AFC North: Max Starks

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 6

October, 14, 2013
A review of four hot items from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 19-6 win over the New York Jets.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Pittsburgh defense on Sunday made life miserable for Jets quarterback Geno Smith.
Statement game: The Steelers’ defense made a stand after an atrocious showing in a 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 29. The Steelers allowed their fewest points in a road game since 2008 (Washington), according to ESPN Stats & Information. They also showed how effective they can be when they force teams to play from behind -- when it comes to the sticks or the scoreboard. The Steelers didn’t allow the Jets to convert one time on a third down when New York needed at least 6 yards to move the chains. Two of the Steelers’ three sacks came on those third downs, and Geno Smith threw both of his interceptions when the Jets trailed by double digits. “Finally we got a lead to play with,” defensive end Brett Keisel said, “and we can do good things when teams are forced to throw the ball.”

LT still in flux: What is next for the Steelers at left tackle if Levi Brown is lost for the rest of the season with a torn right triceps? Kelvin Beachum played admirably Sunday as he settled down after a shaky start, but he is probably better suited for the interior of the line and is not a long-term fix at left tackle. If the Steelers need a stopgap while Beachum fills in until the coaches are ready to give Mike Adams another shot at left tackle, Max Starks is among the veteran offensive tackles who are unsigned. The Steelers brought back Starks in October 2011 after they cut ties with the two-time Super Bowl winner, so there is certainly precedence there.

A steady hand: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger impressed coach Mike Tomlin with his command of the game as much as his pinpoint passing. “He did a great job of communicating,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes in hostile environments that becomes difficult.” Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley did not have any communication issues even though the former initially disagreed with what turned into the call of the game. On third-and-1 from the Steelers’ 45-yard line early in the third quarter, Roethlisberger thought the Steelers would try to run for the first down. Haley called for a play-action pass and Roethlisberger hit a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders for a 55-yard touchdown. “That was a great call on his part,” Roethlisberger said of Haley. “I was a little hesitant at first. After we broke the huddle I thought that this was a good play call.”

Getting his kicks: The Steelers would have blown the Jets out had they been able to finish more drives. But what a weapon Shaun Suisham has become when the Steelers have to settle for field goals. The ninth-year veteran banged home four of them Sunday, including a pair from beyond 45 yards. Suisham has made 42 of his last 43 attempts inside of 50 yards. He has also made a personal-best 17 consecutive field goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards.

Steelers roll dice with Levi Brown

October, 2, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers' trade for offensive tackle Levi Brown, assuming he passes a physical Thursday in Pittsburgh, will ultimately be remembered as the change of scenery the former Penn State star desperately needed.

Or a sign of how desperate the Steelers were for help along their offensive line following the team’s first 0-4 start since 1968.

There is little to suggest, other than pedigree, that the Steelers have found an answer at left tackle where Mike Adams has been a disaster.

Brown has started 79 of 81 career games in Arizona but the Cardinals were willing to give up a player they once invested the fifth overall draft pick in for a conditional draft pick for a reason.

Brown had become such a target for fan criticism that those who routinely bash the seventh-year veteran probably pooled their money to buy Brown’s plane ticket out of Arizona.

The Cardinals’ asking price was low enough that it made sense for the Steelers to acquire a former first-round draft pick who never lived up to expectations -- just as they did with running back Felix Jones in late August.

The alternative in past years when there have been injuries or ineffectiveness at left tackle is to turn to Max Starks.

But Starks is 31, didn’t make it out of the preseason with the San Diego Chargers and was recently released by the St. Louis Rams.

The Steelers have finally moved on from the player who bailed them out at left tackle several times. And they have to hope they have the same kind of success with Brown that they had with Starks.

Coach Mike Tomlin wouldn’t talk about what role Brown will play in Pittsburgh since the trade is not yet official. Tomlin did admit that left tackle has been an issue, and that’s at least a start to fixing the Steelers' problems along the offensive line.

