PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Seems like we’ve done this before.
Just two weeks ago, the Steelers were facing a must-win game against the Eagles. They passed that test only to stumble and lose any momentum in a come-from-ahead loss at Tennessee. That loss dropped the Steelers to 2-3.
Worse yet, they are in danger of losing all playoff tiebreakers if their conference record doesn’t improve fast.
That brings us to Sunday night in Cincinnati and the two huge reasons they still have a playoff pulse….They still have all four head-to-head matchups against the two teams ahead of them in the AFC North (Cincinnati and Baltimore).
The Steelers have done this before, especially at Cincy, but they very rarely have entered a key game so banged up. Worse yet, they are missing potential impact players.
We’ll start on the offensive side where the Steelers’ quest for run-pass balance has taken a major hit on the injury front. Both Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were knocked out of last week’s game against the Titans. Despite early week optimism, the Steelers top two running backs never made it on the practice field. So Friday, they were both ruled out for Cincy (Mendenhall with an Achilles and Redman with a knee injury).
Suddenly the Steelers enter a huge division game with a backfield of Baron Batch, Chris Rainey, and Jonathan Dwyer. Batch says he’s eager for another chance to get a decent amount of carries after a rusty performance in Nashville where he told reporters he missed several creases that could have led to nice chunks of yards. Dwyer was the Steelers best back in the preseason, but as the position got healthier, he was the odd man out thanks to the fact he doesn’t contribute on special teams. He’s the kind of big back that could demand a bulk of the carries if he gets rolling. Then there’s Rainey. Todd Haley has been trying to get his speed more involved, but it’s hard when he’s on the field so rarely. With more opportunity, Rainey could stand out a bit more as it’s easier to disguise when the ball is going to him.
More significant than the backfield, the biggest injury impact could be felt up front. Marcus Gilbert is out with an ankle injury. Welcome to the NFL Mike Adams. Who would have thought he would get an NFL start before injured first-round pick David DeCastro? Now he’s manning the right tackle spot trying to keep Carlos Dunlap away from Ben Roethlisberger. But the Steelers might be hard-pressed to help Adams if they are getting beaten up the middle thanks to an injury to Maurkice Pouncey. This time it’s a knee that limited Pouncey in practice all week. He says it’s a game time decision, but the practice trend would seem to make it 50-50 at best that he has to sit in favor of Doug Legursky.
With all that, you can see why there was so much panic when Ben Roethlisberger left practice Thursday with an ankle injury. Roethlisberger was aggressive Friday putting to rest any concern saying the injury is overhyped and a non-story. He rolled his ankle, but there is no chance he won’t be under center Sunday night. To back that up, the Steelers didn’t even bother to list him on their daily injury reports.
The Steelers defense dodged a bullet of their own Wednesday when Lawrence Timmons suffered a foot injury in practice. Fortunately, he was able to work the rest of the week, but the same can’t be said for Troy Polamalu. He’s out with that calf injury, and there’s a very good chance you will have to get used to the combination of Will Allen and Ryan Mundy playing Polamalu’s spot for quite some time.
By comparison, the Bengals are feeling great.
They do lose a big time burner if Armon Binns can’t play. It doesn’t look good as a rib injury held him out most of the week and limited him yesterday. He’s officially listed as questionable. As Pitt fans know all too well, the former University of Cincinnati wide receiver can be scary fast. Not having him opposite AJ Green at least allows the Steelers to pay a bit more attention to Green, but don’t get me wrong, Green is the star. The Bengals would take a lineup without Armon Binns as long as AJ Green is healthy and making Ike Taylor chase him all over the field.
The Bengals haven’t been great the last two weeks, but the Steelers’ biggest challenge will be the battle against the injury report this weekend. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if they overcome the injuries to beat Cincy, it can be the kind of triumph over adversity that galvanizes a team.