SevenQuest - Part Sixteen
Mama Said Knock You Out
The Steelers didn't win the division, and they won't have a first round bye.
They won't be anywhere near healthy, and one of their healthy players won't be able to play because of a medical condition that prevents him from participating in high altitude games.
The Steelers are far from Super Bowl favorites, banged up, discombubulated and in a state closer to regression than peaking.
None of that matters right now. The totality of a playoff run doesn't matter right now. The only thing that matters is winning one game, the game scheduled for Sunday.
And to that end, we saw some positive things against the Cleveland Browns in what was admittedly an ugly offensive performance.
First and foremost, Ben returned and looked considerably more comfortable with his ankle injury. He's no where close to 100%, but the improvement was noticeable, especially as the game wore on, as he seemed to loosen up with activity. Ben is and always will be the key to the Steelers' post-season chances. The fact that he's getting better and not worse is the biggest ray of hope we can glean from what has been happening.
Losing Rashard Mendenhall is a huge blow, his talent and explosiveness simply can't be replaced. But Isaac Redman is a competent backup who can gain tough playoff yards, while being extremely reliable as a back in pass protection. I actually don't mind the fact that he fumbled twice against the Browns. First, neither fumble was a case of negligent ball handling - Redman has shown to have great ball security during his tenure, which is impressive considering his running style and his refusal to go down.
How many Redman runs end with defenders fruitlessly pawing at the ball? I'd say about half of them. More importantly, he's likely to be focused on ball security even more after coughing it up twice. Lots of folks have stated that Redman is the better of the two backs. Now is his chance to add support to that claim.
And the stakes are high, not just for the team but for Redman - Mendenhall is entering the last year of his contract, and Redman could make a statement in this playoff season as far as his ability to step into the bell cow role.
The final thing that gave me hope was the fact that Antonio Brown was treated as a #1 receiver by the Cleveland Browns, and yet they still couldn't stop him. They put their best cornerback (Joe Haden) on him, and gave Haden plenty of help.
Like it or not, Brown is currently the Steelers' best receiver, passing the fading Mike Wallace over the last half of the season. Wallace had an excuse weeks ago - so much attention was coming his way. But that seems to not be valid anymore. If Brown can continue to produce with all the pressure squarely on his shoulders, Mike Wallace is eventually going to make some big plays, which is exactly what the Steelers need not only to win this weekend, but to make a big run.
Anything could happen with this offense. The offensive line should be back to their best five this weekend for the first time in a while. Hopefully that will provide a shot in the arm against a fast, penetrating defense. Cohesiveness will be paramount, and Ben is going to have to continue to get the ball out of his hand, as he would have a hard time evading the Broncos' defensive ends even if he was perfectly healthy.
Emmanuel Sanders has returned, and figures to play a bigger role as the weeks go by, which serves to diversify the offense, which needs to score points like they were earlier in the year to protect the defense and allow the defensive scheme to be more aggressive.
The thing about belief is that you need it most when things look bleakest. Right now, things (matchup aside) look bleak.
So, now more than ever and in the venue that started it all - believe.
1. Congratulations to Hines Ward, who succeed in his quest to record 1,000 career receptions. Forget the fact that it was accomplished in a manner just short of being a Nykesha Sales moment, Ward did enough throughout the early parts of his career to deserve the assist he got from the team in reaching his goal. Now, it's on Hines. He's done, and he needs to realize that and treat these playoffs as his last, giving us just a couple more moments to savor.
2. Troy is back. We forget it at times, but Troy has the potential to takeover the playoffs. He's that good, and he can be that disruptive to opposing offenses. Troy played one of the most impressive playoff games ever in Mile High Stadium/Invesco Field or whatever it was back then. He needs to get the ball rolling by coming out and completing all the splash plays he's come close to making lately.
3. I really hope LaMarr Woodley is healthy. Lost in a season's worth of injury updates was the fact that the Steelers sans Woodley authored one of their worst pass rushing seasons in history. That's got to change in the playoffs, when bend but don't break doesn't hold up nearly as well. Even if Woodley is healthy, it wouldn't hurt to use Jason Worilds as a wave pass rusher, spelling Woodley and Harrison and giving the opposing offensive line a dramatically different look with his speed and agility. He's certainly got more speed in outside pursuit than Woodley, which could be useful this weekend on broken plays.
4. It might not matter against the Broncos, but the state of the Steelers' cornerback depth is certainly an issue. We were all pleasantly surprised by the play of the young CB's this year, hopeful that the Steelers would be able to compete against the league's best passing games. Now, here we are, entering the playoffs with Taylor/Gay/McFadden/Madison, just like last year.
5. The New Year. Playoff football. The first snowfall here in North Carolina yesterday. It just feels right, doesn't it?