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Steelers can’t afford any more setbacks in Roethlisberger Era

Have all Steelers fans breathed their sigh of relief that Tom Brady won’t be in the Super Bowl?

Good. Let’s limit our reaction to just that, a sigh of relief. There’s no reason to celebrate.

We saw how silly the Bengals looked tweeting away after the Broncos beat the Steelers 23-16 in the AFC divisional playoffs last week. We don’t want to be like that, at least not anymore.

Sure, the Steelers’ record of six Super Bowl wins would have been in danger if the Patriots won their fifth this season. But the Steelers could have spared the world a week of nauseating Brady-Manning hype had Fitzgerald Toussaint just hung on to the football in Denver.

All that fawning over Brady and Manning wasn’t much easier to stomach than another Patriots Super Bowl appearance would have been.

The Steelers would have brought a fresh face to the AFC championship game. They haven’t been there since 2010. The Patriots, meanwhile, have been to all five conference championship games since the last time the Steelers advanced that far.

Deep playoff runs are the norm in New England. Just making the playoffs isn’t even the norm in Pittsburgh.

If the Steelers make the playoffs next season, it will be the first time Ben Roethlisberger or Mike Tomlin have been to the playoffs in three straight years.

Roethlisberger turns 34 on March 2. He doesn’t have time to miss the playoffs every third year if he wants to win a third and fourth Super Bowl ring and get a seat at the table with Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.

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Steelers ride out Burfict storm, conquer Bengals

Will the Pittsburgh Steelers win Super Bowl 50?

Who knows.

Even if they don’t, their efforts in 2015 won’t be entirely in vain.

That’s because thanks to the Steelers, the Bengals won’t be winning the Super Bowl.

The Steelers extended the Bengals’ playoff futility with an emotional 18-16 wild-card win Saturday night at Cincinnati.

Among Steelers fans, Whoever Plays the Ravens and Whoever Plays the Patriots are the most popular second-favorite teams.

There are plenty of intangible reasons to hate the Ravens, Patriots and even the Broncos, and the Steelers will have a chance to settle at least one of those scores during these playoffs.

The Steelers and Bengals, however, have become eye-for-an-eye rivals. The Bengals ended Le’Veon Bell’s season two years in a row. There was nothing dirty about Reggie Nelson’s hit in the 2014 season finale, but Vontaze Burfict’s hit this season at Pittsburgh was a little dicey, and he didn’t exactly show any remorse.

Then in Week 14 at Cincinnati Burfict tried to take out Ben Roethlisberger’s knees in a game in which players on both teams paid more money in fines than a lot of people earn in three years.

It remains to be seen if Burfict accomplished his mission to incapacitate Roethlisberger and ultimately sabotage the Steelers’ championship hopes. He knocked Roethlisberger out of Saturday’s game – temporarily – on what technically was a clean sack in the third quarter. But does anyone seriously think that Burfict drove Roethlisberger’s shoulder into the turf by accident?

(UPDATE: A video on Twitter reveals that Burfict whacked Roethlisberger’s shoulder with his knee after Roethlisberger was down. So no, it wasn’t a clean play.)

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Steelers, Bengals raise stakes in bitter rivalry

The Pittsburgh Steelers got just what they wanted for Christmas.

The Bengals.

The Steelers did what they had to do to make the playoffs. They beat the Browns 28-12 at Cleveland Sunday and got the help they needed in Buffalo when the Bills beat the Jets 22-17.

Bills cornerback Mario Butler – the anti-Ryan Succop – flew in like a superhero to break up what probably would have been a game-winning touchdown pass to Kenbrell Thompkins with 24 seconds left.

Now the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) are right back where they were at this time last year. They’re about to face a division rival in a wild-card game, possibly without their running back.

It’s too early to tell if DeAngelo Williams, who left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, will be ready to go against the third-seeded Bengals (12-4). Perhaps it’s fitting that the Steelers play in Cincinnati on Saturday night, because like Le’Veon Bell last year Williams’ stride will be watched more closely this week than John Travolta’s during the opening credits of “Saturday Night Fever.”

The Steelers could have been a dead team walking after last week’s costly Baltimore flop, but the mental fortitude they showed in bouncing back could be evidence that unlike last season they can overcome the loss of their starting running back and win a playoff game.

If they don’t, it would be harder to swallow than last year’s wild-card loss to the Ravens at Heinz Field.

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Inexcusable loss puts Steelers’ playoff hopes in jeopardy

The rest of the NFL can come out from under the bed.

All those teams that were shaking in their shoes at the thought of facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs don’t have to worry now, because they probably won’t have to.

Even if they do, the Steelers showed in Sunday’s confounding 20-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens that there’s really nothing to fear.

For the Steelers, losing to downtrodden teams was so 2014.

