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5 more worst-case scenarios for Steelers in 2016

The Steelers’ high-powered offense was going to turn Heinz Field into the home of the Greatest Show on Grass in 2016.

Instead, it’s starting to look like the Greatest Show on Weed.

First Martavis Bryant was suspended for the 2016 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. It will be his second suspension. He also sat out the first four games of the 2015 season.

Now, Le’Veon Bell quite likely will be forced to miss the first four games of the 2016 season for missing a drug test. Counting playoffs, that will make it 14 consecutive games that Bell has been unavailable to the Steelers when combining last season’s knee injury and this season’s impending suspension.

All that offseason euphoria about the Steelers’ offense carrying them to a seventh Super Bowl victory has come crashing down to earth.

Now that Bell has Steeler Nation in a foul mood with training camp set to begin Thursday, let’s take a look at five more things that could go wrong in 2016 and keep the Steelers from reaching the top of the Stairway to Seven.

Sammie Coates can’t fill Martavis Bryant’s shoes

The Steelers need a receiver not named Antonio Brown who can scare a defense. Martavis Bryant gave opponents plenty to worry about, but he’s out of the picture in 2016.

Sammie Coates is the popular choice to be that No. 2 receiver. After dressing for just seven games and catching one pass in his rookie season, Coates appeared to be on an upward trajectory in the postseason. He caught two passes for 61 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. The 2015 third-round draft pick is in better shape this offseason and has turned a lot of heads, but let’s face it, it’s hard to remember a case in which three catches have generated so much hype.

If Coates can do in pads what he did in the spring, he can flourish opposite Brown. If not, Brown will see a lot of double-teams.

Ladarius Green turns into a free-agent flop

If Coates doesn’t make a significant leap in 2016, the next best thing would be for Ladarius Green to have a breakout season in his first year as a Steeler.

Green is the centerpiece of the Steelers’ 2016 free-agent signings. The former Chargers tight end was brought in to replace the retired Heath Miller. The 6’6″, 240-pounder will bring more speed to the position, which would give the Steelers’ offense a weapon it’s never really had.

The 26-year-old Green has increased his receptions in each of his four seasons, but his career high in 2015 was a lackluster 37 catches. If Green has so much upside, then why did the Chargers keep 36-year-old tight end Antonio Gates and let Green get away?

Green hasn’t had a chance to work out in his new offense because he missed the Steelers’ offseason activities recovering from ankle surgery. If his absence extends into training camp, it’s time to worry.

Ryan Shazier can’t stay healthy

Ryan Shazier took a step forward in 2015, especially in the playoffs. He made nine tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one of them in the Steelers’ wild-card win at Cincinnati.

If he picks up where he left off, the Steelers can build their defense around him. He needs to stay healthy, however. He’s missed 11 games so far in his two-year career.

If the Steelers raise the Lombardi Trophy for a seventh time in February, it will have more to do with the offense than the defense. But it would help if the defense improves. For that to happen, Shazier must become an impact defender who can stay on the field.

The Steelers miss Kelvin Beachum

Kelvin Beachum’s torn ACL in Week 6 of the 2015 season effectively ended his days as a Steeler. He signed a one-year contract with the Jaguars.

Alejandro Villanueva filled in admirably at left tackle, but the Steelers apparently aren’t sold on him. They brought in free agent Ryan Harris from Denver to compete with Villanueva for the job.

The 31-year-old Harris is nothing special. Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 53 tackle out of 77 in 2015 via Pro Football Rumors. The best-case scenario for the Steelers is that Villanueva blossoms and beats out Harris. But if Villanueva already has hit his ceiling and Harris isn’t much better, the Steelers will miss Beachum.

Shoddy blind-side protection could lead to the worst of the worst-case scenarios.

Ben Roethlisberger’s body starts to break down

Ben Roethlisberger took so many cart rides off the field last season that he should have carried change to pay for the fare.

In 2015 Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain, a bone bruise in his knee, a foot sprain, a concussion and a separated shoulder. That litany of injuries caused him to miss four games.

On one hand, Roethlisberger showed in 2015 just how tough he is. The MCL sprain he suffered in St. Louis probably would have ended the season of most quarterbacks. The separated shoulder came in the wild-card game at Cincinnati, but Roethlisberger orchestrated a game-winning drive with essentially a noodle for an arm.