“We’ve gotten below-the-line work and that’s the reality of it,” Tomlin said. “It needs to be above the line and we’ll turn over any stone in order for that to happen.”
The Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns will begin their rookie minicamps Friday. There will be no hitting and no pads. It's just a bunch of 20-something hopefuls trying to act like they know what's going on after being drafted two weeks ago. Many of the rookies arrive with interesting stories, which headlines today's wake-up call ...

RAVENS: If Tandon Doss wants to take wide receiver Anquan Boldin's spot in the starting lineup, he knows he has to reduce the amount of nagging injuries. “Being a younger guy, I didn’t take care of my body like I should,” Doss told the team's official website. “I’m still trying to learn and become a pro at that. That’s becoming a pro and that’s what I’m trying to learn. This year I’ve stayed in the training room, I’ve been in the training room multiple times a day. It’s just something you have to learn, but I’m healthy now and hopefully I can keep it up."

BENGALS: Undrafted rookie Onterio McCalebb, who ran one of the fastest times at this year's scouting combine, has had a long journey to the NFL, bouncing around the houses of relatives and teammates in high school and spending two weeks living on the streets. “I’ve come a long way from my childhood to now," McCalebb told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "All my life people told me that I wouldn’t amount to much and I continue to use that as motivation to fuel me." He is switching from running back to cornerback with the Bengals but returning kicks is his best shot at making the team.

STEELERS: Offensive tackle Max Starks believes Pittsburgh's signing of Guy Whimper means his time with the Steelers is done. "Let me say this, we had a conversation prior (to the Whimper signing), and that decision (to sign Whimper) was made after our conversation,” Starks told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of team brass. “Now it wasn't said directly to me, but you kind of take that as an indication of what they are thinking. It is not so much on my part as more of them wanting to move on.” I don't necessarily view Starks' run with the Steelers as over because of that signing. Given Whimper's struggles over the years, the Steelers could still bring back Starks if he hasn't signed elsewhere.

BROWNS: Armonty Bryant reported for rookie minicamp Thursday, two days after the seventh-round pick pleaded no contest to misdemeanor DUI charges, according to The Plain Dealer. This incident comes eight months after Bryant was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover police officer. "He was very distraught and felt he let a lot of people down, especially the Cleveland Browns," said Marc Lillibridge, Bryant's agent. "He was adamant about getting a hold of (general manager) Mike Lombardi and making sure the Browns heard it from him." A source told The Plain Dealer that the Browns feel they have a good support system in place that will provide guidance to Bryant.
The AFC North blog would be remiss if it didn't make a special acknowledgement of Hall of Fame defensive lineman Joe Greene leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. Greene announced his retirement from the Steelers' player personnel department after spending the last nine years as a special assistant for pro and college personnel for general manager Kevin Colbert.

"There are very few people in the history of the NFL who have had a greater impact on one franchise than Joe Greene has had on the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said in a statement. “As a player, Joe was the cornerstone of the greatest defense of all time. As a coach, Joe helped Chuck Noll finish his tenure as head coach. Then we were fortunate to have Joe rejoin the organization in our player personnel department for the last nine years, which included two more Super Bowl championships. Joe has been an inspiration in this organization in many different capacities over so many years. We will miss Joe Greene, but he will certainly continue to serve as an ambassador of this organization for many years.”

After a tip of the hat to perhaps the greatest Steeler of all-time, we'll continue with the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Inside linebacker Rolando McClain has pleaded guilty to a window tint violation stemming from his arrest in January following a traffic stop, The Baltimore Sun reported. In exchange, the city has dismissed the charge of providing false information to police, which stemmed from him signing an expletive on the citation instead of his real name. He is due in court on July 9 for his most recent arrest on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Asked about McClain at the Baltimore Sun Sports Forum, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said, "We think he warrants a second chance."