And 2013.

And 2012.

Losses to the Raiders (4-12), Titans (6-10) and Browns (5-11) sank the Steelers’ season in 2012. The Vikings (5-10-1) and Raiders (4-12) got them in 2013. Smudging their resumé last season were losses to the Buccaneers (2-14) and Jets (4-12) .

The 2015 Steelers were supposed to be different, especially after last week’s spirited comeback win over the Broncos.

But it happened again.

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Steelers 34, Broncos 27: Comeback victory shows how far Steelers have come from last season

The Pittsburgh Steelers are two wins away from their second straight perfect December.

So does this mean it’s 2014 all over again?

Not exactly.

That would be short-changing the 2015 Steelers, who overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat the Denver Broncos 34-27 Sunday at Heinz Field.

This year’s Steelers have shown a mental toughness that was missing last season, even before staging the franchise’s biggest comeback since rallying from 24-7 to beat the Browns 36-33 in a 2002 AFC wild-card game.

After winning three in a row highlighted by Ben Roethlisberger’s stratospheric six touchdown passes in back-to-back games, the 2014 Steelers were punched in the mouth and lost to a 4-12 Jets team.

Then after closing the season with four straight wins, the Steelers buckled when Le’Veon Bell was injured in the regular-season finale and went one-and-done in the playoffs.

This year’s Steelers (9-5) have dealt better with adversity. Despite only having Bell for five and a half games and Roethlisberger for 10 games, they’re in the playoffs if they can finish the season with wins at Baltimore and Cleveland.

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Steelers move a step closer to playoffs, but AFC North title still unlikely

Cincinnati sure is nice this time of year.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, anyway.

The Steelers’ 33-20 win over the Bengals Sunday was their 13th in their last 15 games at Cincinnati, including playoffs, and their 21st out of their last 26 going back to 1991.

Ben Roethlisberger improved to 11-2 at Paul Brown Stadium.

Steelers wins at Cincinnati have become one of those warm, fuzzy late-autumn experiences, like the smell of a burning fireplace or the taste of pumpkin spice.

In most years, these Steelers wins by the Ohio River are one of the building blocks of an AFC North title.

Could it possibly be again this year?

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Steelers rout Colts, face familiar road map to playoffs

In the NFL, there are certain phrases that you want to share a sentence with in December.

You want to be a team that “nobody wants to play” and you want to be “hot at the right time.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers are at least bearing the first of these labels after Sunday night’s 45-10 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts.

The Steelers (7-5) have generated at least 450 yards of offense in four straight games, tying an NFL record. They’ve scored 30 or more points in four straight games for the first time in franchise history, and believe it or not they’re the seventh-stingiest defense in the league with 240 points allowed. Sunday’s 35-point margin of victory is the Steelers’ largest in any game since they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 45-7 in 2006, and they did this to a team that leads its division.

This was the Steelers’ most complete effort of the season on both sides of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger threw four touchdown passes, two to Antonio Brown and one each to Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. He also ended a streak of five straight games with an interception and for the second time this season he wasn’t sacked. That’s part of the reason he played just his fourth complete game of the year.

The Steelers allowed 240 yards on defense, their best showing of the year, on a night when Brandon Boykin was actually allowed to play. The former Eagles cornerback who had been languishing on the bench intercepted a pass and broke up two more.

Another rare sight was perfect clock management by Mike Tomlin at the end of the first half. Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Wheaton with 10 seconds left to give the Steelers a 21-10 lead at the break.

If the Steelers continue to check all these boxes, no team would look forward to facing them in the playoffs.

Can we really say they’re “hot” at the right time, however? The euphoria over Sunday’s win doesn’t erase the 39 points the Seahawks hung on them last week.

To make the playoffs, the Steelers will have to get hot. For the third time in the last four years, they’re 7-5 and can make the playoffs if they win their last four games. That’s how they got into the playoffs last year and in 2005 when they won Super Bowl XL.

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher famously likened their task in 2005 to Christopher Columbus’ voyage, and the Steelers sailed a route no one else had by becoming the first team to win the Super Bowl as the No. 6 seed.

This year, the seas will be a lot rougher.

In the next two weeks the Steelers face a pair of 10-2 teams. They go to Cincinnati next week and host Denver in Week 15. They finish the season at Baltimore and at Cleveland, two hapless rivals that would like nothing more than to derail the Steelers’ playoff train.

When they ran the table in the final four games of 2005 and 2014, the Steelers had two games at home and two on the road. This year, three of their last four are on the road. They’ve beaten the Rams and Chargers on the road this season but lost to the Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended after 12 weeks.

The Steelers can forget about winning the AFC North. But next Sunday’s game at Cincinnati is their last chance to prove that they can beat a quality opponent on the road.

