There are lots of reasons to shrug your shoulders at Saturday afternoon's contest against the St. Louis Rams. The Steelers are already guaranteed a playoff spot and odds are they will enter the playoffs as the AFC's 5th seed. Plus, the Rams are awful, Roethlisberger likely isn't playing and it is Christmas Eve.
But there is one storyline flying a little under the radar that makes the game a must-watch: there's a good chance it is Hines Ward's last go around in front of the home fans.
Ward, 35, is under contract for next season, but there is good reason to believe that he won't be back. He has slowed down a lot this season and is now the Steelers 5th wide receiver (behind Wallace, Brown, Sanders and Cotchery). After posting 755 yards receiving last year and grabbing 5 touchdowns, Ward only has 325 yards so far in 2011 and is only seeing the field in a couple of formations.
It's possible Ward could hang it up after this season and call it a career. But as somebody who has made a career off of proving people wrong, my gut says he thinks he can still play the game even at his advanced age. The Steelers might not believe so, given how little he has been used and the $4 million cap hit he'll carry. There's a good chance that Ward will be on a different roster in 2012.
It is ironic that the end of Ward's career has brought so much controversy. Fans debate over his playing time. People flip out on Twitter every time he's on the field. The bubble screen has turned into a running joke. In a lot of ways, it's a microcosm of his career. Ward has always been at the center of debate. Lots of people think he is a dirty player. Many think he was overrated throughout his career. Lots of fans, of course, will say the opposite is true.
Even after he retires, Ward's Hall of Fame candidacy is going to be a hot topic. SI's Peter King -- a voter -- has already written about it a few times and seems to think Ward's blocking and Super Bowl MVP will put him over the edge and into Canton. But others vehemently disagree. Bloguin's resident Colts expert Nate at 18to88, who I respect a ton, says no way.
For one game, though, it would be nice to see everybody in Pittsburgh get behind Ward. He's got a decent chance of seeing the field quite a bit, especially if the game gets out of hand. While he is slow and not very fun to watch in 2011, few athletes have meant more to Steeler fans and the city of Pittsburgh. Ward's legacy is going to be right up there with any of the Steeler legends of the 70s. He is (of course) arguably the greatest receiver ever to play in Pittsburgh. I grew up watching old clips of Swann and Stallworth, marveling at their ability. My kids will grow up doing the same with Ward.
Whether it was him laying a devasting block against the Ravens, skipping into the endzone during Super Bowl XL or getting up with a smile after a rare pass drop, I have really, really enjoyed watching Hines Ward play football the last 14 seasons. You might only see him for a few more plays at home. Soak it in.
Dejan Kovacevic wrote in his column today that the Steelers should play Ben Roethlisberger these final two weeks of the season.
Now, Kovacevic is no joke. He knows what he's talking about in every sport and I agree with him close to 100% of the time. This is one of the times I don't.
He's right about a few things, of course. There is a case to start Ben despite his high ankle sprain. The Steelers aren't exactly such a dominant force in pro football right now that they can expect to take two weeks off and jump in without incident in wildcard weekend. And of course, Ben wouldn't be in as much danger if the Steelers were to incorporate a QB-friendly, quick-pass offense. It isn't like the Rams defense is that threatening. And they can still lean on the running game, right?
Here's the problem. The Steelers have all but clinched the #5 seed. Even if they win out, it remains likely that the Ravens will do the same and finish with the top seed in the AFC. Yeah, they have a Week 17 tilt in Cincinnati, they haven't done as well on the road, and Cincy will be fighting for their playoff lives. But the Ravens will be fighting to keep the Steelers from that coveted AFC North title, and we know the Ravens can get up to do anything that hurts the Steelers. Jon Harbaugh probably got a Gatorade shower when I started this post.
So the Steelers can pretty much bank on getting the 5-seed and playing the AFC West winner on wildcard weekend. Note that the Denver Tebows are currently leading the AFC West. Playing a first round matchup against a terrible passer and a team with no playoff experience (Well, their running back has been to the playoffs before, but he probably doesn't remember it) doesn't really scare me. I hear that Tebow kid is a tough runner. I hear the Steelers aren't terribly frightened of good running backs. So it's tough to justify throwing everything you have at the Rams and Browns by saying they'll be better suited for the playoffs. In fact, I might rather sink to #6 and play Houston if at all possible.
But what about protecting Ben better? If Arians' gameplan consists of a lot of shotgun passes with lots of receiving targets, Ben should be able to use a quick three-step drop on most passing plays and find a receiver underneath, right?