On the other hand, perhaps the beating Roethlisberger has taken in his career started to catch up with him in 2015 and 16-game seasons are a thing of the past. Roethlisberger has been sacked 439 times, more than any active quarterback. It’s a lot harder to get up from those sacks at 34 than it is at 24.

In 2013 and 2014, Roethlisberger played back-to-back 16-game seasons for the first time in his career. If he can make it three out of four in 2016, then the Super Bowl still can be in the Steelers’ sights even if the first four worst-case scenarios come true.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 draft report card

The 2016 NFL draft provided the Pittsburgh Steelers an opportunity to add missing pieces to a team that was two wins away from Super Bowl 50.

For the second straight year, the Steelers drafted according to specific needs rather than the “best player available” policy. How did they do?

These are their grades for each pick followed by a grade for the entire draft. NFL.com, NFL Draft Scout and Pro Football Focus were used for scouting reports.

FIRST ROUND

No. 25: Artie Burns, CB, Miami

Jr., 6’0″, 193 pounds

The Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round for the first time in 19 years and took someone who they probably could have had in the second or third round.

Artie Burns led the SEC with six interceptions in 2015, but the Steelers play a lot of zone and he’s more of a press corner. He’s not the best tackler, and Steelers corners often have to “tackle the catch.” The Steelers probably would have taken William Jackson III if the Bengals hadn’t drafted him at No. 24 out of spite. The dropoff from Jackson to Burns is much more than the difference in value between the 24th and 25th pick. The Steelers should have tried to trade out of the 25th pick or addressed another need.

Burns has been forced to grow up fast. His mother died during the 2015 football season, and he’s taking care of his younger brother and sister. With that in mind, it’s difficult to see Burns getting into any kind of trouble. Strictly between the white lines, however, this was a disappointing first-round pick.

Grade: C-minus

SECOND ROUND

No. 58: Sean Davis, DB, Maryland

Sr., 6’1″, 201 pounds

This is another player the Steelers probably could have taken in the third round, but Sean Davis looks like a tackling machine on tape.

Davis is listed as a cornerback but he’s really more of a safety. He’ll help the Steelers more getting into the thick of things and making tackles than he will in coverage. Davis led the Big Ten with 80 tackles in 2014 and was third with 70 last season. He had three interceptions in 2015 and forced five fumbles, so there’s some splash-play potential.

According to NFL.com Davis can speak English, Chinese and French. Perhaps that’s a sign that he can quickly learn the Steelers’ defense. He fills a gaping need because Mike Mitchell is the only proven safety on the Steelers’ roster, and while he’s probably not a long-term solution at corner his versatility can’t hurt.

Grade: B-plus

THIRD ROUND

No. 89: Javon Hargrave, DT, South Carolina State

Sr., 6’1″, 309 pounds

Javon Hargrave was a big fish in a small pond in college, so there’s some risk here. But he’s shown signs that he can succeed in the NFL, and he’ll have to unless Daniel McCullers can make a big third-year leap. Someone has to start in place of Steve McLendon.

Hargrave had 16 sacks in 2014, including six against Bethune-Cookman, and was named the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year. He added 13.5 sacks in 2015 and totaled 45.5 tackles for losses over the last two seasons. He overwhelmed the competition at the FCS level and he more than held his own against FBS talent at the East West Shrine Game. He’s ready for the next challenge.

This is a good point in the draft for the Steelers to address their need at defensive tackle. The first round is too early to take a player who will come off the field on third down, and the Steelers haven’t been able to unearth hidden gems in the late rounds. The Steelers also decided to eschew the Jabba the Hut types they’ve drafted in recent years and instead took someone who can get after the quarterback.

The Steelers must see something in Hargrave because they took him with Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings still on the board. Hall of Famer Harry Carson also came from South Carolina State, so the sky is the limit.

Grade: B

FOURTH ROUND

No. 123: Jerald Hawkins, OT, LSU

Jr., 6’6″, 305 pounds

You never want to count out Alejandro Villanueva. He could beat out not-so-special former Bronco Ryan Harris for the starting left tackle job, but the Steelers at the very least need some depth at tackle.

Jerald Hawkins doesn’t seem ready to contribute right away, but he shows left tackle potential. He started in all 36 of his games at LSU, playing right tackle for the first two years and then getting “promoted” to left tackle in his third year.

