Analysis: Despite injuries, Steelers well-positioned entering stretch run
Don’t use the word “fortunate” around the Steelers.
They don’t like how it sounds, particularly when relating to their 6-4 record and their AFC wild-card leading position heading into Sunday’s bye.
That’s understandable, but consider what the Steelers have endured this season, starting with Shaun Suisham’s season-ending knee injury during the preseason opener.
Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum went down with injuries. Martavis Bryant was suspended. Ben Roethlisberger went down (twice), then both of his backups followed. Cortez Allen never regained his form, then was placed on injured reserve. Troy Polamalu’s replacement was benched before the season. And James Harrison, Stephon Tuitt, Jarvis Jones, Will Allen and Ryan Shazier have missed time.
Le’Veon Bell’s suspension was reduced by a game, but that was offset by his season-ending MCL tear.
Are the Steelers fortunate? You better believe it, as in:
• Fortunate to be in the thick of the playoff race and not looking forward to a high draft pick like some of their injury-plagued brethren (ahem, Baltimore and Dallas).
• Fortunate that Roethlisberger sidestepped not one but two injuries that looked, at the time, like season-enders.
All that and still 6-4? Fortunate may not even be a strong enough word.
And that’s where the Steelers disagree.
They believe they should be 8-2. Remarkably, they have a pretty strong argument.
They had division games seemingly wrapped up against Baltimore and Cincinnati but found ways to lose. The only time they were overmatched came during the season-opener in New England, and they played the Patriots as well as any team has thus far this season.
“We let some games get away from us, and we haven’t won every one, and that’s always is a goal,” Roethlisberger said. “We have had a lot of injuries, and we have persevered through them.”
They easily could not have.
Either Mike Vick or Landry Jones started five games, and the Steelers finished 3-2 during that span. A 32-year-old running back has served as the team’s workhorse. An Army Ranger has seen extensive time at left tackle. Four kickers have been used.
Teams generally don’t recover from those things.
Take the Ravens. The injury bug has slammed them. They have 13 players on injured reserve, including significant players in Terrell Suggs, Jeremy Zuttah, Steve Smith and first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The Ravens are 2-7 and have lost four of their last five. The Cowboys have lost seven in a row since quarterback Tony Romo fractured his left collarbone in Week 2.
Injuries mean something.
Look at the AFC North-leading Bengals. They have three players on IR, and one — Cedric Ogbuehi — was drafted injured with the Bengals assuming he would miss the season anyway. The Bengals are far-and-away the league leader in plays featuring the most consistent lineup on offense: 27.5 percent (Steelers are at 12.3 percent). On defense, they are second in consistency at 11.4 percent (Steelers are at 5.7 percent).
The Steelers, however, still have as good a chance as anybody to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are coming off a stretch against Cincinnati, Oakland and Cleveland in which they arguably have played their best. Don’t think that’s not important.
The team that plays best in December usually plays best in January. The Steelers can be one of those teams.
“This is the one thing we have been saying all year, that we want to play our best ball at the end of the year, to keep growing and getting better,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “We want to continue to be on the rise. Ultimately, when you get into the playoffs, you want to be a hot team.”
The Steelers are heading into their final stretch in December in a position that’s reminiscent of 2005 and ’08 — the last two times they won the Super Bowl.
In 2005, the Steelers endured numerous injuries early, dug themselves a hole during the middle part of the season and put it together in December. They won their final four to get into the playoffs and won four road games in the postseason en route to raising the Lombardi Trophy.
In 2008, the Steelers faced a tough schedule down the stretch with games against the Patriots (7-4), Cowboys (8-4), Ravens (9-4) and Titans (12-2). Yet, they went 3-1. That sparked a 9-1 finish and a run to a sixth Super Bowl title.
On both occasions, the Steelers were hot down the stretch.
“You could probably draw comparisons to a lot of seasons,” Roethlisberger said.
With a late bye week offering an opportunity to get healthy, can the Steelers expect a run similar to 2005 or ’08?
After all they’ve already overcome, why not?
The Steelers play four of their final six games on the road, with visits to Seattle, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland. They also have home dates against AFC South-leading Indianapolis and AFC West-leading Denver.
“We know we can’t win the Super Bowl in one week,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.
“When you look back at it, the teams that get hot and start putting together critical wins in their season usually go on to do pretty well in the postseason. It’s not a guarantee, but it is one of the things that we want to check off going into the tournament; that we are heading in the right direction.”
And if they get to the tournament, the Steelers — if they don’t lose anyone else to injury — have proven they have the potential to beat anyone.
“I don’t think there has been a team that has been through as much as we have. Period,” guard Ramon Foster said. “If there has, let me know.”