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By Mike Batista,
None of the Steelers’ losses have been against division opponents because they haven’t played any division games. So at least they have a chance to get some divisional tiebreakers on their side.
The Steelers’ first AFC North showdown is Sunday night at Cincinnati.
The Steelers would move into second place in the AFC North with a win over the Bengals (3-3), but they’ll have a lot more ground to cover to catch the first-place Baltimore Ravens (5-1).
After Sunday, the Steelers don’t face another AFC North team until they host the Ravens in Week 11.
Five of their last seven games are against division opponents, which means the Steelers have four weeks to get healthy and fix their problems before the meat of their division schedule.
Let’s take a look at the hurdles facing the Steelers in the quest for their seventh division title since the turn of the century.
The deficit has come up a lot during the 2012 presidential debates.
The Steelers are 2.5 games behind the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. That deficit isn’t nearly as daunting as the federal deficit. However, the federal deficit was a lot smaller the last time the Steelers came from that far back to win the division.
Not since 1976 have the Steelers won the division after trailing by more than two games at any point during the season, according to Pro Football Reference. The Steelers started 1-4 that year, and the Bengals started 4-1. The Steelers won their last nine games.
The Steelers have 11 games remaining this season. They don’t necessarily have to win all of them to win the AFC North, but considering the hole they’re in, they can’t afford to be swept in their two games against the Ravens like they were last season.
The Ravens can be caught in the AFC North because they’re vulnerable.
Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb are possibly out for the season, which compromises an already suspect defense.
Baltimore is allowing 396 yards per game, 26th in the NFL, according to NFL.com. The Ravens have allowed 200 rushing yards in back-to-back weeks for the first time in team history, according to baltimoreravens.com.
The bad news for the Steelers is they haven’t been able to take advantage of weak defenses this season.
They’ve lost to the Tennessee Titans, who are ranked 28th defensively, and the Oakland Raiders, who are ranked 24th on defense.
Furthermore, 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs is lurking and could be back when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh Nov. 18. If he’s not back by then, he could return for the rematch in Baltimore two weeks later.
Peter King, via Pro Football Talk, says Suggs is returning to practice this week, albeit on a limited basis.
Regardless of what happens on defense, the Ravens have been carried by their offense at times this season. They’ve generated 385 yards of offense per game, eighth in the NFL, according to NFL.com.
That doesn’t bode well for a Steelers defense that isn’t reminding anyone of the Steel Curtain.
The Bengals have lost two in a row, at home to Miami and at previously winless Cleveland.
So beating the Bengals Sunday night and getting to .500 might not seem like such a tall task for the Steelers. But the Steelers haven’t won on the road this season, and the Raiders and Titans were supposed to be pushovers.
Coming off a dismal performance against the Titans, Ike Taylor will be covering A.J. Green on Sunday. Green leads the NFL with 628 receiving yards, according to NFL.com. He’s also tied for second with six touchdowns and fourth in the league with 43 receptions.
Taylor needs to limit Green to prove he’s still an elite NFL cornerback.
The Steelers have won their last two games in Cincinnati, but they haven’t won easily at Paul Brown Stadium since their championship season in 2008.
Pittsburgh lost at Cincinnati in 2009 and squeaked past the Bengals 27-21 in 2010, nearly blowing a 20-point lead against a team that finished 4-12.
The Steelers won 24-17 in Week 10 at Cincinnati last year but needed their first multiple-takeaway game by the defense to do so.
If the Steelers lose Sunday, they’d be looking up at two teams in the AFC North, and they’d have the Cleveland Browns nipping at their heels, either a game or a half-game behind.
Sure, the Steelers are 29-4 against the Cleveland Browns since 1994 and 15-1 against them since 2004.
However, the Steelers have shown this season that they can lose to anyone. In most seasons, they can pretty much take two wins over the Browns to the bank.
Not this season.
