The Green Bay Packers and their next opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are two teams going in opposite directions.
December and January was supposed to be the toughest portion of the Packers’ schedule, with Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Arizona on the docket. All four were playoff teams last season and a visit to Pittsburgh to play the Super Bowl champion Steelers loomed as the biggest test the Packers would face down the homestretch.
It hasn’t quite played out that way. Arizona is the toughest team in the group and Baltimore looks like the only other foe with a realistic chance to make the playoffs.
The Super Bowl champs? After starting the season 6-2, the Steelers have dropped five in a row, while the Packers have gone on a five-game win streak. That stretch includes embarrassing losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland for the Steelers.
A 10-6 loss to the Browns last Thursday saw the champs generate only 216 yards of total offense against the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked eight times.
The Steelers had beaten the Browns 12 consecutive times entering the contest.
It’s possible the Browns were just due, but that does little to explain the loss to the Raiders in Pittsburgh. In that game, Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and passed for 308 yards overall.
If it isn’t the offense crapping the bed, it’s the defense falling apart.
Certainly injuries have played a part in Pittsburgh’s collapse.
Roethlisberger sat out the Steelers 20-17 overtime loss to Baltimore on Nov. 29 with a concussion. Presumably, Pittsburgh could have won that game had Roethlisberger played instead of third-string quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Safety Troy Polamalu, the heart and soul of the Steelers’ defense, has missed eight games with knee injuries. In games he’s finished, the Steelers are 4-0. In games in which he’s gotten injured or sat out, the Steelers are 2-7.
On paper, the Steelers aren’t bad. They have the fourth-ranked defense and ninth-ranked offense in the league.
But like the Packers, the Steelers have had issues protecting their quarterback. The Steelers’ offensive line has given up 38 sacks, ranking 29th in the league.
They’re not closing games either. The Steelers have led going in the the fourth quarter in five of their seven losses.
Pro Football Weekly has pointed out a myriad of other problems in Pittsburgh.
The team is aging.
“This is a team getting old in a few spots,” said one team insider. “Ward is getting up in years. Every opening-day starter on the D-line (Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith) was 30 or older. ILB James Farrior has started to show his age in recent weeks. A few of the secondary backups (Tyrone Carter, Deshea Townsend) are nearing the end.”
The offensive line is terrible.
“The offensive line began to fall apart when (OL coach) Russ Grimm left (for Arizona, when Tomlin was hired three years ago). Roethlisberger has taken a lot of hits. (C Justin) Hartwig nearly cost them the Super Bowl last year, but they did not upgrade the position,” said one pro evaluator.
“When you used to think of Steelers football, you would think of its power running game. No more. This collection of (offensive) linemen is soft. (OLG) Chris Kemoeatu is the only guy on the line with knock-you-off-the-ball ability. I don’t like the group’s makeup.”
There are internal issues after receiver Hines Ward questioned Roethlisberger’s toughness during an interview aired on Monday Night Football.
“If Hines Ward had a problem, he should have addressed it internally. Nothing good comes from calling out teammates publicly,” said a league evaluator.
And of course there are second-rate players on the field because of injuries to players like Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith.
“When you lose two unique Pro Bowl talents like Smith and Polamalu, it’s difficult to overcome. Look at what it has done to the middle of their defense. It is easy to see why they are struggling. On third downs, they have (Ryan) Clark, (Ryan) Mundy and little (Tyrone) Carter in the middle – none of those guys can run. And when they have to cover athletes down the middle of the field, you see huge gains,” said a pro evaluator.
Despite all of that, the Packers won’t be taking the Steelers lightly, nor should they. Playing in Pittsburgh in December is no treat and coach Mike McCarthy spoke to that on Monday.
“It’s a very good football team that has had some struggles of late. We know we are going to get their best shot. They are still the defending world champions for many different reasons. We’re playing at their place. This is going to be a true test to our football team. We’re just starting to break them down as coaches, and we need to have a good plan, we need to execute at a high level to beat this team,” McCarthy said.
The oddsmakers agree. The opening line on the game is even and with the Steelers only one game out of a wild card slot, the Packers should expect nothing short of a hard-fought contest.