BENGALS: The Bengals started the 2012 regular season with 11 undrafted free agents, which represented 21 percent of their roster. The current group of undrafted players can draw inspiration from wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who played two seasons in Canada, got cut by the Rams and spent two weeks on the Bengals practice squad before earning a spot on an NFL 53-man roster. "I know (what) it entails. It’s a long process, it’s stressful," Hawkins told the team's official website. "There’s so much that goes into it but a lot of it is out of your hands. In some ways they have to come in and bust their butt. But in a lot of ways it is the luck of the draw.”

STEELERS: Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the signing of free-agent offensive tackle Guy Whimper likely indicates that the Steelers are moving on without Max Starks, who has started 62 games over the past five seasons. I'm not so sure about that, based on Whimper's track record. He led the NFL in sacks allowed in 2011 with 14 and gave up four sacks in six starts last season. This sounds like the return of Jonathan Scott to me. So, while I'm not predicting Starks will return to the Steelers, I don't think the addition of Whimper precludes that -- especially if Whimper gives up a couple of sacks in the preseason.

BROWNS: New linebacker Paul Kruger said the Browns are "on the right track" after spending the the past month working out in the weight room and conducting on-field drills in the team's offseason program. "The biggest thing I’ve seen is the effort is off the charts," Kruger told the team's official website. "People are working hard. Everybody’s into it. It’s just a good mentality right now. That’ll take you a long ways. All the other stuff will fall into place. When camp starts, you’ll know exactly where you’re at as far as moving together as a defense or an offense. I think we’re giving a lot of effort and preparing well.” In other news, the Browns had a second player arrested this offseason. Rookie defensive end Armonty Bryant was arrested and charged with driving under the influence less than a week after being drafted in the seventh round by the Browns.
Last year at this time, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was getting beaten up by draft evaluators for his poor workouts and questionable attitude. Now, he's cashing in after proving everyone wrong.

Burfict earned a league-best $299,465 in the NFL's performance-based pay program, according to Yahoo Sports. It was almost $5,000 more than anyone else in the league received. The performance-based pay program rewards players who finish with high playing time and low salary-cap numbers.

This isn't bad for an undrafted rookie who earned $390,000 in salary last season. Burfict led the Bengals in tackles in 2012 with 174 -- and he didn't even start until Week 3.

The only other AFC North player in the top 10 in performance-based pay was Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks, who received $272,590 (eighth-most).
Here's what the Pittsburgh Steelers should do with their prime free agents. The NFL free-agency period begins March 12.


ILB Larry Foote, QB Charlie Batch, G/C Doug Legursky, S Will Allen.

The Steelers need to bring back Foote because they can't be confident that Stevenson Sylvester can start and they can't be certain Sean Spence can move into a starting role this season after last year's severe knee injury. The other names on this list won't have fans rushing to make reservations for the Super Bowl, but they are valuable to the team's depth. The Steelers won't go with two aging backup quarterbacks like last year, and Batch earned the right to stay. Legursky is the backup to Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who has dealt with injuries the past two seasons, and he can also play guard. The Steelers were fortunate to have Allen after Ryan Mundy flopped in a starting role.


WR Mike Wallace, NT Casey Hampton, RB Rashard Mendenhall, OT Max Starks, G/T Ramon Foster, QB Byron Leftwich, S Ryan Mundy and WR Plaxico Burress.

The Steelers don't have enough salary-cap room to keep Wallace, and he's not a good fit for Todd Haley's style of offense. And even though there have been reports that the Steelers have had contract talks with Mendenhall, Pittsburgh needs to cut ties with him. His play has declined the past two seasons, and it's time for the Steelers to get a younger back in the draft.

It would be more accurate to put Hampton and Foster in the "Have to let walk" category because the Steelers don't have the cap room to retain them. Hampton showed last season that he has more left than originally believed. The Steelers need to get younger on the offensive line and at backup quarterback, which means the end for Starks and Leftwich, respectively.


