How Steelers can win without Roethlisberger

SportingNews Sep 3, 8:23 am EDT
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While Ben Roethlisberger(notes) is out, the Pittsburgh Steelers need to keep the wheels on. Although they will be down an important man, a strong, physical team effort can keep them from spinning in reverse.

Here are four things they must do to stay on track into mid-October, regardless of who replaces Roethlisberger:

Pound the ball

For the first time since Jerome Bettis and Bill Cowher left, the Steelers have a reliable power back. “Rashard Mendenhall will absolutely be key for them early,” Cowher said. Last year, Mendenhall proved he can remain a tough runner with a heavy workload, but he will need a big assist from his line.

The Steelers, set to start rookie Maurkice Pouncey(notes) at center, must consistently open holes between the tackles. A potential bonus for the ground game is the dazzling scrambling ability of quarterback Dennis Dixon(notes), who’s more likely to start after Byron Leftwich(notes) injured a knee Thursday.

Rookie Jonathan Dwyer(notes), who is making a late surge to try to make the team, could also be effective if he sticks with a no-nonsense, straight-ahead running style.

Even if the Steelers lack Roethlisberger’s big arm, they must at least show they can stretch the field for the occasional big pass play to wide receiver Mike Wallace(notes). That will keep opponents from stacking the box to take away Mendenhall.

Rely on the defense

With all due respect to Roethlisberger, he’s not the Steelers’ most irreplaceable player. “It’s a must that Troy Polamalu(notes) stays healthy for them,” Cowher said.

Polamalu, a versatile safety who missed 11 games last season, will be vital as both an extra run stuffer and in helping the secondary cut down on backbreaking plays. The return of defensive end Aaron Smith(notes), who also missed 11 games last season, is key, too. He’s a linchpin in the line and will bolster the pass rush.

The Steelers have depth in their front seven, so defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will have options to both mix up his 3-4 looks and personnel. While the unit goes into attack mode, it also must maintain discipline.

Win the turnover battle

Though Polamalu’s playmaking boosts the takeaway potential, it won’t help the team if the offense doesn’t take care of the ball. Coach Mike Tomlin knows his team can’t afford big mistakes.

“The first part about being a tough team to beat is not beating yourself,” Tomlin said. Last season, the Steelers were minus-3 in turnover margin, 20th in the NFL.

They need someone other than Polamalu to rack up interceptions, and the quarterback must have the mindset of opting to throw the ball away instead of forcing a pass into coverage. The defense must put the offense in position where it doesn’t need to score a ton of points, but the team is no position to shorten its possessions.

Take advantage of the schedule

The first six weeks include three home games and a bye. Victories over the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are musts, and the Steelers are fortunate they will face Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens at home in the first month.

Perhaps the most crucial game comes against a team that might occupy a similar position in the playoff hunt: at Tennessee in Week 2. For the Steelers, anything less than a 3-2 start in a tough conference won’t cut it.

Pittsburgh had owned its series against the Ravens until last season, when Baltimore took advantage of a Dixon start to steal a game in overtime. The Ravens have a rising offense with familiar faces and Ray Lewis(notes) fronting the defense. In an intense division rivalry, they won’t come into Heinz Field intimidated—or sympathetic to the Steelers’ plight without Roethlisberger.

Baltimore and Tennessee are rough-and-tumble matchups, and the Steelers must be at their physical best to have a chance.