Pittsburgh Steelers Cannot Win AFC North Without Ben Roethlisberger

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor INovember 14, 2012

ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Byron Leftwich #4 and Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers talk during Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Just as the Pittsburgh Steelers were planning to take control of the AFC North, disaster struck Monday night when Ben Roethlisberger left the Kansas City game with a shoulder and rare rib injury.

The shoulder injury is being described as an "SC sprain," and Roethlisberger’s timetable to return is currently unknown. Jay Glazer did report Roethlisberger will miss Sunday’s crucial game against Baltimore, and likely a few more games with the fatal warnings the rib injury presents.

The timing could not be much worse with the (poor) scheduling of both games against the Ravens coming in Weeks 11 and 13.

By now, the Steelers (6-3) should be accustomed to Roethlisberger getting injured. Only twice in his nine seasons has he managed to get through without any significant injury that limited his playing time.

The first instance was in 2007, and not coincidentally, he set franchise records with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating. Roethlisberger also made it through the 2010 season, even though he played with a broken foot and nose late in the season.

With his style of play, it may be a miracle that Roethlisberger has only missed seven starts due to injury in his career. He has missed 15 starts total, with four due to suspension (2010), two for playoff rest and the first two games of his rookie season before he became the starter.

How many starts will Roethlisberger miss this year? We do not know, though it is clear this is by far the most significant injury he has had yet.

For the Steelers to beat out Baltimore for the division title, that is going to take a superhuman effort in next few weeks since the team just doesn't seem to have the talent to accomplish it.

Can the Steelers even win enough without Roethlisberger in 2012 to make the playoffs when they have other issues as well? It is a question with a multi-layered answer, as we still have uncertainty with how long Roethlisberger will be out.

State of Ohio Key in Making the Playoffs without Roethlisberger

Since 2004, Pittsburgh is 9-6 when Roethlisberger doesn't start, so it has shown it can win without him. But the team has not shown it versus Baltimore, against whom the Steelers are 0-5 without Roethlisberger.

What this tells me is the Ravens will now win the AFC North, but the Steelers can still make the playoffs because of their lead over the other wild-card teams in a down year for the AFC.

The state of Ohio (two games against Cleveland and one at home versus Cincinnati) should be enough to get to 9-7, which should be all Pittsburgh needs for a wild-card berth.

Check the schedules for San Diego (4-5), Cincinnati (4-5) and Miami (4-5). Those teams should not get to 9-7, and the Steelers even get a home game in Week 14 against San Diego. Roethlisberger could already be back by then.

The only concern with taking care of business against the Ohio teams is the way the Steelers approach the “little games” in the NFL. Ever since winning Super Bowl XL, and especially under Mike Tomlin since 2007, the Steelers seem to show up to these games expecting to win and not taking the opponent seriously enough.

Pittsburgh has already lost this season to Oakland and Tennessee, and a horrific Kansas City team gave them all they could handle into overtime on Monday night.

Trailing 10-0 to the Chiefs was the low point of the season. This is a Chiefs team that had not led all season long in regulation.

The highlight of a Chiefs media writer this season is talking about how the team is “sixth in the AFC in first downs” or updating how many tackles Derrick Johnson made this week.

Pittsburgh needed to crush the Chiefs and get ready for Baltimore on a short week—not play into overtime and barely escape with a win over the league’s worst team.

Since 2011, the Steelers have played six teams with a record of 5-11 or worse, and they barely beat five of them, winning by an average of five points per game.

Oddly enough, the only blowout was a 27-0 win at home against the St. Louis Rams in Week 16, when Charlie Batch started last year.

That is why you cannot just pencil them in to beat the teams they should beat, and that is even more true if Byron Leftwich is the quarterback. They need to embrace the underdog role again.

So while the playoffs should not be in doubt for now, the hopes of winning the AFC North and the Steelers giving themselves the best shot at a Super Bowl probably went up in smoke Monday night.

Byron Leftwich? Really? The bubble bursts before he is able to get the screen pass out (or any quick pass for that matter) with his long delivery.

Not your Usual Pittsburgh Team

The successful franchises usually manage to win when they go to their backup quarterback. Not everyone builds around the Indianapolis model of putting everything on Peyton Manning and watching it fall apart in his absence (2-14 in 2011).

Teams like New England and Green Bay have, in the past, gone to late-round scrubs like Matt Cassel and Matt Flynn and still run a familiar-looking, pass-heavy offense with great production.

As for the Steelers, they may be 9-6 without Roethlisberger, but they have to drastically alter the way they play in his absence, and this 2012 team does not have the tools to do it this time.

