One week ago, the NFL calendar was poised to give us a treat: two 5-1 clubs, each boasting a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a Super Bowl-winning head coach and an explosive, remarkably deep offense, squaring off in a potential AFC Championship Game preview.
Of course, there was a real possibility the game would disappoint even if everyone on both clubs’ rosters was 100 percent healthy. Plenty of “must-watch” games prove to be real duds: just look at two of the last three Super Bowls.
But in light of the Steelers’ toothless defensive performance a week ago in Miami and the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, who had an inside track on the MVP race just eight days ago, Sunday’s marquee matchup at Heinz Field should be anything but.
Twice this year, the Steelers defense has been an absolute disaster: once in Philadelphia when Carson Wentz carved up the Pittsburgh secondary, and again last week as Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins offensive line manhandled the Steelers front seven for 222 rushing yards. Given how versatile New England’s offense has been in the past and again this year — they’re currently ranked seventh in the league in both rushing and passing yardage — the Steelers are equally vulnerable against either Tom Brady’s arm or LeGarrette Blount’s legs.
Pittsburgh may be getting their best defender, Ryan Shazier, back from injury, but without Cameron Hayward to pressure Brady and draw attention in the running game, the Steelers will struggle to force New England into third-and-long situations. Worse yet, even with Hayward, the Steelers have barely put pressure on opposing passers (tied for sixth-worse in turnovers forced, tied for ninth-worse in sacks) this season and no one hangs in the pocket and finds open receivers when given extra time better than Tom Brady.
Still, it was highly unlikely that — even if the Steelers didn’t show considerable flaws against the Dolphins or they were coming into Sunday’s showdown much healthier — Pittsburgh’s defense would be much of a match for New England. In two previous showdowns against this incarnation of Josh McDaniels’ Patriots offense, Pittsburgh’s defense has given up a whopping 11 offensive touchdowns.
More to the point about the excitement of this impending matchup, what truly makes a game thrilling to watch is a shootout. And there was certainly a good chance of that just a week ago. Pittsburgh’s offense recently blew the doors off two very good defenses in Kansas City and the Jets, scoring a combined 74 points, while New England has scored 4 offensive touchdowns in each game since Tom Brady returned in Week 5.
Now, with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined the chances of that are drastically reduced. That’s not to say that Roethlisberger is the only exceptional offensive talent on the roster. Far from it. Le’Veon Bell returned from his suspension to instantly thrash through defenses on the ground and by catching passes. Antonio Brown was well on his way to another 100-plus catch season through five weeks of the season. And Sammie Coates had begun to emerge as the physical deep-threat the Steelers were missing in light of Martavis Bryant’s suspension.
But without Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown and Coates, everyone else takes a serious hit in productivity. More so than any other team in recent memory, the Steelers offense just falls apart in every way imaginable minus Big Ben. In the seven games Roethlisberger has missed during the Todd Haley Era, Pittsburgh averages 18 points, 184 yards passing, and just 16 first downs. And in four of those games, Pittsburgh has turned the ball over at least three times.
Whether its because the coaching staff refuses to show faith in Landry Jones, Michael Vick, Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich, those backups just do not have the skills to run the full playbook, or because Roethlisberger just has so many innate, unteachable skills, Pittsburgh’s offense falls off a cliff without him under center.
The injuries that have begun to ruin Pittsburgh’s season do not make it impossible for Sunday’s showdown with New England to be a great game, one that comes down to the wire, features an unexpectedly strong performance from Jones or inexplicably morphs into a low-scoring, knock-down, drag-out, defensive war of attrition.
But the real reason New England versus Pittsburgh thrilled fans and CBS network executives a few weeks back was the strong potential for a 42-38 offensive whirlwind that culminated in a game-winning, final seconds touchdown pass from one of this generation’s most heralded passers.
And with Roethlisberger out and Brady facing a weak defense, the chances of that happening are slim.