CB Keenan Lewis. There's no question that Lewis is the Steelers' top priority in free agency. But it's going to be difficult to keep him considering he's a rising player at a coveted position and the Steelers are cap-strapped again. Lewis stepped up in his first season as a starter, leading the AFC with 23 passes broken up. If the Steelers can't keep Lewis, they'll go with Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as starters with Curtis Brown as the nickel back.
The latest stop on the Ravens' redemption tour appropriately takes them to New England for the AFC championship game. Already in these playoffs, the Ravens beat Baltimore's old team (the Colts) in the playoffs for the first time and knocked off Peyton Manning for the first time since 2001. Now, they're off to settle the score in Foxborough, Mass., where they came up short in the final minute in last year's AFC championship game.

Here's my quick take on Sunday's AFC championship game. I also want to prepare everyone that the AFC North blog will be dominated by Ravens coverage this week. If there's news with the other teams in the division, I will certainly address it here. But the Ravens are one win away from the Super Bowl and they should be the focus this week. Don't be upset with me. Be upset with your teams for not making it this far. Now, here's your wake-up call:

RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck believes there's something special brewing with these Ravens. "It will take more than mojo for the Ravens to succeed in what will be their third attempt to win the AFC title game in five years," Schmuck wrote. "They'll need to shake up Pats quarterback Tom Brady the way they rattled Peyton Manning in the second half Saturday. They'll need to protect the football and run it effectively behind their rejuvenated offensive line. They'll need to contain the New England return game and wipe away the memory of their frightening special teams breakdown against the Broncos. If they do that, they won't need any divine intervention, but it will probably seem like they got it."

BENGALS: Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is becoming a popular head coaching candidate these days. He interviewed with the Chargers on Sunday, will meet with the Eagles on Monday and will speak to the Jaguars on Tuesday. Gruden also interviewed with the Cardinals last Thursday. With the possibility that Gruden could leave, the Bengals are expected to hold onto assistant coach Hue Jackson. He would likely become the team's offensive coordinator if Jay Gruden gets a head coaching job, sources told CBS Sports.

STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette expects left tackle Max Starks and guard Ramon Foster to leave in free agency and left guard Willie Colon to get released. His projected lineup for the offensive line goes like this: Marcus Gilbert at left tackle, Kelvin Beachum at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at right guard and Mike Adams at right tackle. If this is how the Steelers line up to start 2013, only one will be at the same spot (Pouncey) from the 2012 season-opening lineup.

BROWNS: The Akron Beacon-Journal's Marla Ridenour thinks Rob Chudzinski was the right hire for the Browns. "I believe Chudzinski was the best coach they could get considering the organizational structure and the football power given to CEO Joe Banner," Ridenour wrote. "Those yawning over Chudzinski’s selection or insisting that he’s a Pat Shurmur clone must remember the constraints Haslam put on his coach when he said, 'Football will report to Joe.'"

AFC North's 2012 Iron Men

January, 8, 2013
It's time to salute the players who have taken the most snaps and never want to come off the field.

In 2012, there were seven AFC North players who were on the field for either all of his team's offensive or defensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders. Among the division's Iron Men this season, there were four Browns offensive linemen and just one defensive player.

Here are the players who played 100 percent of the snaps either on offense or defense: Browns center Alex Mack, Bengals guard Clint Boling, Browns guard Shaun Lauvao, Browns offensive tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Joe Thomas, Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks and Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

These are the players who led their teams in snaps:

BENGALS: Boling, 1,133 snaps

BROWNS: Mack, 1,093 snaps (including 62 on special teams)

RAVENS: Michael Oher, 1,134 snaps

STEELERS: Starks, 1086 snaps
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger put the blame on himself for Pittsburgh failing to make the playoffs for only the fourth time since 2001.

"A lot of it just has to do with me not playing well enough down the stretch," Roethlisberger said. "Fourth-quarter drives or last-minute throws, I'm just not making it happen, so my best answer would be that I just didn't play well enough."

