Pittsburgh Steelers 2011: 10 Biggest Obstacles to Super Bowl XLVI Win

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IINovember 21, 2011

Pittsburgh Steelers 2011: 10 Biggest Obstacles to Super Bowl XLVI Win

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers 2011 season has been a dichotomous showcase of good and bad, with the team demonstrating championship strengths and liable weaknesses. In essence, there is reason for hope and concern with regard to a potential Black and Gold victory in Super Bowl XLVI.

    Whether sheer optimism or placing faith in recent successes, few in the Steel City would argue against the notion that the Men of Steel are capable of returning to their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons, a feat that only one other Steelers team has accomplished in that amount of time. The '70s Steelers (you know, those guys...) made their fourth showing in only six years.

    In fact, in a league where teams have never made it to the Super Bowl, only the Patriots and Bills franchises have seen as many trips in a seven year span. 

    Still, despite being in the midst of the second greatest era of Steelers football, there are certainly challenges in the midst that could prevent 2011 from making the all-time list of championship seasons.

    This countdown lists the hurdles that Steelers fans can expect to challenge the team during their journey to (hopefully) Indianapolis.

    Certainly, improving their own game and solidifying their style of play in late December will be the most important challenge, as with any NFL team in contention. Surely, these Steelers have proven their ability to do what is necessary time and again. What about this time?

    From what lies in-house to the outside factors (and teams) that threaten to prevent a happy union of Lombardi and the 'Burgh, here are the 10 biggest obstacles the Steelers will have to overcome if they wish to win another championship.

Missing the List: Defensive Consistency

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    Old and slow. Those were the keywords people were using early in the season to describe the Steelers surprising struggles.

    Premature diagnosis. That is the term most folks are using now.

    Still, for their improvement in key areas- from tackling to gap control to forcing turnovers—a few glowing contests for opposing offenses allowed Steelers fans to witness a glimmer of what can happen when that defensive prowess is taken for granted or not executed well enough.

    Additionally, the unit struggled to force mistakes—even from rookie passers—or get pressure in the early weeks.

    Since an auspicious beginning to 2011, fans have grown accustomed to the normal defensive effort by the Black and Gold since about mid-October. Adding to the impressive turnaround is the fact that injuries have threatened to unhinge the defense.  arrison, Farrior and Lamarr (there's only one Lamarr) have missed time, even overlapping, and other key players have stepped up—from Timmons to Worilds.   

    And, who doubted Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel, two heavily underrated cogs in the Steelers front, would get the job done?

    Dick LeBeau needs this unit to play its best football going forward. Steelers fans have come to embrace an identity that normally includes running the ball and shutting down the opposition. While the former has been slightly countered by a supreme passing attack, the latter is mandatory if any success can be expected.

    Sure, since their shaky start, giving up holes and hundred yard games, the defense has responded. Yet, wasn't it just three weeks ago that Joe Flacco and the Ravens converted on 14-of-21 third down opportunities?

    For the only outcome that is becoming to the 'Burgh, those types of numbers cannot be allowed. In fact, Flacco consistently beat the blitz on many of those conversions, putting up great numbers against a Steelers secondary that many skeptics view as a weakness. In fact, it was a last-second touchdown pass that evening that ultimately defeated the Steelers.

    The secondary may seem suspect, but it ranks among the league's best teams with respect to fewest yards per attempt surrendered (even dating back to last season) and features two studs in Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. 

    While the failure of the defense could be catastrophic to aspirations in January, this potential obstacle misses the top ten for one reason: respect. They typically rank among the best in the NFL at almost everything (amazingly), so it's difficult to label them as an "obstacle."

    After three conference championships, years of solid play, weeks of steady improvement, a great mastermind at the controls and wonderful athletes, one has to give the group the benefit of good faith as it concerns getting the job done.

No. 10: Seas of Red

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    Every win is important, and two road contests provide clear challenged. Arrowhead Stadium is often considered one of the toughest places to play, and the San Francisco 49ers success is creating another rowdy "Red Sea" in California.

    How perceptions change! In the preseason, the 2011 Steelers schedule seemed to have two chapters.

    Chapter 1: The Hard Part (Baltimore, New England, Houston, etc.)

    Chapter 2: The Easy Part (Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis...)

    ....San Francisco?

    Many wonder just how capable the 49ers are in the NFC, especially considering their divisional competition, ranging from Slippery Rock to Cal Polytech High School. Some of those questions may have been answered during a 27-20 win over the Giants, a team that entered San Fran with a 6-2 record identical to Pittsburgh.