The Steelers haven’t won the division without sweeping the Browns since 1992, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Browns defeated the Bengals on Sunday, becoming the last team to get a win this season. If the Steelers can’t get two wins over the Browns this season, winning the AFC North will be about as realistic as Casey Hampton winning a marathon.
Injuries on Offense
The Steelers were healthy on offense, heading into the Tennessee game last week.
Then, players went down like a bunch of out-of-shape old geezers in a Sunday-morning hangover league.
Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert all were injured.
Mendenhall (Achilles) and Redman (ankle) might be back Sunday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
They need to return soon because the Steelers have to be able to run the ball to milk the clock and protect leads in the fourth quarter, and they can’t do that without Mendenhall. In the first three games, Redman showed that he can’t shoulder the load as the featured back, but he seems to get better with Mendenhall in the lineup.
Gilbert (ankle) is outfor Sunday’s game and could be out for up to two months, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. That means wide-eyed rookie Mike Adams will start at right tackle for the forseeable future.
Pouncey (knee) shouldn’t be out nearly as long as Gilbert, but he is questionable for Sunday.
Without Gilbert and possibly Pouncey, the Steelers will have at least one new starter on the offensive line against the Bengals. That will break the string of five consecutive starts this season with the same unit.
Max Starks, Willie Colon, Pouncey, Ramon Foster and Gilbert have started all five games this season, and the Steelers have benefited from the continuity.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times, which puts him on pace to be sacked 32 times. He was sacked 32 times in 2010 when he played in just 12 games. The last time Roethlisberger endured fewer than 32 sacks in a season was 2005, when he was sacked 23 times.
Despite the Steelers’ disappointing start this season, pass protection has been one of the pleasant surprises. However, if injuries force them to start mixing and matching their offensive line again, expect a lot more drives to be stalled by sacks.
That won’t help the Steelers climb out of the hole they’ve created for themselves in the AFC North.
Injuries on Defense
Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” was adopted as a Steelers anthem in 2010.
Perhaps, the rapper should honor Troy Polamalu‘s torn calf muscle by singing “Red and Purple.”
That’s the color of Polamalu’s calf, according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which is reporting that Polamalu will miss at least three more games.
At this point, the goal should be to have Polamalu ready for the Ravens on Nov. 18, in Pittsburgh and again on Dec. 2, in Baltimore.
That means Polamalu would miss four games. The Steelers are 7-9 without Polamalu since 2009, including 2-7 in road games.
The Steelers must figure out how to win consistently without Polamalu. If Polamalu misses the next four games and the Steelers go 2-2 without him, they’ll be 4-5 when the Ravens come to Heinz Field in Week 11. By that time, the AFC North title could be out of reach, and the Steelers would be fighting for their playoff lives.
The Steelers are expected to have LaMarr Woodley Sunday at Cincinnati, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Woodley injured his hamstring against the Eagles in Week 5. He missed most of the second half of last season with a hamstring injury. Those injuries tend to linger, and it’s hard to believe that Woodley’s latest hamstring injury is completely healed after just two weeks.
Woodley had nine sacks in the first eight games before his injury last season. If he can regain that form, he could spark some splash plays and help compensate for the loss of Polamalu.
The Steelers’ schedule doesn’t figure to get any easier. They haven’t played a team with a winning record, and that won’t change Sunday.
The Washington Redskins could have a winning record when they come to Heinz Field on Oct. 28. Whether or not the Redskins (3-3) beat the New York Giants Sunday, Robert Griffin III will be the best quarterback the Steelers have faced since Peyton Manning.
The rookie is third in the NFL with a 100.5 passer rating, according to NFL.com, and he leads the league with a 70.2 completion percentage.
On Nov. 4, the Steelers go to New Jersey to face Eli Manning and the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants. It’s hard to feel good about that matchup after the Giants spanked the 49ers, 26-3, at San Francisco Sunday in an NFC championship game rematch.
Then, the Steelers renew their division rivalry with the Baltimore Ravens in Weeks 11 and 13. The Steelers need to win at least one of those games, and probably both, to have any kind of shot at winning the AFC North.