High Ankle Spains Complicate Chase For AFC North Crown

Looks like I'm guilty of a little blog neglect.

Don't have much in the way of illumination from the two wins over four days last week. The victory over Cincy was as decisive and encouraging as the win over Cleveland was not. Don't want to bemoan the lack of style points in the Thursday win. The Steelers actually played that game well and Roethlisberger looked as sharp as he has all season before he suffered the high ankle sprain. But one careful red zone fumble by Hines and a perfect hit to dislodge the ball from Heath Miller kept the game from getting away from Cleveland early, as it should have. As soon as the second fumble occurred, Ben went down and the offense was significantly hamstrung, as it were.

While we're on squandered scoring chances, even as a Mendenhall fantasy owner, I'd like it if Redman were made the default goal line back. There's no question he gets better push than Mendy and that wasn't more clear than during the four-and-out sequence inside the two in the second half of the Cleveland game.

Still don't know how Ben played the second half of that game, even if he was given the shot at halftime. I was at the game live and the experience was twice as bizarre as it would have been watching TV, where the reports were constantly updating. I just remember repeating to myself that the best case scenario is that it would be a sprain and maybe Ben would miss at most a week or two. Then there's Roethlisberger sitting on the sidelines grabbing his helmet just before the second half kickoff. I figured, even then, that there was no way. Possibly the team would give Batch a few more series to hand the ball off en route to a three-and-out.

It's as a much a testament to a lack of faith in Batch as it is to Ben being tough that he came back in or was even allowed to do so. Charlie's been more than a capable fill-in when called upon in his time in Pittsburgh, and he was important during the labor standoff, but the guy is very obviously finished as a quarterback. It's sad that the team has seemingly no confidence in Dennis Dixon, because they're gonna need him to become the next back-up unless they can sign another veteran, which won't happen until the off-season at the earliest.

Roethlisberger and Pouncey are reportedly on track to play in a week in San Francisco despite their respective high ankle sprains. That Ben's is the lowest grade sprain leads to believe at least some of his mobility will have been restored with 11 days' time. I'd really Pouncey not even bother to go. It seems even more likely that he'd have a setback trying to take on an attacking defense on a weakened leg. Doug Legursky starting against that Niners defense is surely not ideal, but sticking Pouncey in there more than likely dangers Ben and his center more than if he's kept out.

Some are arguing that it doesn't really matter if the Steelers have to settle for the 5 seed, because that may be even easier than if they get the bye. Can't say I agree with that, even with the disdain I have for Tebowmania. Denver has the kind of attacking defense that could give the Steelers' line fits. Not to mention the Pittsburgh run D isn't quite what it was. If this were last year, I'd say a run-heavy team like the Broncos plays right into the Steelers strengths, but, well, it's not last year. I wouldn't go as far to say that the run D is a liability now, but it's not the shutdown guarantee it once was. And you can't gloss over just how difficult it is to win on the road in the playoffs anywhere, especially an environment in Denver that automatically eliminates one of your starting safeties because of a health issue with the high elevation.

The Chargers have rebounded in the past two weeks and are probably the best possibility to knock off the Ravens among Baltimore's remaining opponents. Yeah, they still have a game left in Cincinnati. With the way the Bungles have fallen off, I'm not liking the upset chances there. If Baltimore wins Sunday night, I won't exactly be crushed if the Steelers can't eke one out in the Bay Area. Losing to Arizona was no doubt a sobering experience, so now that the Niners' once assured bye in the playoffs is now threatened by the Saints, I wouldn't expect anything less than their best shot.

I've tried to ignore most of the hue and cry about the James Harrison shot on Colt McCoy. That said, I think there's more of an understanding this time around that it wasn't Harrison's intent to go at McCoy's helmet, since the quarterback was a moving target out of the pocket. Hell, Deion Sanders on the NFL Network postgame gab session said that it wasn't Silverback's fault at all. If only the consensus were so level-headed when Massaquoi ducked his head into a tackle last year and begun a lot of the focus on James. As far as a suspension, I don't see it, but just because discipline is being discussed yet again, I don't consider it out of the realm of possibility just because the media echo chamber might force Goodell to set pointless examples.

This time of year presents a usual challenge to the Steelers of having their stars performing at significantly less than 100 percent. Last year, Polamalu was demonstrably not at full capacity from the Bengals game on. And we all remember the concussion that Ben got in Week 17 of the '08 season - also against the Browns - before embarking on a title run. Ben, Pouncey and Woodley will have to be the ones excelling through pain this time around if the team wants another crack at Green Bay (assuming, but it's more than a fair assumption).

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