The Steelers will still be making the playoffs despite the Ben Roethlisberger news
As the days pass from the Ben Roethlisberger injury, the news starts to become clear as to when he may actually be able to suit up again. The original fear of a season-ender seems to be out of the discussion, and some even speculated a return after a Week 8 bye.
However, the story now seems to be that while it is mainly a pain tolerance issue as to when he will suit up, a previous injury in his knee has the Steelers thinking this is at least a four to six-week injury. When it comes to Ben Roethlisberger, the smart play is always to bet on the earlier return date. If Roethlisberger is to miss four weeks, it would be three games with the Patriots, Ravens and Cowboy, plus the bye. Those games seem tough without a star quarterback, and if the injury does somehow extend to the full six weeks, it could paint a bleak picture for the Steelers future playoff potential.
But this news should not have any Steelers fans shifting to next year or to Penguins season quite yet. The Steelers will bring back a healthy Ben Roethlisberger later this year and still make the playoffs. Here is why.
Oct 9, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) reacts on the sideline during the game against the Washington Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
5. The AFC North is bad this year
The Steelers enter this injury in a great position to be when it comes to the division race. To start, the Browns are the Browns. On top of that, the Steelers have a one-game lead on the Baltimore Ravens, and a two-game lead on the Cincinnati Bengals. With Roethlisberger only missing three games, he will emerge with this team right in the thick of the division race even in a worst case scenario.
The Bengals are the returning champs, but this is a different team. Their offensive line, which was once a team strength, is second in the league in sacks allowed and ranks 22nd in the NFL in rushing DVOA. Their other supposed strength of a defense is feeling the affects of a team that cannot run the ball and ranks 25th in defensive DVOA.
The Ravens opened the season 3-0 and seemed to grab everybody’s attention. Then you realize they opened the season by getting four months to prepare for their former quarterback Tyrod Taylor and beat the Browns and Jaguars. The Ravens have since blown three close games, two at home against the Raiders and Redskins. So far this season Joe Flacco is averaging 6.0 yards per attempt. In the only game Landry Jones has started and finished in his career he averaged 7.2 yards per attempt at the Kansas City Chiefs.
These are not two teams set to go on a run and win the division over the next three weeks. The Steelers have a game in hand on the Bengals, and while they may go to Baltimore without Roethlisberger, he should be back for their second meeting in Week 16. 10-6 will win this division, and the Steelers do still have a winning record under Mike Tomlin without Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup. To say this race is over would be ridiculous.
Oct 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (19) carries the ball as Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) defends during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
4. The rest of the conference has questions
Even if the Steelers did let the division slip away from them, they would be right in the thick of a questionable wild card race. The AFC South seems highly unlikely to field a wild card team, with the 3-3 Titans and the 2-3 Jaguars. The only wild card contender from the AFC East looks to be the Buffalo Bills. However, the last three quarterbacks the Bills have beaten have been Jacoby Brissett, Colin Kaepernick and Case Keenum. Before that, they were losing to the Jets and were the mess of the league. The Steelers will see the Bills in December, and will likely have a healthy Roethlisberger. The Bills also have a meeting with the Patriots, and games at the Seahawks, Bengals, and Raiders.
Speaking of the Raiders, they seem to be one of three teams that can win the AFC West this year, leaving two more as contenders for the wild card. The Raiders still have three road division games left and two against the Broncos. Their defense may have as many questions as the Broncos offense has heading into Week 7. The Chiefs and Broncos still play two times this season, and the Steelers have a tiebreaker win over the Kansas City Chiefs already. The Steelers can easily be in the thick of this thing when Roethlisberger returns.
If the AFC West brings two of the three contenders to the playoffs, one spot is easily open for an AFC North contender. It would seem like the very worst case scenario to the see the Steelers in the six seed.
