After a controversial loss in week 15 to the New England Patriots the Pittsburgh Steelers once again find themselves playing in prime time. In week 16 they travel to Houston to play the Houston Texans in what amounts to another must win game for the Steelers. The Steelers are holding on to the two seed after their loss to the Patriots. That puts them behind the Patriots who are currently the AFC’s one seed and in front of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the AFC’s current three seed.
The irony is both the Patriots and Jaguars beat the Steelers this year and therefore both teams possess the head to head tie-breaker. That means if the Steelers finish with the same record as the Jaguars they’ll end up the AFC’s third playoff seed, losing that much coveted bye that only the top two seeds receive. While the Steelers might not be playing a playoff team, don’t be fooled, the playoffs have started. Here’s what to watch for.
Physical and Mental Health
Make no mistake, the Steelers have had a mentally and physically draining month and a half. Five of the last six Steelers games have come down to three points or less. Their eight-game winning streak and most realistic hopes at clinching the AFC’s one seed in the playoffs are gone. They lost Ryan Shazier indefinitely, Joe Haden broke his leg, the Steelers released James Harrison, MVP candidate Antonio Brown has a partial calf muscle tear and backup running back James Conner tore his meniscus and was placed on injured reserve. The Steelers have managed to stay relatively healthy throughout the season, but the injuries are piling up at the wrong time of year.
Sadly, Shazier isn’t coming back and there’s no replacement for him. There’s some irony that he and C.J. Mosley made the pro bowl this year because the Steelers passed on Mosley to take Shazier. Mosley is now the heart and soul of the Baltimore Ravens defense. Haden is expected back and will probably be on a snap count. While his broken leg may look healed on X-rays, Haden still has to get used to playing on it. The defense needs him healthy for their playoff run. He will be rotating with rookie Cameron Sutton, and if healthy, Coty Sensabaugh.
The offense will also get Marcus Gilbert back from suspension. He has been a pro-bowl caliber tackle who could really solidify the right side of the line next to pro bowl guard David DeCastro. But he only has two (maybe three) weeks to return to form. A hamstring injury and four game suspension for performance enhancing drugs have kept him off the field for most of the season.
His return to form will help the likes of Roosevelt Nix, Jesse James, Vance McDonald (if healthy) and if needed, Chris Hubbard seal the edge in the Steelers running game. Something that they excelled at last season and have struggled with this season. With Brown injured, the Steelers will most likely run their offense through Bell. Gilbert will be an upgrade on the offensive line and hopefully his presence makes the Steelers running game that much more dominant.
The Next Best Thing
In week 16, the Steelers defense will have to face off against the only receiver that’s really been able to keep pace statistically with Antonio Brown: DeAndre Hopkins. Brown has 101 catches for 1,533 yards and nine touchdowns. Those will be his end of regular season numbers. Hopkins is still healthy and is second in both receptions and yards. His season stat line is 92 receptions, 1313 yards and 12 touchdowns. While Hopkins has had numerous quarterbacks throwing to him this season, it hasn’t affected his production. Keeping him in check will likely fall to Artie Burns. The Steelers number one corner for much of the season. He has been playing well, but has given up some big plays due to communication errors in the secondary. Big plays have been the Achilles heel of the Steelers defense; observe how Burns handles Hopkins in a dome setting.
Blast From The Past
Don’t look now, but Ben Roethlisberger has looked like a Super Bowl caliber quarterback lately. He has pulled the offense out of its early season funk and looks comfortable in the pocket. Yes, losing Brown hurts Roethlisberger and the offense but there is a silver lining.
All season Martavis Bryant, an ex-killer B, and Roethlisberger have not had good chemistry. That’s led to the rise of Juju Smith-Schuster amongst the wide receiver corps. Either way, the Roethlisberger and the Steelers have been targeting Bryant more and more, especially in the red zone. That one-handed catch in the rain last week against the Patriots? Yep, that was Bryant returning to form.
If the offense can get healthy and Roethlisberger can regain his mojo with Bryant, the Steelers passing game may be more dangerous than ever. There will be between 10 and 17 targets to divvy up among Steelers receivers with Brown injured in week 16. How Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley do this will say a lot about the pecking order of the receivers behind Brown going into the playoffs. Not to mention it will help Roethlisberger build some synergy with his other receivers, which only makes the offense more dangerous.
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