Raise your hand if you believe for a fraction of a second that that gameplan will stay in effect through four quarters of football. If no one's open, Ben's going to hold onto the ball. He's going to take hits. You can't play any defense and expect him to be untouched the entire game. The offensive line played an excellent first half against San Francisco and kept Ben totally upright. But once the score got even slightly out of hand, Ben hung around too long and took a bunch of hits.
But that was San Francisco's defense! They've been really good all year and you can't expect the Rams and Browns to generate that much pressure on Ben!
Wait a sec, who was Ben playing when he got that nasty high ankle sprain? Oh yeah, the Cleveland Browns. A free rush, a big hit, a missed block, they can happen for any team at any time. You're obviously more likely to get sacked by Terrell Suggs than Scott Paxson, but I don't recall Suggs injuring Roethlisberger this season.
But Ben is still the most effective quarterback! He threw for a bunch of yards on Monday night!
He did, and every throw he made looked to be all arm. He can't put weight on his left leg. You know, the leg he has to step on to follow through in his throwing motion. Anyone who has watched Ben play his whole career could see that he wasn't right Monday night. He's normally a very accurate passer, but he was throwing interceptions because the ball sailed on him. Because he was throwing off his back foot. Because his left leg can't support his weight. Those were uncharacteristic mistakes by Ben, and they happened because his throwing motion was hampered.
High ankle sprains take a few weeks to heal. Conveniently, the Steelers have a few weeks before the playoffs begin. The reward does not outweigh the risk of playing Ben Roethlisberger. The next two games aren't important. The one after them is.
When the Steelers take the field on Christmas Eve, it looks like the will be without their starting QB. Pro Football Talk and Jason LaCanfora are both saying that Ben Roethlisberger will not play this week and his status for Week 17 remains unclear as well.
In all likelihood, the Steelers are going to be the 5th seed in the AFC after their blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. The team should be able to handle the Rams and Browns without Roethlisberger, but I don't think it's a guaranteed 2-0 finish to the regular season without number 7. The Steelers haven't exactly handled 'easy' competition well this year.
Charlie Batch will be the starter on Saturday night if Roethlisberger is out. Like everybody else, I love Batch as a person, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me who I'd trust to win these next two games, my answer would be Dennis Dixon.
The Steelers struggles in pass protection and inability to consistently run the ball don't bode well for Batch, who might be the least mobile quarterback to play in the league this year. The Steelers will really miss Byron Leftwich, who is very similar to Roethlisberger in his style.
The pressure now falls on the running game and the defense to do the job the last two weeks.
Oh god, the horror! Decades from now, your children will look to you and say "Do you remember that fateful December eve?" The expression on your face will answer their question. You will relive the experience you wanted so badly to forget. You will tell your children of the uncertainty, and how it gave way into disorder, and how it evolved into chaos. The riots, the violence, the cannibalism. There was no society. No order. Only terror. It was a time you went through so future generations wouldn't have to. It was the time some lights went out for 20 minutes at some football game.
Or at least how ESPN painted it. In the meantime, the Steelers lost a boring game because Ben Roethlisberger couldn't put any weight on his left leg. Jump for the recap.
This was a frustrating game no matter which way you look at it. I think the attitude of a lot of Steelers fans heading into this week was that the 49ers weren't as good as their record. After an ugly 20-3 loss , the same thing will be said about Pittsburgh this week.
The Steelers offense actually moved the ball very well against a stout 49ers defense. Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 300 yards. Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore had several nice runs. But Roethlisberger threw two early interceptions, both of which killed long drives, and lost a fumble in the 4th quarter. Penalties also hurt the Steelers. It was a sloppy performance on all sides of the ball.
That's what is most troubling about this loss. The Steelers were banged up coming into the game and I didn't expect them to win on the road against a good opponent. But the reason they lost this game is because of mental errors, poor coaching and a lack of execution. It has little to do with Roethlisberger's injury.
A few lowlights:
-B- Mike Tomlin's awful time management at the end of the 1st half. The Steelers had a chance to put some points on the board, but pissed away precous seconds before throwing a pass in bounds that ended the half. They opted not to attempt a long field goal attempt or throwing a Hail Mary. They waved the white flag.
-B- Jim Harbaugh is just as annoying as his brother.
-B- Alex Smith looked a lot like Joe Flacco toinght. And not the Joe Flacco that completes 50% of his passes...the Joe Flacco who plays against like Tom Brady against the Steelers. Pittsburgh played a soft zone coverage in the seondary early and often and Smith took advantage of it, throwing 8-yard outs up and down the field. San Francisco's offense looked very similar to Baltimore's. Inferior receivers were given free release by the cornerbacks.
-B- Max Starks looked lost trying to block Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. One of the only good surprises of the night was that Roethlisberger was still in one piece.
-B- The last time the Steelers didn't score a tochdown in a game was December 10, 2009.