It's easy to point the finger at Roethlisberger. He threw two interceptions late in games (in overtime in Dallas and with 14 seconds left against the Bengals) that led to losses the past two weeks. Roethlisberger did the right thing as a leader to take the blame. But it would be wrong for everyone to do the same.

Here's a quick list of who should share in the Steel City blame game ...

The defense. Yes, the NFL's top-ranked defense played a part in this disappointing season. For the second straight season, the Steelers didn't force enough turnovers. Pittsburgh took the ball away 16 times this season, which meant Roethlisberger had to continually drive the length of the field to score points. Only the Eagles, Colts and Chiefs forced fewer turnovers this season.

Offensive line. This banged-up group allowed Roethlisberger to get banged up again. Its failure to block the Chiefs led to Roethlisberger getting sandwiched on Nov. 12, when he injured his rib and shoulder. He was never the same after that, throwing six touchdowns and four interceptions in three games since coming back. Left tackle Max Starks has given up 36 quarterback hurries, eighth-most in the league.

Mike Wallace. His drops continually let down Roethlisberger. He is only credited with six by ESPN Stats & Information, but it seemed like a lot more. To Roethlisberger's credit, he never lost confidence in Wallace.

Greg Warren. For those who don't know, Warren is the usually solid long snapper. But Warren's poor snap led to the 24-yard field goal miss in last Sunday's three-point loss to the Bengals. You remember Roethlisberger's interception because it happened at a crucial time, but Warren's mistake was just as big in the Steelers losing an elimination game.

All of the running backs. Roethlisberger had to carry the offense because he didn't get any help from his supporting cast. It didn't matter who the Steelers handed the ball off to -- Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey -- Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball consistently, or at the very least, force defenses to respect the ground game. The Steelers are 26th in rushing yards per game (96.4) and per carry (3.8). Here's the most disturbing stat: the Steelers had as many fumbles (eight) as 20-yard runs.
It should be a busy Thursday here on the blog, but it won't compare to Sunday evening. All four AFC North teams are playing at 4:25 p.m. I will be covering the Steelers-Ravens game, which will be seen by 70 percent of the country because of the late afternoon start. Both Ohio teams, the Bengals and Browns, have later kickoffs because of their games on the West Coast. As you know, we start things early here with the Wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Quarterback Joe Flacco acknowledged that Ray Rice saved him when the running back took a short dump-off pass and converted a fourth-and-29. “We got away with one and I’ll be glad. I could have looked like a big-time idiot if we don’t get that play,” Flacco said, via The Baltimore Sun. “I kind of went out on a limb there to check the ball down on fourth-and-29. We don’t get that, everybody is crushing me: ‘What the hell is he doing checking the ball down on fourth-and-29?’ I don’t think that will ever happen again in the time that I play and it gets converted, especially on a check down like that. I am just happy it happened.”

STEELERS: Injuries could force the Steelers to start four offensive linemen at different spots than where they lined up the first time against Baltimore just a couple of weeks ago. According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey practiced at left guard, where starter Willie Colon is dealing with a knee injury. Doug Legursky, who started at left guard last Sunday, practiced at center. Also, right guard Ramon Foster practiced at right tackle a day after coach Mike Tomlin said rookie Kelvin Beachum would replace injured Mike Adams. It looks like Foster would shift to tackle and rookie first-round pick David DeCastro would make his NFL debut at right guard.

BENGALS: Quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Rey Maualuga have apparently responded the way coach Marvin Lewis wanted them to when he challenged them to step up as leaders a few weeks ago. Lewis put captain patches on their jerseys, the first time he has named permanent captains since 2010, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. “It just came to me one morning running that I should go ahead and put the Cs on their jerseys and make it known that way and continue to empower them to do the things I’ve asked them to do. But make it physical now, where everybody sees it,” Lewis said. Also, starting center Kyle Cook practiced Wednesday for the first time since injuring his right ankle in an Aug. 23 preseason game. There's a chance that he could return for the Dec. 9 game against Dallas.

