By Matt Pawlikowski
There has been much talk of the Steelers’ demise, especially after they dropped to 1-2 prior to the bye week.
There are problems, but it’s just three games and the team has been down some of its key players during that period. Three of those key players, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall, are not on this week’s injury report, which is a positive.
“Based on what I’m looking at in terms of how they worked and how we worked (Monday), I think that’s a safe assessment,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during his presser on Tuesday. “All three guys have performed well and have been able to get through practice.”
Harrison has been the biggest question mark, and his lack of presence on the field has been evident as pressure on the opposing quarterback in key situations has been minimal. Lawrence Timmons, expected to be the next great in a long line of linebacker greats, hasn’t lived up to his billing yet, and Harrison’s replacement Chris Carter, has played well but isn’t the impact player that Harrison is.
It has enabled the opposition to go 16-of-33 on third down conversions and outscore the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
The line has also played a big role in that. Steven McLendon, who had a stellar summer, has been noticeably absent from the lineup and only rotated in on a minor basis. Last year’s first round pick, Cam Heyward, has also been used sparingly, despite coming from a program at Ohio State that runs the similar schemes Pittsburgh does, a program Heyward succeeded in.
Sunday against the Eagles, they may get their biggest test yet as Michael Vick has always had success against the Steelers. Vick isn’t Peyton Manning, but a lack of pressure on him with the offensive weapons he has could make for a long day at Heinz Field.
But the defense hasn’t been the only problem.
The offense has yet to find a run game, once the staple of success for Pittsburgh. Granted, Mendenhall has been out since the season finale last year against the Browns. He’s averaged over 4.1 yards per carry in his career and thus far Steelers backs have tallied just 2.6.
While Ben Roethlisberger has gone to a run game alternative and been able to control the clock, there has been much said about the blocking of the line when it comes to the rush. Much emphasis has been put on protecting Rothlisberger, and so far they have done a good job. A lot of that hinges on the fact Willie Colon is still learning a new position.
In the past, the Steelers could have a back like Willie Parker step in and rush for 1,000 yards, despite being undrafted. They were hoping Isaac Redman could do the same, but he–along with the three other backs the Steelers have rotated during Mendenhall’s absence–have had little impact.
Mendehall’s return gives the Steelers an added dimension to an offensive scheme that already is one of the tops in the NFL.
“He’s a first-round pedigree guy. He’s a multiple thousand-yard guy. He’s our lead dog, if you will,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, he’s capable of helping.”
The Steelers are far from down and out, but another loss could really damage them in the playoff picture even though its early as a loss could put them 2.5 games out of first in the division, something that could be hard to overcome.
The last time Pittsburgh began a season 1-3, was 2006 and that year they did not make the post-season. Philadelphia is 6-2 all-time in the cross state rivalry, so come Sunday, while the season is young, this is a critical game as only twice since the NFL merger in 1970 have they made the playoffs after a 1-3 start.
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Matt Pawlikowski is a veteran journalist covering all things Steelers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.