltimore with three of their most integral players out. Had any one of Ben Roethlisberger, Chris Kemoeatu, or Troy Polamalu played, Pittsburgh would have won the game. That bodes well for an end-of-the-season rematch.
4. The Steelers have their backs against the wall. In 2005, the Steelers found themselves in the same situation. This team revels in being an underdog. Now that they've dug themselves a hole, perhaps the Steelers will regain some of that swagger. If they do and start rolling, they can hang with anyone.
5. The Steelers have yet to be outplayed. They've done everything in five losses to beat themselves. None of Cincinnati (twice), Baltimore, Kansas City, or Chicago has managed to outplay them, however.
If Pittsburgh can stop beating itself, the Steelers probably won't lose. They have the talent to play with anyone. They just lack the results.
The Bad News
It's not all rosy, however. If it were, the team would have only one loss (let's say it was one of the Bengals games). Here's the bad news.
1. The Steelers can't do two things that are absolutely essential when you get into the playoffs and start facing consistently high caliber teams: cover kicks and punts, and play defense consistently.
Against Baltimore, the Steelers defense must have driven Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau crazy. They'd have a lights-out stand where Joe Flacco would look like a confused and pressured rookie. Then they'd follow it up by allowing him to drive the Ravens down the field with all the poise and accuracy of Brett Favre.
The coverage continues to be terrible. It's wonderful to have a punter who can plant the ball deep in opposing territory. It's not so wonderful when his kicks get returned twenty or thirty yards. The same goes for kickoffs, which have been bad all season long.
2. Bruce Arians cannot call games. Against the Ravens, I began to wonder if he is afraid of success. It seemed that they found out exactly what Dennis Dixon could do to menace the Ravens, then did everything but that in the second half.
When Roethlisberger is playing, it's harder to notice simply because Ben changes plays at the line and runs the offense himself somewhat regularly.
The deal breaker for me is that, late in games, the Steelers have had trouble moving the football. When you look at the plays being run, it's no wonder why.
Two calls in the last two weeks made no sense. Coincidentally, they were the last offensive plays of each game.
The toss to Mewelde Moore in Kansas City made absolutely no sense. Asking Dixon, who had been struggling with zone coverage the entire second half, to throw a pass under pressure to keep a drive moving also made no sense. Dixon could have run with the ball or given a run/pass option. Instead, his pass was intercepted.
3. The Steelers have looked absolutely uninspired against divisional opponents this season. They've played lackluster games against each. Even worse, in all four contests, their opponents weren't playing very well, either.
The Steelers put the Bengals' backs against the wall in their first match, only to fall apart late. Against Cleveland, Pittsburgh played good enough to win, but didn't put away a spectacularly awful Browns team convincingly.
Back against Cincy, the Bengals struggled to move the ball, but the Steelers matched them for offensive ineptitude. Against the Ravens, the Steelers only played better when Baltimore was playing better.
4. The Steelers probably cannot sustain another major injury, particularly to Rashard Mendenhall, Ben Roethlisberger, or one of the linebackers.
Losing any of the above would probably spell doom. Willie Parker has been effective in relief, but it's unlikely he'd be as good in a regular role again. Dixon was effective in his first start, but the offense trends toward being too conservative with him under center. The linebackers are making the majority of the plays on defense, meaning that losing any one of them would decrease the production of an already struggling defense.
Troy Polamalu will not be 100 percent for the rest of the year, either. The Steelers need to rest him as much as possible down the stretch so he can be effective in postseason games. Missing games against the Raiders and Browns would likely not have a terribly adverse effect.
The Fix Is In
So how do you utilize the good news, repair the bad news, and cope with the realities?
1. Blitz on defense. Whenever the Steelers have utilized blitz packages, even without Troy Polamalu on the field, they have been very effective. The problem has been that Dick LeBeau has been hesitant to blitz in the absence of his talented strong safety.
Against Baltimore in the second half, the Steelers began using several exotic blitzes that not only shredded a tough Ravens line but also left Joe Flacco utterly confused and probably badly bruised.
The greatest strengths the Steelers' defense has are its speed and ability to blitz from anywhere. They need to use those now, regardless of Polamalu's status.
2. Shake up the plays on offense. Why not use Dennis Dixon a few snaps each game? He can run the option, which would likely work a couple of times and could be effective if drives are stalling consistently.
Also, if you paid attention to the Ravens game, you noticed that when the Steelers pass on first down, they routinely complete those throws. Teams don't expect the Steelers to throw on early downs, so they stack the box. They need to start using that.
It also wouldn't hurt to run the no-huddle in situations in which the Steelers can wear out or exploit an opposing defense. Ben Roethlisberger operates a near-flawless no-huddle attack, so it makes sense that we'd start seeing it more often.
Finally, for Bruce Arians: When in doubt, let Ben call the plays.
3. Play the starters on coverage units. I know it's risky and could lead to further injuries, but the basic fact is that if you can't cover kicks and punts, you can't win the Super Bowl.
Brett Keisel, James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, and probably even Ryan Clark would be excellent on coverage units. They certainly couldn't do worse than the current specialists are doing.
Somehow, Mike Tomlin has to put an end to this. This is the only quick way to fix it.
4. Create some urgency. The Steelers have a tendency to play down to opponents who shouldn't even be on the same field. We saw it in Kansas City and, to a lesser degree, in Baltimore.
It's time it stops.
The Steelers rise to the occasion when they face good teams. Remember when they put away the Vikings?
Mike Tomlin needs to light them up for every game. This weekend against Oakland is the perfect litmus test. Get the Steelers motivated and fired up and then see how they handle an inferior team.
There's no harm in a little motivation.
A record of 6-5 is manageable. The team is only a few plays from winning four more games. In fact, it is only a few plays from being undefeated.
The Steelers' task the rest of the way is to make sure they start making those plays regularly.
When they are on, they are very difficult for anyone to beat.
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