Gene Collier: Steelers take lickin' ... still tickin'
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A week ago, the Steelers were readying for a prime-time performance with the full knowledge that they would be without their leading receiver, their All-Pro special-teams ace, and their MVP, all of whom happened to be the same person.
Yet I did not see any of Antonio Brown's body parts diagrammed in the newspapers or discussed by medical personnel who never had met the man but had no compunctions about diagnosing him in spite of themselves.
Brown did not play, the Steelers nearly lost, and the gifted little wideout with the grouchy ankle returned to the locker room this week more prepared than ever to be summarily ignored.
"This is the most looked-forward-to game of the year," he lamented. "We're going to re-evaluate Friday."
Brown isn't going to play in the prime-timer this week against theAFc North Division-leading Baltimore Ravens, and he'll become the sixth offensive starter the Steelers have played without in the first 10 games of this storm's-a-comin' season. If you count four defensive starters who have missed another 12 games and pose it all against the backdrop of serious injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, you can't help but think there's only so much attrition even the deepest roster can withstand.
I mean is this that physical cliff we've been hearing so much about?
"It was just good seeing Ben [Wednesday]," Emmanuel Sanders said. "He's walking around joking, just being Ben."
The jokes started falling flat when Roethlisberger announced that, in addition to his sternoclavicular dislocation, he has a rib injury such that further sandwiching by reckless outside linebackers could result in a sliced aorta, the result of which could be dire.
"I don't know, though," Roethlisberger said. "I'm not a medical expert."
That's long been established, but unfortunately, the one thing Pittsburgh has more of than even offensive coordinators is medical experts, some of them actually licensed. Many of these specialize in football injuries, mostly because no matter what it is that ails any Steelers player, they had the same injury in high school and likely played through it.
Even though it has been years since I gave up my talk show Sternoclavicularly Speaking, I think it's evident Roethlisberger should avoid football until it is no longer life-threatening, by which I mean, yes, even Steelers-Ravens football, the closest thing to life-threatening football known to man.
"We're looking forward to it," Sanders said of trying to take control of the AFC North behind Big Ben Backup Byron Leftwich. "He's got great velocity on his passes. He can make every throw on the field."
One reality that has emerged now that the Steelers offense includes fewer and fewer functional components is that, with the exception of tight end Heath Miller, there is no offensive player as resourceful or reliable as Sanders.
It was Sanders, in case you nodded off Monday night, who converted Leftwich's short third-down pass into a 31-yard play late in the third quarter, the longest completion of the game by Byron or Ben, and it was Sanders whose cleverness turned an underthrown Leftwich pass in the deep right seam into an interference penalty against Kansas City's Javier Arenas that was positively crucial.
"That's what we call putting your foot in the ground," said veteran wideout Jerricho Cotchery in describing Sanders' awareness. "That's what it's all about. You've got to make a play on the ball, and, if the [defender] doesn't have his head turned around, you can draw that penalty."
That play won the Steelers 22 yards and a first down at the Chiefs 25, meaning 53 of the 73 yards on that drive were attributable primarily to No. 88. Shaun Suisham's drive-capping field goal made it 13-10, three points without which the Steelers likely drop two games behind the Ravens.
It's still only Thursday, but, even in some of the darker hours of their season, the Steelers still have Sanders, still have Miller, still have an offensive line that's been pretty reliable, still have running backs capable of ringing up 100 yards or more, and even though he's rarely seen between the sideline, they still have a backup quarterback who can throw it through a carwash without getting it soaped, even if it looks like he takes enough time to drive to a car wash before he lets it go.
"You have to be two-dimensional," Sanders said, "but I don't want to say that's crucial. Byron can make every throw. We can come in with a lot of guys who are really quality players."
The sum of all remaining parts might not be enough to handle the Ravens, the previous visiting team to win at Heinz Field and an organization totally capable of beating even a full roster of healthy Steelers. But the whole Steelers-minus-Ben-equals-inevitable-defeat thing remains only theorem.
At least until Monday.
First Published November 15, 2012 12:00 am