With Mike Munchak running the position group, any offensive lineman drafted by the Steelers has a chance to succeed.

Grade: B

SIXTH ROUND

No. 220: Travis Feeney, OLB, Washington

Sr., 6’4″, 230 pounds

A converted safety, Travis Feeney was a monster at the NFL Scouting Combine. His 40-inch vertical leap topped all linebackers, and he was second only to 20th overall pick Darron Lee among linebackers in the 40-yard dash (4.5 seconds) and broad jump (130 inches).

Feeney had eight sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles in 2015. He might not have the size to succeed as a pass rusher in the NFL, however, and he’s had four shoulder surgeries. He gets high marks for his special teams play, and if he makes an impact in that department then this is a good use of a sixth-round pick.

Grade: B-minus

SEVENTH ROUND

No. 229: DeMarcus Ayers, WR, Houston

Jr., 5’9″, 182 pounds

DeMarcus Ayers caught 97 passes in 2015. He’s not a home run threat, averaging 12.6 yards per reception and catching six touchdown passes, but he did average 5.7 yards per rush on 26 carries. He also scored one kick-return touchdown and one punt-return touchdown in college. One scout told NFL.com that Ayers should have stayed in school, but if Ayers can relieve Antonio Brown of his punt-return duties, this would be a good pick for the Steelers.

Grade: C-plus

SEVENTH ROUND

No. 246: Tyler Matakevich, LB, Temple

Sr., 6’0″, 238 pounds

The 2015 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Tyler Matakevich is the NCAA career leader since 2005 with 338 solo tackles. Luke Kuechly is third on that list.

The intangibles and college numbers are there, but not necessarily the physical traits. Anything more than the practice squad would be a bonus.

Grade: B-minus

OVERALL GRADE: B-minus

The Steelers addressed their four biggest needs in the first four rounds of the draft. They had to do that because they had no fifth-round pick, and banking on sixth- and seventh-round picks is like throwing darts at a board.

Sean Davis is their best pick. Even though the Steelers’ defense has allowed a lot of yardage over the last couple of years, they’ve regained their tenacity with sacks and takeaways. Davis can help keep that trend going. It would be nice if Davis, Burns and Hargrave could start right away.

The Steelers get points for drafting at the right positions, but that first-round pick drags down their draft grade.

Since Kevin Colbert took over as general manager in 2000, the Steelers haven’t had a flat-out first-round bust. So perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt on Artie Burns. They better be right, however, because time is running out for them to win another championship during Ben Roethlisberger’s career and they need this draft to instantly improve the roster.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2016 seven-round mock draft

The cornerback watch is on in Pittsburgh.

The 2016 NFL draft begins Thursday, and the Steelers could draft a cornerback in the first round for the first time since they took Chad Scott in 1997.

Cornerback isn’t the Steelers’ only need, however. There are other positions that could use an upgrade, depth or a little finishing touch as the Steelers try to build on 2015’s injury-ravaged divisional playoff appearance.

Whether or not the Steelers draft a cornerback Thursday, Friday and Saturday could be just as important for the future of the franchise. The second and third rounds take place Friday and the fourth through seventh rounds will play out Saturday afternoon.

This seven-round projection of the Steelers’ picks might have a trade or two thrown in.

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Top 12 cornerbacks on Steelers draft board

The bad news is we can forget about seeing Josh Norman in a Steelers uniform.

Well, it’s not really news because it’s fairly obvious. The Steelers don’t have nearly enough cap space to sign the free agent cornerback.

The good news is that if a team picking ahead of the Steelers in the 2016 NFL draft signs Norman, it would increase the Steelers’ chances of having an elite cornerback available when they pick at No. 25. Norman’s new team would likely pass on a cornerback in the first round and set off a chain reaction of cornerbacks sliding down the board.

Babies have been born and graduated from high school since the last time the Steelers drafted a cornerback in the first round. They chose Chad Scott with the No. 24 pick in the 1997 draft.

Could this be the year?

If it isn’t, there might be mass protests outside Heinz Field.

The Steelers’ pass defense has gone from first in the NFL in 2011 and 2012 to ninth in 2013 to 27th in 2014 to 30th in 2015. But they don’t necessarily have to draft a cornerback in the first round to fix the problem. They do, however, need to take one somewhere in the early rounds.