Oct 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) celebrates his sack of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 43-14. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
3. Timely Bye Week
Even if the Steelers lose in Week 7, it has been mentioned that this team can make the playoffs from 4-3. This sets the Steelers up with what should be an extremely timely bye, aside from giving Roethlisberger an extra week.
This bye week gives Cameron Heyward an extra week. Heyward pulled his hamstring in Week 5 and missed the loss to the Miami Dolphins. He still leads the team in sacks this season and is clearly their best player on that side of the ball. The Steelers have a rookie in Javon Hargrave who now has two weeks to be a starter, then take the bye week to rest up, learn from what he has done, and come back in as a rotational pass rusher and a starting nose tackle.
Speaking of rookies, Artie Burns is starting to see a lot of playing time. He showed the growing pains of a rookie against the Miami Dolphins, and will enter the bye week with two real starts under his belt, and a chance to grow from it. Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden have both been banged up this season and should get to full strength with the bye week. Bud Dupree will be eligible to come off the IR in Week 8 and, who knows, maybe Ryan Shazier can use that time to get himself back into shape.
On the offensive side of the ball, the return of Ladarius Green seems to be set all set for their week 9 bout with the Baltimore Ravens. Sammie Coates has a hand issue, and Markus Wheaton has been injured as well, and the bye will be key for both of them.
Karlos Williams is also a name to watch from the practice squad. He is a guy who scored nine touchdowns in 2015 as a rookie, and with time to learn the playbook and weeks to get in shape, he may enter Week 9 as a potential goal line back. To implement those names into the offense with the bye week is going to be all that Todd Haley needs to navigate two or three games with Landry Jones.
Sep 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley talks with tight end David Paulson (81) during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
Whether Steelers fans would like to admit it or not, they have one the best coaching staffs in the NFL. Mike Tomlin has his flaws but wins games as well as any coach in the NFL. Under Tomlin, the Steelers used three years of going 8-8 as their rebuilding seasons. He is 8-7 as a head coach without Ben Roethlisberger and has done it with some of the uglier quarterback performances you will see.
Two pieces the Steelers have that can help them win without a quarterback would be offensive line coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. These two are former head coaches who have won 41 combined games over a six-year span with Matt Cassel, Brodie Coyle, Kyle Orton, Tyler Palko, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, and Ryan Fitzpatrick as the quarterbacks. These two are looking at All-Pro performers in Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, David Decastro and Maurkice Pouncey thinking that this is a walk in the park.
The Steelers offensive line has improved every year under Munchak, and the offense has hit a level under Todd Haley that Bruce Arians could not take it to. With these coordinators and coaches on the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers have been feeling okay with where they stand.
The smart offensive coordinator and offensive line coach can both agree that the key to winning football games until Ben Roethlisberger returns is Le’Veon Bell. Last year, with Ben Roethlisberger down to injury, Bell ran for 449 yards. He averaged 112 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry. Teams can scheme around it, they can stack the box, blitz, whatever you want. It does not stop Le’Veon Bell.
To start, we already know how much his offensive line helps. From that, Bell is the perfect fit because he has trust in his offensive line. His patience and vision are by far his most underrated attributes. He can see where he his linemen are developing these holes and choose the perfect times to plant his foot and burst into them. There is no scheming around a player being smarter than the others around him. That, combined with his speed, strength, and agility put him on a level that is incomparable to any other team. So while any other quarterback going down immediately affects the run game, it truly shouldn’t be looked the same way in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have involved Bell in the passing game more this year than ever, and there was a perfect safety blanket for an inexperienced quarterback, the first place to look would be Bell. The Steelers can scheme Bell is so many ways it is impossible to list. Teams can spend all of their defensive resources on him, but it only ups space for Antonio Brown on the back end. In Adrian Peterson’s MVP season in 2012, the Vikings made the playoffs getting 16 starts out of Christian Ponder. To devalue how important a great running back is a team, and to think that a 4-2 Steeler team could not get back from only four games out of Landry Jones seem a little too pessimistic.