    Jim Harbaugh has Alex Smith playing well within an offense that is able to run with Frank Gore and utilize the play action pass with (so far) deadly efficiency. With Smith avoiding mistakes and the San Francisco defense smothering opponents, the December trip to California suddenly threatens to blemish the Steelers' record without a supreme effort.

    Still, more than a few fans see San Francisco's 9-1 record as the result of cumulative inferior competition; the Steelers cannot afford this mindset, just like they can't look past the team that lost 41-7 at home to Buffalo on opening weekend.

    A trip to Arrowhead Stadium stood out as a challenge amidst a seemingly weak second-half schedule back in August. Yet, the Chiefs are a team in serious trouble. That shouldn't negate the fact that anything can happen in Arrowhead if the Steelers don't put K.C. away.

    Despite their struggles, including a home 31-3 home loss to Miami and 17-7 letdown against Tebow and the Broncos, any trip to Kansas City cannot be taken lightly. Need any fan be reminded of the overtime loss in Missouri two years ago?

    In a race where every game is important, these two venues will certainly provide raucous crowds, whose teams are prepared to make a statement. 

    While all of the remaining games are crucial, these two road contests into "Seas of Red" cannot be taken lightly. 

No. 9: Super Bowl Hangover

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    Ranking near the bottom of the list, this obstacle is more hysteria than an actual hurdle, but it is worth noting. Super Bowl losing teams have had an atrocious track record in their subsequent seasons.

    We're not talking about a few seasons of bad luck. In fact, the lackluster followups to near-championships by these heartbroken squads is downright eerie.

    Of the last 13 NFL runners-up, only four have made the postseason. Combined, the four squads won how many playoff games?

    Take a moment to think it over....

    Do you have your answer? 

    The total playoff wins combined for Super Bowl losers since 1997 is: ONE. The '09 Arizona Cardinals defeated the Green Bay Packers in a wild overtime affair, 51-45.

    Going back to the start of the trend, the 1998 Packers lost "The Catch II" in San Francisco.

    The 1999 Falcons missed the playoffs.

    The 2000 Titans lost to the eventual champion Ravens, 24-10.

    The 2001 Giants missed the playoffs.

    The 2002 Rams missed the playoffs.

    The 2003 Buccaneers.....  well, you get the point!  The next loser to make the playoffs was the 2009 Cardinals squad, who would lose to the Saints in the divisional playoffs. Last season, those champion Saints lost to the Seahawks, 41-36.

    While history certainly hints at struggles ahead for the 'Burgh, the results of the past cannot be used to restrict the potential of any team in the present. 

    Still, the "Super Bowl hangover" is brought up every season by analysts who are fully aware of this trend. The Steelers can buck a severe pattern with a return trip to the big game!

No. 8: Suisham for the Win!

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    Against the Ravens, many fans were upset with the decision of Tomlin not to have Suisham attempt a field goal to give Pittsburgh a 23-16 lead. 

    While this would have given a seven-point cushion, the risk of a miss (especially considering the nightmare that is kicking at Heinz Field) would have given the Ravens possession with ideal field position. Thus, the Steelers punted the ball.

    The outcome did not work to his favor, but others understood Tomlin's rationale. After all, few have absolute faith in the ability of the kicker to convert, especially from long distances.

    So, be honest, which Super Bowl scenario would you rather have?

    A) The offense trailing by four points with 2:50 remaining, two timeouts, taking over at their own 20-yard line.

    B) A field goal attempt of 50 yards by Suisham in ideal conditions, trailing 23-21 with 0:04 left.

    To have to think about this in today's NFL is unfortunate, considering that NFL kickers convert from 50  yards out approximately 70 percent of the time. Who knows if he can put his own foot in my mouth, but I have little faith in any kick of distance from Suisham, especially in a do-or-die circumstance.

No. 7: Green Bay Packers

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    The Packers are 10-0 despite some suspect moments (and games) on defense, namely due to a juggernaut offense with an array of great receivers and maestro Aaron Rodgers.

    Who can deny the quality of his play and authenticity of his development, having sat on the bench patiently for years before having the chance to demonstrate superiority (yeah, I said it!) over his predecessor, Brett Favre.

    Last season, Pittsburgh lost to Rodgers as the MVP put on a show, completing 24-of-39 passes with three touchdowns.  Arguably, his completion rate could have approached 75 percent without key drops. 

