AFC North Matchup No.2: Steelers Must Win Before a Tough 3-Game Road Trip

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent IOctober 14, 2010

PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 13:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers practices at the Pittsburgh Steelers South Side training facility on October 13, 2010 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Losing Ben Roethlisberger early helped the Pittsburgh Steelers in two ways: 1) It established the running game and 2) The defense is back to its stifling form.

The Steelers are last in the pass, averaging 136 yards per game with three touchdowns and the fewest plays run with three or more wide receiver sets on the field.

That part of the offense should improve with the return of Roethlisberger back from a four-game suspension.

In 2009, the Steeler offense ranked fifth in passing with Roethlisberger completing 351 passes on 536 attempts for 4,148 yards and 28 touchdowns. Currently, they sit in the bottom of the barrel.

With the established running game and an improved offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage, we should expect balance in the offense.

The fate of the Steelers is in the hands of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ play-calling and Roethlisberger’s decision-making.

The importance of the next five games is crucial to the fate to the Steelers if they expect to participate in the post-season.

Sunday is a must-win game against a 1-4 team the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns will face the Steelers after a heart-breaking loss against the Atlanta Falcons last week. It was a game they could have won if QB Seneca Wallace hadn’t injured his ankle. In all 5 games, the Browns have won or lost close.

It is a must-win game not only because the Browns are division rivals, but it supersedes a three-road game schedule against Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati. All are good teams.

In addition, statistically, over the years, teams who play the third game of a three-game schedule on the road have an abysmal record especially against good teams.  Although Cincinnati has been disappointing thus far, they are still a division opponent.

After losing to the Ravens, the Steelers can ill-afford to lose to another division opponent and expect to take the AFC North crown and even worse lose their chance of making it in the playoffs.

With both quarterbacks Wallace and Jake Delholmme suffering ankle injuries, head coach Eric Mangini will likely start his rookie quarterback, Colt McCoy.

This will be McCoy’s first NFL start. The question will be how much of the play book will be open to him and will Mangini be deploying Josh Cribbs in the wildcat offense that threw the Steeler defense off kilter to defeat the Steelers last December 13-6.

Cribbs is still a concern in the return game and he has burned the Steelers taking “the rock to the house.” However, Coach Tomlin seems to feel confident with special teams this season and they have played well.

Last December, Cribbs rushed for 87 yards, caught one pass for 9 yards in the Wild Cat formation and racked up 104 return yards in the return game to help the Browns defeat the Steelers.

The Browns have a stout offense line that is supporting the running game lead by running back Peyton Hillis.  This 250-pound running back has amassed in five games 350 yards rushing, four touchdowns and averages seventy yards per game.

The offensive line is no slouch either with C Alex Mack, guards Steinbach and Womack, tackles Thomas and St Clair.

Although the Browns defense ranked thirteenth overall, they have 10 sacks.

That is important to note since this will be the first time the Steeler offensive line will be protecting Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger’s tendency is to move out the pocket especially when it breaks down to try to make a play, hence longer holding time with the ball which means more demands on the offensive line to keep him upright.

The offense  line has played well up to this point because the previous quarterbacks played from the pocket. The challenge will be how well they manage, especially tackles Flosell Adams and Jonathan Scott who are not all that familiar with Roethlisberger.