BROWNS: Defensive end Frostee Rucker disputed the claim by Steelers tackle Max Starks that he was cutting the legs out from under the Pittsburgh offensive linemen. “I don’t understand it,” Rucker said, via The Akron Beacon Journal. “I’ve played for seven years. I never heard that. A defensive line cutting? What does that mean? We just made the plays to win the game. We didn’t say anything about holding or anything like that. We made the plays necessary to win the game. That’s what we went out there to do and we did it. We don’t come here with excuses when we lose games.”
No Ray Lewis. No Troy Polamalu. And likely no Ben Roethlisberger.

When the Ravens and Steelers renew the NFL's best current rivalry Sunday night, some might question whether this is still the NFL's best current rivalry without those star players. My response: that's blasphemy.

While this game may have lost some luster nationally with the loss of some name players, this rivalry has never been built on being flashy. What makes this series stands out is there's always something on the line. On Sunday night, the Ravens (7-2) and Steelers (6-3) are playing for first place in the AFC North.

What makes this rivalry so memorable is the drama. Games between the Ravens and Steelers always seem to come down to the final minute. Five of the last six games have been decided by three points.

And what makes this rivalry so different from others is they really don't care for one another. You can measure this dislike by how much they like hitting each other. The winner of this rivalry is the one who has imposed their will on the other for three hours. It's old school. It's smash mouth. It's violent.

Asked if the game is going to be different without Lewis, who has played in 29 of the series' 32 meetings, Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said, "I think it will be the same old challenge. When you look at it, yeah, he's the emotional leader. But this group has moved on from that. It's going to be a tough challenge. It always is. It's going to be a bloodbath."

This is one of the few times this week where the Ravens will agree with the Steelers. "We don't like them, they don't like us," Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams said. "It's going to be hell out there."
Ben RoethlisbergerAP Photo/Don WrightWithout Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh may make the playoffs, but it won't be able to win a Super Bowl.
PITTSBURGH -- There was no collective sigh of relief at Heinz Field, even after Shaun Suisham's 23-yard field goal allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to escape with a 16-13 overtime win over the hapless Kansas City Chiefs. That won't happen until the results of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's MRI are revealed.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the sloppy win that he doesn't know the status of Roethlisberger's injured shoulder. Sources have told ESPN that Roethlisberger sprained his shoulder but the extent of the injury is unknown. That means the Steelers' season is officially in limbo.

Pittsburgh can win regular-season games without Roethlisberger. It can get to the playoffs without him. But it can't win a Super Bowl without him.

It's true that Pittsburgh has survived without Roethlisberger before. The Steelers went 3-1 to start the 2010 season when he was suspended. The difference is the Steelers haven't gone more than four games in a season without him and they haven't been without the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the postseason. It was only last season when the Steelers' title run ended when Roethlisberger began to limp with an ankle injury.

Roethlisberger is in the midst of the best season of his career and perhaps mounting an MVP campaign. In adapting to offensive coordinator Todd Haley's quick-hitting passing attack, Roethlisberger has the NFL's sixth-best QBR and is the league's best on third downs this season. How valuable has Roethlisberger been this season? Half of the Steelers' six wins have come from game-winning drives led by him. This is his team.

Even on a night when everything seemed to go wrong for the Steelers, there was a sense that Pittsburgh would eventually pull out the win because it had Roethlisberger. That is, until the third play of the third quarter when he got sandwiched by two Kansas City pass rushers and got his right shoulder driven into the ground. It's unclear how long Roethlisberger will be out, but it didn't look promising when he left the field holding his right arm close to his body. He then was driven down the tunnel on a golf cart before being taken to the hospital for tests.

Tomlin wouldn't characterize his level of concern with the franchise's all-time leading passer.

"I don't live in the hypothetical world," Tomlin said. "I wait until I get information, and then I respond accordingly to that information."

