The Friday before the game vs. the Las Vegas Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers injury report looked promising, but it did not take very long for the outlook to go south. Joe Haden and Devin Bush were both inactive for the game on Sunday morning with groin injuries and TJ Watt suffered a groin injury in the 2nd quarter of the Raiders game that sidelined him for the entire second half. Adding to the mix, Alex Highsmith has now been added to the injury report with a groin injury that he had been dealing with since training camp.
The good news is that Watt’s injury is not considered serious and could be available for Week 3. The question is why have four players been placed on the injury report in a span of less than one week? It seems like an inordinate number of groin injuries that lends itself to being more than just a coincidence. Was there a change in the preparation or practice cycle? Is there a new trainer? What else has changed that could be a common factor?
It is very concerning as typically groin strains only fully heal with rest, with a general rule of thumb being 4-8 weeks to fully recover. If you can recall Jerome Bettis in 2001, he was leading the NFL in rushing through 11 games and having arguably the best season of his career until a groin injury prevented him from playing the rest of the season and playoffs.
The Steelers defense was noticeably different in the 2nd half without Watt, and it might have cost them the game. This is an area of high concern.
What will the impact of all the early season injuries do to the Steelers?
In addition to the impact that the Steelers are under with groin injuries, Tyson Alualu fractured his ankle and is on IR. Stephon Tuitt also underwent surgery in what was considered a “minor procedure” off an injury that according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “could have bothered him on and off all season.”
The Steelers have been very silent on the extent of the Tuitt injury, and it is very unclear if he will be returning to face the Green Bay Packers in Week 4. The Steelers aren’t even certain who will be starting in Week 3 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals with Watt, Bush and Haden having no definitive update on returning.
The Steelers defense was expected to do the heavy lifting while the new offense found its footing through the early part of the season. It certainly looked like the defense was more than capable after the Week 1 dominating performance over the Buffalo Bills. But it was clear that without having the three headed monster rotation of Watt, Highsmith and Melvin Ingram keeping them fresh, the Steelers pass rush failed to pressure Derek Carr throughout the second half. Cam Heyward cannot do it alone and until the return of Tuitt, the defensive line transforms from a team strength to a team question mark.
If the Steelers defense cannot win games for them, they are in trouble because the offense is certainly not looking like it can support the two along with special teams.
What is up with the offense and why can it not make plays?
The book is out on the Steelers and how to defend them. The 2020 offense was averaging nearly 30 points a game through 10 weeks, but it was the Baltimore Ravens matchup in Week 7 when the familiar adversary game planned on the scheme that every team began to employ. The book was out on the Steelers — they can’t run it at all and became extremely predictable.
Every week the Steelers are facing the same defensive schemes designed to take away what they want to do. Everybody knows the offensive line is extremely young and has question marks surrounding it, but the other side of the equation is that the Steelers know what defensive schemes they will face.
In addition, the Steelers are loaded with talent at the skill positions: Najee Harris at RB, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool at WR and Eric Ebron/Pat Freiermuth at TE. And since they know exactly what the defense is going to play, what is preventing Matt Canada from utilizing the high level of talent to exploit opportunities and implement a game plan designed to take advantage of the weaknesses they can see on film every single week?
Is Ben Roethlisberger finished?
The common denominator that all the “experts” attacked about the Steelers was Ben Roethlisberger. While the “experts” are truly nothing but a bunch of talking heads without a lick of analytical skill, it has been painful watching Roethlisberger in the first two weeks. While nobody expected him to be as great as he once was, and more like as great once as he ever was when needed – it’s clear that 39-year-old Big Ben is not a quarterback the opposition is afraid of. The end has come for many QBs before him, and it has been preceded by a dramatic decline in performance; see Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, John Elway, and Dan Marino in their final years. Ben looks to be trending with the other legends.
It’s extremely evident that of the WRs, only Smith-Schuster is in sync with Roethlisberger when it comes to timing, routes & running back to the ball, and behind the shoulder catches. Johnson and Claypool just haven’t played with gunslinger Ben enough to implicitly understand the way Smith-Schuster learned. A legitimate question is: Given the frequency of how often Roethlisberger is listed as a DNP for practice, how are they supposed to improve week-to-week?
The preseason game in which Roethlisberger had a perfect passer rating is unrealistic to expect week in and week out, but the mediocre level of performance that has been Big Ben to start the season is equally unacceptable going forward. Roethlisberger has shown up on the injury report for Week 3, however that should be taken with a grain of salt as Big Ben has always loved to ham up the injury factor and go on to exceed “expectations” from said injury. The simple and objective truth is Big Ben is a drama queen and to say otherwise is bunk. However, playing the injuries up often is a self-motivator for #7 and I would be stunned if he does not play. The bottom line is Roethlisberger is a competitor and will not go gently into that good night.
I for one, don’t believe Ben is “done.” However the status quo cannot continue. If I were Mike Tomlin, I wouldn’t be averse to doing whatever it took (including manipulating the team into playing above themselves to give the old man one last run) to generate the sense of emotion and urgency that creates a band of brothers. The aim would be to model close to the 2015 Denver Broncos while lifting everyone up the way the 2005 Steelers did around Jerome Bettis to win Super Bowl XL. Can it be done?
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