These aren’t your 1976 Steelers who could play shutdown defense and win with Mike Kruczek starting. These aren’t your Bill Cowher-era Steelers who could plug-and-play any quarterback and run the football.

These aren’t even your 2010 Steelers who went 3-1 without Roethlisberger to start the season because of how well they ran the ball (118.0 yards per game at 4.25 YPC) and played defense (12.5 points per game allowed). They were one of the worst offenses in the league to start that season.

When Roethlisberger goes down, the Steelers have to play a brand of football that hides the quarterback. That only works if your defense and running game are up to the challenge, which they have been in the past.

Here is how the Steelers have performed in Roethlisberger’s 15 missed starts since 2004 (9-6 record):

  • Quarterbacks: 185-of-332 (55.7 percent) for 2,289 yards, 6.89 YPA, 12 TD, 15 INT, 70.5 passer rating, 7.0 sack percentage, two rushing TD, nine fumbles (six lost).
  • Running game (non-QB carries): 425 carries for 1,684 yards (112.3 YPG, 3.96 YPC).
  • Scoring: 19.1 offensive points per game (no return scores or safeties included).
  • Defense: 15.5 defensive points per game, scoring four defensive touchdowns.

The offensive numbers are below league average, especially for the passing game and offense. No one has thrown for more than 236 yards in a game. Matt Flynn threw nine touchdown passes in his two starts with the Packers. The Steelers have 12 in 15 games.

Return scores are rare, yet somehow, the Steelers have scored six of them in these 15 games (four by defense, two by special teams).

While the Steelers showed up well as a team in these games, they were in much better shape to do it than they are this season.

Byron Leftwich’s Disadvantages

Rallying together to help out the backup quarterback is the mark of a good team, but what happens when you are still missing players like Troy Polamalu, Antonio Brown, Rashard Mendenhall, Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro—in addition to Roethlisberger?

Injuries have been a big part of the Steelers season with several big-name starters missing time. But as long as the quarterback was still healthy, they felt they had enough to get by.

Now, we will see that tested against their bitter rivals. While the last four losses to Baltimore have all been close games when Roethlisberger was out, the Ravens still won after the backup for Pittsburgh was unable to make those game-changing plays.

Pittsburgh is more quarterback-dependent this year than in past seasons, and they do it out of necessity. Roethlisberger’s excellence on third down will surely be missed, and he was doing a good job of protecting the ball with six giveaways on the season.

If Leftwich is hoping for a strong running game, he may be disappointed. In nine games this season, the Steelers have had five terrible rushing performances, one average (Philadelphia) and three great (Weeks 7-9).

Fortunately, the Ravens have struggled to stop the run (though not so much the last few weeks), and they are starting to get takeaways again. Pittsburgh’s defense only has nine takeaways after having a league-worst 15 last season. The big plays have not been made by this defense.

After Baltimore scored 55 points on Sunday, the Steelers defense will have to find a big play or two to keep the score down so Leftwich can generate enough offense to steal them a game.

A sweep by the Ravens combined with the best possible outcome for Pittsburgh would give them a 9-3 mark to Pittsburgh’s 7-5 record. That's assuming Baltimore loses in San Diego.

That means Baltimore would have to finish at least 1-3 (they do have the Redskins, Broncos, Giants and Bengals) and the Steelers likely 4-0 to win the division. So you can see why getting swept would make this all but impossible.

With the prospects of Leftwich starting both games or a rusty Roethlisberger in Baltimore in Week 13, getting swept seems like the most plausible outcome.

If the Steelers are going to get at least the split, then it probably has to happen on Sunday with the intensity of the rivalry, home-field advantage and the prime-time setting. The Steelers will feel very positive about Leftwich going into the game, but a horrid performance will quickly erase that going forward.

A surprisingly great performance will also boost their confidence, but who is expecting that? Leftwich’s last victory in a start came on October 8, 2006 against the New York Jets (0-6 since).

The Future

If the Steelers are in this for the long haul without Roethlisberger, then it is going to be a long, challenging season. It already has been a big challenge with Roethlisberger healthy.

Even when he comes back, for as much credit as he gets for being able to play hurt, it usually takes Roethlisberger a game or two to get back on track, which could also prove costly depending on the timing.

In the blink of an eye—or the length of one innocent play—your team can go from thinking about a winning streak that leads to a first-round bye, to just hoping you can survive for a sixth seed in a downtrodden conference.

That’s the cold, hard reality of the NFL, Pittsburgh fans.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.