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Steelers Report Card: If Ben Roethlisberger returns, this could get interesting
By Chuck Finder | CBSSports.com

December 3, 2012




One week after Charlie Batch and the Backup Brigade laid a moldy performance upon Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Steelers added Pro Bowlers Troy Polamalu and Antonio Brown -- and subtracted two more starters -- en route to what many predicted would be a bashing by Baltimore.

Silly pundits.

Tricks can be pulled by old kids like Batch, who turns 38 Wednesday, and new kids like third-string offensive tackle and seventh-round draftee Kelvin Beachum.

The Steelers prevailed in a playoff-dripping, come-from-behind 23-20 victory over the AFC North runaway leaders, who likely still will win the division despite the loss.

But spare-parts Pittsburgh, Batch prime among them in what may amount to his final NFL appearance, showed that these Steelers still could have some playoff life in them. With San Diego, at Dallas, plus Cincinnati and Cleveland ending the schedule, a return by QB Ben Roethlisberger from shoulder injury and a suddenly emboldened defense just might make these Steelers a late-comer to the chase.

Offense: B

Batch became emotional with Roethlisberger at game's end, for reasons personal and professional, and their hug was fitting after the best game in Batch's decade with his hometown team. Heck, his 279 yards and 25 completions marked his NFL highs since 2001 with Detroit. To think, near the end of the first half, Batch had passed for the sum total of 30 yards and looked much the same as the old guy with three picks in Cleveland in a 20-14 loss a week earlier. He deftly guided the offense twice to 10 unanswered points, after Pittsburgh trailed Baltimore by 13-3 and 20-13. The makeshift line provided considerable protection, with Beachum filling in for Mike Adams -- who filled in for Marcus Gilbert, with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey making his NFL debut at guard for an ailing Willie Colon, and with Doug Legursky starting at center. Brown returned to make five receptions and show why he, not Mike Wallace, is the true No. 1 receiver on this team. And Emmanuel Sanders, despite hurting a shoulder in the game, likewise caught five passes. (Due to drops and lack of the long ball, Wallace's contract status just might be closer to Edmund Fitzgerald, as in the Wreck of the, than Larry Fitzgerald.) And the rushing game, with a demoted Rashard Mendenhall inactive, got 92 combo yards and zero turnovers from Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. It all bodes well when their franchise quarterback comes back. Previous game's grade: D-

Defense: B+

For the seventh consecutive week, the Pittsburgh defense held a foe to 20 points (average 15 per) or less and 177 net yards passing or less. And all but Sunday's game were without Polamalu, who at long last returned from a nagging calf injury. This isn't merely a statistical anomaly; the Steelers are squelching the likes of the Giants, Bengals, Ravens (twice) and Robert Griffin III's Redskins. Yet, just when Polamalu returned, others departed: Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley missed the game due to an ankle injury, and standout cornerback Ike Taylor left early after a foot injury that put him in a protective boot. Second-year cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown ascended from their part-time nickel and dime roles to play so well along with steady Keenan Lewis, while Ravens wideouts Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin combined for eight catches despite being Joe Flacco's targets some 20 times. Previously unheralded, if not unseen, players such as linebacker James Harrison (a team-high seven tackles and a sack) plus defensive end Ziggy Hood (five tackles, two tackles for losses, a sack and a fumble recovery) also stood out. Previous game's grade: A-

Special teams: C

Not much bad, not much great. So mediocrity ruled the day ... until Shaun Suisham's eighth game-winning or game-tying field goal of nine career such attempts. The 42-yard winner at the clock also made him 24 of 25 on attempts this season. Yet the rest of the special teams were so-so at best. Rookie Chris Rainey had a 42-yard kickoff return, but Brown mustered nine yards on five punt returns, and rookie punter Drew Butler -- who was sure one of his kicks got blocked -- averaged just 38.5 yards per. This day, it didn't hurt them. Previous game's grade: C+

Coaching: B

Is it time to retract all previous criticisms about Dick LeBeau and his defense getting too old? Todd Haley extracted a much better performance from his offense, but after the Cleveland debacle it could only improve -- no matter who was left to start on the offensive line. Overall, Mike Tomlin and his staff did an A-grade job lifting the Steelers from the morass that was the week before along Lake Erie. But we'll hold back on such a grade until Tomlin explains the handshake situation with Baltimore's John Harbaugh chasing him down afterward. Previous game's grade: F