The Pittsburgh Steelers look to be in great position to secure a playoff spot.
The Steelers sit in a tie for first place in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens at 7-3. While the Ravens own the tiebreaker with two victories over the Steelers, Pittsburgh can easily grab one of the two wild card spots.
As of now, the Steelers would be the fifth seed in the AFC, and they have a two-game lead over all of the teams behind the Cincinnati Bengals who are currently sitting in the sixth spot. This includes the Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills who all sit at 5-5.
Both the Steelers and Ravens have a favorable schedule down the stretch. Each team has two touch games left against the San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens also play the San Diego Chargers, who have the talent to beat them.
Another reason the Steelers could catch the Ravens is that they have struggled against inferior opponents. The Ravens lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Seattle Seahawks, who both have losing records, and had to come from way behind to beat the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers lost to Baltimore twice and the Houston Texans.
What's more, the Steelers won the Super Bowl as a sixth seed. They know how to win in the postseason; all they need is a ticket to the show! I feel confident they will make it, but there are situations that they could miss out.
Lets take a look at scenarios all Steelers fans should dread as we near the 2011 playoffs.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley's absence hurts the defense more than any words can describe.
When Woodley is in the game, it takes pressure off of the other players, especially fellow linebacker James Harrison. The defense doesn't generate nearly the same amount of pressure without big No. 56 on the field.
Woodley has nine sacks this season, including a three-game run of two sacks a game. The streak ended, as he was forced to sit out last weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals with a hamstring injury. From what I've heard, he isn't expected to play against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night either.
If this injury lingers throughout the remainder of the season, the Steelers defense will suffer.
Not something the Steelers can afford leading up to the playoffs, especially considering how much the defensive scheme relies on pressuring the opposing quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu has yet to record his first interception of the season.
At times, he looks so disinterested I swear the real Troy was kidnapped by a group of rival fans and is locked up somewhere. Perhaps it was bitter Bengals fans who are still fuming over the injury to Carson Palmer in the playoffs a few years ago?
All joking aside, Polamalu needs to step up his play if the Steelers are to make a playoff run. As it stands, he has misplayed balls in coverage and completely given up, as he did covering A.J. Green. The Troy of old would have intercepted that ball instead of watching safety Ryan Clark flail around with his back to the ball.
Clark is a huge liability; I'm sure Troy can see this. Even if the Steelers continue to win and make the playoffs, they won't go far without Troy playing to his potential again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers saw first hand that this year's Cincinnati Bengals team is the real deal.
What's more, the Bengals are only a game behind the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. The Bengals play both the Steelers and Ravens again in the coming weeks, so they control their own destiny as much as anyone.
The only way to remove this threat is to defeat the Bengals on Dec. 4, 2011 in Pittsburgh Penn.
If they don't win this game, the AFC North will be a log jam at the top. This puts your fate in the hands of other teams and leaves the Steelers with the sixth seed at best, barring upsets.
The only sure way into the playoffs starts with a win over the Bengals.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have only run for 1,098 yards as a team so far this season.
Even though Ben Roethlisberger is perfectly capable of carrying this team to victory, he shouldn't be expected to do so. No quarterback is perfect every week, and Ben will have a down game at some point.
If Rashard Mendenhall and company can't get things going, they are vulnerable. The running backs aren't the entire problem. Anybody who watches the Steelers regularly can see that the offensive line isn't opening many holes. All too often, it doesn't matter who is in the game; there is nowhere to run. Each RB might as well be running into a brick wall.
Mendenhall ran the ball with a lot of guts last weekend, and that is what it will take. He is a big enough back to at least fall forward like former RB Jerome Bettis used to. The same goes for Isaac Redman, who is as physical a runner as you will find on the roster.
Run, run, pass, pass.
If you guessed this is how the typical Steelers offensive plays are called, you are correct! First and second down are almost always run plays under Bruce Arians, with the occasional deep ball mixed in. If Arians doesn't start to be less predictable, the offense will continue to stall in the red zone.
