Gasping for NFL Playoff Breath

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2009

BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 29:  Dennis Dixon #2 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs against the  Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 29, 2009 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Steelers 20-17. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

Due to some bizarre scenarios, there is a faint heartbeat keeping the Steelers playoff chances alive.

But the problems that put the Steelers in such a precarious situation where they don’t control their destiny outweigh the playoff hopes.

So much so that Coach Tomlin took some bold strategic moves to downplay Steelers weaknesses against the Green Bay Packers to put the Steelers in the win column after five straight losses.

It was necessary since two of the three phases of the game have underachieved throughout the year.

The Steelers have struggled in kick coverage all season.

They allowed a league-high four kickoff return for touchdowns in five games before not permitting one during their 20-17 loss to Baltimore.

Lacking confidence with the special teams’ coverage unit, Tomlin called for a pooch kick which came up short. The purpose was to keep the opponent from taking an opportunity to return a kick for a touchdown. Instead, it put the opponent in good field position in the hopes the defense would either hold them to no score, or at the most a field goal.

The defense had allowed three fourth quarter touchdowns to the Packers.

Now up by two points and approximately four minutes left, Tomlin boldly called for an onside kick. Although they failed to recover it, the idea worked. Tomlin lacked confidence in the defense to stop the Packers from chewing up clock with a long drive in an attempt to kick a field goal, or even worse, score a touchdown with little time left.

The intention was to recover the ball. Unfortunately, CB Ike Taylor touched it before it went 10 yards, giving the ball back to the Packers. But with the Packers taking possession, Tomlin banked on hope that the Packers would score and score quickly with time to spare.

This move was to get the ball back into the confident hands of his quarterback to go for the win.

It came down to the passing game, focusing on the interior of the field and taking strikes in the end zone because the running game was stifled.

The Steelers are now in the precarious position to defend their honor and keep their playoff hopes alive meeting their division rival, the Baltimore Ravens.

The (8-6) Ravens have a two-game winning streak against the Bears and Detroit, and can lock a playoff berth winning their last two games.

The Ravens won the first meeting at home in overtime without QB Roethlisberger at the helm.

Roethlisberger coming off a 503-yard passing day last Sunday will likely want to repeat that feat against the No. 4 ranked defense that has allowed only 16.1 points per game, and surrendered the fewest number of touchdowns.

The Steeler receiving corps has become decimated with Hines Ward suffering an aggravated hamstring, Mike Wallace-bruised knee, and Limas Sweed, out the rest of the season on an undisclosed non-football related illness.

In place of Sweed, the Steelers signed veteran WR Joey Galloway to the lineup.

Galloway started his NFL career drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 1995. In 1999, he was released to spend three years as a Cowboy, three with Tampa Bay (Tomlin was defensive backs coach then), and earlier this season with the New England Patriots.

Although an accomplished receiver in his own right, Galloway hasn’t caught a touchdown since 2007 in Tampa Bay. At New England, Galloway caught seven passes for 67 yards.

The Steeler defense will have to do better against the running game this time.

In the last contest, RB Ray Rice almost single-handedly won the game accumulating a combined total of 155 yards rushing and receiving including a 44-yard run off a fourth-down reception in the fourth quarter.

Although it is questionable the SS Ed Reed will be in the lineup, one who was missing last time will return, LB Terrel Suggs. Suggs is a game changer. He along with LB Ray Lewis will keep the offensive line busy as they attempt to keep Roethlisberger off his back.

Unfortunately, the Steeler defense issues in the fourth quarter continue to stymie the most discerning of analysts.  Sunday, the Green Bay Packers were allowed to make three-fourth quarter touchdowns that put them in position to win the game. In the last meeting against the Ravens, the Steeler defense allowed a fourth-quarter field goal to tie and a field goal in overtime to allow the Ravens to win.

Considering how the Steeler special teams’ have performed this year, it is scary to think that they will be up against the third best kickoff return unit in the NFL led by CB Lardarius Webb.

But Tomlin says they are “not dead yet.”

Heinz Field has always been a “house of horrors." The Steelers have won the past three meetings at home. The Ravens are 2-8 at Heinz Field since its opening in 2001. Ravens QB Joe Flacco, however, is 1-3 against the Steelers.

The Steelers must win their final two games to finish 9-7.  A loss against the Ravens or the Miami Dolphins and they are done.

The Steelers need a three-way tie with Baltimore and Denver; then the Steelers and Ravens would advance to the playoffs.