These 12 cornerbacks are ranked from best to worst. If Mike Tomlin hasn’t had a phone conversation with at least one of these guys by the time the third round ends on the night of Friday, April 29, the Steelers will have some explaining to do.

Jalen Ramsey of Florida State isn’t on this list because he’s more of a cornerback/safety hybrid, but if he were he’d be No. 1. If he somehow slips to No. 25, the Steelers should run to the podium with his name on the card. But it’s not going to happen.

These players are ranked based on scouting reports on NFL Draft Scout and NFL.com as well as videos from Draft Breakdown.

No. 1: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

Junior, 5’10”, 204 pounds

Hargreaves is a virtual lock to go in the top 10, so the Steelers won’t get him unless they trade up. While the ranking of the rest of the cornerback class is up for debate, Hargreaves is the clear-cut No. 1. He’s a willing tackler in run support and doesn’t give up many yards after the catch. A three-time all-SEC first-teamer and an All-American in 2015, Hargreaves intercepted 10 passes and broke up 27 in three seasons.

No. 2: Eli Apple, Ohio State

Sophomore, 6’1″, 199 pounds

Eli Apple has a little more length than Vernon Hargreaves III, but he’s not as polished. He intercepted three passes and broke up 10 for the national-champion Buckeyes in 2014. He secured the title by intercepting Marcus Mariota in the national championship game. The ball skills are there, but Apple’s tackling skills are a mixed bag and his technique could make him vulnerable to pass interference calls at the next level. He and the Steelers have been linked in multiple mock drafts. If the Steelers draft him, they might have to put up with a few rookie mistakes. But the payoff might be worth it.

No. 3: William Jackson III, Houston

Senior, 6’0″, 189 pounds

William Jackson III is like a sports car that looks really good in the show room. He led the nation with 23 passes defended in 2015 and returned two of his five interceptions for touchdowns. He picked off two passes at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, including one that clinched Houston’s 38-24 win over Florida State. Jackson was third among cornerbacks with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Jackson isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty tackling but his hits don’t seem to have much impact. He also uses his head a lot. He’ll need to clean that up to avoid penalties and fines in the NFL. Eli Apple seems like a safer pick, but it would be a tough call if the Steelers are on the clock and have to choose between Apple and Jackson. There’s a chance a team picking ahead of them makes the decision for them.

No. 4: Mackensie Alexander, Clemson

Sophomore, 5’10”, 190 pounds

Mackensie Alexander certainly has the confidence that’s required at the cornerback position. At the NFL Scouting Combine he declared himself the best cornerback in the draft. That might seem like a lot of hot air coming from someone who made no interceptions in two years at Clemson. Part of the reason he had no interceptions and just 11 passes defended, however, is that quarterbacks avoided him. According to NFL.com he allowed less than 30 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. The potential is there for Alexander to be a shutdown corner in the NFL, but his lack of ball awareness is concerning. Against Florida State he was so focused on the guy he was covering that he didn’t notice Dalvin Cook running for a 75-yard touchdown until it was too late. The Steelers should take Apple or Jackson ahead of Alexander.

No. 5: Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech

Junior, 5’11”, 187 pounds

Kendall Fuller has the NFL in his bloodlines. His brother Kyle is a cornerback for the Bears, his brother Corey is a wide receiver for the Lions and his brother Vincent played safety for seven years with the Titans and Lions. Multiple scouting reports suggest that Kendall is the most talented Fuller brother, and as a freshman he led the ACC with six interceptions and broke up 11 passes. Despite playing through a fractured wrist in 2014, Fuller led the ACC with 13 passes defended. Fuller tore his meniscus before the 2015 season and could only play three games before deciding to have surgery. Fuller’s durability is a concern, but he’s worth a second-round pick.

No. 6: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma

Junior, 5’11”, 185

Zack Sanchez leads the 2016 draft class with seven interceptions in 2015. One of those picks was the game-winner in a 31-24 overtime win over Tennessee. Sanchez has logged 15 interceptions in three years at Oklahoma. It’s hard not to like Sanchez after seeing the high-impact tackles he makes despite a lack of size that could limit him to nickel back in the NFL. He’ll probably be available to the Steelers in the second round or later. At worst, Sanchez could be a key player on special teams.