The game against the New England Patriots is an exception; that was a beautifully designed gameplan. He exploited the Patriots awful secondary, and it worked all day long. Ben used short, quick passes to slice that defense apart with ease.
All too often, Bruce does things that make myself and other Steelers fans scratch our heads. I hate empty sets where there isn't a back to at least give the illusion you may run the ball. This is especially risky when the Steelers offensive line is a known weakness. If there isn't an open receiver quickly as designed, Ben will get hammered.
Even with a good offensive line, I cannot stand plays designed like this. It eliminates the threat of play-action, draws and screens besides to a wide receiver.
Mix it up, Bruce!
Costly penalties almost cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a win against the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals last weekend.
A loss there would have gone a long way towards putting the Steelers' playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. The penalty that sticks out to me cost the Steelers four points, as they had to settle for a field goal.
Tight end Heath Miller made contact with a defender as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery caught a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger. What made this worse was that Heath Miller's actions were on the opposite end of the field and had no impact on the play.
While it was a very questionable ticky-tack call, there was contact on the play. A huge hit by safety Ryan Clark turned out to be a very costly penalty that allowed the Ravens to get into field goal position going into the half. This is a game that may cost the Steelers a first round bye in the playoffs. Yes, the Steelers lost this game by the three points earned on this field goal.
It was a clean hit by Clark, but at this point, he knows the NFL has outlawed hard hits. As aggravating as it is, you can't afford to light up receivers like that anymore.
The Steelers need to clean up these penalties, or they will risk missing the playoffs.
Shaun Suisham has attempted 21 field goals this season, connecting on 16 of them.
While this isn't terrible, it does mean the Pittsburgh Steelers offense has stalled 21 times and had to settle for a field goal. Sure, no team is going to score a touchdown every drive. A team with as many weapons as the Steelers have should score convert more often though.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most clutch QB's in the league, and he knows how to get the ball into the end zone.
Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense need to get it together in the red zone. If they continue to settle for three, it could result in a couple of bad losses that end the season early. What good are Big Ben, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller if Shaun Suisham is trotting out there a few times a game?
They have to make those good offensive drives count.
Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense finally showed up to play.
Cornerback William Gay had his hands in both turnovers, both Andy Dalton Interceptions. One of them was a pass Gay tipped to linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and the most vital was his late interception as the Bengals were driving to tie the game.
Seeing as the Steelers only won 24-17, without these turnovers, they could have easily lost the game. If this trend doesn't continue over the next several weeks, it may leave the Steelers on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Early in the season, the Steelers offensive line was like a turnstile to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Ben looked like a walking pinata in the backfield, getting hit early and often. This is nothing new, of course, as the Steelers offensive line has been average to terrible for a couple of seasons now. Big Ben's nose nearly got ripped off of his face because of it last season.
Whether the OL continues to be decimated by injuries or is just plain awful doesn't matter. If the play declines again, it will mean more turnovers which lead to losses.
The offensive line and the success of the offense go hand in hand. The Steelers could very well miss the playoffs with this scenario plays out.
Maybe this would force the front offense to finally get serious about building the offensive line.
This is the absolute worst thing that could happen to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A couple of weeks ago, the Houston Texans and Chicago Bears looked like Super Bowl contenders. A Lisfranc injury in a blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended Texans quarterback Matt Schaub's season. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler may be done for the year too after breaking his thumb in a win over the San Diego Chargers.
Enter Matt Lienart for the Houston Texans and Caleb Hanie for the Chicago Bears.
Chicago still has hope Cutler can return before the playoffs, but both of these injuries are disastrous to their teams' playoff chances. The Texans looked like they would finally make their first trip to the playoffs, and the Bears were a serious threat to knock off the Green Bay Packers.
The Steelers wouldn't have a chance if Ben went down in the next couple of weeks. The running game hasn't been reliable, and veteran quarterback Charlie Batch is always one hit away from a season ending injury.
Ben is fine right now aside from a broken finger; let's hope it stays that way!