Cincinnati, OH (KDKA)- Last week’s 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns was ugly on several levels. The biggest one, of course, was the brawl leading to center Maurkice Pouncey’s three-game suspension and quarterback Mason Rudolph’s fine.
But the recurring storyline that has bugged the Steelers all season reared its head again, as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and running back James Conner all had to leave the game with injuries. It has been a brutal season on that front, but in spite of the injuries, the team is still in the thick of the playoff race. Heading into Week 12, Pittsburgh finds themselves just one game back of the final Wild Card spot currently occupied by the Houston Texans.
With three straight games against under-.500 teams on the docket, there is still plenty of time to make up that ground. Though the schedule is comforting, beginning with this week’s game against the 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals, the question remains: who steps up in the wake of injuries to multiple skill-position stars?
“That is a great question. Mason Rudolph, he didn’t have a great game against Cleveland. You look at Jaylen Samuels maybe as a guy to step up especially if James Conner is not able to go,” said NFL On CBS analyst London Fletcher. “Trying to manufacture some offense will be tough.”
If Conner, Smith-Schuster and Johnson are all unable to go, that would leave offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner without the team’s leading rusher and top two receivers. Not ideal for game planning. Luckily, as Fletcher points out, the Bengals provide a soft landing spot where the Steelers can hold on with their defense.
“They are facing an extremely bad Cincinnati Bengals football team. This is a team that struggles to score points, they are one of the worst offenses in the league in a lot of categories. They don’t do much from an offensive standpoint,” said Fletcher. “If you’re Pittsburgh, rely on your defense and don’t turn the ball over. Don’t give this bad Bengals team a chance to stick around in this game.”
If they are able to avoid the trap that is the Bengals on the road in Cincy, the Steelers would improve their playoff chances by six percent in FiveThirtyEight’s model. Win all three of their upcoming games against the Bengals, Browns and Cardinals? Their playoff odds go up to 62%. Then, according to Fletcher, you’re talking about head coach Mike Tomlin in the coach of the year conversation.
“He is definitely in that conversation. You lose Ben Roethlisberger, no longer have Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown,” said Fletcher. “And then all of the situations they have had injury-wise, to still have them in contention? He definitely deserves some votes for Coach of the Year. Obviously you have some other guys like Kyle Shanahan out in San Francisco. But, he is going to garner some votes, especially if the Steelers get into the playoffs or finish extremely strong.”
While those playoff hopes will improve with the club winning the next three games against below .500, the game that Fletcher points to as the big one. A December 15th matchup with the Buffalo Bills.
“I think it’s going to come down to the Bills and Pittsburgh fighting for that final Wild Card spot in the AFC,” said Fletcher. “Because I truly believe the Oakland Raiders, when you look at their schedule, will get to 10-11 wins and battle with the Chiefs in the AFC West. It will be Pittsburgh and Buffalo fighting for that final Wild Card spot in the AFC.”
FiveThirtyEight’s game predictions give the Steelers an edge in each of those four games against the Bengals (77%), Browns (57%), Cardinals (58%) and Bills (52%). Whether or not that plays out is likely to depend on how healthy the team can get in the next few weeks. The first step will be taking care of business against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday. Kick off is slated for 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time.