By Christina Rivers
Three games remain in the 2012 NFL regular season. Three games in which only the Steelers can determine how they will execute on the field in order to propel themselves into the playoff picture. With a win against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Pittsburgh will be one step closer to post-season play. With Houston, Denver and New England already owning a playoff spot, it will come down to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and New York (Jets) to take the three remaining spots. The sense of urgency is a thick cloud on the practice field and the minds of players. With three players listed as ‘out’ for Sunday’s meeting, the Steelers still have to deal with the ten additional players that remain on the injury list and will likely play before they are 100 percent. Fantasy owners may want to consider these factors before they adjust their rosters as many fantasy football leagues are now in their own playoffs.
“We have a tough game in Dallas this weekend and then two home games,” said Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress. “Guys understand the sense of urgency to go out and win this game and get on a run…we just need to focus and make it happen.”
Making it happen this weekend may take some extra special talent. Offensive tackle Mike Adams (ankle) was unable to participate in practice throughout the week and finds himself unable to play Sunday. Guard Willie Colon (knee) is in the same situation. To substitute, the Steelers will move Ramon Foster to left guard this week and put Maurkice Pouncey back at center. Max Starks will play left tackle, David DeCastro right guard and Kelvin Beachum right tackle. John Malecki was placed on the active roster but has seen little playing time outside of practice. When Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was asked about having two rookies playing next to each other on the offensive line, he responded, “The good thing is they came in together. Those guys…tend to have good rapport right out of the gate. They know they need each other right now, and they’ve learned that over the year. It’s time to stick together and make good things happen.”
Some relief for the offense is news that defensive tackle Jay Ratliff of the Cowboys had surgery and will miss the game and that linebacker DeMarcus Ware (elbow) is listed as questionable. Ware did not practice this week and if he does play, will likely be wearing a brace. In a game this important, the Cowboys will most likely let Ware play if he feels ready, so the relief isn’t total. Cornerback Morris Claiborne has yet to pass his final concussion test to be cleared for play on Sunday, but Nate Livings did pass his. Both Claiborne and Livings are listed as questionable, as is safety Charlie Peprah (foot). Haley called Max Starks a rock in situations like this. “[Max has] a great test this week against the rushers we’re going to see in DeMarcus [Ware] and Anthony [Spencer], and everybody they bring at you. Max has been a great re-addition for this team and for the offense.”
Heads up to the Steelers’ defensive backfield. With Ike Taylor (ankle) out and Cortez Allen (hip flexor) questionable, cornerback Keenan Lewis may play with a similar injury, but he was only able to practice Thursday and Friday. This brings in three guys who have seen very little playing time; DeMarcus Van Dyke, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant has been saying all week that he’d be ready for Sunday, and made this statement, “The position that we are in, that makes me want to be out there. If there was anything less than what we got a chance of, I would have went ahead and got surgery.” Bryant leads all Cowboys receivers with 1,028 yards and nine touchdowns. When Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was asked about the depth of the defensive backfield, he responded, “Hopefully, we have some quality depth. It’s a challenge for us. One thing is for sure, they aren’t going to cancel the game.” He added, “The game is still about tackling, keying and knocking down passes. We are going to show up. We know we have a challenge but I feel these young guys are going to make something good of it.” Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu will have more opportunities this week to garner a sense of good communication, but LeBeau doesn’t think they will have issues talking to their teammates on the field. “I will say from the coaching sessions, which began back in March, we tried to develop depth at every position, and we tried to teach these young players like they are going to be starting…Hopefully they will be prepared and answer the challenge.”
The flu virus must have invaded the Steelers’ practice fields this week. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, OLB James Harrison, ILB Stevenson Sylvester and long-snapper Greg Warren were all absent for at least part of this week’s practices due to illness. Burress and Polamalu also missed time that was not injury related according to the official report.
LaMarr Woodley was able to participate, but is listed as probable. If he is not ready to play Sunday, expect to see Jason Worilds again at his outside linebacker position. LeBeau is confident that Woodley will be more than ready. “For several years now, he has been one of the better pass rushers in the NFL,” said LeBeau. “Whenever he is not in there, you are going to feel his loss with the pressure. When he is in there, you are going to pick up the rush. Add to that the fact that he’s so big, teams have a hard time blocking him to run the football. He has a lot of assets. We are happy to have him back.”
The Steelers have a healthy quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but the offense has not been clicking like it should. Receiver Emmanuel Sanders has a shoulder injury that limited his ability in practice until Thursday. Mike Wallace has been plagued by the press and fans for appearing unfocused in games. Wallace said, “We need to win every game. We don’t have time to lose a game and look around.” A lot of fantasy owners have been feeling that Wallace has spent too much time looking around and his stock has dropped dramatically. None of the Steelers’ receivers have high fantasy value at this stage of the game, but Antonio Brown is currently listed highest in value on many fantasy boards. The running game will be a hard-fought one this weekend as Dallas has been good at shutting down rushing teams. Jonathan Dwyer will get the start on Sunday, backed up by Isaac Redman as Rashard Mendenhall serves a one game suspension. “These next few games, we are in control of the rest of our journey,” said Dwyer. “I think there is a sense of urgency just because you want to win…It’s just what it is.”
Both teams are evenly matched. Two quarterbacks with the ability to throw the long ball and keep plays alive. Offensive lines that are battered and bruised, pieced together with remaining parts. Defensive players that have been shuffled in and out due to injury and a need for different pairings against their opponents. The same win-loss record. For the Steelers to take the game away from the Cowboys, they’ll need to utilize every ounce of talent, energy and ability from every player for a full 60 minutes of play. As of Friday, the Steelers were the favorite, but by a very small percentage. For fantasy owners, leaving Dallas and Pittsburgh players off your roster might not be a bad idea. These teams will be playing their hearts out, and your roster may reflect a decline in individual performance statistics. If you’re not worried about fantasy stats and are just focused on the Steelers as your team to love – enjoy the game because it is sure to tell you what the Steelers will be doing in January.
WR Antonio Brown (illness)
WR Plaxico Burress (not injury related)
OLB James Harrison (illness)
CB Keenan Lewis (hip flexor)
SS Troy Polamalu (not injury related)
WR Emmanuel Sanders (shoulder)
ILB Stevenson Sylvester (illness)
LS Greg Warren (illness)
OLB LaMarr Woodley (ankle)
CB Cortez Allen (groin/hip flexor)
OT Mike Adams (ankle)
CB Ike Taylor (ankle)
G/T Willie Colon (knee)
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.