If the Steelers can do in Cincinnati what they did Sunday, then teams would have a real reason to fear them in the playoffs.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

Defense disappoints in Steelers loss to Seahawks

Sure, if the Steelers had beaten the Seahawks Sunday at Seattle, it would have been hailed as a signature win.

The narrative would have gone something like “Watch out Patriots, Broncos and Bengals. Here come the Steelers.”

Instead, the Steelers lost 39-30 and the weaknesses that could keep them out of the playoffs were exposed once again.

The Steelers took part in a memorable duel with the two-time NFC champions in a stadium where no AFC team has won since 2011, but there’s no “nice try” for that. They lost a game they had a chance to win.

No one is going to stop the presses by saying that the Steelers’ secondary isn’t very good. But boy was it horrible on Sunday.

The Steelers were burned by a lot of receivers that shouldn’t scare anyone.

Let’s just say that Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse aren’t often mentioned as fantasy starts.

Yet Baldwin rang up 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns, both career highs.

Kearse, who’s caught one touchdown pass in each of the last two years, caught a career-high two against the Steelers.

Those five touchdown passes, and 345 passing yards, are a regular-season personal best for Russell Wilson. For the second straight game the Steelers allowed a quarterback to surpass his career high in passing yards.

Jimmy Graham accounted for 75 of those yards on four catches before suffering a season-ending knee injury. On a day in which they couldn’t cover middling receivers, the Steelers weren’t going to suddenly figure out how to stop tight ends.

The Steelers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense bent and broke, and for the first time since the Steelers’ Week 7 loss at Kansas City it failed to produce any turnovers.

While the Steelers’ offense hasn’t had to carry the defense as much as most people thought it would, it needed to do that on Sunday. And turning the ball over four times is no way to bail out the defense.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Post-Bye Week To-Do List

Fresh off their bye week, the Pittsburgh Steelers visit Seattle on Sunday. They haven’t played there since 2003.

While the Northwest might be unfamiliar territory for the Steelers, they’re in somewhat familiar territory 10 games into the 2015 season.

They’re 6-4 for the third time in the last four years, but in 2012 and 2014, they fell to 6-4. They arrived at that record after a loss.

This season, the Steelers have won two in a row to rise to 6-4. The last time the Steelers won to get to 6-4 was 1995, and they went to the Super Bowl that year.

Super Bowl thoughts are premature at this point even though the Steelers have overcome a lot to earn their 6-4 record and hold the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff picture.

If the Steelers can check the following boxes, they’ll have good chance to make the playoffs for a second straight year.

Take care of the ball

The Steelers did a good job of this earlier in the season, turning the ball over three times in the first six games.

However, they’ve given the ball away 10 times in the last four games.

Half of those turnovers are Ben Roethlisberger interceptions. Roethlisberger is fourth in the NFL with 314.5 passing yards per game, but he was rusty when he came back from his four-week absence and threw three interceptions in the Steelers’ 16-10 loss to the Bengals.

Roethlisberger has thrown at least one interception in each of his last four games. The last time he did that was the four games the Steelers lost to open the 2013 season. After throwing nine interceptions all of last year, Roethlisberger has thrown seven in six games this season. He threw just one interception in December last year when the Steelers won their last four games and captured the AFC North. He’ll need to regain that form as the calendar turns to December this year.

Improve tight end coverage

The Steelers have allowed the third-most receptions to tight ends this season (58) and the second-most touchdowns (eight).

Half of those touchdowns came in the season opener. Rob Gronkowski caught three and Scott Chandler caught one.

Antonio Gates caught nine passes, two for touchdowns, against the Steelers in Week 5. Travis Kelce caught a 26-yard pass on third down to keep alive a Chiefs touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of their 23-13 win over the Steelers in Week 7.

The Steelers limited Tyler Eifert to four catches for 39 yards in Week 8 but two weeks later yielded six receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown to Gary Barnidge.

Next on the docket is Jimmy Graham Sunday in Seattle. Even though he hasn’t fit in with the Seahawks offense like he did with the Saints, he’s still 10th in the NFL among tight ends with 44 receptions and seventh with 530 receiving yards.

Winning in Seattle will be difficult enough. No AFC team has done it since 2011. It will be even harder if Graham has a breakout game.

The Steelers also encounter Eifert again at Cincinnati in Week 14 and Barnidge at Cleveland in Week 17.

Take advantage of backup (or aging) quarterbacks

When the 2015 NFL schedule was released, it looked like Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning would be visiting Heinz Field in December.

Now there’s a strong possibility it will be Matt Hasselbeck and Brock Osweiler instead.

The Steelers host Indianapolis in Week 13. It’s likely that Luck still will be sitting out with a lacerated kidney. If he is, then the Steelers would follow their first trip to Seattle since 2003 by facing the quarterback they faced in that 2003 game.

