If there’s an idea that’s the theme of 2016, it’s that everybody loves to root for the underdog. However, that’s being pushed even further this year to the point where people won’t just root for David against Goliath, but for some other guy who happened to be standing behind the bushes. Think of it like campaigning for Ken Bone instead of one of the candidates or the preoccupation with Barb instead of Nancy among Stranger Things fans. And in the NFL this season, it’s been no different as “Franchise players” have taken a backseat to “Team players.”
Cam Newton was ranked as the number one player in the league by his peers but he’s struggling and the Panthers are 1-5. Darrelle Revis was the face of pass defense for almost a decade but the New York Jets are also 1-5. Meanwhile, there are teams thriving without the player they built their franchises around.
The Patriots went 3-1 without Tom Brady. The Cowboys are 5-1 without Tony Romo. The Texans are 4-2 despite placing J.J. Watt on injured reserve last week. The Vikings are the last undefeated team remaining in the NFL and they’ve had to replace both Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater this season. So what separates the franchises that have come together without their star players from the ones that disintegrate?
The Steelers are about to find out and unfortunately for them, might be on the verge of coming apart.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had knee surgery on Monday to repair a torn meniscus suffered in Sunday’s 30-15 loss to the Dolphins. The team could not give a specific timetable on his return, only saying that they are “confident this injury is not long-term,” but it appears that Roethlisberger will miss at least a few games. Looking at the best NFL teams this year you might assume that means that Pittsburgh will be fine in the same way that those other teams have managed to make due without their Goliaths, but the Steelers’ case is much different.
They don’t have the options nor benefits available to them that those franchises did and it’s a good explanation for why Pittsburgh has failed to make it past the second round of the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl in 2010.
New England recently drafted quarterbacks in the second and third rounds to have stability behind Brady in the form of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. Dallas just picked Dak Prescott in the fourth round and struck gold. Houston gets to play in the worst division in football. Minnesota traded for a starting quarterback at a rare time when one was available on the market. But the Steelers will have to turn to Landry Jones and Zach Mettenberger just as they head into the toughest stretch of their remaining schedule, and that’s practically a formal request for disaster.
Pittsburgh hosts the Patriots and Cowboys in two of their next three games, and must travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens in the other. Now sitting at 4-2 after getting embarrassed by the Dolphins (even with Roethlisberger playing most of the game), the Steelers could soon find themselves in third place if Big Ben’s training room vacation is extended beyond next week’s game against the Patriots and the bye week that follows. Instead of them being the next in line to survive with backups, Pittsburgh will more likely resemble the 2013 Packers, a team that collapsed from championship contender to being among the worst in the NFL by subtracting just one player.
Green Bay went 6-2 that season with Aaron Rodgers, but 2-5-1 with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien; the scary part is that Flynn and Tolzien might be better than Jones and Mettenberger. Much like those Packers, Pittsburgh has an inadequate defense that won’t carry them in the way that Minnesota, New England, Dallas and Houston’s have this season. The Steelers are 28th in total yards allowed, 26th in yards per carry allowed, and 29th in passing yards allowed.
Pretty much the only thing that elevates them from below average to Super Bowl contender is Roethlisberger. They have several other stars like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but it doesn’t extend much beyond that and having a great running back and receiver isn’t enough to ensure success.
Even the winless Browns are getting pretty good production out of Terrelle Pryor and Isaiah Crowell.
Unlike the other teams who have survived without franchise players, Pittsburgh lacks the depth and talent to keep afloat in a division that has been highly competitive for years. There’s a good chance that the Steelers now have a bad offense to match their bad defense, and will lose game after game until Roethlisberger returns.
The solution is to draft better defensive players and do more to insure themselves at quarterback, but it’s too late for Pittsburgh to do that now so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Roethlisberger’s recovery time is on the low end because their backups are not underdogs waiting to emerge as heroes; we’ve already seen what they can do.
Or better yet, what they can’t.