What do the Steelers have left in the tank?
October 1, 2008 1:00 PM
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
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In Week 2, the Pittsburgh Steelers survived a tough rivalry game against the Cleveland Browns.
In Week 3, then they were punched in the mouth -- time after time -- by the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Week 4, Pittsburgh waged a major-league slugfest in an overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens on "Monday Night Football."
And although the Steelers stand at 3-1 and in first place in the AFC North, does this team have anything left in the tank?
It's a legitimate question for Pittsburgh at the quarter mark of the NFL season.
The Steelers knew exactly what they were getting into leading into the season. After winning the division last year, Pittsburgh wound up with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule and so far the team is paying the price.
Starting defensive end Brett Keisel (calf) went down against Cleveland. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton (groin) and tailback Willie Parker (sprained left knee) were hurt against Philadelphia. Offensive guard Kendall Simmons (Achilles) and rookie tailback Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder fracture) were lost for the season during Monday's game against Baltimore.
Hampton, Keisel and Parker are expected to return within the next several weeks. Until then, Pittsburgh is playing shorthanded, losing five key players in the past three games. The Steelers signed running back Najeh Davenport to fill in temporarily for Parker.
"[Injuries are] only devastating if you allow it to be," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "We are a team for a reason. People are not concerned with our problems. They are probably happy that we have them."
Tomlin's no-nonsense, no-excuses approach to injuries is part of the reason the Steelers have been able to weather the storm. Injuries have beset every team in the AFC North, and throughout the NFL, but traditionally the Steelers have been one of the better teams at consistently playing at a high level.
It also helps to have a very good defense to carry the team through rough stretches.
After finishing in the top spot last year, Pittsburgh is currently ranked No. 2 in total defense, allowing 236.2 yards per game. That keeps games close. And Monday against Baltimore, the Steelers were able to get a defensive touchdown from linebacker LaMarr Woodley to help overcome a 10-point deficit in the second half.
The offense hasn't played nearly as well. The Steelers are ranked No. 29 offensively and the three teams behind them -- the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns -- have combined for just one victory this season.
Pass protection is a major issue and Simmons' absence for the rest of the year won't help matters. But with skill players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, it is still surprising that the Steelers have been forced to win ugly on most weeks.
"The sky is kind of the limit when you can play bad and win," said Roethlisberger, looking at the positives. "We want to see what happens when we play good. I don't [think] we've put together offensively a good game yet, whether it's the elements or playing a tough defense."
There are no breathers in the schedule for this ailing Steelers bunch.
Next up are the equally-physical Jacksonville Jaguars, who have had Pittsburgh's number. The Jaguars have beaten the Steelers four times in a row with a brand of football Pittsburgh should be familiar with -- running the football and playing tough defense. That was the formula for Jacksonville in two wins over the Steelers last season, which included a postseason victory.
Pittsburgh will be motivated and out for revenge this week. But it will be interesting to see if the Steelers can bring the same level of intensity after three bruising games.
The Steelers are fortunate they play in a division that is shaping up to be a two-team race with the Ravens. Pittsburgh owns a win over Baltimore and already is 2-0 in the AFC North. Considering its schedules, nine or 10 victories could win the division.
The good news is Pittsburgh has a bye after facing Jacksonville. The Steelers essentially have two weeks to rest before taking the field again on Oct. 19 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and it comes at a good time.
"Right now all that it means is that we are 3-1 and we have to go to Jacksonville on a short week against an AFC opponent that we have had some issues with," Tomlin said. "No rest for the weary."
Pittsburgh Steelers remaining schedule
The Steelers (3-1), who have the NFL's toughest strength of schedule, are hurting after losing four starters the past three weeks. Here is a look at their remaining schedule:
Oct. 5 at Jacksonville
Oct. 12 Bye
Oct. 19 at Cincinnati
Oct. 26 New York Giants
Nov. 3 at Washington
Nov. 9 Indianapolis
Nov. 16 San Diego
Nov. 20 Cincinnati
Nov. 30 at New England
Dec. 7 Dallas
Dec. 14 at Baltimore
Dec. 21 at Tennessee
Dec. 28 Cleveland