According to NFL.com, Manning is eyeing a return from his foot injury in Week 15. That’s when the Broncos go to Pittsburgh.

By then, Osweiler might have earned the starting job permanently. He threw three touchdown passes last week in his debut as a starter, a 17-15 win at Chicago. Manning, meanwhile, has lost his fastball. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes and a league-high 17 interceptions this year.

The 40-year-old Hasselbeck is 3-0 as a starter this season, Neither he nor Osweiler would be a walk in the park for a Steelers defense that’s 28th in the league in passing yards allowed. But regardless of who the opposing quarterback is in the Steelers’ two remaining home games, it won’t be a Hall of Fame-level Manning or a Pro Bowl-level Luck.

Then in Week 16 the Steelers will see Matt Schaub, not Joe Flacco, when they go to Baltimore. Schaub made the Pro Bowl for the Houston Texans in 2012, but has thrown 10 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions since then and hasn’t started a game since 2013.

Unless the Browns’ quarterback soap opera takes another dramatic turn, it will be Josh McCown under center when the Steelers go to the Dawg Pound in Week 17. Manziel threw a for career-high 372 yards against the Steelers in Week 10, but has been demoted because of a party video that surfaced. The 36-year-old McCown has never faced the Steelers in his career.

So the Steelers could be facing four backup quarterbacks, or some combination of backups and starters having down years, in their games against the Colts, Broncos, Ravens and Browns.

The defense is getting a break and needs to capitalize.

Improve punting

Jordan Berry has not fulfilled his preseason promise.

After averaging 49.8 yards per punt and beating out Brad Wing for the Steelers punting job, Berry has averaged just 42.3 in the regular season. That’s 30th in the league.

Wing, meanwhile, is averaging 44.8 yards per punt with the Giants.

Berry has done a decent job getting his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He’s tied for fifth with 20 of those. His punts have been returned an average of 6.8 yards, seventh-best in the league.

The Steelers haven’t ranked higher than 26th in average yards per punt since 2011. The defense gives up 371.4 yards per game, and even a couple of yards of field position would help.

Stay healthy

Of course there’s nothing the Steelers can do that would guarantee they’ll be injury-free for the rest of the season.

But they can take measures to decrease the chances of another injury.

They can turn their pass protection up a notch and give DeAngelo Williams a breather every now and then.

Considering their fortunes this season, no one can assume the Steelers are out of the woods when it comes to injuries.

Le’Veon Bell and Kelvin Beachum have suffered season-ending injuries. Maurkice Pouncey hasn’t played since suffering a leg injury in the preseason. Ben Roethlisberger has been knocked out of games twice this season. Landry Jones left the game with an ankle injury four minutes into his Week 10 start against the Browns but should be ready to go as Roethlisberger’s backup on Sunday.

With so many players getting hurt, 2015 has sometimes had the feel of an injury-cursed season.

Fortunately, Williams is averaging five yards a carry and gives the Steelers hope that they can survive without Bell. But he’s 32 and the Steelers can’t run him into the ground. Jordan Todman will have to play a series here and there.

The best way to prevent another cart ride for Roethlisberger is to keep him clean. The Steelers have allowed 23 sacks through 10 games, which puts them on pace for 37 for the season. Roethlisberger was sacked only 33 times last year and he’s suffered 10 of the 23 sacks this year.

It will be hard enough for the Steelers to win their first playoff game since 2010 without Bell. Without Bell and Roethlisberger? Forget it.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Defense helping Steelers avoid losses to bad teams

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ ability to protect their home turf and defeat the Cleveland Browns 30-9 Sunday is significant in more ways than one.

Week 10 of the 2015 NFL season was not an easy one for home teams. Visitors won 10 of the 13 Sunday games. Perhaps the most shocking was the Lions’ 18-16 win over the Packers, their first victory at Lambeau Field since 1991.

That makes the Steelers’ 12-game home winning streak over the Browns the NFL’s second-longest. The Colts have beaten the Texans 13 straight times at Indianapolis.

Seven days earlier, Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be out “at least a few weeks” with a midfoot sprain. On Sunday Roethlisberger replaced an injured Landry Jones and threw for 379 yards, the most in NFL history by a quarterback who didn’t start, and three touchdowns.

The Steelers (6-4) would be the No. 5 seed in the playoffs if the season ended after 10 weeks. They’re in this spot despite Roethlisberger missing four games and Le’Veon Bell’s season ending after just five and a half games.

While the Steelers’ ability to overcome injuries to Roethlisberger, Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum is commendable, it’s obscuring another feather in their cap.

It seems the Steelers have finally kicked the habit of losing to inferior competition.

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