    With a championship pedigree, the Pack are on the repeat attack, and a Super Bowl rematch against the Lambeau loonies would be quite a challenge. The Steelers have the talent to defeat Green Bay, but they would have to play a pristine game.

    Given the hungry teams in the AFC, the Steelers have more than one threat to take care of from their own conference. While most would label the Packers as the league's best team, playing Green Bay requires getting to Indianapolis first.

No. 6: New England Patriots

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    Many Steelers fans cringed during the week approaching another key contest against Tom Brady. The secondary had struggled mightily against spread offenses led by great quarterbacks, and the series history was lopsided and entirely disenchanting. Steelers Country simply had bad memories.

    Ironically, Halloween saw many of those nightmares put to rest. With one of the league's worst pass defenses, the Patriots looked utterly inept, unable to stop Ben Roethlisberger from putting on his own version of the "Greatest Show" during Halloween weekend at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 25-17.

    While Halloween has been a Transylvania trick for the Pats, the playoffs have been a Pennyslvania treat. Brady is 2-0 against the Men of Steel in January, most notably in a 41-27 drubbing during a rematch in 2004. Earlier that season, the Steelers owned the Patriots in nearly every category, namely time of possession. In the encore performance, Brady and company were ready to exploit Pittsburgh's aggressive defense with misdirection.

    With every new game, it seems like No. 12 and his offense have new tricks up their sleeves for the Steelers, making any contest against New England naturally unsettling. Those familiar with the history of the series understand this threat....and the heartache associated with it.

    Additionally, many have touched on Bill Belichick's uncanny knack for getting the better of his opponents in rematches.

    Yet, those playoff losses were then. This is now, and the Patriots defense is not what it used to be!

    Still, even with adjustments, can the Patriots secondary hope to contain Big Ben and his litany of dynamic receivers? If the two teams meet again this winter, will Roethlisberger be able to out-Brady the Pats again?

    In his postgame press conference after the Oct. 30 defeat, Tom Brady said, "We never really played the game on our terms."

    Down early and without the football, Brady watched most of the game from the sideline. Despite this challenge, his team lost by one score, and he was the highest rated quarterback in that football game.

    With the lead, the Patriots leader has proven that he can play many games on his terms. If they meet in the postseason, the Steelers would be wise to avoid learning those conditions!

No. 5: The Offensive Line and Running Game

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    More important than worrying about any other opponent is focusing on your own gameplay, and the Steelers need major improvement running the football.

    While it is clear that the team has transitioned to "Big Ben's offense" and a pass-oriented structure, the deterrence of the running game is critical. Teams forced to honor the run have twice the problems to deal with, and a solid run offense sets up play action passing beautifully.

    Additionally, the Steelers have struggled to put games away on offense, namely for the inability to run the ball. While it could be argued that their efforts to run the clock out in the fourth quarter have been predictable, the execution of those plays has been so astoundingly lackluster as well. 

    With linemen being blown up in their run blocking assignments, gaps have been inaccessible for Rashard Mendenhall and brutish Isaac Redman.

    Nobody wants to give the football back to Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or even Joe Flacco when it isn't necessary. The Steelers learned this firsthand a few weeks ago. Imagine that pain in January!

    Nobody expects a run-first attack from the 2011 Steelers, but the ability to put in a solid rushing effort is critical. 

    The offensive line has been much maligned for their inability to protect Ben Roethlisberger, who insists that sacks are the result of his style of play. While this is partly true, nobody would argue that the protection for Big Ben was putrid in the first month of the season.

    From Mario Williams to Dwight Freeney, teams feasted on the junk offensive front the Steelers fielded.  In an emergency, the team returned Max Starks to the lineup. His presence has had a clear and positive impact, and his play has been solid since returning.

    Against the Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times, showing there is still work to be done. With his thumb already broken, it is more imperative than ever to protect the man who most impacts the ability of the Steelers to win a seventh championship.

No. 4: Winning the Games They Should and Taking Nothing for Granted!

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    While contests against the surprising Bengals and 49ers should certainly cause the adrenal glands to pump harder than usual, games against the Browns and Rams can't be overlooked.

    In a scenario where tie-breakers belong to Baltimore and homefield advantage requires a division championship, every game is a huge affair. The Steelers cannot afford to overlook anybody.

    Most teams lose a game they should not lose. It's the nature of the NFL, and it demonstrates the thin line between teams that are 5-11 and 11-5.

    If Pittsburgh plans to play football at Heinz Field after they host the Rams on Dec. 24, the Steelers cannot take contest like the one on Christmas Eve lightly.

