On the Steelers: They're still clinging to final AFC postseason berth
November 27, 2012 3:00 PM
Coach Mike Tomlin's Steelers have been far from perfect this season, but they are still in position to secure a playoff berth.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In light of their recent performances, now might not be the time to point out that the Steelers not only remain in the thick of the playoff chase, but actually lead in it.
They would be the No. 2 wild-card team if the season were to end today, but since the NFL has decided to continue playing, the Steelers will have to take on their next five opponents to see if there will be any more for them after that.
It continues Sunday in Baltimore, where the Ravens (9-2) can eliminate the Steelers (6-5) from the AFC North Division title race with a victory. Yet even if they lose there, the Steelers will remain strong contenders for a wild-card spot.
Their play in the past two games, along with the annual high expectations, understandably has not surrounded the Steelers with much fanfare today.
"You lose one game in Pittsburgh and the sky is falling, it's just part of the culture," safety Ryan Clark said. "It's part of winning six Super Bowls, it's part of being 12-4 three of last four years. We're a spoiled bunch and overall we've become entitled. But you can't be entitled, you can't walk into places and just think because you're the Pittsburgh Steelers you're going to win.
"We need to execute and we haven't been executing. Do we need to win next week? Without a doubt. We would have needed to win next week had we won this game."
Casey Hampton said he has been here before, and he's almost correct. The 2005 Steelers were 7-5 and losers of three in a row before they won four to make the playoffs and four more to win the Super Bowl. Hampton also was there in '02, when the Steelers were 7-5-1, won their final three games and came within a bad call in overtime in Tennessee of reaching the AFC championship.
But those teams were not down to their third-string quarterback, not without a productive running back, and the defenses of those teams did not just keep the yardage against them low, they ravaged offenses with 47 sacks and 30 turnovers in '05, with 50 sacks and 36 turnovers in '02. This year, they have 22 sacks and 10 turnovers.
Nevertheless, there they are, with Indianapolis leading the two-berth wild-card chase in the AFC at 7-4, and the Steelers tied with Cincinnati at 6-5 but having beaten the Bengals once. That's it, for now.
"It's going to be tough, man, but we're mentally tough," said Hampton, their starting nose tackle since his rookie season in '01. "We're going to come out there and keep fighting. I'm not worried about that, I'm not worried about how we're going to come out and play, we're going to come out and we're going to fight. There's no question about that. So there's no question in my mind the type of fight this team has in them."
The question, really, is who is going to come out for the fight, starting in Baltimore. Will Ben Roethlisberger return to play? Troy Polamalu? Antonio Brown? Having that Pro Bowl trio healthy and playing might easily have the Steelers at 8-3 and leading their division with a leg up on a seed.
Injuries have taken their toll on them, but so too has it hurt the Ravens, who somehow have found a way to go 9-2 despite losing two of their top three cornerbacks along with Ray Lewis and, for a long stretch, Terrell Suggs.
The Steelers lost three more starters in Cleveland with the departure of linebacker LaMarr Woodley and tackle Mike Adams with ankle injuries during the game, and Willie Colon with a knee injury that quietly popped up Friday in practice.
The status of all their injured players is unknown, including No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery and No. 2 quarterback Byron Leftwich with broken ribs.
"If guys get healthy or they don't get healthy, we need to find ways to win," Hampton said. "You can't count on guys who you don't know if they're going to be there or not. We have a good enough football team to win those kinds of football games, and we have to do it. We have to take care of the ball and we have to turn the ball over on defense. It goes both ways."
No. 1 returns?
The long-awaited debut of rookie guard David DeCastro could come Sunday in Baltimore after the Steelers activated him to their 53-man roster.
DeCastro, their first-round draft choice, was placed on the newly created injured reserve/designated to return list after a knee injury in the third preseason game. He was eligible to return after eight weeks but did not begin practicing until last week.
The Steelers also re-signed offensive lineman John Malecki, placed offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert on injured reserve and released wide receiver David Gilreath, who is possibly headed for their practice squad.
Gilbert has not played since Oct. 11 when he left their game in Tennessee with a serious ankle injury that so far has been determined does not require surgery.
As the Roethlisberger watch starts in earnest this week as to whether he can overcome a shoulder and rib injuries that kept him out of the past two games, the debate over whether the Steelers can win without him rages.
They have not won without him, losing the past two. But they also were tied at home to the dreadful Kansas City Chiefs, 10-10, with a healthy Roethlisberger before he left that game early in the fourth quarter, a game the Steelers won in overtime.
A lost fumble after a 15-yard reception by Mike Wallace against Baltimore with the Steelers ahead, 7-0, might have been the difference in a 13-10 loss to the Ravens -- much more than the performance of quarterback Byron Leftwich, who played through a sore shoulder and broken ribs.
And Sunday, if not for five lost fumbles on offense, Charlie Batch might well be 6-2 as a starter with the Steelers.
"Yeah, I think we can," Clark said of the chances his team can win without Roethlisberger. "We played with a quarterback with no rib last week and this week we turned the ball over constantly, and it wasn't Charlie continually turning the ball over, it was everywhere. And you have to step up around him. Defensively, we have to make more plays to get him the ball in good position."
The Jacksonville Jaguars signed rookie wide receiver Toney Clemons to their 53-man roster from the Steelers practice squad. Clemons, a seventh-round draft pick from Colorado and Valley High School in New Kensington, was bypassed when the Steelers added two receivers the past two weeks. They signed Gilreath from their practice squad and signed veteran Plaxico Burress.