By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
Check out this article on GZ Sports Report
Every season, injuries impact the NFL playoffs by knocking off top contenders who seemed primed to make a deep run. The Steelers have been all too familiar with this in recent years, as this will be the first season that the team will enter the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, AND Le’Veon Bell. While it might not seem like much to fans outside of Pittsburgh, this is huge for a team that is trying to correct their recent playoff woes. In an article on ESPN by Kevin Seifert, the overall health of every playoff team and playoff contender is rated from best to worst by two different criteria: the team’s total number of players on injured reserve (which was provided by the Elias Sports Bureau) and the weighted impact of missed games (which was compiled by the website Mangameslost.com). In these rankings, Seifert gave the Steelers the 4th-best rating, which was also the 2nd-best in the AFC. The rankings are as follows:
- New England Patriots
- Dallas Cowboys
- Atlanta Falcons
Pittsburgh Steelers (IR: 12 – #18 in the NFL, Weighted impact of missed games: 6.674 – #14 in the NFL
The Steelers head to the postseason without defensive end Cameron Heyward, a veteran leader who was lost after Week 10 because of a torn pectoral muscle. At that time, Heyward led the Steelers with three sacks. But since then, Pittsburgh has held opposing quarterbacks to the lowest QBR (46.9) thanks to a strong pass rush that has included four sacks from defensive end Stephon Tuitt and three apiece from linebackers Bud Dupree, James Harrison and Ryan Shazier. The emergence of receiver Eli Rogers (42 receptions) has helped cover for the Week 10 loss of Markus Wheaton (shoulder). Meanwhile, tight end Ladarius Green (concussion) returned to practice this week. Overall, given their recent history, the Steelers are thrilled to enter the playoffs with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell all healthy.
- New York Giants
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Green Bay Packers
- Houston Texans
- Seattle Seahawks
- Detroit Lions
- Washington Redskins
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Oakland Raiders
- Miami Dolphins
Seifert admittedly did not follow the criteria to a T, as is indicated by the Raiders, arguably the NFL’s healthiest team… before Week 16. The sources that he used for the article were for up to Week 15, so the rankings given for the Raiders were a bit off, but they were listed as IR: 7 – Tied for #3 in the NFL and Weighted impact of missed games: 1.991 – #2 in the NFL. Those numbers would put them in the same company as the Patriots but the loss of Derek Carr completely derails their season, as the odds of Matt McGloin carrying them to a Super Bowl are slim-to-none. Even scarier for the Raiders was the big hit that McGloin took in their Week 17 matchup with the Broncos, causing rookie Connor Cook to take over.
As a whole, the rankings are fair. The biggest flaw I see with them is undervaluing the impact that the Patriots will experience with the loss of Rob Gronkowski. With the Patriots injuries this season, many of them have been experienced for the majority of the season. Sebastian Vollmer and Tre Jackson have missed the entire season and Gronkowski has missed the majority of the season as well. This means that the Patriots current 13-2 record is because of their own merit and is indicative of what they will be capable of doing in the postseason.
I recently discussed the Steelers road to the Super Bowl and the different scenarios that they could potentially see in the coming weeks. In all reality, if the Steelers expect to make the Super Bowl, they will have to go through New England at Foxboro. This is where the health of both teams comes into play. In Week 7, the Steelers lost to the Patriots 27-16 without Ben Roethlisberger while the Patriots still had Rob Gronkowski. Although the Patriots have arguably the league’s best #2 tight end in Martellus Bennett, who has become the #1 in the absence of Gronkowski, the potential rematch between the two teams would look very different than it did on October 23. With a healthy Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown and a constantly improving defense (which has been on the verge of being almost elite during their 7-game winning streak), the Steelers are much more equipped to take on the Patriots at this point in the season. In recent years, the Steelers’ kryptonite has been Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. In their last five meetings with the Patriots, Gronkowski has tallied a combined 496 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. While Bennett is a perfectly capable tight end, there is no denying that the Patriots offense is different without Gronk. This could be big for the Steelers, who would also look to take advantage of the Patriots thin offensive line with their improved pass-rush.
The Steelers IR numbers are a bit bloated, as the biggest loss on the season came in the form of Cam Heyward, who at the time of his injury was setting the tone on a then-struggling defense. Other than Heyward, there are no players that were truly making an impact. Markus Wheaton never seized the opportunity given to him from the Martavis Bryant suspension and likely won’t be on the roster after this season. Where the team was most impacted was on special teams, where Shamarko Thomas and Steven Johnson were lost for the season. However, young players have stepped up to fill the void left by the two special teams aces. The Steelers also lost offensive line depth with Cody Wallace and Ryan Harris, but B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard have proven to be upgrades over both players and provide much more versatility. Additionally, there is a strong likelihood that Tuitt and Green will be back in time for the Wild Card game, as both have returned to practice, albeit in limited capacity. In short, the Steelers will likely head into the postseason with their starters intact on both sides of the ball.
Outside of the Patriots and Steelers, the rest of the AFC has not been nearly as fortunate. While their records might not indicate, teams like the Chiefs have dealt with big injuries all season, particularly to running back Jamaal Charles and linebacker Derrick Johnson. Players like Tyreek Hill and Spencer Ware have stepped up to make the Chiefs’ offense a surprisingly lethal one, they still have some dings that could impact their longevity for a deep run. Outside linebacker Justin Houston is still dealing with swelling in his knee that he previously tore his ACL and will be limited in coming weeks to allow him to perform at peak ability in the playoffs. All-Pro safety Eric Berry also exited their last game with a heel injury, but will have a week to recover, as they secured the #2 seed in the playoffs. The Chiefs are a deep and talented team, even without Charles and Johnson, and will be one of the teams to beat in the playoffs.
The Texans and Dolphins both will limp into the playoffs, with both teams missing a bevy of starters on both sides of the ball. With the loss of J.J. Watt (who was a non-factor this season to begin with), the Texans will be without their best player for the playoffs, while also potentially missing two of their top three receivers (Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong). Also on offense, quarterback Tom Savage left their Week 17 matchup with a concussion and will likely undergo further evaluations this week. The emergence of Jadeveon Clowney will has helped soften the blow of missing Watt and having a home game for Wild Card weekend will help play to their advantage.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, will look like a much different team when they enter the playoffs compared to when the Steelers faced them in Week 6. They will be missing starters Reshad Jones, Isa Abdul-Quddus, Koa Misi, Mike Pouncey, and potentially Ryan Tannehill. Arguably their biggest blow, however, was running back Jay Ajayi leaving the game with an undisclosed injury in Week 17 and was seen in the x-ray room. The injury will be closely monitored heading into the Wild Card matchup with the Steelers. The Dolphins have found ways to win games, but eventually these injuries are going to catch up to them.
For the first time in quite some time, the Steelers are healthy and peaking at the right time. With Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown, the Steelers are designed to win any game that they are in. Even though he doesn’t get the recognition for it, Roethlisberger is one of the best 4th quarter quarterbacks in the NFL. If the Steelers can keep themselves in the game against a team like the Patriots, they have the chance to go all the way this season and bring home their 7th Lombardi Trophy.