    Every team in the NFL has talent; with six games left, no game can be allowed to become a "trap" game. After all, without an upset, the label of "trap game" never applies. 

No. 3: Baltimore Ravens

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    As far as the one team posing the biggest threat, could it be any other? From their recent wins to the threat of having to play on the road, the Ravens hold much of Pittsburgh's playoff path in their own hands.

    Baltimore: Brutes. Bullies.

    And, in a manner of speaking: brothers. They're like us.  

    After all, these teams keep it all in the football family, priding themselves on physical play and beating each other.

    As that last goal is concerned, the Ravens have had their way with the Steelers in 2011, winning both contests and earning an inside track to the AFC North Championship.

    If absence makes the heart grow fonder, no wonder these teams hate each other! Having matched in the postseason twice in the past three seasons, odds seem to favor a third meeting between the clubs. 

    Surely, Baltimore will have a three-game sweep in mind as vengeance for the 2008 season, when Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl and beat the Ravens for the conference championship.

    In their last meeting, Joe Flacco appeared to come of age, converting on seemingly every key third down and leading his squad to the game-winning score. It was the second consecutive regular season meeting at Heinz Field in which Flacco pulled out a winning toss in the final seconds. 

    Additionally, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and Torrey Smith are among the cast of characters that make this contest so taxing!

    Despite losing both games, the Steelers could have easily beaten the Ravens on Sunday Night Football and nearly assured themselves of a top seed in the AFC playoff picture. Still, if "ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas."  

    Here or there, Steelers fans would love nothing more as a post-Christmas gift than to knock purple from the postseason for a fourth time. If the teams square off for a third bloodbath in 2011-12, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and crew will be determined to reestablish their winning ways in the series.

    Baltimore will be equally determined to continue their streak of success.

No. 2: AFC North Championship

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    Winning the division would be a blessing, allowing Pittsburgh to play at home, where they've secured Super Bowl berths in each of their last two such playoff campaigns.

    Yet, what if the Ravens win the AFC North? More threatening than the mere challenge of playing Baltimore is surely having to face them in Maryland.

    Can it be done? Sure. The Steelers have won many huge games on Ravens turf. 

    Additionally, the 2005 Steelers are a recent monument to the ability of a team to play on the road and win a championship.

    That still doesn't mean going on the road is more advisable than playing in the 'Burgh.  Accomplishing this goal requires the AFC North Division Championship.

    Despite the success of recent Wild Card teams, traveling in the postseason adds a unique challenge and difficulty. Having gone 4-0 at Heinz Field in the last two playoff campaigns, it is only logical to desire a home path to Indy. 

    With Baltimore recently extending its home winning streak and the Patriots recently surrendering Brady's absurd winning stretch at Gillette Stadium, road wins are no gimme these days. Forcing those squads to come to Western Pennsylvania amongst tens of thousands of fanatical towel-waving fanatics will only make the journey tougher for them.

    With Baltimore having the edge in division record and head-to-head, the Steelers must have a better record than the Ravens to win the North, thus making this an obstacle. Can Pittsburgh turn this into a blessing?

    Fans in the 'Burgh sure hope so as there is nothing like playoff football in the Steel City.

No. 1: Health

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    The importance of health cannot be understated, and it is the single most important hurdle that the Steelers and every other franchise have to overcome—or stave off—to win the Lombardi Trophy.

    As an example, Troy Polamalu played injured in the 2012 playoffs. He was clearly not himself last season, and his performances were cited by fans as uncharacteristic. At best. In the end, who knows if that one extra play by a healthy Troy helps stave off the Packers?

    While the team overcame injuries last year, the exhaustive process is best avoided. Having the team at near full-strength is vital to overcome the league's best teams. In fact, a healthy Steelers squad is among that list of greats.

    A bye week would certainly help the healing process at the end of the season. Yet, at any given time, that one key ACL can tear....or worse.

    Naturally, with Ben's thumb broken and six weeks before playoff action, fans think about other cities where franchise passers have recently fallen.

    Consider the Texans if Matt Schaub absolutely doesn't return or imagine the Bears now without Jay Cutler. The outlook for those franchises has changed dramatically, whether they'll admit it or the outcome supports it.

    Sure, the Packers seemed destined for greatness. As such, their top priority IS the health of Aaron Rodgers. It can't NOT be.

    With many great players, the Steelers have the talent required to bring home a seventh championship.  Here's hoping that talent stays on the field for 11 more weeks!