-B- Last time the Steelers scored 3 points: November 26, 2007 against Miami in the swamp of Heinz Field
-B- Thumbs down to the officials, who called a bizarre penalty on Lawrence Timmons that allowed the 49ers to clinch the game midway through the 4th. They also screwed up a muffed punt by San Francisco while the game was still in reach. Don't get it twisted, though, the officials weren't nearly as miserable as the Steelers players.
-B- Steelers are now a minus-11 for the year in turnover differential. No way a team that coughs the ball up that much is going far in the playoffs. It has to stop.
-B- Oh, and the power went out twice during the night.
-B- With St. Louis and Cleveland next on the schedule, this will likely be the last test the Steelers have the rest of the way. Baltimore plays Cleveland and is at Cincinatti to close out the year. The division race isn't over yet.
Tonight's game has been delayed by 30-40 minutes after a transformer in the area went out, causing a brief power outage at Candlestick Park. The lights are now back on.
Here's video courtesy of Empty Netters.
No word if Bane is behind this or not. If Hines Ward lines up to return the opening kickoff, hide yo wife hide yo kids.
This is going to be epic. The theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, filmed in Pittsburgh, hit the Internet early this week. It's the first footage we've seen from the filming that took place at Heinz Field starring Hines Ward and many other Steelers. (The full list is Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Willie Colon, Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Wallace, Heath Miller, Aaron Smith, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, James Farrior and Casey Hampton.)
Ward is prominently featured in the trailer, as is Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Heinz Field looks pretty freakin' awesome too, though the field explosion effects leave a little to be desired.
Here's the video (could get taken down at any time):
Here are some stills from the trailer featuring a few familar faces:
Steeler Nation Rogue Nation
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl kicking off to Hines Ward
Hines Ward returning the kickoff while the field explodes
Ward having a WTF moment
For this week's preview, I am compelled to make a generic "keys to the game" list, but statistically informed. However, I can't call them "keys" because everyone else does that. So, in honor of the 49ers, I'm calling them "gold nuggets", and there are 49 of them! Just kidding, I wouldn't do that to you, but the square root of 49 is 7, making that the perfect number of gold nuggets for this preview.
1. Make it a defensive battle.
The Steelers are current ranked fifth in offensive DVOA and ninth in defensive DVOA, while the 49ers are ranked 21st offensively and third defensively. As there is obviously a question of how well the Steelers offense will perform with Ben Roethlisberger's injury, the defense will have to steal the show in this game, because I don't see the offense scoring more than 20. I'd be glad to be wrong, though.
2. Involve Mendenhall in the passing game.
To protect Ben (or Batch), there will be plenty of short passes. Fortunately, the 49ers are 23rd in DVOA allowed to running backs in the passing game. So throwing it to Mendenhall, Redman, or Moore might be a good strategy.
3. On the same note, watch for Frank Gore in the passing game.
One of the Steelers' weaknesses on defense is against running backs out of the backfield (17th in DVOA against). While Gore hasn't been a huge weapon receiving so far this year, it is still something to look for.
4. Win the special teams battle.
Both teams are ranked highly in special teams DVOA (Steelers ninth, 49ers second). The 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL at both kick returns and punt returns. Suisham and Kapinos will need good days, because if the game is close (and I think it will be), one bad kick will make the difference between a 17-14 game and a 21-17 game.
5. Don't let the death of Kim Jong-Il affect you.
I know you think it's exciting that one of the few remaining Communist dictators passed away, and you may have mixed feelings about how his son Kim Jong-un will lead one of the more unstable countries in the world. Just remember, though there may be long-term effects for the world, there are no immediate effects on football, so go out there and do what you'd normally do, with no worry that a North Korean nuclear missile will hit the stadium in the third quarter!
6. Control the 49ers' third and fourth receivers, including Braylon Edwards.
The Steelers' are also weak against non-starting receivers (21st in DVOA), and the 49ers have Braylon Edwards, who's had some of the better games of his career against the Steelers. Either Edwards or Ted Ginn (or both) will likely have a big catch in this game, but if they don't, the Steelers will have the game in hand.
7. Throw deep when able.
The 49ers' other weakness in pass defense is against #1 WRs (16th in DVOA). This would normally be indication that steady doses of Mike Wallace are called for. With the unsettled QB injury situation for the game, the playbook may change, but as long as the Steelers' QB is able to get the ball to Wallace, the opportunity should be there.
This will be a very close game, especially with injuries affecting the Steelers. I think it will end up being a defensive battle, meaning the Steelers will be able to pull it out, and the Twitter fans will say things like "ALOLex Smith" when Smith throws a late-game interception. Steelers 17, 49ers 14