When Roethlisberger left, backup Byron Leftwich took over in his first appearance since the 2010 season. It looked like he hadn't stepped onto the field for two years, based on his ragged play. In his first snaps with the starting offense since training camp, he completed 7 of 14 passes for 73 yards in nearly one half of work, with several of his passes being overthrown (including a potential touchdown toss to Mike Wallace).

In the five drives led by Leftwich, the Steelers managed only a field goal. He was able to get the Steelers deep out of their own territory with a 31-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders. But the two big plays that got Pittsburgh in field goal range were a 22-yard defensive pass interference penalty and a 14-yard flag for roughing the passer, both of which converted third downs.

[+] EnlargeByron Leftwich
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers may have to look to Byron Leftwich to carry them to the playoffs if Ben Roethlisberger is out for an extended time.
"The great thing about Byron is he's got a very consistent demeanor, a very calming presence," Tomlin said. "It wasn't a pretty body of work by any of us."

Leftwich is experienced and tested, but he's no Roethlisberger. His lack of mobility and ridiculously long throwing motion (it resembles a pitcher's windup) make him a sitting target on nearly every throw. And he's not going to scramble for 14 yards on third down in the red zone like Roethlisberger did late in the second quarter Monday.

There are seven weeks left in the regular season. Leftwich should be able to lead the Steelers to at least four wins to get them to 10 (Pittsburgh plays the Browns twice and has games against San Diego and Cincinnati at home). But it's hard to gauge what Leftwich can do for an extended period. He hasn't started more than six games in a season since 2005 with Jacksonville. He is 1-1 in the playoffs for his career.

Leftwich was asked whether the Steelers can win the Super Bowl with him at quarterback. "We will see," he said. "We are not going to worry about the Super Bowl right now. We are just going to prepare to try to beat the Baltimore Ravens."

The Steelers have to wonder how many more injuries they can endure this season. They're playing without their leading rusher for the past three seasons (Rashard Mendenhall). They're playing without their leading pass catcher (Antonio Brown). They're playing without their starting fullback (David Johnson) and two starters on the right side of the offensive line (guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert). That's not even counting the loss of the quarterback of the defense (Troy Polamalu).

Now, Pittsburgh has a short week to prepare for the Ravens -- in what will be a battle for first place in the AFC North. And the Steelers may have to play without one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

"It hasn't gone our way for a couple of years now," left tackle Max Starks said. "But we still manage to rise to the occasion in spite of those things. That speaks to the depth and the quality of players on this team. We really have 45 guys who could be starters anywhere else in this league. That's the comforting thing. That's why we don't feel uneasy going into this short week."

There was talk last week that Roethlisberger could miss Sunday night's game against the Ravens because of the birth of his son. Now, the Steelers can only hope they will be without him for one week.

"We have been in this situation before when Ben has gone down," Leftwich said. "[Tomlin] has full confidence in me, so nothing is going to change."

The offense may not change without Roethlisberger. But if he is lost for multiple games or for the season, everything changes for the Steelers.

Before facing the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, defensive end Brett Keisel and offensive tackle Max Starks break down the challenges facing the Steelers down the stretch. Keisel also talks about what he can hide in his beard. Well, not really. But you should click on the video anyway.
Mike AdamsCharles LaClaire/US PresswireWhen Mike Adams (76) stepped in for Marcus Gilbert on Oct. 11, the Steelers started to build cohesion along the offensive line that didn't exist a year ago.
The Steelers are looking like the Steelers again. The old-school Steelers. The ones who ran the ball down defenses' throats and wore down teams late in games.

The change has been initiated by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. The plan has been carried out by the unlikeliest of players -- the Steelers offensive line. Bashed the past few years for being the weak link of the offense, the linemen have flexed their muscles during Pittsburgh's three-game win streak and have become the backbone of an attack that will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the season.

The Steelers' offensive line has been the most improved unit. It has been the most dominant one recently. And, at the midway point of the regular season, these linemen have been Pittsburgh's most valuable players.

