The Pro Football Notebook

December 1, 2010 6:36 AM

Are The Steelers Vulnerable?

JamesHarrison.jpgThe AFC playoff race is undergirded by a key assumption, one that is shared at the Notebook and it's that the East & North have a lock on the wild-card berths, with the runner-ups in the Patriots-Jets & Steelers-Ravens races still heading to the postseason. Is the assumption true? In the case of the East I think it pretty clearly is. New England and New York are the best two teams in football and are both 9-2. What about the North though? Baltimore and Pittsburgh are each 8-3, so the loser of their head-to-head game on Sunday night could potentially only have a one-game lead in the wild-card race with four to go. They will be the favorite in such a race, but are they a lock? I'm going to pick on Pittsburgh and use them as the focal point to see if a late-season fade might be ahead (Easy Steelers fans--if you win on the road Sunday, I'll pick apart Baltimore next week).

Pittsburgh's schedule is not an easy one. We'll assume a loss Sunday night--that's not a formal prediction, but it does have to serve as the basis for this discussion. They also play the Jets at home, and they close the season at potential spoiler Cleveland. The only surefire wins are home dates with Cincinnati and Carolina. Based on schedule alone the Steelers could end up 10-6.

In the seven games since Ben Roethlisberger returned, Pittsburgh is 5-2 with the only losses between to New Orleans and New England, teams that are a combined 17-5. The offense is well-balanced, with Big Ben playing well and the running game led by Rashard Mendenhall being consistent. Roethlisberger has a good collection of targets--Mike Wallace is a deep threat and Hines Ward is a good solid veteran receiver who can get open on third downs. Heath Miller at tight end completes the receiver package. Defensively, Pittsburgh does a good job defending the run, with only the Patriots having established any kind of ground attack in that seven-game stretch. So what's the problem?

There aren't many, but one is a biggie. Pass protection--Buffalo sacked Roethlisberger five times last week. So did New England. The Saints and Dolphins each got to him. Now the Steeler quarterback is reported to be walking around in a boot, though he will play in Baltimore on Sunday. On the defensive side, it's much stronger. Pittsburgh has no clear weaknesses and gets a good pass rush themselves. The issue here is that they are vulnerable to specific matchups and that's quarterbacks who can get rid of the ball quickly and hit receivers running precise routes designed to beat blitzes. Tom Brady and Drew Brees each had big games against this defense. But this will only become an issue if we're talking about how deep into the playoffs Pittsburgh can go. When it comes to just making the postseason I don't think being vulnerable to Brady and Brees is too much of a knock.

So where does all this lead? Is there any hope for teams like 6-5 Miami or the runner-up in the AFC South, where Indianapolis and Jacksonville are 6-5? Or the runner-up in the AFC West fight? I don't think so. Unless Roethlisberger's injury is more serious than we know right now, the Steelers are too complete and the schedule just soft enough to ensure they get to 10 wins, and while the three games of Baltimore, NYJ and at Cleveland are tough, we shouldn't assume they will be swept. The core playoff assumption that the wild-cards are coming out of the East & North is based on sound reasoning. There is virtually no hope in Miami and the fans of Jacksonville, Indy, San Diego and Kansas City need to be thinking division crown.

Image from Getty Images

Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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