No. 7: Xavien Howard, Baylor

Junior, 6’0″, 201 pounds

Xavien Howard has the size and ball skills desired in an NFL cornerback. He intercepted four passes and broke up 13 in 2014 and intercepted five passes and broke up 10 in 2015. His speed is questionable, however. He ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. Only six cornerbacks ran slower. He knocked that time down to 4.45 at his pro day. Howard’s playing style sometimes forces the flags to come out, but that physical nature also helps make him an attractive prospect. Howard might not be a Day 1 starter, but he’s a solid second-round pick and comes with a lot of upside.

No. 8: Sean Davis, Maryland

Senior, 6’1″, 201 pounds

Sean Davis has been a late riser in the pre-draft rankings. He might be listed as a cornerback, but his skill set is better suited to safety. He tackles better than any cornerback projected to go in the early rounds. Davis led the Big Ten with 115 tackles in 2014 and made 313 in 50 games at Maryland. He was second in the NCAA with five forced fumbles in 2015. Not surprisingly, Davis led all cornerbacks with 21 bench-press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine. With Will Allen unsigned and Shamarko Thomas no more than a special teams contributor, the Steelers also have a need at safety. Sean Davis would be a solid third-round pick.

No. 9: Cyrus Jones, Alabama

Senior, 5’10”, 197 pounds

Cyrus Jones fits the profile of Steelers cornerbacks in 2015. On tape it looks like he’s either getting beat or making an interception. He did lead the SEC with 13 passes defended in 2014. He was a receiver as a freshman but moved to defense in 2013 and has seven interceptions in three seasons. He’s penalty-prone and might be best suited to sub-packages in the NFL. His biggest contribution might be as a punt returner with four touchdowns on punt returns in 2015. His character will need to be scrutinized because he was arrested for domestic violence last April but the charges were dropped. Jones is a third-round pick at the earliest, and he’d provide better value if he slips into the late rounds.

No. 10: KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame

Junior, 5’11”, 192 pounds

KeiVarae Russell sat out the 2014 season because of an academic issue and missed the last two games of 2015 with a broken leg. He had five interceptions and 12 pass breakups in the 36 games he did play. Russell seemed to give up a lot of short passes against USC last season, but stepped up in the fourth quarter with an interception and a deflection that a teammate intercepted. The Irish won the game 41-31. Russell can fight through the trash and makes a nice effort as a tackler. He’d be worth a shot for the Steelers in the third round or later.

No. 11: D.J. White, Georgia Tech

Senior, 5’11”, 193 pounds

D.J. White was second among cornerbacks at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 132-inch broad jump, right behind Jalen Ramsey and right in front of Vernon Hargreaves III. While he’s not in the company of those elite defensive backs overall, White is another player who the Steelers could pick up in the third round or later. He intercepted seven passes and broke up 21 in three years at Georgia Tech. He also forced four fumbles. He plays with a clean technique that doesn’t trigger penalties. He’s a little ragged as a tackler, however.

No. 12: Artie Burns, Miami

Junior, 6’0″, 193 pounds

Three mock drafts on NFL.com have Artie Burns going to the Steelers in the first round, but he’s an overrated prospect. Burns led the ACC with six interceptions in 2015. But one came against Bethune-Cookman and another came against Florida Atlantic, not exactly the highest level of competition. He intercepted a pass against Nebraska, but the receiver ran the wrong route on the play. When it comes to tackling, Burns dives at ankles and ball carriers often drag him for a few yards before they go down. Burns would be a major reach in the first round and shouldn’t be considered until Day 3.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

Martavis Bryant suspension tames Steelers’ lofty 2016 expectations

Thank you, Martavis Bryant.

Not for getting suspended for a year, but rather for giving Steelers fans six months to get used to the possibility that the Steelers might not be as great as everyone thinks they’ll be.

Bryant chose not to appeal his impending one-year suspension, and it became official on Monday, according to Pro Football Talk.

After being suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, the next step was supposed to be a 10-game suspension. To be suspended for a full year, Bryant either had to fail two more drug tests or not show up for them.

Perhaps Bryant smoked marijuana again and that’s why he ducked the tests. Perhaps he’s just not taking his football career seriously enough to show up for the tests. Perhaps he’s fighting depression, as his agent Brian Fettner says via ESPN.com.

If Bryant did light up, then the marijuana is medicinal for Steelers fans. It’s a disappointment booster shot so that the heartbreak won’t be so debilitating if the Steelers offense isn’t potent enough to carry them to a championship in 2016.

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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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