Establishing chemistry and a nasty attitude, the offensive line turned a Steelers run game, off to its worst start in 62 years, into a surprisingly successful one. Pittsburgh has produced a 100-yard rusher in three consecutive games. How big of a role has the line played? When Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were hurt, the line opened holes for Jonathan Dwyer to gain more than 100 yards in back-to-back games. When Dwyer and Mendenhall were sidelined last Sunday, this line paved the way for Redman to crack 100 yards.

The message is clear: This line gives running backs a chance to succeed. The difference has been the push generated off the line. In the first five games of the season, Steelers running backs were hit in the backfield 19.8 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the past three games, runners have been hit in the backfield just 12.1 percent of the time. If Redman gets hurt again, maybe Jerome Bettis could suit up and gain 100 yards against the Chiefs on Monday night.

In the past, the offensive line drew more criticism than compliments. The high number of hits on Ben Roethlisberger and the problems in the running game used to be blamed on the line.

"Everyone wants to jump on (the offensive line) when they’re not playing good, but no one talks about them when they’re playing great,” Roethlisberger said recently.

[+] EnlargeMike Adams, Ramon Foster
Jason Bridge/US PresswireRamon Foster (73) has proven an athletic complement to Mike Adams (76) on Pittsburgh's line.
During an offseason in which president Art Rooney II made it a priority to run the ball better, the Steelers had hopes of improving the offensive line although they had a different vision for it. Pittsburgh used its first two draft picks this year on guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams. But DeCastro suffered a severe knee injury in the preseason and Adams didn't win the starting job in training camp.

The difficulties with the rookies weren't the only hurdles that this line had to face. There were question marks on the left side of the line, where tackle Max Starks was months removed from ACL surgery and guard Willie Colon was converting from right tackle. Instead of having a first-round pick in DeCastro at right guard, the Steelers went with Ramon Foster, who was undrafted three years ago. There was even an issue with two-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who had to sit out a game because of a knee injury.

Where the line came together was Oct. 11, when Adams stepped in for Marcus Gilbert after he injured his ankle. Adams has moved defenders off the line of scrimmage, and the Steelers started to build cohesion that didn't exist a year ago. Last season, the Steelers used an NFL-high 26 different offensive line combinations, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In eight games this season, the Steelers have used six different offensive line combinations.

This line was a work-in-progress early. After three weeks, the Steelers ranked 30th in rushing yards per game (65.0) and were tied for last in yards per carry (2.6). No running back had cracked 50 yards in a game, much less 100.

Over the past three games, Pittsburgh gained 155.0 yards rushing per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Colon and Foster have been equally athletic and aggressive in pulling from one side to another on the team's counter plays.

The line has played so well that there are no guarantees that Gilbert and DeCastro will get back their starting jobs once healthy. Gilbert could be available for next week's game against the Ravens, and DeCastro might be ready by December. This isn't a problem, though. Having too many solid options is a luxury.

By next season, Gilbert is expected to take over at left tackle and DeCastro will take back his spot at right guard. For now, the Steelers might not want to mess with continuity. Starks said the success in the running game goes beyond consistency on the offensive line.

"By committing to a primary runner as opposed to a runner by committee has also played a big role in that," Starks told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week. "Having a guy know he can run -- and if it doesn't go well, they're going to shelve him and put a guy in for couple plays. Knowing you're committed to him and allowing him to get a feel for the game, to get into a rhythm with us, I think that's the biggest thing, having that continuity."

Roethlisberger remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Mike Wallace is still one of the fastest receivers. And tight end Heath Miller is a reliable target in the red zone. They can all make plays when they need to do so. But the pressure is not all on them anymore.

The Steelers have returned to their roots with this physical style of football, which makes them more balanced and stops pass-rushers from teeing off on Roethlisberger (he's only been sacked 17 times in eight games after suffering 40 sacks last season). They're wearing down teams with the second-best time of possession in the NFL and they're finishing off teams in the fourth quarter. The Steelers haven't been able to do this in recent years. But they haven't had this strong of a line during that time either.